Interview with Wendy Erskine
Wendy Erskine’s short story collection Sweet Home (2018 Stinging Fly, 2019 Picador) won the Butler Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edge Hill and Republic of Consciousness prizes and longlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize. Her story ‘Inakeen’ was longlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, while her stories and non-fiction have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4. She hosts a show on Soho Radio for Rough Trade Books and is also a full-time secondary school teacher. Her new collection Dance Move will be published by Stinging Fly and Picador in early 2022.
Did the success of Sweet Home affect how you went about writing the stories in your new collection? Did it create any additional pressure, or alter the creative process in any way?
At the beginning I wondered if I would actually be able to do it again, because putting together a collection can seem daunting, the thought that you’re going to have to create all these different worlds, all these characters, all over again. In some ways it’s quite an exhausting thing to do, even though I know that sounds absolutely preposterous – how could sitting in a room inventing fake characters possibly be exhausting, when there are people going out and doing jobs like scaffolding? How could it be tiring? But it is. I normally try and write about one story a month, and it takes a lot of mental energy and concentration. But once you get started it’s like anything else, you just need to do it bit by bit. After I’d written the first couple of stories I could see where it was heading.
I wouldn’t say I’m trying to do anything fundamentally different to what I did in Sweet Home. I haven’t adopted a new style, and the subject matter isn’t anything particularly radical. But at the same time, I hope I’ve got better as a writer. It would be ridiculous and arrogant to think your first book is the best that you can do, and that you can’t improve.
You didn’t feel any conscious pressure to somehow get bigger in scale, or change anything in that way?
It’s a really good question. I remember the writer Lucy Caldwell, who I think is brilliant, told me I should write about what I want for the next book, and if that’s more short stories set in East Belfast then that’s absolutely what I should do. So I didn’t feel any internal or external pressure. No one said you need to do something that’s a departure.
But I do remember someone asking if I thought I’d be able to move beyond East Belfast, which I thought was telling, because it suggests that this is somewhere I should move beyond, and that there are other lives that are more interesting, or more complex, or richer, elsewhere. I’d dispute that. It’s quite dismissive of literature that’s from a specific place like Belfast. I don’t think you’d ever ask someone who writes about New York or London if they were going to move beyond those cities. You would take it for granted that those are diverse environments, and that those people’s lives are rich and complicated. Whereas I do think there’s an idea that if you’re writing about people from East Belfast who work in Argos, or a beauty salon, there’s a limitation.
That’s a misreading of what I try to do, because I would hope that even though geographically I’m not moving far from where Sweet Home was set, I could write books about people who live in this particular locality for the rest of my life. Because I don’t think there are richer lives elsewhere. I think you’ve got everything here – heartbreak, happiness, euphoria, alienation and depression.
Your stories have a tremendous sense of place that binds them together. When you write about a place in that way, are you conscious that to an extent you’re saying this is what it’s like here, and this is what these people are like?
When you create a character, unless you’re going to write a very specific type of narrative where people are stripped of context, then they’re going to be located in a particular place. And the impact of that place is not going to be uniform on every individual. So you’ll see some people who have been deeply impacted by the place they’re from, and other people less so.
I never set out to write the definitive account of East Belfast. And I suppose if you’re mediating something or somewhere, then all you’re ever doing is creating an idea of that place. So if someone said to me “I live a couple of streets away from you, and the East Belfast you present is not the one I know”, then I’d absolutely agree, because I’m not claiming any objective truth or presentation of a particular locale, or the people in it.
What I would say is that I’d hate it if people thought I was being in any way sneery. To me the person who works in the hairdressers has a life as rich and complicated, and deserves to be taken as seriously, both in real life and in fiction, as a person who lives in Hampstead, or someone who’s on a post-grad course somewhere. I don’t think my responsibility is to produce what would be regarded as a definitive representation of a group of people, but what I do want to do is treat those people’s lives with a degree of seriousness of purpose. It’s not about using them for laughs or belittling them and their views. It’s about treating them with respect.
There’s a real absence of judgement in Sweet Home, and I wondered if that was perhaps because the characters are so bound together by place and community. In the story ‘Inakeen’, for example, two teenage girls make some racist comments about Muslim women in a shop, and there’s very little obvious judgement from the main character, who observes the scene.
I suppose I’m relying on the reader understanding what I’m trying to do. As you say, there are people who make racist remarks, and others who make sectarian comments, and other things that could be regarded as offensive. And I don’t feel the need to include some sort of authorial indication that this is wrong, or underscore that we all agree that it’s wrong. I’m hoping that the absolute implication is there, but that it needn’t be stated.
It’s been a while since I’ve read ‘Inakeen’, but from what I remember the main character does something to try and conceal the women, some little movement to try and make things better. She isn’t going to confront those girls, because that wouldn’t be realistic, and I’m not going to make some authorial comment to say “isn’t that shocking, isn’t that wrong”. But hopefully within the context of the fabric of that particular story that comes across.
One of the things I love about your writing is how revealing the descriptive details are, like when you describe a stripper in the story ‘Last Supper’ as having “an indentation on her legs where her socks had been”, or in ‘Inakeen’, where the main character feels “the edge of the bedroom curtain touching her face” as she spies on the house across the road, which seems to capture her vulnerability and even shame. How do you come up with details like that? Are they images you’ve observed elsewhere, or things you’ve thought up?
I initially write a first draft, which might be about 10,000 words, and I try to write without any kind of restraint or restrictions whatsoever, so I might move between the 1st and 3rd person, or change tense. And I don’t really know what I’m writing about. I just follow the path of it, and it can go in unexpected directions. And during that time I might be thinking of things that I’ve observed.
But also when you’re writing you’re in conversation with everything you’ve ever seen, and everything you’ve ever read, and all the music you’ve heard and the films you’ve seen, as well as all the things you haven’t experienced but have thought about. So I suppose all these elements that go into that initial draft come from those various sources.
Then what I do is spend quite a lot of time dwelling with the characters, and thinking about them, and I suppose you would say the details present themselves. After that first draft, I don’t really know what I’ve got until I read it critically, and often I find that something I thought was central is actually quite peripheral, or characters I thought were unimportant are important, and then everything comes into focus. It’s like the lens shifts slightly.
On the cover of Sweet Home there’s a quote from Lucy Caldwell which describes your writing as “utterly unsentimental”, which I think is true. There are few writers who would write a story like ‘Locksmiths’ (about a young woman dealing with her mother’s release from prison), and not soften the mother’s crime, or include any kind of epiphany or catharsis at the end.
You’re right that I’m trying to write about fundamental emotions while trying to avoid being sentimental. A good description of sentimentality is unearned emotion, like when there are aspects of a story that are there to try to evoke a response in a cheap way. There’s a story in the new collection which I’d written in the first person, and I shifted it to the third person and stripped out everything that would encourage you to feel sympathetic towards the character, because before he’d had a lot of time to justify his actions and express how he felt personally...and it became much cleaner, and a better story.
That makes me think of something George Saunders said, about how if you “revise something 20 times…it becomes more social, empathic and compassionate”. Whereas it almost sounds as though you have the opposite approach and get a bit harder on each edit!
There’s probably a difference between empathy and sentiment. I think of sentiment as a sort of artistic effect, where you try to achieve a shortcut to emotion. But empathy is really important. It’s more like earned emotion, if that’s something you can achieve. And with some of the characters, like Kyle the paramilitary figure (in the story ‘To All Their Dues’), I’m hoping there’s a degree of empathy. I’ve never wanted to look at characters as heroes and villains, so I’m always trying to build in shades of ambiguity.
What I’m also trying to do is think about people in terms of their pasts. I don’t really like it when people talk about somebody’s backstory, if you want to use that word. It presupposes that it’s just some kind of little add-on that’s going to enhance your understanding of the present. But a lot of the time the past is just as important as the present, in terms of character.
So I try and layer these characters, often with two or three, or even four, different timelines running concurrently. So even with somebody like Kyle, who is reprehensible in the present day, you’ve got the idea of him as a child, and what happened to him. And with the mother in ‘Locksmiths’ who killed someone, there’s a layer where she was brought up by a mother who was supposedly drunk most of the time. I didn’t want to make her an out and out villain, because that would just have simplified things. And the sympathy you have for her needs to operate through specificity of detail, like the colour of the rug she lay on when she was a child, and little details like that.
It’s interesting how you deal with the Troubles, and Northern Ireland’s past and present, in your stories. It’s almost like a background hum, like when you describe Kyle and his protection racket, you’re saying that’s how the reality is, but without delving too much into why, or how, something like that might happen.
The expectations that other readers have, particularly readers that aren’t from Ireland, or Northern Ireland or the north of Ireland, are really interesting. You get some people who say they didn’t think Sweet Home was political at all, and others that thought it was very political. I suppose it just depends on how people read things. One thing I was clear on right from the start is that there’s no defining experience of living in Northern Ireland, no homogenous experience. Living in Belfast in the seventies or eighties would have been very different if you were from a working-class household than if you were middle class. One thing I wanted to do in the collection is have some people who were acutely affected, like Olga McClure, who lost somebody she loved but wasn’t able to tell anyone about it, and some people like Gil Courtney, for whom where he was from was absolutely irrelevant. Because in real life, some people will have been profoundly affected and others won’t. And there should be that kind of diversity.
The new collection is like that as well. There are some stories that are absolutely about legacy issues, and others which are about teenagers dancing in a bedroom, where the past is irrelevant.
As the stories are set in a socially realistic world, do you feel pressure to be contemporary, and reflect how things are changing in society? To capture the time you’re writing in, as well as the place?
The broad answer would be no. Otherwise I’d be getting the newspaper and going on news websites and making notes on the stories at the top, and making sure I incorporated those things into my work. It isn’t as schematic as that. But at the same time if you’re living in 2021, at some point these things will impinge on your consciousness, even if it’s not in a deliberate way.
I feel it’s up to writers to write whatever they want and there should be no onus to have to deal with anything. So if you want to write a novel about doorknobs or tortoises and you think you can make that interesting, then that’s absolutely what you should do. And if you’re from Northern Ireland or Belfast there should be no obligation for you to deal with anything to do with the Troubles, unless you feel you want to do that.
Personally, I dislike fiction I feel has massive designs on me, ideologically speaking, or that I think is trying to manoeuvre me into a particular position, or is very didactic. I don’t hate it, exactly, but I don’t want to write it.
You seem to be incredibly busy, whether it’s through writing about art and music, doing interviews, working as a schoolteacher, or taking part in literary events. Do all these different influences and interests form part of your creative process?
One of the funny things about putting a book out is that people want you to talk about it. And then you think, well, one reason I wrote a book was to put my ideas in it, and now I have to paraphrase those ideas. So writers have to almost be like personalities, almost like stand-up comedians, and at times there’s a show biz element to things. But I have to say I enjoy doing it. For years before this I hardly went out at all. I was basically a hermit, and then I changed overnight into an attention seeker!
And one of the nice things about having a book published is the very unexpected things you get asked to do, like write about subjects you wouldn’t normally have written about. I did a piece to accompany an exhibition in Derry by the artist Jan McCullough, and it was really lovely. These chance things are thrown at you. And a lot of it then feeds into the stories, in the sense that if I’m writing about art or heavy metal music in East Belfast, then it’ll make what I’m doing richer. Though I’ve never really wanted to write about schools, or about people that exist in real life. I want to live harmoniously in the real world!