In Lucy Caldwell’s third novel, All the Beggars Riding Lara, a Londoner who is approaching forty and unsettled in her life, begins to recapture the fragmented memories of her childhood by writing the extraordinary story of her family. When she was twelve, and her younger brother Alfie eight, their father died in a helicopter crash, forcing them, along with their heartbroken mother, to deal with the fallout of being the second family of an ultimately decent and honourable man who had a wife and two other children tucked safely away in Belfast. Although initially the process is painful, Lara finds great catharsis in working through her personal history and by blending fiction with glimpsed reality, learns to understand and empathise with her mother for the very first time.
I ask Lucy about the importance of writing as therapy and as a means of making sense of our own, often troublesome lives.
“There is a brilliant line by the Danish writer Karen Blixen that says ‘all sorrows can be borne of they can be told’. The telling of the story can be very, very healing. I think that is an idea I first came across when I read Antjie Krog’s book Country of my Skull when I was at university. She was a young South African journalist who is sent by her newspaper to cover the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the book that she writes is absolutely amazing because she is initially transcribing people’s stories and then her narrative starts breaking down and she’s trying to write her own poems in the middle of these accounts in an attempt to make sense of what’s going on and then she starts telling fragments of her own story. What is really interesting is the power of telling your own story and the power of being in control of your own narrative.”
In All the Beggars Riding Lucy captures the authentic emotional tone of memoir in the format of a novel by using the technique of blending real events with fiction. She describes her book as “a mixture of memoir and fiction and true stories and made-up stories and it seemed very important to blur all of those boundaries and meld everything seamlessly.”
The book opens with an event that is very real indeed.
“I start the novel with this fictional documentary based very much on the stories told by the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich (in her book Voices from Chernobyl) using testimony from people, especially women but some men also, firemen and soldiers, who had been involved in the Chernobyl catastrophe. One story in particular is told by a woman about her fireman husband. I base my fictional documentary on it because it is one of the most moving stories about love I have ever read.”
Lucy describes the difficulty of inventing memoir in a way that makes it truly authentic and credible.
“I had to do such meticulous research. I used a brilliant website that I credit in the book, CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet) and using this I was able to check what was actually happening on any given day in Northern Ireland. For instance when Lara travels to Belfast as a little girl I was able to check what the weather was like on that actual day.”
Was it important to be that accurate, I wonder? As this is a novel surely she could have simply made it up? Was it necessary for her to incorporate that level of accuracy?
“It was important as it had to be as close to memoir as possible. It was important for this book and for this character as she is so concerned with the difference between something being true and being untrue, fact and fiction and recovering the truth and how memories come to you suddenly out of the blue and how you don’t narrate your own story in a seamless telling of it.”
This must be difficult to replicate in fiction? Where do you start?
“I always give my students (on the MA course in Creative Writing at City University London) Henry James’ The Art of Fiction as it is such a brilliant essay on the power of the imagination and how the imagination is a muscle and that you need to practice and you have to get used to making things up. You can imagine yourself into someone else’s story.”
As part of this process of lending authenticity to the book, Lucy wrote in parallel with her protagonist, Lara.
“I wrote very intensively. The actual period of intense writing lasted less than a year because it seemed important to get that energy, that sense of something being told all in one go. I started telling the story when Lara starts in February or March and finished it when she does, in late autumn. Of course it took a lot more time to plan it and research it and there was a lot of editing afterwards but the core process of intensive writing was done in real time. That felt necessary.”
Her research methodology for this book was quite different from others she has written. Having dreamed the kernel of her story, complete with a Northern Irish plastic surgeon who leads a double life, Lucy then left herself open to hearing real life stories concerning people who led double lives. There is a surprisingly high incidence of these. She explains the process, which took place while she was engaged in more conventional research for her second book, The Meeting Point.
“I would find myself ripping stories from magazines or newspapers and when I realised that I had a whole box of these I started to mention that I was collecting stories about people who led double lives at meetings and festivals and workshops and the amount of people who would come up to me and volunteer their stories was extraordinary…My story is completely fictional but I used all the stories I heard to check that it was emotionally true. It was very important to check the emotional logic of the story.”
Another great source of inspiration was the documentary My Architect made by director Nathaniel Kahn in an attempt to understand his own father, noted architect Louis Kahn, who maintained three families in parallel but died bankrupt and alone in 1974. What particularly struck Lucy about this documentary?
“There’s no spirit of recrimination or bitterness in it. That unlocked something. I realised that you don’t have to write this story in a bitter way. The people in my story live in hope. They believe that it will work out; if they love each other it will work out, because it has to work out because of the purity of their feelings. This documentary gave me the tone I needed.”
As was the case with The Meeting Point, All the Beggars Riding has also been chosen as the BBC Radio Four Book at Bedtime choice for March. Who has been chosen to read it?
“Ann-Marie Duff, who is one of my favourite actors, will read it and I’m delighted.”
Lucy professes to be amazed by the skill of the abridger who has managed to cut her finely honed eighty thousand word novel down to a fifteen thousand word version without losing the essence of her story but does it not make her feel uneasy, having her work heavily abridged like this?
“No. It’s a different form and I love the idea that people who might not have picked up the book will hear it read to them and might then pick it up. People regard it as a flavour of the book.”
All the Beggars Riding was recently unveiled as Belfast’s second ever One City One Book choice and will be read and explored by city natives and visitors during the month of May 2013. It is a perfect choice as the last section of the novel contains a glorious ‘love letter’ that celebrates present-day Belfast and her inhabitants in glowing terms. Even the sun is shining. Belfast-born Lucy is delighted with this latest accolade that her work has earned and this scene is very special for her.
“I wrote that particular scene over one extended evening. I had been reading Robert McLiam Wilson’s 1996 novel Eureka Street and in particular the passage about Belfast being asleep and the city being made of stories and I’d been listening to Astral Weeks on repeat and I really wanted to write my own positive Belfast.
Her native city has always been very supportive and her writing has the staunch backing of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. What does this mean in practical terms?
“We are really, really fortunate that the Arts Council Head of Drama and Literature is Damian Smith, a distinguished poet in his own right. He could not be more supportive of writers. I got an individual artist award to help with the writing of this book which meant that for the nine months of intensive writing I was able to do my main job (as a senior lecturer on the MA Creative Writing Course at City University London) but not take on so many of the other patchwork commissions and bits and pieces that you normally need to do to pay the rent. But also Damian is very supportive in coming to readings and talking to you about your work and suggesting other writers who can help you.”
The life of a writer can be a very isolated one and Lucy’s mention of a support network prompts the question as to how important she believes writers’ groups and courses are in shaping a writer’s work and offering support.
“I was in a writing group, mainly theatre, for years when I was just starting out. We called ourselves ‘the Doghouse’; we used to meet in a pub called the Doghouse and it seemed suitably self-deprecating. We would meet up about once a week and read each other’s work and critique each other’s work and have a drink and chat about ideas. That was really important, although I don’t do it as much anymore as I have a few key people now that I will share things with. I’m a very private writer so I don’t tend to splash drafts around.”
When it comes to well-meaning advice how does a writer differentiate the good from the bad?
“I always say to my students, when you’re being work-shopped it is really helpful to learn how to operate your blinkers because a lot of what people say will be completely irrelevant, some of it will be completely misguided and you have to learn how to hear when a criticism is good. When you really should be listening to something even if you don’t want to and also when you can just discard something and follow your own star.”
Although Lucy never set out to teach others how to write she absolutely loves her role as senior lecturer on the MA Creative Writing course at City University London. How did that come about? Can one be taught how to write?
“I never intended to teach writing but I love it. You publish a book and people ask ‘can you take a workshop’ and I discovered that I loved doing that. When it comes to teaching people to write I feel very strongly about that. If you want to be a violinist you would never be told to go and sit in a garret and practise all alone. You learn the finger work and how to read music and you go to master classes. With writing you can’t teach the voice or the need and compulsion to write but you can teach the craft. You can teach people how to read as a writer; to read with focus; to read consciously, and actively and inquisitively.”
But not everyone will do an MA. There is a level to suit everyone surely?
“Yes. There are wonderful workshops at festivals. I had a lovely week a year ago at the West Cork Festival with a group of complete beginners. I’ve also given courses for business people who want to learn a little bit about writing. Even if people aren’t seeking to be writers, the techniques and skills of writing can really help them in many other pursuits.
The reception for All the Beggars Riding has been wonderful; so warm and enthusiastic. In the coming months Lucy will be particularly busy with activities designed to tie in with One City One Book but she has also found time for several other projects.
“After a couple of years of mainly writing prose I am working on a couple of other things. One is a radio play, an adaptation of the letters of Louis MacNeice (her favourite poet), which will be broadcast to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of his death in September. I’m also working with Emma Jordan and Prime Cut Productions in Belfast on a brand new play. We’ll be doing a rehearsed reading of it in the middle of June as part of a festival that showcases work in progress. I’m also working on a couple of short stories and one has been broadcast on BBC Radio Three.”
The wonderful new novel by Lucy Caldwell, All the Beggars Riding, published by Faber & Faber will be serialised on Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4 in early March and has been chosen as Irish Waterstone’s Book of the Month and Eason’s Bookclub Choice as well as Belfast One City One Book 2013. It has also been shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2013 and Lucy appearing at Listowel Writers’ Week (29 May – 2 June) www.writersweek.ie
(c) Eleanor Fitzsimmons
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster. Her work has been published in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Irish Times and a number of other publications, and she is a contributor to the www.theantiroom.com podcast and blog. More recently she worked as the researcher on a number of prime time television programmes for RTE, including ‘What Have The Brits Ever Done For Us’ and the IFTA-winning ‘Bullyproof’. In 2012 she returned to UCD, graduating with an MA (first class honours) in Women Gender and Society. She realised that uncovering women’s hidden history is her true passion and at present is writing a biography of Harriet Shelley, first wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her agent is Andrew Lownie and further details can be found at http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/