June Caldwell discusses her contribution to the brilliant new arts anthology, The Winter Papers.
With the new edition of arts anthology Winter Papers hitting the shelves, featured author June Caldwell discusses sexual fantasies, unexamined desires, and all that’s good in contemporary Irish fiction.
You’d almost be forgiven for picking up a copy of the latest edition of Winter Papers and sticking it straight on your shelf. Its royal blue, cloth-coated, hard-backed cover lends itself perfectly to any coffee table or bookshelf, and at an aesthetic level, this anthology looks like a must-have collectable.
I say almost, because to not read this coverto-cover would be to ignore the treasure trove within. Poetry, essays, photography, interviews and short stories help to make Winter Papers read like a carefully woven tapestry of Irish creativity.
June Caldwell was asked to contribute while she was working on her short story collection,
Room Little Darker, earlier this year. A hugely gifted writer who tries to “dramatise dark thoughts and extreme emotions” in her work, June’s contribution, ‘Extrinsic’, is one of the collection’s finest pieces.
“All of these pieces are commissioned,” she explains. “So Kevin and Olivia will ask people who they are interested in to contribute. I was asked a few months ago when I was working on my book and I accepted it, but didn’t really have time to think about what I wanted to do. I ended up being so busy that I wrote ‘Extrinsic’ in two days and it came straight from of my subconscious.”
The story itself follows an extremely unreliable first person narrator, Chrissie, who has a male partner in real life, but imagines that she’s living in a post-apocalyptic Dublin where she’s assigned a woman partner who exacts mental, emotional and sexual control over her. The details of the story’s actual circumstances are kept vague, but the tension between the characters is where the meat lies.
“The reader is supposed to think, ‘Is this real? Is this a post-apocalyptic world? Or is it someone’s fantasy?’ I wrote this because I had just broken up with somebody who bored the fuck out of me, so I imagined, how many other women are bored with their partners? And I just imagined couples at a dinner party and two women who want to get it on.”
For June, it seems, the ideas can be as straightforward as that. Less interested in carefully woven (or carefully drafted) plots, she prefers to train her focus on an oft-overlooked area of experience that stares us right in the face: human desire.
“I like extreme emotions,” she admits. “I like the times where you’re not feeling 100%. You know, I like that thought of people going to their jobs, living in their homes, going to bed at a reasonable hour – and then all of a sudden they get broken up with, or they become dissatisfied, and they start to behave manically.
They start to release things that they’d been keeping down for so long. I’m interested in those junctures where you have emotional reactions. Anger, sexual jealousy. Things that make people act in odd ways.”
What makes her turn to dystopian versions of reality or nightmarish fantasies to show people “acting oddly”?
“I just think people are full of fantasy, aren’t they?” she muses. “They’re full of delusion about themselves and their lives. And the way they justify what they want deep down is incredible, especially when it comes to sexual desire. They behave in incredible ways in order to get what they want and will push their own boundaries to limits they didn’t even know they had, in order to have a desire met.”
The writer chuckles to herself.
“You know, when people were talking about
Room Little Darker, they kept bringing up the fact that there’s tons of graphic sex in it. There isn’t really. Then there were people who thought I was madly into S&M because of some of the content… Ha! You must be joking! I’m a mildly
“This leftie, hippy hype about equilibrium in relationships; it’s bollocks!”
“there’s been an awful
lot of quiet, romantic fiction written by Irish women, who mull over what some bloke might think of them. ”
middle-aged woman sitting in suburbia looking after my mother!
“But what I am interested in is power exchanges. If you look at any relationship, there’s always someone in control. If you look at all this leftie, hippy hype about equilibrium in relationships; it’s bollocks! There’s always someone in control, no matter how subtle. So I suppose in fiction, what I want to say is, ‘Let’s dramatise that control’.”
Is there a dearth of writers doing that?
“Well when it comes to dramatising sex,” says June, “there’s been an awful lot of quiet, romantic fiction written by Irish women, who mull over what some bloke might think of them. And it’s all disinfected. I thought: no, let’s get right in there! When we go to the pub with our mates, we talk about fantasies and it’s open and explicit, and it comes from this deeper part of us. People talk more truthfully in the pub than they do on the page.
I’m just trying to bridge those gaps.”
June’s story chimes wonderfully with the ethos of the anthology, laid out in its introduction. “At times of crisis and flux,” write Kevin and Olivia, “it is vital to get back to the centre of the action. But how to do to so? Maybe by allowing the work itself to be wilder, stranger, louder.”
“Purely in terms of ideas, quality and production, this is an incredible anthology,” June notes. “Aside from the fact that it just looks like a piece of literary history, it also breathes innovation. That comes, I think, from the people who are asked to contribute. It doesn’t have to be someone successful; more often than not, they pick people who are just doing something interesting with art, or poetry, or in the culture. They pick a really eclectic bunch of people. You can see that from the contents: Blindboy Boatclub alongside Glenn Patterson; Tara Bergin alongside Christine Leech. It has set the bar, and it’s going to give people the itch to write more and raise their writing to a higher standard.”