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Rachel Dean's Big Ask: Author Lucy Caldwell on her childhood in east Belfast and loss of much-wanted pregnancy


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Write time: author Lucy Caldwell will publish her latest book Intimacies in June

Write time: author Lucy Caldwell will publish her latest book Intimacies in June

Kevin Scott / Presseye

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

Time out: Lucy with her children

Time out: Lucy with her children

One of the cakes Lucy has made

One of the cakes Lucy has made

One of the cakes Lucy has made

One of the cakes Lucy has made

Big influence: Lucy with parents Peter and Maureen and her children

Big influence: Lucy with parents Peter and Maureen and her children

Close family: Lucy with husband Tom, son William and daughter Orla Rose

Close family: Lucy with husband Tom, son William and daughter Orla Rose

Write time: author Lucy Caldwell will publish her latest book Intimacies in June

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to author Lucy Caldwell (38), who grew up in Belfast and now lives in Whitechapel, east London, with her husband Tom Routh (38) and their two children, William (5) and Orla Rose (2)

Q: Tell us about your childhood

A: It was so happy. I was born and grew up in the Belmont area of east Belfast. My dad Peter was an architect and my mum Maureen a full-time mum.

I have two sisters, Kim (36), a palliative care consultant, and Faye (34), an English teacher. Both are near me in age and we were very, very close.

We used to spend weeks, months on end in our secret imaginary worlds. In later years, when I read about the Bronte siblings and their worlds of Angria and Gondal, and saw the tiny books they used to make, I felt such a headrush of recognition. One of our most elaborate worlds was called Braxton, and we drew and illustrated its chronicles, going back generations.

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Big influence: Lucy with parents Peter and Maureen and her children

Big influence: Lucy with parents Peter and Maureen and her children

Big influence: Lucy with parents Peter and Maureen and her children

Everything we did and saw and read was folded into our made-up worlds, which sometimes felt more urgent and alive than the "real" world around us.

I didn't want to grow up and found growing up very painful because there was so much I didn't want to lose or have to leave behind.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: Family legend has it that I wanted to be a writer before I could actually write - I used to fold up pages to look like books, draw pictures and tell my mum what words I wanted and where I wanted them.

When I was 13, we were asked to write an extra chapter for the Jennifer Johnson novel How Many Miles to Babylon?

I wrote an alternative ending - I worked so hard on it, and handed it so proudly to my teacher, convinced it was even better than Johnson's, but more importantly knowing that I was utterly sure about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

So to see my shelves of my own books sometimes feels remarkable.

I'm not sure I'd say I felt proud, exactly, because I've been so lucky to have the support of my family, encouragement of my teachers and mentors - anything I've managed is due to them too and I'm always mindful of that.

But what I think I am proud of are the small, private ways in which my writing has made a difference for people.

There are a precious handful of responses I've had from certain readers that I will never, ever forget.

Q: The one regret you wish you could amend?

A: Where do I begin? Sometimes I'm just a bundle of regrets.

Mainly it's the small things - the things I should have done or said but didn't, the things I did but shouldn't, the times I should have been kinder or more patient, or just let something go, but instead enjoyed the blaze of feeling self-righteous ...

Q: What about phobias? Do you have any?

A: Pigeons. I don't mind dozy bumbling woodpigeons, but I can't stand their scraggy feral inner-city cousins, especially when they flap right in your face. The only pigeon I can tolerate is the one in Mo Willems's children's books.

Q: The temptation you cannot resist?

A: To read just one more chapter before bed. Another glass of rose with my girlfriends on a summer evening. Dark chocolate truffles. Yellow dresses...

Q: Your number one prized possession?

A: The thick Donegal flecked wool cardigan that my mum knitted for me several years ago. For half of the year I'm inseparable from it.

I also love my collection of silver bangles - I have dozens of them.

At the moment I'm wearing a delicate Tiffany chain that my sister Kim gave me, and two silver bangles from New York. A particular favourite is a gorgeous, hand-beaten silver cuff made by the artist Duibhne Gough, granddaughter of the playwright Sean O'Casey, which is a nice connection.

Q: The book that's most impacted your life?

A: As a child, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising quintet: I still re-read it every year and tell myself that one day I'll write my own children's fantasy series.

As a teenager, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, which I did at A-level with my sixth-form teacher Wendy Erskine, and which got me my university place.

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The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence

As a young woman, maybe Clarissa Pinkola Estes's Women Who Run With the Wolves, which resonates on a different level each time you read it.

Q: If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?

A: Plant hundreds of new trees, protect mature trees and make roof gardens on the top of every possible building. And make every school a part-forest school.

Trees are really amazing. I am proud to be a tree-hugger! I read recently that they're our only chance to save the world, but if anything can halt the climate emergency, it's trees.

Q: What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A: People being rude to waiting staff. I waitressed for years, at Bonnie's, then Conor Cafe in Stranmillis, and at Sullivan's in Holywood as well as working for various agencies at big events and weddings, so the casual condescension and sexism is something I'm still very alert to.

Q: Who has most influenced you in life?

A: All those closest to me. My parents, undoubtedly, and my sisters. My teachers, my friends, my children - and of course my husband. He's an architect - his practice is Gatti Routh Rhodes Architects.

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Close family: Lucy with husband Tom, son William and daughter Orla Rose

Close family: Lucy with husband Tom, son William and daughter Orla Rose

Close family: Lucy with husband Tom, son William and daughter Orla Rose

He won Young Architect of the Year in 2019 and that same week I was in Belfast as a Seamus Heaney Fellow and launching my anthology Being Various - it was a mad week for us! I certainly have a greater appreciation for the beauty of concrete than I did before meeting him.

Q: What event changed your life?

A: Being born, surely? And the births of my own children certainly turned my whole life upside-down and inside-out, though in the best ways possible.

Not dying of dengue fever, which I contracted as an 18-year-old in Mexico, definitely deserves a mention too.

Q: Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?

A: Does yet-to-be count? I'd love to meet some of the descendants I'll never otherwise meet...

Q: The best piece of advice you've ever received?

A: In writing, Annie Dillard's, when she says: "Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water."

Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes."

In life, my dad's, though it pretty much amounts to the same thing: "Never be the last to buy a round."

Q: The poem that touches your heart?

A: Louis MacNeice's Snow, which contains the lines: "World is crazier and more of it than we think/Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion a tangerine and spit the pips and feel/The drunkenness of things being various." It's such a giddy, joyful celebration of multiplicity, of plurality - of both/and, rather than either/or - which is the closest I have to an article of faith.

Q: The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A: I love baking. My mum always made the most amazing birthday and celebration cakes from Jane Asher's cookbooks - Rapunzel in a tower, a swimmer diving into a pool, a lady in a bath full of bubbles - and I'm trying to keep up the tradition with my own children and nephews.

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One of the cakes Lucy has made

One of the cakes Lucy has made

One of the cakes Lucy has made

Q: The happiest moment of your life?

A: A mystical experience in the mountains of Andalucia more than 10 years ago now, which I still cannot put into words.

Q: And the saddest moment of your life?

A: Losing a much-wanted pregnancy, when we found out at the scan there was no heartbeat. What got me through was talking to a friend, herself in the public eye, who had spoken bravely and openly about the pain and sadness of miscarriage. It's such a common thing and yet the taboos around it leave you so alone in your grief.

With the stories in my forthcoming collection, Intimacies, I write about the secrets and shames and desires of women's lives, because I think there are so many things that we hardly dare say to other people.

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Time out: Lucy with her children

Time out: Lucy with her children

Time out: Lucy with her children

Q: What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A: That the best is yet to come. That (in the words of Keats, who I also did for A-level with Wendy Erskine) I fear I may cease to be before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.

Q: What's the philosophy you live by?

A: I like the words of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: "There are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt."

I try to get better at responding to the world not with knee-jerk defensiveness but with openness and love.

Q: How do you want to be remembered?

A: By readers several generations hence who suddenly feel my stories speaking to them as if the stories themselves were still alive.

By the descendants who have a weird dream-memory of having a long, boozy dinner party with me once, improbable though it seems...

  • Lucy's new collection of short stories, Intimacies, will be published in June this year, and can be pre-ordered from No Alibis book store on Botanic Avenue, Belfast
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