Author June Caldwell: 'My book on Johnny Adair's mistress caused a storm'
As she returns to Northern Ireland for the Belfast Book Festival, June Caldwell recalls the trouble caused by her book about Johnny Adair's mistress
Having studied for a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at Queen's University, and spent much of her first year living in Belfast researching and writing a book about loyalist paramilitary killer Johnny Adair's mistress, Dublin-born author June Caldwell will always have a connection to Northern Ireland.
She returns here on Thursday, when she will read from her debut collection of short stories, Room Little Darker, at the Crescent Arts Centre as part of the Belfast Book Festival, alongside the likes of indigenous writer Jan Carson.
Though Caldwell loves reading at literary festivals - "I discovered a bit of a hidden skill for method acting; I make an effort to jump on the different accents and intonations, to make the characters spill alive to the best of my ability" - and is looking forward to meeting other writers working in the shortened form, her trip north will be bittersweet.
In Love with a Mad Dog, Caldwell's 2006 factual book written around interviews with Jackie 'Legs' Robinson, Adair's long-term mistress, caused, as Caldwell puts it, "a bit of a s*** storm" at the time of publication.
"The Press went to town on Jackie," Caldwell adds with a sigh. "Women are not supposed to write about their love for genial baldy killers." The response was "a load of very boring misogynistic nonsense".
Asked why she decided to write such a book, despite admitting to be being "clueless" about the complex quagmire that is Northern Irish paramilitarism before making the temporary move to Belfast, the 47-year-old says that the idea for the book came from a well-meaning place.
Having worked for years as a journalist for various trade magazines and newspapers, Caldwell enjoyed writing human interest stories most, and felt "that we never heard women's experiences of the Troubles, from either side, while there was lots of macho male horror being penned by macho male hacks, and I naively wanted to redress that imbalance".
The experience of researching the book, of spending so much time in Adair country (north Belfast) and the subsequent media backlash was "a headwreck, to be honest. A bit of a Pandora's Box. I tried to stick closely to Jackie's experience of being Adair's lover, but the whole Belfast experience was tough going.
"I lived in Galwally Park first, then Stranmillis, then for some stupid reason I thought it'd be poetic to rent a big manor house out by the sea in Whitehead on my own. It was giant, old, cold and full of tacky antiques.
"It was quite terrifying trying to get asleep with the lads from the Rangers' Club beating each other up late at night for want of something to do. I went quietly mad in that house.
"Though I'm glad that the story is out there in the ether. I never spoke to Adair about the book. He was still in prison when I was writing it and had moved to Scotland by the time it came out. I can't remember much else about it really. I've strategically blanked it from my mind."
Caldwell was born in Dublin in 1970 and recalls an eventful childhood. "Mildly grim, with shades of half mad." Ballymun, her neighbourhood, was "a mixed bag. We lived in a lower-middle-class estate full of suited professional men. The women, on the otherhand, subsisted on a diet of Valium and Mass.
"Religion was a big scene back then. The men went to the bookies and the pub. The women and kids went to Mass and sat in their gardens. We were oddballs because my father was 'English', but of Irish descent, and an atheist. So he didn't care if we didn't trot along to the church.
"The streets were chock-full of kids milling around playing football, chalking out hopscotch on the pavements, tearing about the place on bikes. You were told to basically get out of the house and not come back until teatime.
"Everyone drove their cars p***** as well. It's a dichotomy, in a way. In one respect there were a lot of societal rules - the church had a grizzly bear grip - but people ran around like savages, disrespecting the law any way they could.
"Our house was fraught with tension. My dad Bernard drank a lot because he was hideously depressed - he was caught up in the Coventry Blitz as a young child and yeah, it left its mark - and my mother, Philomena, did her best to cope. It wasn't pleasant."
Caldwell enjoyed trudging through fields with her siblings and escaping the real world in books, though she had no major influences on her literary tastes. "I can't say any teachers rocked my boat." Her favourite authors in childhood were Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Judy Bloom and Roald Dahl, and later her reads "got a bit riskier".
"Go Ask Alice, about a teenage drug addict, by Beatrice Sparks, was a favourite. I remember being very shocked by it. Someone brought a copy of Flowers in the Attic into school, and we passed it around. Incest! We thought it was somehow exotic. I also read The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. It all went downhill from there."
These days, Caldwell is constantly on the lookout for feisty, experimental writers who might challenge her as a reader and inspire her as a writer. Refreshingly, for some, she as no interest at all in the 'old greats' - "Their fabulously sculptured scenarios don't resonate with my experiences in the here and now" - but has more than a kind word to say about Northern Irish writers.
"I think Sean O'Reilly is the best short story writer living in Ireland today. Evelyn Conlon's writing is heart-wrenching and real. Lucy Caldwell is great as well. The Glass Shore anthology of women writers has rounded up a great coterie of modern writers. Anne Devlin, Mary O'Donnell, Tara West, Martina Devlin, Jan Carson, Bernie McGill. They were all a joy to read."
Caldwell admits that her switch from journalism to fiction was difficult. Her time spent studying at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's was somewhat formative, but it was only when she moved back to Dublin in 2009, and began volunteering at the Irish Writers Centre and attending free classes, that she started "flinging out stories for competitions and journals".
Room Little Darker is, however, very much informed by her time working as a journalist.
"Definitely," says Caldwell. "Most of the stories are experiential or based on things I've heard or seen that weren't being covered in the press.
"For instance, The Man Who Lived In A Tree is a story about a homeless guy living in a talking malevolent tree. There was an immigrant living in a tree in Broadstone in Dublin's inner city for a year or two, and I couldn't believe newspapers didn't pick up on it.
"He used to beetle up the tree at night time, taking his possessions with him. I was obsessed by his story."
Another subject tackled in the collection is paedophilia. The story BoyBotTM fuses Caldwell's interest in technology and the impact it has on our lives with the idea that technology might one day be used to prevent 'incurable' impulses. "It's the next step in law enforcement," Caldwell adds. "It's a bit Frankenstein, the idea of it.
"Here's a pretend child that you're going to have to live with and do your thing with and every interaction will get reported back to some bored bureaucrat who will help monitor and control your behaviour.
"After I wrote the story, I Googled it and it's already happening. A paedophile in Japan has developed a robot and it's being tested at the moment. Horrible, isn't it?
"The ultimate revenge scenario. But at least the human kids are left out of the equation. That would be the ideal. Society doesn't and can't deal with paedophilia efficiently."
Reading from the collection at the Belfast Book Festival, and other similar events around the UK and Ireland, will be interesting for Caldwell.
The book has already made an impact, with Caldwell recently sharing a photo on her Facebook page of Room Little Darker coming top of the pile in the Hodge's bookstore bestsellers list, above the latest release from literary heavyweight Colm Toibin.
"Would you look at this," Caldwell wrote. "This is the only time your man will ever be beneath me. I might ask him to polish my shoes and pull up me aul socks when he's down there."
It remains to be seen how the book will fare in Northern Ireland, but Caldwell is eager to gauge the reaction when she ventures here later this week. She may well indulge in a little nostalgia while she's at it. A visit to the Spaniard - "My favourite wee boozer when I lived there" - may be on the cards.
"But, to be honest, most of the time I lived in Belfast was spent indoors going quietly mad in whatever rental house I was living in, with a fridge full of Prosecco from Tesco, and the odd trip out for a toasted tuna sandwich in Clements. I don't remember much else," Caldwell laughs.
City’s literary festival hosts page-turning events
One of the city’s most exciting chapters of every year starts tomorrow with the Belfast Book Festival, which will be hosting more than 100 exciting events.
June Caldwell’s panel discussion — also featuring Jan Carson, Oisin Fagan and Nuala O’Connor — will examine The Art of the Short Story. It takes place at the Crescent Art Centre on Thursday at 6.30pm.
American political scientist, activist, distinguished professor and prolific author Norman Finkelstein, whose parents survived the Nazi holocaust, is a critic of Israeli government policies towards the Palestinian people. He will be in conversation with Radio Ulster Talkback host William Crawley (Thursday, Methodist College, 8pm).
Taking place at the same time over at the Mandela Hall, but on a very different topic, is Jamie Morton’s My Dad Wrote A Porno. Once Morton discovered his father had written just such a tome he read it to the world and a smash-hit podcast was born. The three stars of the podcast — Jamie, James and Alice — will deliver a night of toe-curling, saucy prose.
On Saturday, you can listen to four of Ireland’s bestselling crime novelists — Declan Burke, Julie Parsons, Louise Phillips and Stuart Neville — at the Crescent Arts Centre at 2pm.
And at 3pm at the Crescent it’s the turn of Dermot Breen to tell his real-life story. In January 2015 he was devastated by the death of his wife Jacqui due to ovarian cancer at the age of 54. The Edge tells the story of how he decided to undertake an arduous 38-day pilgrimage around the 1,000km Ulster Way, both in Jacqui’s memory and to raise funds for cancer research. He’ll talk about his feelings of loss and how the walk took him literally to the edge and back.
Meanwhile, next Tuesday, The Unmumsy Mum Sarah Turner will share with us a year in her life as a mum, wife, blogger and bestselling author, again at the Crescent at 7pm.
There are many more events to choose from, including some great ones for children.
For a full list of what’s available go to www.belfastbookfestival.com.