Lucy Caldwell: How I learned to love Belfast again
Award-winning Northern Ireland author and playwright Lucy Caldwell tells Stephanie Bell about married life and how she has fallen in love with her home town after living in London for many years
When Lucy Caldwell came back to Belfast four years ago, she found the city she couldn’t wait to escape from when she was 18 had been transformed beyond recognition. And quite unexpectedly she found herself falling in love with it for the first time.
The award-winning writer says she was dumbfounded to discover Belfast was buzzing and even now is in awe of the changes that have taken place in her absence.
“When I was growing up, Belfast felt very small and all I wanted was to leave and discover the bright lights of London,” she says.
“Even in peacetime, my school friends and I used to talk about how we'd get away, and where we'd go.
“In the end most people didn’t go, but I did and I promised myself that I would never return.”
Having just turned 30, Lucy has spent all of her adult life living in London but since that trip home in 2007 she has been increasingly drawn back to Belfast and now divides her time between the two cities.
To Lucy it was like discovering somewhere new: “There were plays, talks, gigs, new designer boutiques and smart little cafés and bars, nightspots like the Potthouse and Café Vaudeville. There was the Cathedral Quarter, jammed with new restaurants and pubs, and already home to more than 50 arts organisations which was heaving, even on a cold and wet Sunday evening.
“For the first time, it struck me that perhaps I'd go back, one day, for good. It felt extraordinary to be entertaining the possibility that there'd come a point when I'd choose Belfast over London. It was a giddy — and unsettling — feeling, like the start of a new love affair.”
Lucy’s parents, housewife Maureen and Peter, a successful architect, still live in Belfast but all three of their girls left home for London. Lucy’s sister Kim (28) is a palliative care doctor and Faye (26) is a teacher.
The girls live close to each other in London, making the move to a new city easier on all three.
Softly spoken, with just the hint of an English accent, Lucy lives a quiet life in the big city, where she is content to spend her days writing and her evenings with her new husband Tom or with family and friends.
She met Tom (30), an architect, three years ago and the couple married in Belfast City Hall in September last year.
Professionally she has become a highly acclaimed author and playwright who took a step closer to joining the literary elite recently when she was presented with two of the writing world’s most distinguished prizes.
In November, she beat Orange prize winner Téa Obreht to be awarded the £30,000 Dylan Thomas prize — given for the best writing in any genre by a writer under 30 — for her second novel The Meeting Point
Just two weeks earlier, Lucy was awarded The Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for 2011, in recognition of her achievement and outstanding promise as a novelist and dramatist.
Previous winners include Bernard Farrell, Neil Jordan, Frank McGuinness, Deirdre Madden and Anne Enright.
She has written three plays — Leaves, Guardians and Notes to Future Self — and two novels, Where They Were Missed and The Meeting Point, the latter published in February of this year. She is currently working on a third novel.
Even before she could write, Lucy was taping together pages to make her own little books, using drawings to tell the story.
Throughout her childhood she wrote stories for her sisters, which she would present to them in instalments.
She was 13 when she says she “fell in love” with writing while working on a school project: “We were asked to write an extra chapter for the Jennifer Johnston novel How Many Miles to Babylon.
“I decided to write a different ending to the story and I worked so hard on it and en
joyed it so much that I knew then that there was nothing else I wanted to do but write.”
It was for this newspaper that she earned her first payments as a writer when she was commissioned to do a diary during her gap year teaching conversational English in Mexico when she was 18.
She laughs as she recalls it: “I was so proud that I had my Belfast Telegraph pay slips taped to the wall of my study for years.”
A former pupil of Strathern Grammar School, Lucy studied English at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and later completed a masters degree in Goldsmiths in London.
It was while at university she started work on her first novel.
“It started as a short story for a competition which the university ran every year, with the best stories being published in an anthology of student fiction,” she says.
“I started to write and I just couldn’t stop and after 10,000 words I realised I was writing a novel.
“I didn’t even get shortlisted for the anthology but I carried on writing the novel for the next couple of years and I had a fantastic tutor who helped me to edit it.”
The result was her debut, Where They Were Missed, which, like most of her work, is set in Belfast.
Lucy’s second novel The Meeting Point took six years and at one point was dumped and rewritten before being acquired by Faber & Faber.
It’s why last month’s £30,000 Dylan Thomas prize was such a welcome boost, not just for its prestige but for the financial security it brought.
“A writer’s life is like a patchwork, you never know where the next money is coming from and it’s why I also write plays and do a bit of teaching (she lectures on the creative writing programme at City University) which keeps me busy and I also do love it.
“For me the best advice is the Samuel Beckett quote ‘Try again, fail again, fail better’ which kept me going during the writing of my second novel.
“Three years into it, I had written about 100,000 words and I had that sinking feeling that it just wasn’t working and it wasn’t very good.
“I had used the advance on my first novel to fund a trip to Bahrain for research and I ended up throwing the novel away and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Six months later Lucy was given the confidence to start again after hearing Booker Prize-winning author Kiran Desai speak at the Hay Literary Festival.
“She talked so brilliantly and self-deprecatingly about writing her second novel, how hard it had been and that it had taken her nine years to write.
“It made me think maybe I should give mine another go and so I started from scratch — and two years later I had my second novel.”
Now an award winner, The Meeting Point tells the story of a young family who move to Bahrain, only for the mother, Ruth, to discover the truth about the missionary work her Christian minister husband has planned.
The Dylan Thomas prize founder, Professor Peter Stead, described it as “a beautifully written and mature reflection on identity, loyalty and belief in a complex world”.
Naturally thrilled by the awards, Lucy is nevertheless realistic about the challenges of being a writer.
“It is not easy and you do get rare moments when you feel you are a conduit and it just pours out of you and you can hardly keep up with it but most of the time you are just battling on.”
As a playwright she is under commission to write for the main stage of the Royal Court Theatre. She has also written plays for radio, which brings her back to Belfast, where she enjoys working closely with BBC producer Heather Larmour.
“I love writing for radio because it is one of the most intimate mediums and I love working with Heather and coming back to Belfast,” she said.
Her days follow a very set pattern. She writes in the morning, when she has found she is at her most creative, and spends the afternoons on admin work and catching up on emails.
She counts herself lucky that she married a foodie who loves to cook and entertain.
For their wedding last year the couple ditched the traditional gift list asking instead for friends to give them either a book or a bottle.
“We love entertaining and having friends round for something to eat and a good bottle of wine, which is why we asked for a book or a bottle for wedding gifts,” she says.
“As a result we’ve been able to build up a pretty good wine cellar.
“It’s really lucky for me that Tom does all the cooking. I can ring him up and say what I am in the mood to eat and he’ll cook it.
“I do like baking cakes and apple crumbles but there is no pressure, I can do it as a pleasure.
“My sister-in-law, who has two little boys aged five and two, lives close to us and we would visit her quite often. My youngest sister also lives near me so we tend to spend most of our time with family.
“It’s a quiet life, but it’s what we want.”
Lucy was thrilled to welcome her new in-laws to Belfast last year for her wedding in the City Hall. It was a small, intimate affair with just 32 guests — all family and close friends.
They dined in the Boat House in Bangor (one of her favourite local restaurants) and then enjoyed cocktails at the Merchant Hotel, where she spent her wedding night.
They then celebrated with a party for their friends in London.
She said: “My in-laws had never been to Northern Ireland before and I felt very proud showing them Belfast and one of my favourite places, Strangford Lough.”
She is a patron of the Linenhall Library and is involved with a number of local charities including the Pushkin Trust, which helps primary school teachers to learn creative writing so that they can pass it on to their pupils, and also the Niamh Louise Foundation.
Life is good for this talented young woman who takes nothing for granted: “I live quite a normal life and like to keep myself to myself.
“I’m lucky that reading, writing and theatre are my main passions and also my job.”