Love and Ennui in Fictional Belfast with Wendy Erskine
Wendy Erskine’s debut collection of short stories Sweet Home is a gorgeous, melancholy, and deeply evocative exploration of daily life in East Belfast. Fans of her work for the longest time, we were delighted to welcome her to Golden Hare Books as part of our Book Fringe line up. Wendy chatted to our very own manager Julie Danskin about the writing process, her interest in the underdog, and what she feels the short story genre offers, in what was a generous, honest, and insightful discussion about the mechanics and impetuses of fiction.
Julie began by asking Wendy about how she came to write these stories, and whether she would describe herself as a planner or a pants-er (someone who writes by the seat of their pants – a time honoured literary tradition). It turns out Wendy is a pants-er (one of us! one of us!): Wendy explained that she prefers to delay the actual writing down of the stories, instead carrying the characters and ideas around in her head until she can decide what to do with them. Wendy compared this to having change in your pocket, wandering the streets and debating what to spend it on: her stories would sometimes stay a month in development, with ideas fluctuating and initially peripheral characters claiming centre stage. This percolation, Wendy told us, is what gives her stories their depth and organic consideration of the everyday.
Wendy’s writing is certainly known for both those things. Holding up the gorgeous, newly published hardback, Julie read out a quote on the back of the dust jacket by Pulitzer Prize winning contemporary Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who describes the collection as “deft and depth-charged”. It’s possibly the most apt characterisation. Wendy’s short stories feature a density of character, plot, and emotion that extends far beyond their word count, reaching deep into people’s everyday lives. Julie, in complete agreement with Paul Muldoon, explained that for her, the stories of Sweet Home seem to contain the same amount of world as would be expected from a novel, which makes for an unexpected yet deeply rewarding reading experience.
This experience of depth was particularly important for Wendy given her focus on quotidian ennui. Wendy explained that when writing these stories, she was not interested in the epic events that can signal disaster, but rather the small, mundane acts that can make people’s lives fall apart. By depicting these moments with the depth and complexity normally accorded to more large-scale tragedies, Wendy felt she could finally give everyday acts the power and significance they deserve. This also went for the protagonists of her stories: everyday people from the homes, streets and cafés of East Belfast. These people are often cast as oddballs, Wendy pointed out, but aren’t they in fact all of us? That thing we sometimes perceive as weirdness, as marginality, is actually – Wendy told us – part of the fabric of our everyday.
We finished off with a short reading from Wendy’s short story “Last Supper”, the sixth story of Sweet Home, and a short question and answer session, where we chatted even more in-depth (as it were) about the short story genre, Belfast as a setting, and Wendy’s characters. Thank you so much to everyone who came and listened and talked with us, we had such a wonderful time! We’re off to re-read Wendy’s stories – in the meantime, make sure you check out the rest of our Book Fringe programme for other exciting fiction talks!