Writers Chat 54: Deirdre Shanahan on “Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind” (Bluemoose Books: Hebden Bridge, 2019)

Deirdre, You’re very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. We’re here to talk about Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind (Bluemoose Books: Hebden Bridge, 2019).

Cover of Caravan of the lost and left behind by Deirdre Shanahan. Image shows a winding country-side road by the sea with a back-drop of a pink sky, setting sun against dark mountains.

SG: Before we get into the narrative and people in the novel, can you talk about the origins of the title and the stunning cover?

DS: This is really interesting to answer as the title is not the one I used at submission, as the publisher thought it sounded too science fictiony. So though I like it very much and initially felt unable to come up with another title- having been told this just before Xmas, I somehow went into overdrive and came up with others. This was one of them and was accepted.

I liked the word ‘caravan’ not just for the sense we have of it but for its original derivation- which I hoped, maybe in my naiveté,  gave a more universal  suggestion. In the Oxford dictionary it says:  Eastern or North African company of merchants, pilgrims etc travelling together for safety.  I love this. ‘The Lost and Left Behind’  – anyone who does not feel part of the main body  – anyone at a particular time in their lives who feels separate from the whole.

I have always been  interested, sometimes felt like this myself and really this is where the interesting stories are- on the perimeters of the mainstream – in whatever group –  for instance even  the main character in Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels  is ill at ease and misunderstood -does not feels be ‘belongs’   to the  aristocratic group he is born into and it is this distance which allows the sardonic tone to the novel.

You could say as much about Heathcliff, any of Jane Austen’s heroines who feel they don’ t quite fit in. Elizabeth Strout’s characters- Leila Slimani’s. I think all the interesting stories are found where people feel out of place and to be ‘looking in.’ My main characters are those who feel socially / emotionally and psychologically different – who are not immediately at home in the world.

The cover. This was not how I originally envisaged the cover, but after a series of other ideas were submitted to me, including a generic kind of landscape, I thought  the latter would  work if it was heightened, in some way, if the colours were kind of electric and weird, suggesting turbulence and displacement so that is what I pushed for. Thank you. I am glad you like it.

SG: I think the colours are gorgeous on the cover and it really draws the reader in. Now, structurally Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind is divided into four sections – places which represent hope and the possibility of belonging – and we follow Eve and her son Torin on their journey of escape. Did the structure, the story or the characters come first to you?

DS: You sensed one of my primary concerns when embarking on this novel and my initial thoughts. My  original idea was  4 first person narratives relate the story and was much influenced by Louise Erdrich’s  work–  until I found very little moved  in the development of the characters. I realised I was constricting myself within an imposed form that just did not suit the story I wanted to tell. And I had no need to do this.  So I  started again but that was a good thing.

I found that a 3rd person narrative overall but structured into four parts allowed me the breadth to convey the story and the shifts in narrative. It was an easier structural form than I was making. It impressed upon me how, for me, the story dictates how it wants to be told. Form comes after- is secondary.

There seemed to be 4 distinct movements of the story which I wanted to emphasise, and they became the four sections.

SG: That’s great to hear how you worked through what was best for the story itself – so often this happens when writing novels, our original structure needs to change when the story is clear. The search for family is one of the main themes of the novel. Absent and unknown fathers and mothers, siblings, and at the same the wonderful ease of deep understanding that exists between the characters – Torin, a stranger, is welcomed into both the site and the town, though he doesn’t quite know how to handle belonging. Both Torin and Caitlin dream of finding their fathers but as Caitlin says,

“Dreams are as delicate as the bones of a thrush, and if you grind them down like the poor bird, there will be no flight.”

Can you talk about this?

DS: I think exploring the inner life, dreams, longings, regrets, etc of characters  are what the novel is best at, and is a uniquely privileged  form to undertake this- it offers a unique opportunity to show the inner lives of people – how they are in themselves and how they are in relation to others. The novel offers the space and breadth to do so. Although in some ways the lives of my characters have been restricted they still have hopes and dreams – maybe these are all the stronger for the little material effects and wealth they have.  Their dreams have been squashed but are still present and alive in terms of what they feel.

In youth, dreams are powerful  and I wanted Caitlin to feel she had the passion and power to have ideas beyond her situation but she is wise as well and can see they could be easily snuffed out. She has lived between people, in unstable situations, enduring a greater loss as I saw it, in that she has neither parent around, but  I wanted her, as opposed to Torin, to have a strong sense of how she wanted change and recover her life. She is like a catalyst for change which Torin knocks up against and it provides the means for both of them to move on.

SG: The theme of the outsider – and how we “other” ourselves and people we don’t know – is also threaded through the novel. Torin lives in constant fear that his past will catch up on him while simultaneously confronting his mother’s alienating past; Eva returns to a person rather than a place that she calls home. Eva puts it thus:

“It was what she wanted, to be taken back to where she started and sitting in a bar with a man who would make her feel better.”

And Torin sees that “she did not fit in there, she did not fit in here.” How important is the notion of “home” to the novel, given many of the characters live their lives moving from place to place?

DS: I think we all strive for a place where we feel we fit in and belong which we might call home, whether or not it is a geographical location and can sometimes feel as if we don’t belong whether in a larger political sociological sense or in more personal relationships.  To belong to a group or to another person is, I think,  a deep human need  we strive to fulfill for better or worse.  To have a sense of ‘home,’ whether we wish to find that within the group or with one other,  is a universal concept and despite my characters sense of one being transitory and temporary, I wanted the search for one to be a central thread in the novel.

 ‘Home’ is an increasingly powerful and resonating notion as we hear daily of those who have to leave their homes, or are displaced from them whether within a country or having to flee to another. Right now, my Ukrainian friend and her mother are unlikely to see their home again, something which I find really unsettling and upsetting.

Home  is such an emotional concept. We all start from one and spend time trying to create / recreate one in latter years. Even if one rejects some of the ideas around home and how it may be restricting, I wanted my characters to have a sense of the gap in their lives but not knowing where exactly their home lay and to be searching for it.

SG: In this sense your novel really examines timeless and universal themes. Love casts shadows and lights up their lives – family, friends, strangers – and I liked how every day love and compassion is shown with a gentle pace which allows the reader some reflection. In this sense it brought to mind another Bluemoose book, Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession. Would you agree that Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind is character and theme driven rather than plot driven?

DS: Yes, I would agree and very much hope the novel is driven by character. As explained above, the novel for me is the realm to explore human psychology – our wants and needs, dreams and fascinations. Of course the novel can do other things- it can present a puzzle in terms of crime or thriller but I wanted to examine a cast of characters and see what motivated them, follow them in their hopes and dreams. The way we are as human beings is endlessly fascinating. We are a complex mixture of emotions and it seems to me that is the most rich ground on which to work in terms of a novel. Nothing about us is straightforward and I hope I illustrate the depth and complexity of what it means to be human, to be alive.

 I hope the characters’ development provides  staging posts for the narrative to move.  I hope I portray characters who interact with each other and this provides the grit for the momentum of the novel.

SG: Lastly, the writing is lyrical, sensual and so beautifully set in the landscape of the coast which contrasts with the life in London that Eva and Torin have fled. Despite being a stranger to the natural world – seen very movingly in the scene with Caitlin where they find jellyfish – Torin has a sense of generational memory of being “from the sea” even though “this outside world overwhelmed him.” Do you think the writing is a vital part of the story?

DS: I think you must mean, do I think the way I write, which you describe as ‘lyrical, sensual’  adds to the story?  Please let me know if I have got this wrong.

SG: You’ve got it right – yes, I’m asking about how the sensual writing and your use of the senses serves to examine the feel and experience of rural/urban life.

DS: Yes I think it does at least I hope so. I hope the way I write helps convey some sense of how the characters like  Torin experience the world. I have to say though that I do not labour to create this sense. I am afraid it is the way I write. The natural world is evocative for me and I think I have transferred some of my delight with it to  Torin. I do not purposefully or consciously think, oh now I must write in a lyrical mode. This is the way the writing comes out. I know at times I have to reign myself in as it could be a distraction, and may not adhering to a characters make-up and real way of being.

Because much of the novel is set in landscape I suppose I allowed myself a freer licence to write in this way or rather, the writing came out like this. When I write about cities or other situations I can be terser in my style of writing. I try not to think about it too much.

So, to finish up, Deirdre, some fun questions:

  • City or Countryside? Countryside – ultimately after lots of indecision, I came down on this side. I love cities for all they offer – stimulation, chance to meet like-minded people etc, but to do my work, I think the quiet of the countryside offers slightly more ideal conditions. I would however keep making forays to the city to catch up.
  • River or sea swimming? Sea   every time
  • Music or quiet when writing? Quiet – definitely
  • What’s next up on your reading pile? ‘Manhatten Beach’  by  Jennifer Egan
  • What writing are you working on now? A novel set in during the Spanish Civil War as well as another longer piece of fiction and some short stories.

Thanks, Deirdre for such insight into your process and intentions.

Photograph of writer Deirdre Shanahan. Photograph courtesy of Deirdre Shanahan and used with permission.

Buy Caravan of The Lost and Left Behind here.

Buy Carrying Fire and Water (Splice) here

Follow Deirdre Shanahan on her website.

With thanks to Deirdre Shanahan and Bluemoose Books for the copy of Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind.

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