When Faber acquired my second collection of stories, they did so on the basis of a manuscript of six stories called, well, Six Stories. Shortly afterwards I was in the Faber offices discussing something Being Various-related with my editor, Angus Cargill. As he walked me to the door, he said, Oh by the way, any idea what you’ll call the new collection?
And I found myself saying, It’s called Intimacies.
I hadn’t known I knew, but as soon as I said the word, it was perfect.
I wanted a title that was akin to Multitudes, my first book of stories. I’d published Multitudes after the birth of my son, and dedicated it to him. Intimacies was to be a sister-volume, in both senses of that word, dedicated to my daughter. Both collections were to have eleven stories (indeed, in a nod to Richard Yates’ Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a title, and collection, that Angus and I both love, we gave Multitudes the subtitle Eleven Stories and Intimacies will be subtitled Eleven More Stories), all narrated by or from the point of view of girls and young women, all of whom were unnamed – for although superficial and occasionally fundamental details differed, I wanted the sense that each collection could be a cubist portrait of childhood, young womanhood, motherhood.
But if Multitudes celebrated plurality and possibility, the overcoming of difficulty, the myriad ways a life could take, Intimacies was tauter, more tightly controlled, more inward-looking.
To intimate means to imply, to communicate something urgent or delicate or otherwise impossible to articulate with the most sparing of signs: and this seemed as good a definition as any of what these short stories were trying to do, this form where every sentence, every word, every punctuation mark needs to be pulling its weight, playing its part; this art of conjuring into being something greater than itself.
Intimate in its noun-form comes from the Latin intimus meaning innermost, from intus meaning within. I wanted to write about the greatest intimacies I’ve known: what it means to conceive and to carry a child inside of you, and then realise that the real work is in learning to let them go. And from the inside-out to the outside-in: I wanted to write, too, about desire, about desiring someone so much you want to be not just inside their clothes, but inside them, beyond the boundary of skin. The Biblical euphemism for physical intimacy carries a sense of knowledge (“she knew no man”, “he knew her again no more”, “they knew her”) and I wanted to write about how close it is possible to come to another, how possible it is to ever truly know another.
Because if intimacy suggests proximity, I wanted to write, too, about distances. The stories marked a tipping point, for me – as much time spent living away from Belfast as I’d ever spent living there – and I wanted to write about the distance between where we come from and where we end up; between who we think we are and who we turn out to be. Between what we dream, and what we do. The distance – and here I return to the short story form, and its intensity, its sense of things distilled, its power of ellipsis – between words said and not said, or thought but not said…
Most of all, I wanted to continue to find a way to write truthfully. That doesn’t mean that all the things I was writing about had to have actually happened: it’s more to do with a pitch of emotional truthfulness, an openness, a vulnerability. Something not confessed so much as confided, shared; the possibility of a new closeness forged. I thought of those beautiful lines of Katherine Mansfield’s, which Yiyun Li took as the title of her 2017 memoir: “Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life.” “What a long way it is,” Li writes, “from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance?”
That would have been a good epigraph for Intimacies. But I chose, finally, the lines towards the end of Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”, the sun’s injunction to the poet about always embracing things “freely and with / an appropriate sense of space.”
That and could almost be a but, I always think, yet it’s not: and so becomes not a warning but a possibility, the lines suddenly offering a way of living, of being in the world. A way of reconciling the impossible tensions between holding close and letting go, a promise of no more distance from loved ones, or places, than is bearable, but just what is enough, in order to be in this world, to live your own life truly.
(c) Lucy Caldwell
This article was originally published in Northern Irish Writing After the Troubles: Intimacies, Affects, Pleasures, by Caroline Magennis (Bloomsbury, August 2021)
Author photograph (c) Tom Routh
Intimacies exquisitely charts the steps and missteps of young women trying to find their place in the world. From a Belfast student ordering illegal drugs online to end an unwanted pregnancy to a young mother’s brush with mortality; from a Christmas Eve walking the city centre streets when everything seems possible, to a night flight from Canada which could change a life irrevocably, these are stories of love, loss and exile, of new beginnings and lives lived away from ‘home’.
Taking in, too, the lives of other women who could be guiding lights – from Monica Lewinsky to Caroline Norton to Sinéad O’Connor – Intimacies offers keenly felt and subtly revealing insights into the heartbreak and hope of modern life.
‘Precise and beautifully controlled fictions but with strange, wild energies pulsing along just beneath the surface. A tremendous collection.’ Kevin Barry, author of Night Boat to Tangier
‘Heart-stoppingly good.’ Lisa McGee, writer and creator of Derry Girls
Order your copy online here.