From the award-winning author of The Meeting Point comes another powerful exploration of love, desire and family, featuring a narrator raking over the past to uncover secrets long-buried – secrets that take in The Troubles in 1970s Belfast. All the Beggars Riding confirms Lucy Caldwell as one of the most accomplished young novelists writing today – and we’re delighted to hear that the Arts Council in Northern Ireland have chosen it as their One City One Book Belfast choice for 2013.
Lucy answered a few of our questions …
Lucy Caldwell on All the Beggars Riding
Where did the idea come from for All the Beggars Riding?
Some years ago, just after my first novel was published and before I’d even begun my second, I had a dream, in which this double-layered, double-crossing surgeon’s life came to me. It was such a vivid and startling dream that I took note of it, and for the next few years started seeking out stories of people who lead double lives and men who have a second family, mistresses who have their lover’s babies …
Around the same time, my mum had been researching our family history, and she uncovered the story of an ancestor – my great-great-grandfather – who left a wife and seven, soon to be eight, children in Bristol to sail for the gold mines in America. He disappeared almost without trace soon after he arrived, and there are enough mysteries in his story and the documents that remain to make us suspect he fell in love with someone on the voyage and decided to start a new life, or had simply had enough of the grind of life in England and wanted to disappear. This has nothing directly to do with my novel, of course – but we were talking a lot about him and about family secrets.
Also, my novel The Meeting Point had been about thwarted and illicit love affairs and dangerous obsessions, and I wanted to take that idea further, go even deeper into the darkest corners of the heart.
And finally, the spark that set me actually writing was watching a brilliant, incredibly moving film called My Architect, a documentary made by the son of the architect Louis Kahn. When Kahn died, he left behind three families – and his son Nathaniel made the film as a way of trying to find out who his father was, going to the buildings he’d designed and speaking to the women who had loved him and stayed with him, even knowing they weren’t his only families.
Did you research true stories of second families or did you write purely from the imagination?
My Architect was one of the most important real stories I drew on – not factually in any way, but emotionally. I also spoke to the Irish film-maker and theatre-director Peter Sheridan, who has written a one-man-show and a short book, 47 Roses, about the open secret in his family, his father’s long-term lover – who used to come and stay with the family in Dublin, and whom his father used to visit in England every year. Blake Morrison has a similar story in his memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? More recently, there’s the story of Geoffrey Beattie – the Belfast-born psychologist – who discovered that his father had a mistress and a second family. And there were many others I cut out from Woman’s Weekly-type magazines you read at the dentist, ordinary people, with extraordinary secrets. I was interested in the passion and the despair, of course, but I was also interested in the complexity of maintaining a whole other life, for so long; in the scale of the deceit, in the sheer banal amount of lies and half-lies needed to sustain it.
Often, when I mentioned at literary events or festivals or at parties the sort of stories I was collecting, people would come up to me and offer theirs. I spoke to someone whose best friend was in an increasingly desperate relationship with a married man, and who was distancing herself from all of her friends because she couldn’t, wouldn’t, listen to them. Someone told me about the double life, and hidden secret family, his stepfather had had. Someone else told me about the time a friend of theirs, who had a toddler with a married man, met him unexpectedly in a supermarket: the child ran up to her father, and was extremely confused and upset when he pretended not to recognise her: he was with his wife and other family. And there were so many other stories that I happened upon.
None of my ‘research’, however, was as systematic as all of this sounds – I wasn’t taking notes in a journalistic way, rather I was trying to feel my way under the skin of my characters’ story, imagining the emotional logic of it all, beat by tiny beat. Anyone can imagine falling for someone they shouldn’t – someone who is, perhaps, unavailable, or perhaps even married. It’s not so great a leap of imagination to think of beginning an affair, and from there to find yourself pregnant with your lover’s child. But the decision to stay with him, and live a half-life, for the next decade and a half – that’s what I sought to understand. I chose to write the book from the perspective of the surgeon’s daughter, grown-up, because it meant that she too could be trying to understand, what her parents did, and how, and why.
The book is partly set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Is this something you remember from your own childhood? Why did you decide to focus on this period of time?
The sections in which Lara describes or imagines Belfast during the Troubles are actually quite short – the more important descriptions of Belfast come in the long section towards the end of the novel where she visits the city for the third time in her life, and the first as an adult, and she is completely taken aback by the place she discovers. By the end, she’s fallen a little in love with Belfast – and reclaimed that part of herself and her history, rather than being ashamed of it.
The narrative takes place over four decades, ending in the present day, and so it was necessary to show Belfast – and London – in the 1970s and 80s, but I also wanted to move through it, to show how far we’ve come. When I was imagining and writing the novel it seemed far more important to show a new Belfast than recreate an old one – and I hope the book reflects this. So much of the book is about storytelling, and about how we can be trapped in the stories others tell about us – or we tell ourselves – and how we can learn to break free, to tell new stories, and find new ways of being. That’s certainly linked to how Belfast is portrayed throughout the course of the novel.
You explore the story of how Lara’s mother could have allowed her own and her family’s life to be ruled by secrets. Was it important to you to also show her side of the story?
It was essential! Not just for the balance of the novel – which is in many ways a story of two halves, daughter and mother, fact and fiction – but for Lara herself. At the start of the novel – which takes the form of Lara’s memoirs – Lara is furious with her mother, for what she put their family through, for all of the lies and deceits and betrayals, for the life she made her children lead, for the life she denied them. When Lara decides to try to tell the story from her mother’s point of view – third person, as fiction – it’s a way not only of understanding her mother but of forgiving her. Lara’s memoir is rage and incomprehension, but when she starts to imagine her mother’s story, she feels things shifting, opening up – the power of fiction and of storytelling, again, of being in charge of our own stories.
In your previous novel, The Meeting Point, you also touched upon the idea of secrets within relationships and the damage they can do. Is this a concept which interests you?
There’s a line in the New Testament that really struck me while I was researching and writing the missionaries in The Meeting Point:“… there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known”.
It’s meant to be consoling, but I think it’s a pretty chilling thought – all of our deepest and darkest fears and desires exposed to the light … I think of my ancestor, and I’m struck by the fact that he could never possibly have imagined that his descendents, 140 years later, would be bringing his darkest secrets into the light. I’ve always been fascinated by secrets: when they’re healthy, and when they’re necessary; when they’re harmless and when they start to fester into something more destructive. And there’s no bigger secret than having a whole other relationship, and children, and family; no greater betrayal than finding out that your husband or father has been living a whole other life.
I heard Junot Diaz, author of the brilliant and self-proclaimed “cheater’s guide” This Is How You Lose Her, speak recently, and he said something along the lines of: people are always fascinated by infidelity because, whether or not we’ve suffered it ourselves, there’s part of us that knows that there’s no more piercing betrayal. He said: we always think of love as the greatest human emotion, but it’s got a dark side, a counterspell, which is infidelity. I think that’s a perfect and searing way of putting it. And fiction can go there: it can cast and explore that spell. As I said earlier, few people would imagine – and almost nobody must want – to end up in the situation Lara’s mother does in my novel, being the ‘second family’ of a married man who can’t or won’t leave his wife and legitimate children, a half-life of shame and secrets and social stigma. And yet – as I found – it’s a situation more common than you might at first think. Fiction is a way of understanding how someone – how you, or I, or our mother, or sister – could end up so far from who or how we thought we’d be.
All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell