But with subjects ranging from a paedophile acquiring a sex-therapy robot and wondering how they’ll get along, to graphic, kinky, and submissive sex, to an unborn child narrating her own tale, it’s fair to say that June Caldwell, in her debut collection Room Little Darker, isn’t like most other short-story writers.
A former journalist based in Dublin, Caldwell completed an MA in creative writing at Queen’s University in Belfast and has won the Moth International Short Story Prize.
She says journalism was a distraction from what she really wanted to do.
“In a way I became a journalist because I wanted to write. I think a lot of writers make that mistake. The last thing you want to do, after bashing out articles all day, is sit down and dream up fictitious worlds.”
The spark was lit after Caldwell took courses with masters of the short-story craft, Sean O'Reilly and Mike McCormack, and her work started getting nominated for awards.
“I kept getting longlisted or shortlisted, which gave me the confidence to take it a bit more seriously.
However, I was also looking after sick family members at the time (my mother had cancer, and my brother was dying of the same cancer in his forties) so it was a tough time and I didn’t really have the mental space to take it seriously for another while yet.”
New Island gave her the chance to write a book after ‘SOMAT’, the aforementioned baby-narrator tale, had been published in the Sinead Gleeson-edited anthology of Irish women writers, The Long Gaze Back.
“It was a rare chance not usually given in publishing these days: To commission an author without seeing the work in advance,” says Caldwell. Room Little Darker is the result.
Now about those sex stories: ‘Leitrim Flip’, explains Caldwell, is “about a couple who are into kink.
They meet in a city centre hotel, get on OK and agree on a follow-up date where they will meet a cuckold couple from Leitrim, but it all goes a bit awry.”
Choice extract: ‘I couldn’t stomach a man inside me who hadn’t the ability to think things through beyond the half-baked one-dimensional.’
“I wanted to write about alternative sexuality, we’ve read enough of the other sort: The unsettled calm love story, the hankering after men in subtle joyful ways, and so on. I wanted to get right in there and look at the alternatives that people are indulging in these days,” says Caldwell.
“In my view it’s the job of the short story to examine the underbelly of human relationships, the shadowy psychologies, the business of repression, and where that can lead a person.”
Was she wary writing so explicitly about sex? Or is the Irish reader finally ready for it?
“Of course we’re up for it! We’re unashamedly curious about the intimacy issues of others. We want to find out about the clandestine nature of other people’s sex lives.
Sex, in literature, is often very clinical, an attic-eye view. We don’t seem to read about sex in the way that we discuss it in the pub or at dinner parties, the hilarious scenarios, the darkened passions, the way it can engender fear in us, how it can be used as a weapon or a means to control a loved one, the death of love, the effects of being in a toxic relationship.
“I realise at least two of these stories in the collection are hard to read for some. But I wanted to challenge myself, to push the boundaries. ‘The Glens of Antrim’ is also quite seedy in parts. A bored woman who is abandoned by her current lover turns her attention to the affections of a man who’s into S&M. At first she enjoys the role-play, it’s fun, but later it causes her to feel empty and dissatisfied.
“It would’ve been ‘easier’ to write about this kind of thing by exploring the landscape of an affair, of transgression. But I wanted to try something new.”
Room Little Darker by June Caldwell is out on New Island Books now. €11.95