Wendy Erskine: ‘There’s a real high that comes from having written a short story’

The Belfast-based writer’s new collection, Dance Move, is packed with life and colour


“If you didn’t like Sweet Home, you’re not going to like this book,” says Belfast-based writer Wendy Erskine. Before her publisher pops a gasket, I’d better add that she is joking, but also serious. A better way of putting it might be that if you liked her first collection of stories, Sweet Home – and it seems everyone did, as it won or was shortlisted or longlisted for five prizes, and optioned for a TV drama series – then you’ll like her new one, Dance Move, which is out this month.

We are talking in a cafe at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, just beside Queen’s University, where – another sign of her acclaim -–Erskine has recently been appointed to a fellowship at the Seamus Heaney Centre.

“Basically the Seamus Heaney fellows work with students and audiences to explore creative writing in all its forms. I’ll be working with postgrad creative writing students and also doing a community project.”

But back to why people might feel the same way about Dance Move as about Sweet Home.

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“I’m still interested in exactly the same things,” she explains. This is not uncommon: many writers address the same themes throughout their career, with the perspective shifting. In fact, it reminds me that although Erskine’s first book was published in 2018, I’d been reading her perhaps a decade before that, when she wrote a blog called Blue Lamp Disco.

She laughs. “You were one of the few people who was interested in that. There was you and there was the writer John Niven. But looking back on that now, it was a kind of creative flex, it was visual as much as it was writing. I had written a lot for my own amusement, but that was me starting to get into some sort of creative activity, and some of the things I was interested in when I was writing my blog are the things I’m interested in now.”

Human comedy

It may not sound like much, given it’s only February, to say that Dance Move has given me as much pleasure as any book I’ve read this year, but I expect that still to be true in December. It’s full of life, drama, tragedy, conflict and wit – the whole human comedy.

That whole idea of producing art, a song or whatever, and it being taken up by people you disagree with ideologically or whose actions are reprehensible, that interests me

And it’s true that the same things she was interested in back in her blogging days are still a preoccupation. One of these might be summed up in the term “nostalgie de la boue” – an attraction to the grim and low, and which gives its title to one of the best stories in the book, Nostalgie (originally commissioned by this newspaper). In it, a former one-hit wonder singer called Drew is paid handsomely to sing his old song for a group of people he would despise if he knew their history.

“That whole idea of producing some sort of art, a song or whatever, and it being taken up by people you disagree with ideologically or whose actions are absolutely reprehensible, is something that interests me. Whether it’s Springsteen with Born in the USA . . .” – which was adopted in campaigns by US Republicans c unaware it was a savage attack on their policies. Or, I suggest, Tina Turner with Simply the Best, which north of the Border became, weirdly, the signature song for loyalist paramilitaries. “That’s exactly it!”

It’s important to say, though, that Dance Move is not a grim book – it’s full of real life, and frequently very funny. In the title story, when middle-aged Kate watches one of her daughter’s friends gyrating sexually in their garden, she reflects that “that decking had been put down by Kate’s dad. That made it worse.” In Golem, a brilliant story of two couples and their complex relationship to one another, a woman fantasises about sex on her mother’s tombstone (“Sorry, Noreen!”).

Darkness

Yet when Sweet Home was reviewed, it was often discussed by highlighting the darkness, and focusing on the “downtrodden” and “mundane” elements of the characters’ lives, suggesting that they were stuck or despairing. Yet, I say to Erskine, I didn’t see Dance Move that way: it’s bright and bristling with life in all its colours.

“Well, I asked for the William Blake quote from Auguries of Innocence to be used as the epigraph for the book. ‘Joy and woe are woven fine/ A clothing for the soul divine.’ In every story I’m trying to achieve a balance between difficulties, the ‘stuckness’ that people have talked about before, but also humour and a kind of joy in life at the same time.

“Sometimes I think people get the wrong idea. You hear a lot of the time that [my stories] are dealing with ordinary people, and I think, where are the extraordinary people? Where is it they live? And sometimes people say to me, do you think you’ll be able to move [your stories] beyond east Belfast? And to me that’s an absolutely bizarre thing for someone to say, because it suggests that lives are more interesting, more complex, richer elsewhere.”

I do teach creative writing but I'm not one of these Jean Brodie-style personality teachers, wanting to talk about myself, and the kids wouldn't be interested

Erskine began writing fiction a number of years ago when she “had one afternoon off work and I wanted to do something more useful than just mooching about and having a coffee somewhere. I saw that Stinging Fly magazine were running a six-month workshop but you had to submit a piece of work, and I’d never written anything sustained before. The blog was just very short form. And I was listening to [the radio], and I was re-grouting the bathroom floor and thinking about a Toni Morrison book, and that came together to create the story Locksmiths [in Sweet Home].”

Erskine submitted the story, won a place on the course, had another story (To All Their Dues) published in Stinging Fly, then joined its exceptional list of alumni – from Kevin Barry and Colin Barrett to Mary Costello and Claire-Louise Bennett – with a collection of stories published by the press.

Drama teacher

Speaking of that afternoon off work, I wonder if her job – Erskine is head of English and a drama teacher at a grammar school in east Belfast – has had any influence on her writing? “Probably not that much,” she says carefully. “I think the two things are fairly separate. I do teach creative writing but I’m not one of these Jean Brodie-style personality teachers, wanting to talk about myself, and the kids wouldn’t be particularly interested in what I’m doing.”

And Belfast and its environs seem at the moment to be a powerhouse for new fiction being published in both Ireland and the UK. Jan Carson, Lucy Caldwell, Louise Kennedy all have books out now or soon.

“I think there’s probably a greater appetite in hearing about writers from here,” Erskine says. “It’s almost that the Northern Ireland or north of Ireland experience is now being mediated on TV screens and people are familiar with it beyond the old narratives. But we shouldn’t forget how many brilliant writers, like Eoin McNamee, have been writing for decades about Northern Ireland.”

Carson, Caldwell, Kennedy and McNamee have all written novels. One of the striking features of some of the stories in Dance Move, like Golem or Cell (where a young woman from Belfast falls in with what appear to be political activists), have the amplitude of a novel; they’re absolutely packed with incident and emotion. It’s easy to imagine other writers padding them out to novel length. So, at the risk of repeating the “moving on from east Belfast” angle – her stories are cause enough for celebration – I wonder if Erskine has thought about a novel?

“It’s not that I don’t think I could write a novel,” she replies. “At some point I probably will. [But] I really love writing short stories. I love thinking up characters and plots and there’s a real high that comes from having written one. And it’s a high you can achieve monthly. And for me there’s been no career imperative to write a novel. I have a full-time job.

“But I kind of really like that – [similar to] someone like Rónán Hession. Or Wallace Stevens. Wonderful. I’m putting myself in the Wallace Stevens bracket!” And Philip Larkin too, who was librarian here at Queen’s University when he wrote his first mature collection.

“But when I say there’s no career imperative, that makes me sound like some dilettante Edwardian lady, who writes in their spare time, interested in doing some watercolours and some short story writing.” She concludes: “But I am deeply serious about what I do. I couldn’t take it more seriously.”

Dance Move is published by Stinging Fly Press