Burning Books…on Paper is the companion series to our popular podcast, Burning Books
Belfast-born, multi-award-winning writer Lucy Caldwell is shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2021 with Cambridge University for All the People Were Mean and Bad, a story taken from her 2021 collection Intimacies (Faber).
If your house was on fire, what books would you save from the flames?
A book from your early days
Shirley Hughes, Up and Up. I had forgotten it, in favour of the gorgeous Lucy and Tom and Alfie series, and Dogger, which I read to my own children, and rediscovered it recently in my parents’ attic. It’s a wildly anarchic book about a little girl who longs to fly, and the adults who try to stop her. I remembered the pictures with a visceral shock of joy.
A book that you return to
For the best part of a year, I had to read Janet & Alan Ahlberg’s Peepo! every night – my then-toddler son was obsessed with it. It’s a simple rhyming picture-book about a day in the life of a baby, but the skilful backdrop is of the London Blitz. It got me thinking about the Blitz, and the Belfast Blitz, about which I knew very little – and from there came my forthcoming novel, These Days. My children are too old for Peepo! now, but I go back to it with gratitude – what a strange and potent portal it was.
A book that taught you something important, revealed a different way of thinking
A book that was your salvation at a difficult point in your life
Do you re-read or not?
I reread Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising almost every winter – there’s such a deep pleasure in the ritual return to a childhood favourite. There’s a pleasure, too, in coming back to books at different stages of your life, to feel how they, or you, have changed. Middlemarch, say, or Women Who Run With the Wolves, have taught me so much in rereadings.
Turn down pages or a bookmark?
I annotate, underline, asterisk, especially if I’m reading for reasearch, but can’t stand dog-eared pages. Bookmark, train ticket, torn scrap of paper, anything but turning the pages down or splaying the cover.
Do you give up on a book or do you finish everything you start, even if you’re not enjoying it?
I used to feel guilty about not finishing things, but there are so many books in the world and so little time! Sometimes I set things aside knowing that I’ll be a better reader of them at another time, or in another state of mind. But sometimes I put them down with relief. Life’s too short.
A book you wish you’d read when you were younger
For a whole undergraduate year, I had the The Collected Works of Wittgenstein by my bedside, as if they might sink in by osmosis while I slept.
A book you have to read before you die
A book that gave you bad dreams
A book you would want the next generation to read
They will have their own stories to tell. But I would love it if any of mine, even just one or two stories, still spoke to them.
One of your own stories that you are most proud of
It’s a toss-up between “Dilly and Dolly Dolphin”, which I wrote aged 5, and was taken into the P2 class to read aloud, the extra chapter to Jennifer Johnson’s How Many Miles to Babylon? which I wrote aged 13, and an as-yet unpubished story called “Daylight Raids”, the most recent story I’ve written.
What all of them have in common? The feeling while writing them of, Yes, this is all I ever, ever want to do.
A book you associate with a particular life event
Anne Enright, Making Babies. There’s been so much brilliant writing on pregnancy and childbirth and early years since this book was first published, but this is the one I’ve given to more people than I can count: I read these essays when I was first pregnant and they felt like a lifeline
What are you reading now?
For the course I’m teaching on the short story, Chekhov, and searingly brilliant stories by Yan Ge and Irenosen Okojie. For pleasure, Daphne Palasi Andreades’ forthcoming debut Brown Girls, a glorious anthem of a book. Last thing at night, dream shaman Robert Moss’s The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead or Dreaming the Soul Back Home, and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass.
You can save one non-book item: what is it?
My silver bangles.