DBF Interviews: June Caldwell

June, we’re really looking forward to the launch of The Other Irish Tradition anthology, on Saturday the 17th of November, at the Irish Writers Centre, where you will discuss the experimental strain in Irish literature with Rob Doyle and John Holten.There will be a wide myriad of pieces to choose from, by writers such as Jonathan Swift to present day authors such as yourself and Mike McCormack. Have any pieces in the collection particularly influenced your own style of writing?


Well, to be honest, I’m not particularly influenced by the older, more traditional authors. I love modern experimental fiction so I am influenced by writers such as Mike McCormack and Anakana Schofield.  Mike’s Notes from a Coma is surreal and quirky – I just love this novel and I was blown away when I first read it! In general, I am enthralled by philosophical short stories. Anakana’s writing is hilarious. Her novel Martin John is really radical and uncomfortable. For example, one of the characters is this pervy son, and he really overpowers and overindulges throughout the narrative.  In The Long Gaze Back anthology Anakana’s main character has a fetish for taps and water – it’s really cringey and it’s brilliant to read. I love how experimental writing mirrors, in a realistic way, how we talk and go about our everyday lives.  In traditional writing, such as the classics we are taught in school, it is all chronological and completely false – it’s not how we go about our daily lives and it’s not reflective of real human beings. I can’t stand that type of fiction – to me it is false. Joyce is one exception – he did a great job of writing in this experimental style, in a non-linear way. The more traditional style of fiction writing is disparate and irrelevant in our modern world.


Your short story collection, ‘A Room Little Darker’, really takes readers out of their comfort zones. You said in an interview once that you write only in the bedroom. Do you always write at night?


Yes, I tend to be wide awake and fearful during the day, and I like it when I’m in a lull, when I’m tired and don’t have time to start questioning myself. Most of that was written at night. It’s a peaceful solitary time. I love to be in my own room, separated from the rest of the world, while the others are in their sitting rooms watching Eastenders or something. Ha!

I’m a carer for my mother during the day, so I need to write at night time. I wish I could be like all those confident normal sane writers who can work during the day, and don’t end up in an existential panic. For me, that solitude at night is a bit like a sedative also.


You recently commented on how fiction is a portage for what’s really going on in our lives; the plunge into love and the lower registers of shame when we get it disastrously wrong. What pieces of fiction have really connected with you in times of adversity?


Ooh – adversity! Well, let’s see. Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept really got me through some tough times. The main character gives up her life for a guy who doesn’t give a flying fuck about her. It’s an outpouring of grief and love. I think it’s a very brave decision to mess up your life for love. Some people hold out for passion or love, even though they are very often not the right situations and ultimately end in tears, but they are often the greatest life lessons for you and are very memorable.

Also, Janice Galloway’s novel from the early 1990s was brilliant – her writing wasn’t like Chekhov’s and all those eejits you read in college! When I read The Trick is to Keep Breathing, I remember realizing for the first time that it’s possible to write in a modern world (as opposed to those restrictive classical and middle class worlds). Irvine Welsh is another favourite of mine – I love writers who just say it like it is.

In more recent times – Anna Burns’ Milkman just knocked me for six!  For me, it’s so important to have a different voice. In God’s Own Country is another stellar example. And those stupid news stories on Google always give me ideas when I’m writing. When you see headlines, for example, such as  “some woman married a bridge”, it really makes you stop and think. I’m an ex journalist, so I’m always mindful of those headlines, and the tabloids are always jaw dropping, so, in terms of literature, I keep those titular headlines in the back of my mind when I think about what is going on in this crazy modern world and the way we communicate today.


You also recently commented on the way readers connect with the characters in stories – the way their ‘story’ achieves this connection is the reason why publishing continues to be big business and why readers scramble around bookshops to grab ‘compendiums of common experience in funky wrapping’.  Do you think that the legacy of particular writing styles from past lives, such as James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, lives on in Irish comtemporary writing, in this mission to connect with readers, or have writers adapted (and sometimes compromised) those styles to evolve in an industry that is constantly in flux?


I don’t think there’s a connection between the old and the new – those don’t necessarily connect. There’s more pressure to connect with a readership and an audience; it’s not like back in the 80s. You have to engage with your readership now, you need to attend readings and inhabit your stories. Authors are there mingling with the readers and doing Q&As. A text isn ‘t just about the author: it’s about the reader’s interpretation of the story and what they get out of it. Grief is the thing with feathers is mind-blowing – it’s more like a slim prose poem. For anyone into grief or bereavement that will blow your head off! It sets a new bar.


Megan Hunter’s book The End We Start From is 19,000 words long and it’s very distilled. It’s brilliant fiction! Readers are demanding sharp short shocks now. The people who are doing really well are the ones who are finding new and innovative ways of telling a story. Megan’s narrative is written in the structure of two and three sentences at a time, with an asterix separating them, and it tells a story in the way a 600-page novel can’t anymore. We’re in demand to express ourselves in a modern world. It’s not like the old days, when authors were sitting down to write a letter. We communicate in different ways now, whether it’s Snapchat, Twitter, text or email.  Swift had fun with interiority and strange voices in his letters, but readers don’t want that classical traditional style anymore. The modern writer can find immersive and funky ways to get his or her inner voice out. You can get it out in a different way. The digital publishing platforms caused a stir at first –  everyone thought that traditional publishing would be in trouble. Not the case! They’ve done a re-print of Anna Burns’ Milkman this morning because there was such a demand after she won the Man Booker prize. So it just goes to show – we are adaptable! Anna’s novel is in very close first-person  narrative, and it’s written in a nuanced style. It narrates that that interior inner experience. It is claustrophobic but it’s also about looking outward – and I, for one, am really looking forward to these next chapters in modern Irish writing.


Me too! Thanks so much for taking the time out to speak with us, June. We’re really looking forward to seeing you at #DBF2018 in November.