Writer’s Block With Wendy Erskine

Sophie Grenham talks to author WENDY ERSKINE about the mundane everyday, creative spaces and her debut short story collection …

Photograph by Khara Pringle

The infectious literary voice of Wendy Erskine is definitely going places, thanks to her breathtaking debut short story collection, Sweet Home. The beautifully produced volume has captivated readers throughout Ireland and beyond in its relatively short existence. So deft is Wendy’s ability that one disappears inside each tale without realising it has happened – to astounding effect.

When she’s not writing fiction, the East Belfast native is an English teacher who studied the subject at Glasgow University. She worked in literacy education afterwards, before completing a post-graduate course and returning to her roots. Her road to success began with a six-month fiction workshop with The Stinging Fly, who subsequently published some of her stories. Her short fiction has also appeared in Stinging Fly Stories and Female Lines: New Writing by Women From Northern Ireland (New Island).

Since then, Wendy has earned the respect of many seasoned individuals, including Gavin Corbett, who said, “These wonderful stories of people and place are deceptively smooth, stealthily complicated. Each one’s a sweet but stiff cocktail. They go down easy, but soon your head starts to pitch and you realise you’ve been hit with a wallop.” Lucy Caldwell has called the work, “Whip-smart and witty and tender and wry, these stories bring a brand-new Belfast into sharp focus. Erskine’s pitch-perfect dialogue, attuned to the way people speak, and to what they let slip without meaning to, is a joy. Her writing is sly and stylish and unsentimental. There’s a new star in the East.”

The icing on the cake has come from Picador in the UK, who have just bought the collection’s international rights. Editor Ansa Khan Khattak has said, “Wendy Erskine’s writing is some of the best I’ve read during my time here at Picador. The stories in Sweet Home are beautiful snapshots into domestic lives and I’m so excited about bringing her work to more readers.”

Wendy lives in East Belfast with her husband and their two children. She is currently writing new short fiction and a novel. Her work will soon feature in Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber and Faber), We’ll Never Have Paris, Winter Papers and on BBC Radio 4.

Sweet Home (€12.95) is published by The Stinging Fly Press and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I have lived for the last twenty years just off the Cregagh Road in East Belfast. I am a fairly unambitious person in terms of what I want to do day to day, and also I can’t drive.  What’s important to me therefore is to live near a bus stop and somewhere where I can get a pint of milk. The Cregagh Road is fairly unreconstructed, old school Belfast, although we do have Boots, Subway and B&M Bargains. You’ll see numerous charity shops, home bakeries, a wool shop, a key-cutting bar, a haberdashery. For a coffee I go to Lazy Claire, a beautiful French patisserie in the unlikely location of the Castlereagh Road. It used to be a place called Bikini Bootcamp. Now I eat an éclair in the spot where I used to jump in and out of a tyre.

On roots

I grew up on the outskirts of Belfast in Jordanstown. I thought it was the most uncool place in the world as a kid: suburban, leafy, orderly. I visit my mum there every week and now appreciate its charms – its various trees, and the gentle rumble of the train passing through on its way to Larne. In the 1970s they plonked a fairly Brutalist university there; I used to walk through its grounds as a kid on my way to school. Some of my friends had parents who were lecturers at the place. These families seemed teleported from another world. One had a living room upstairs. Upstairs! They had a Mondrian painting on the wall. To me this was all quite revolutionary.

On simple inspiration

In whatever environment I’m in, no matter how epic, I am always drawn to quite mundane things. So in even the most sublime of landscapes I’ll note how somebody’s dark roots are looking when the wind blows their hair or the poly bag that’s got stuck to someone’s foot. My stories are all set in quite downbeat places and in Sweet Home it’s a particularly circumscribed world, just a handful of streets. But an even more restricted locale is certainly possible. Hubert Selby Jr’s The Room takes place entirely within a prison cell and yet you couldn’t argue that nothing happens.

On creating

I always write in the kitchen. I sit in the same spot with my back against the radiator and I work on a computer from Tesco that cost 150 quid. Opposite me there’s a defunct Aga cooker that we use to store multi-packs of crisps. It gets called the witch’s cooker because it resembles something from a Hansel and Gretel illustration. On top of it there’s a large plastic tray in the shape of a leaf that my daughter got me for my birthday. I can stay focused with people drifting in and out, getting ready for football practices, making themselves a coffee, asking me questions. I rarely, however, listen to music when writing. I get too drawn in to the sentiment of it. The only things I would listen to would be maybe The Dirty Three or The Necks or Xylouris White, because they have a different kind of effect on me. If I fancy a change of scene I just walk into the next room – look around – and then come back again.

On favourite bookshops

I think most people in Belfast would say No Alibis. It’s a brilliant bookshop and David, the owner, is knowledgeable and generous. Customers are treated with a lot of care and courtesy. I also enjoy going around second-hand bookshops like Keats and Chapman on North Street. I like the bookshelves in the charity shops on the Cregagh Road. Sometimes the books there can be pretty esoteric and it’s fun to try to imagine the character who left in the job lot of stuff on Leigh Hunt, or the person who deposited the massive stack of Denis Wheatley occult titles.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I am looking forward to the new David Keenan book, For the Good Times. I loved his previous novel, This is Memorial Device about post-punk Airdrie. I couldn’t believe it when I heard that his new book was set in Belfast. It’s really such an exciting prospect. I’m also looking forward to Tim MacGabhann’s Mexican thriller, Call Him Mine. I’m a few pages into Robin Robertson’s noir epic The Long Take, and I’m loving it. I intend to re-read Like by Ali Smith, a book I loved when it came out twenty years ago. I re-read stuff now and again to check if I’ve changed. I loved Pechorin in Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time as an eighteen-year-old, but when I re-read it not so long ago, I couldn’t stand him. I also anticipate books that don’t exist, like a great one on Girlschool. There’s been a lot of recent focus on women in punk and that’s good, but I think Girlschool, the heavy metal band, were operating in a much more challenging genre in relation to gender roles.

On escapes

I don’t really go anywhere to escape because I am quite happy where I am. I suppose my Friday nights are pretty escapist, but within my own kitchen. I drink tequila and orange, eat pistachio nuts and listen to Exile On Main Street. I always skip the same couple of tracks that I don’t like. I do go once or twice a year to Amsterdam where I love staying in De Pijp or the Jordaan. My favourite thing there is to sit in a bar where there’s a lot of dark wood and amber light, and maybe a big vase of flowers in the window. Back home, I also like to lie in the bath in the dark when it’s raining outside.

On Sweet Home’s genesis

I took part in The Stinging Fly six-month fiction workshop, but I had no particular expectation of anything happening beyond, hopefully, getting better at writing. At the end of the course however, one of my stories, ‘To All Their Dues’, was published in the magazine. It was the first thing that I had ever had in print. One evening shortly after, I got an email from Declan Meade of The Stinging Fly saying that he would be interested in possibly working on a collection. (I have that email saved in my archive folder and would still look at it on occasion.) At that point things were fairly tentative I suppose, but I knew that I was being given a tremendous opportunity. From then on, I tried to write one 6,000 word story a month and more or less managed to do that for a year. During that time a few stories made their way into different things, a couple into The Stinging Fly, and one – the story ‘Locksmiths’ I submitted to try to get on The Stinging Fly course – made it into Female Lines.

On the short story collection

I keep lifting my book up and setting it down, then lifting it up again. I think it is indeed beautifully produced, whatever anyone might make of the stories.

In some ways, I think short stories should be popular, because they are our natural mode.  When you meet a friend for a drink or a coffee, essentially most of the time you are trading short stories. People make narrative decisions all the time without even realising: you know, telling a past narrative in present tense, altering chronology so that an anecdote is more engaging, positioning themselves as an omniscient presence with access to everyone’s thoughts even though in reality they hadn’t a clue.

I don’t agree with those who say they have become popular in a time-poor society because they are quicker to read. Many novels are conveniently chunked into chapters and there is often no need to recalibrate to different worlds in the way you might be required to do when reading short stories. I’ve recently read Jamel Brinkley’s collection and it’s fantastic, but I’ve finished a couple of novels in the time that it’s taken me to complete it. In short, I think short stories are a slow reading experience, and all the better for that. Three collections I like are Nail and Other Stories by Laura Hird, Tongues of Flame by Mary Ward Brown and Collected Short Stories by Jean Rhys.

On lessons

I usually think of myself as fairly self-contained. I find it quite easy to spend long periods on projects that involve only me. But I’ve really enjoyed meeting the many great individuals that Sweet Home has brought my way. I’ve encountered a lot of kindness and generosity. Nothing has been unpleasant as such, but what I would say is that I can’t stand people trying to act the big man. People banging on about their achievements and making great claims for themselves, I find quite ridiculous. Yet I have ended up doing precisely just that at times.

On what’s next

Well, I have stories coming up in Winter Papers, the anthology We’ll Never Have Paris, edited by Andrew Gallix, and Being Various: New Irish Short Stories edited by Lucy Caldwell. I’m working on more short stories and a novel about a Maoist cult. It’ll be funny and appalling, hopefully.

@SophieGrenham

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