Wednesday 14 November 2018

'I want to deal with the biggest themes possible' - Wendy Erskine

Interview

Powerful: Erskine’s stories are shot through with dark humour and casual cruelties
Powerful: Erskine’s stories are shot through with dark humour and casual cruelties

Joanne Hayden

For Wendy Erskine, the journey to publication has been serendipitous. Three years ago, she was given one afternoon off each week from her job as a head of an English department in an East Belfast school. She thought carefully about how to use the free hours.

"I wanted to do something with the afternoon that was more than sit in a coffee shop reading a magazine," she tells me in the Dublin hotel where we meet.

In her twenties, she had written a novel that didn't get published. More recently, she had written a music-centred blog called BlueLampDisco, named after the teenage dance clubs run by the RUC community-relations branch. She knew she should probably try to write fiction again - but in much the same way as she knew she should probably try to go to the gym, she tells me.

Then she saw a post about a six-month writing course in Dublin run by literary magazine and publisher The Stinging Fly. At the time, she was re-grouting her bathroom floor. She was also in the middle of reading a Toni Morrison book where one character is due to collect another character from jail. To apply for the course, she had to submit a piece of fiction, so she wrote 'Locksmiths', a story about a young woman with a DIY habit who picks her mother up from prison.

She did the course, taught by the writer Sean O'Reilly, and the story is now part of Sweet Home, her debut collection, which has just been published by The Stinging Fly.

Shot through with dark humour, casual cruelties and hard-won moments of muted tenderness, the stories are beautifully nuanced, the characters memorable and fully formed. Geographically, it's quite a contained collection.

"I knew I was working on, in some respects, a small palette," Erskine says. "Within a couple of streets, really."

The Belfast she depicts has not featured much in fiction before, and partly because she pays such close attention to her characters and their habitats, her themes are universal and the impact of her work is profound.

The power of her writing also comes from what is withheld, from gaps that can push a reader to question their assumptions or need to pigeonhole. The words Catholic and Protestant don't really feature. Sometimes other markers point to characters' backgrounds: a young man goes to university on "the mainland," a "people's centre" has a Somme Society.

Some of the funniest scenes involve ideas of entrenched identity. A woman interviewing for a job on a phone-sex/fortune-telling line doesn't want to be pitched as Irish. "That's just too niche," the boss tells her, "loyalist psychic readings."

The most bigoted character is a primary school teacher, a tragi-comic figure who objects to Celtic lettering and refuses to eat green sweets. The Troubles are not absent but, in the main, the violence is in the background and in the past.

"I was very conscious of not wanting to have clichés," says Erskine. Born in 1968, she lived through the Troubles but the idea of cultural or political identity wasn't something she considered too much. Rather than thinking: "I'm a Protestant," she says she would more have thought, "I'm a Velvet Underground fan."

She studied English at Glasgow University and worked in basic literacy education before doing a post-grad and returning home to East Belfast where she lives with her husband and two children.

Before the course, she thought writing short stories was akin to "working on Fabergé eggs... all terribly pristine and very disciplined and theoretical", but soon realised she could break the rules. She's good at subverting expectations and experimenting with form. The title story encompasses multiple points of view and another one, '77 Pop Facts You Didn't Know About Gil Courtney' is written in bullet points as though for a magazine.

Before she writes a word, Erskine does a lot of musing.

"I'm not interested in ridiculing people at all, so these characters, they've been living with me for at least a month. I mean, my kids go crazy, they say, 'You're thinking about it all the time, we can just see you staring off'."

Gil Courtney is a rock 'n' roll casualty and most of her characters are outsiders: poor, grieving, lonely, damaged - surviving rather than prospering.

"I want to deal with the biggest themes possible," she says. "...what I mean is, I don't really want to write about two people in a bar wondering whether or not a guy's going to call them. I want to write about people who are on the point of collapse. I want to write about people who've faced major trauma or people who can't articulate how they feel, or are excluded."

Though Erskine doesn't think publication will change her life too much, initial responses to her work have been extremely positive - and interesting. Someone has already written an essay on 'Locksmiths', and people have talked to her about their favourite Gil Courtney album, not realising he's a fictional character. But the relationship with her readers is one she takes seriously.

"I just think, here's a person who's prepared to give me their time and it's a generosity that they're prepared to do that," she says, "and in return I don't want to waste their time so I'm not going to patronise them, I'm not going to spell things out, and I'm going try and make them feel something or other.

"If they feel tenderness towards a character, it's wonderful; if they're entertained, wonderful. I do want people to laugh. I do think that's important... but I also hope that people are moved."

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