Arts

Belfast's Wendy Erskine on debut short stories collection Sweet Home

Following the recent publication of Wendy Erskine's Sweet Home, a collection of short stories, the east Belfast teacher talks to Kelly Mc Allister about how she found herself writing a book during her one afternoon off a week and why her characters are so important

Belfast author Wendy Erskine's first collection of short stories was published earlier this year
Kelly McAllister

WHEN Wendy Erskine was given one afternoon a week off from teaching English at Strathearn grammar school in east Belfast in 2015, she never imagined that it would lead to her getting her own compilation of short stories published.

But upon deciding that she would spend her free time productively rather than watching TV or listening to music, Erskine decided to apply for a six-month writing course run by The Stinging Fly magazine in Dublin.

During her time on the course Erskine had a piece titled To All Their Dues published in the magazine. Not long after that The Stinging Fly's founder Declan Meade approached her about the possibility of putting a collection of her stories together.

Thus, To All Their Dues now features in the recently published Sweet Home, which has now – much to the author's surprise – been picked up internationally by Picador for publication in June 2019.

"It's great to think that more people are going to get to read it," Erskine says.

"I am delighted with the attention that it has got, it's been great. I wasn't really sure what to expect. I had no experience of anything like this whatsoever so I was just going to take whatever came along, really."

Sweet Home deals with the lives of ordinary people carrying out their mundane routines and at the same time trying to deal with a range of different problems.

"I'm not really drawn to grand and epic things," she says. "I want to write about people living their everyday lives, going to their jobs and doing their dishes or whatever but dealing with quite complex and profound sorts of issues. That's what I'm trying to get across."

Set in east Belfast, where Erskine has lived for the past 20 years, Sweet Home includes characters such as Kyle, a loyalist paramilitary who attacks the business of a beauty therapist who refuses to pay him protection money before visiting the grave of his brother as he struggles to cope with his grief.

Erskine insists that the inspiration for Kyle's character came from watching television.

"I had seen that type of character in films and I was always interested in looking at people that are powerful but in other circumstances or situations have diminished power," she says.

"I'm not interested in producing the sort of writing that's actually based on actual individuals; I want to be liberated from that."

Another character in the collection is failed musician Gil Courtney, whose story is told through 77 Pop Facts, – a structure very much influenced by the writer's love of Smash Hits magazine in her youth.

Despite none of the characters in her book being real, Erskine admits that Gil Courtney's character did cause some confusion.

"People have said that they weren't sure if he existed or not and I suppose that one is an unusual story in the respect that I am actually weaving in real people.

"There's mention of Van Morrison and there's mention of The Only Ones and other specific groups. I suppose there's so many people like that. You know, those people who almost made it.

"It's a recognisable troupe, you could say, that you encounter in literature and also in real life as well."

Admitting that she quite a bit of herself in the creation of each character, Erskine says that her characters are the key to any tale. Before she wrote each story, she spent a month beforehand thinking about its characters.

"While I was writing one story I would be thinking about the other story. If I went to a cafe, I would be thinking about where so and so might sit if they came here and what they would think about this particular cafe. Or I might be thinking in a shop, 'would Olga wear that type of dress?' or 'would Kyle be wearing trainers?'.

"I've got two kids and they would know when I would be doing this: they'd say to me 'you're not paying attention to me, you're thinking about one of those people from the books'.

"That happened quite a lot, you know."

Although the writer didn't have her first piece of work published until 2016, she did try her hand at writing when she was in her early 20s.

"I did try to write a novel once but it was really not very good and to be honest I was much more a reader than a writer," Erskine admits.

"I was much more interested in reading other people's really really good stuff than producing mediocre things myself."

With her new publication she hopes, above all, that readers enjoy the compilation of short stories no matter what themes they identify within it.

"I want people to feel that it has been something worthwhile to read. People have picked up so many different things and I don't mind as long as they find something that's worthwhile to read."

:: Sweet Home is available in paperback (£12.95) and hardback (£18.95) via Stingingfly.org

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