Author Wendy Erskine on her new short story collection Dance Move
David Roy speaks to author Wendy Erskine about Dance Move, her second collection of short stories and the follow-up to the award-winning Sweet Home...
"SOMETIMES, people regard the short story as your sort of 'rookie' start before you progress on to something else" observes Wendy Erskine on how her literary genre of choice is occasionally afforded less respect than long-form fiction.
Not that the Belfast-based author is bothered by such opinions: "I enjoy doing them – so I've just done more of them," she says of her brand new collection, Dance Move. Published tomorrow by The Stinging Fly, this features 11 memorable new tales teeming with an eclectic selection of authentically drawn characters who inhabit a variety of tangibly described worlds.
Readers will meet the likes of glamorous Belfast housewife Mrs Dallesandro, 23-years married to her top lawyer trophy husband yet still daydreaming about teenage trysts during furtive trips to a tacky tanning salon; aging one-hit-wonder Drew Lord Haig, whose delight at landing a well-paid private function 'back home' curdles when he discovers the chilling truth behind why this crowd know every word to one of his old b-sides; and Roberta, whose job as a cleaner for a shady landlord finds her forging a tender maternal bond with a vulnerable child.
Meanwhile, the title story, Dance Move, offers a glimpse into the tense world of Kate, an uptight Belfast parent who's deeply jealous of her daughter Clara's carefree teenhood. Matters come to a head at an under-18 rave – but maybe there's still time for Kate to cut (foot)loose her baggage.
The stories in Dance Move have the same irresistibly 'moreish' quality which helped make 2018's debut collection Sweet Home such a hit.
Similar to that 2020 Butler Literary Award-winner, each instalment here took Erskine around a month to finish – and she likes to live with her initial ideas for a while before seeing where they lead to on the page.
"Normally, I don't put pen to paper for a few weeks," explains the author, who lives in the east Belfast she so often writes about and also teaches English and Drama at Strathearn Grammar.
"Basically, I'm thinking about an idea and characters and trying to get to know the people. It sounds a bit bizarre – because, obviously, how can you get to know people who don't exist? – but it's just trying to get them into view, really.
"Mostly, what I'm trying to do as much as I can is to write about people who feel like real people, who are kind of complex. Hopefully, there are kind of shades there, because in real life, complex people are going to be vaguely contradictory, multi-faceted and quite nuanced."
Of course, character is not always Erskine's starting point: on occasion, the germ of an idea can appear in the most fleeting manner.
She says: "Sometimes it can be a song, or a little phrase that I've heard somebody use [which provides inspiration]. Sometimes it can even be another story by somebody else that I've read which sets off a whole chain of thoughts for me."
Next comes the initial exploratory phase of writing, followed by a protracted whittling process.
"First, I always write a draft that's really really long – maybe 20,000 words," explains Erskine, who embarked on her career as an acclaimed short story writer after enrolling in a weekly creative fiction course offered by respected Dublin-based literary organisation The Stinging Fly – now her Irish publisher.
"It's a lot of fun to do because you are writing without restrictions. Obviously, I am writing lots more than I actually need and I can be moving all over the place – between different locales or even shifting narrative style the whole way through it.
"Then, after that, I just try to look at it really coolly and clinically and kind of think 'is there anything there, what am I actually trying to do or say here?'"
At this point, it seems that the fictional figure or original idea which provided that initial spark of inspiration for Erskine may not necessarily end up as the focal point of the story going forward, as she explains.
"That happens to me all the time – I'll think what I'm writing is one thing and then whenever I read it back, I'll discover that someone who is really quite peripheral is where the real interest lies, while someone who I thought was quite central is really not all that important at all.
"You kind of need to be flexible, to kind of let the story work itself out as opposed to me being really schematic from the start."
There can also be real autobiographical inspiration behind Erskine's work: for example, with Gloria and Max, a new story in which a short car journey takes an unexpected turn for two strangers on their way to a Christian film festival.
"That was inspired by a time when I actually got a lift to a Christian film festival with a visiting professor," she reveals.
"Now, he was absolutely nothing like the guy in the story and I am 100 per cent not Gloria, but just that idea of being in a car with a stranger and just the kind of relationship that develops even just over the duration of a short journey – that's something interesting."
Sadly, one amusing detail of this real life episode somehow did not make it into the fictionalised version:
"This guy was an expert on [Italian director] Pasolini but he'd never heard of Wagon Wheel biscuits before – I found that incredible," laughs the author.
She adds: "With the story Nostalgie [starring the aforementioned faded pop star, Drew Lord Haig], I was thinking about what happens if people take up your work as meaning something particular to them, which perhaps you find really abhorrent – as has happened with Bruce Springsteen and Born In The USA."
Despite Sweet Home's success, Erskine admits to experiencing pangs of self-doubt when the process of putting together its follow-up initially began.
"When it came time to start working on a new collection, for the first couple of stories I was kind of thinking 'are these as good?'," she admits.
"I wondered if I was covering the same ground or the same ideas again. Initially, that was a bit off-putting, because I would stop and I would start – and then you just realise that there's no point thinking like that otherwise no-one would ever do anything.
"I just kind of thought 'wise up and just get on with it'."
Having maintained her teaching career in parallel with her writing, the Belfast author explains why she gets just as much out of being an educator as a creative.
"I've been a teacher since 1993 and I really, really enjoy it as a job," enthuses Erskine, who taught English in Glasgow and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne before moving home to Belfast in the late 1990s.
"Every day there's going to be something that's going to be interesting. And, although it sounds tediously worthy, the teaching is not about me – I'm there to provide the kids with a good experience in terms of their own writing and how they understand texts."
Since the publication of Sweet Home, much has been made of the Belfast-centric settings of her stories, usually with the underlying implication that Erskine should endeavour to 'move on' to explore the wider world at some point.
However, such 'advice' does not sit well with her.
"Are they trying to suggest people have got richer, more complex lives somewhere else?," Erskine wonders.
"I just don't think that's the case – I think I could pick just one street in this area and be able to write for the rest of my life about it.
"So, I thought 'no, I will absolutely stay in east Belfast'."
As her readers are about to discover, that was definitely the right move.
:: Dance Move by Wendy Erskine is available from tomorrow, published by The Stinging Fly.