"Gimme Shelter"

Wendy Erskine on voice & narrative







Interview conducted during UK lockdown, May 2020.
You can find out more about Wendy's brilliant collection of stories right here: Sweet Home







TCB:
Your work is embedded in the real and the everyday, but the stories aren’t anchored to a conventional / realist narrative style – there are shifts in focalizing character, in time, the structure can be fragmentary, or in the case of Gil Courtney, something wholly unconventional for the short story form. How do you go about conceiving of the right narrative mode for a particular story?

WE:
Yeah, I’m interested in the real and quotidian – and I’m aware that what those things are to me may not be what they are to others – but I’m not really committed to one style. Initially I tend to write a story in a mostly linear way, in whatever manner is most fun to me at the time – could be first person, could be 3rd – could be a mixture. When I have worked out what the story is actually about, I then think about form and what’s going to work most effectively - the right narrative mode, as you say. The only thing I totally rule out is 2nd person. I feel like I’m writing a rubbish version of ‘Positively 4th Street’ when I try that. So, yeah, maybe I’ll decide a roving consciousness is the way to tell a story where I don’t want to privilege the point of view of any one of the four central characters over the others. ‘Sweet Home’ is like that. For something like ‘Locksmiths’, I was aiming for a 1st person narration where the vibe was ‘regulated hatred’; it’s never voiced but comes through in the tone. With ‘Gil Courtney’, it was originally a much longer story, maybe about 15,000 words. I’d written it from all different perspectives, over and over, and couldn’t get it right. When form and subject coalesced - the list format that you would get in Smash Hits or some other music mag - it fell into place really quickly. I wrote it in one night and was on a total high because I knew that it worked, finally.

I would want to say that I don’t sit down in a special spot with an expensive mezcal or something, going ok, so today I choose a narrative structure from the panoply at my disposal. It’s not really like that. It just happens.


That said, I think I’m a pretty technical kinda writer although it may not look like it to everyone. Somebody asked me not so long ago if I edited my stories. They weren’t trying to be rude. I know what they meant. They seem straightforward. I wanted to appropriate Dolly Parton and say, baby, it takes a lot of money and effort to look this cheap! But I didn’t. I just said something bland and polite. I’m a pussy ass.


TCB:
There’s a great detail in the story Sweet Home regarding the peripheral character Dale:

“Last night had been alright but Bucky wished he hadn’t said to Dale to come along. So I just turned round and I says. Most of Dale’s life seemed to have been spent just turning round.”

This reminds me of Flannery O’Connor, where a sense of a character is often expressed not by direct description, but by a phrase they use or a gesture they make. I feel that I can imagine a lot about Dale’s life and personality simply from the knowledge that he over-uses that phrase (and now know more about the focalizing character from his perception of Dale also). How important was harnessing everyday phrases and speech patterns to your writing?

WE:
How brilliant that you paid attention to Dale. Generally this whole aspect is so important to me. With Dale, I wanted to create the sense that here was a guy who got on like a total Charlie Big Bananas. I felt like establishing that quickly and that particular phrase did that for me, in my opinion. Just generally, speech patterns, cadences, syntax, rhythms are all really important. I hate it in a novel where a 14 year old girl has the same speech style as a 55 year old man. I don’t do stylised dialogue nor do I do epigrammatic wit, although I can enjoy those things when others produce it well. Generally I am needing to mess up speech – introduce circumlocutions, non-fluency features, repetition. Years ago I used to work in Whiteinch and there was a guy there who always said things were ‘a Catch 22 situation.’ Thing was, he didn’t really know what it meant and so applied it to anything that was slightly negative. You know, he missed his bus and it was a Catch 22 situation. Somebody nicked his coat and it was a Catch 22 situation. And everyone understood that that was how he used that comment and just let him get on with it. No one would have remarked on it, or said, pal, that’s totally wrong. And so that little phrase became an index of his relationship with everyone else and also his own character. He liked using it because it sounded good. Just generally I suppose, I like the power of quite ordinary words, Buddy Holly lyrics, say. That’ll be the day. Think it over. One day I was in a shopping centre and the woman in front of me had a child in a really nice hand-knit cardigan. I said, that’s a lovely cardigan. And the woman replied, yeah her other granny knit her that. I thought, jeez. I understand a lot about the family dynamic there, through that word ‘other.’

TCB:
Some of your stories begin from a kind of removed perspective, where the narrator will discuss and contextualize before narrowing in on particular characters – I’m thinking of the considerations of banks, bailiffs and locks in Locksmiths, the detailing of different types of salon in All Their Dues, and the focus on architecture and shrubbery that frames the story of Sweet Home. Was this used to situate your stories and characters within the specific context of Belfast as you know it, to examine the place itself as much as individual characters, in the style of Dubliners? Or does this structure come from a different aesthetic or technical perspective?

WE:
Sometimes I just like it to be strictly business, let’s get started in medias res. But other times I do go for the approach you say. So many Romantic and gothic writers do this thing where there is a bridge between the action of the story and the initial opening, especially if the story is going to be a bit lurid or bizarre. The antique traveller in ‘Ozymandias’ or the person who came across the random knight in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, the individual presenting a manuscript they have apparently discovered. It’s quasi-factual, and as such, adds to the veracity of the story – even though we know of course it’s just a set up. Sometimes though, I’ll have a more specific purpose, In ‘Sweet Home’, the idea was that, sure, there’s death and heartbreak and human mess in the story, but viewed against the grand sweep of time this is fairly inconsequential. The days pass, the plants continue to grow, the buildings outlast us. The framing device at the beginning and end is there to make that clear.

The Belfast context is certainly really important. The action in the collection is pretty circumscribed. It all takes place within a couple of streets really. I think there’s certainly an examination of place in terms of its culture and history, its centrifugal forces. But at the same time, these people in east Belfast are not a breed apart, they’re not some kind of strange species. What I am concerned with is the following: loss, alienation; death; despair; powerless. No one place has the monopoly on this stuff. Such is life.


TCB:
Stories such as Lady and Dog and Locksmiths end with the focalizing characters having some fairly dark thoughts about what to do next (more so in Lady and Dog, it should be said), but the text doesn’t run on to reveal if these ideas were actually turned into action. Do you think these characters have the capacity to enact these things within their reality, or are they just passing, idle self-delusions? Do you think inner dilemma is more important to fiction than outward action and event?

WE:
Both can be interesting. Both worlds can be equally intense, the interior and the outward. I’m happy with narratives where action is minimal but characters’ inner lives are represented richly (and by that I mean that there are not obsessed with narcissistic non-problems) but also stories where lots happens and interiority is minimal. It’s all good. But I think here that your question really deals with endings and how they operate. A shutdown ending can be really satisfying of course, but I kind of prefer where there is a future dimension beyond the story, where the reader is kind of co-opted into supplying or creating meaning. It’s the highest compliment really, when someone says, oh I think that such and such happened afterwards to Paula from ‘Arab States’. They’ve taken part in a collaborative creative process and you don’t get that if you nail everything down. So in terms of those stories, ‘Lady and Dog’ and ‘Locksmiths’, I have my ideas about what happens after, and you will have your ideas. But the really great thing here is that my ideas have no more authority than yours in relation to this future time, even though I wrote the story.

TCB:
Presumably the title Lady and Dog is adapted from Chekhov’s most famous story, The Lady with the Pet Dog? The stories are very different, although both do rely on thoughts of love as experienced in both the past and the present. Is your story a homage to Chekhov’s? I read you say elsewhere that the title story Sweet Home was based on his story, New Villa. Is Chekhov the writer that you consider your main influence? Which other writers would you say were inspirational while writing this collection?

WE:
I suppose that people, if they read at all, read for different sorts of reasons, all of them valid: for escape, for affirmation, to be horrified, to be turned on, to be educated, to be comforted, to be confronted with what they can never experience in real life. When I read Chekhov, more than maybe any other writer, I feel that my mind has been hotwired. There are things that I have thought or ways that I have behaved that I see on the page in front of me. And so that’s why I enjoy him, rather than from a tyro perspective, although there is always plenty to learn. With ‘Lady and Dog’, I thought, let’s take some of the elements – older people, affairs, a woman walking with a dog – and reconfigure them. The ending of the Chekhov story is one of my favourites of any story: so speculative, so adult. My story is kind of grand guignol in comparison. ‘Sweet Home’ is basically a homage to ‘New Villa’, definitely. The whole structure is the same. Chekhov is really important, but if you write you are basically responding to everything you have ever read, to a greater or lesser extent, and not just that, but song lyrics, newspapers, films, TV, music, conversations with taxi drivers and so on. I’ll give you an example. There was an interview with Cath Carroll in the NME in the mid-80s or so that has stayed in mind, although I have deliberately never read it since then. The sentiment that came across in parts of that interview is something that has influenced the mood of some of my stories much more than say, my reading of contemporary American women short story writers or whatever. I think about that interview when I want to create a certain sense of things. Two books that are kinda seared into my consciousness are Light in August by William Faulkner and Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker. I was influenced by Gordon Burn, basically everything by him. I think a lot of the stuff that I read when I was about 18 to 25 and had moved to Glasgow has stayed with me. Secretly, I like to think of myself as a Rebel Inc kinda writer, but too late.

TCB:
I found the stories Inakeen and Arab States: Mind and Narrative to be very poignant – the central characters seem lost within their lives, they want to take a risk to find or feel something, to get close to other people, but the desire is no more pronounced than that, just a vague longing, and we see the negative impact this can have. Do you know the fate of your characters before you set out to write, or does this only become clear/inevitable during the process?

WE:
Very occasionally I do, but mostly I don’t. I spend a lot of time getting to know the characters. In your interview with David Keenan, he talks about this, how he lets the characters talk, have their own way, behave how they want, and how he would ‘quickly get out of the way.’ I do that too, just the way David says. He puts it brilliantly. It’s not like one of these creative writing exercises where you have to say oh what would your character order in a restaurant, what football team they support. It’s more profound than that. It’s getting to know the people, letting them present themselves in whatever way they want. I’m making it sound quasi-mystical but in a way it is quite transcendental. They come from nowhere and if you listen to them carefully enough they will shape the story, It’s a part that I really adore, when you are getting to know them. It’s like you are falling in love with each and every one of them a little bit. There are also characters who I think are maybe going to be peripheral who end up being significant, and vice versa. I’m not saying that I am seized by some powerful force and have no control over anything. I do, obviously. But I don’t want to work in a really schematic way. There’s certain characters that I keep trying to bring into things, but they don’t work out.

TCB:
Many of the stories in the collection exist on several different planes of time, where the character’s present is being affected by recent events, or by more deep-lying memories. Was this something that was difficult to fuse together from a technical standpoint? Do you write the stories in a linear fashion, or are different sections written separately then integrated/arranged?

WE:
Objective and subjective time never ceases to amaze me: that one hour doing something you adore flying quicker than the five minutes of grind. The elasticity of it. And I’m always conscious of how at any point we are experiencing simultaneously several time periods. You know, as you are reading this in real time, you are maybe also thinking about something that happened to you a week ago. Like, wasn’t that guy a total dick? And maybe you are also thinking about something you have to do later on. Maybe there’s a piece of music playing that is also partially transporting you to a time when you lived somewhere else, lived with another person. You can remember the way they used to kiss you. So yeah, time is contingent and complex and elastic and so, I nearly always want to run about three different time lines: maybe a present, a recent past and then a more distant past. I just write whatever comes along, in my initial stage. I just write in a big sweep, with everything happening simultaneously almost, just as I experience it And then after I start thinking about what, for the benefit of the story, needs to be told when, or told at all. I don’t really like backstory as a concept. Why privilege the present necessarily? It’s true that moving between the different times needs to be done with an amount of care, because otherwise it can seem really clumsy, abrupt. The switches need to be imperceptible like a good mix. There needs to be connections between the elements, needs to be elision.

TCB:
The story about Gil Courtney doesn’t feature him directly at all – there is a quote from him taken from an old music magazine, but other than that he’s a voiceless presence in the text. I’m aware that the structure of the story itself is taken from old music magazine features – were you using this to question the extent to which fictional characters can be ‘known’? Do you feel that we can know characters in a way that’s more meaningful than reading through an arrangement of details and fragments?

WE:
I think that fictional characters are generally much more known than anyone in real life. Some fictional characters are exhaustingly detailed in terms of their every thought and move. Whereas in real life people are essentially unknowable. They are filled with strange longings and desires, and hopes never voiced. I’ve known that for a long time. And people that go around saying things like, ‘with me what you see is what you get’ or ‘I call a spade a spade;’ well, they’re the most opaque.

Gil Courtney is interesting because, as you say, there is not much actually from him at all. Yet from that book, he is the one character that people engage with and think is actually real. Part of that comes from the way the story is written, in supposed ‘facts’, the word fact still seeming to have some kind of authority even in this post-truth era. People have said they have heard his records. A guy said, yeah, I got the album on Discogs but I didn’t think it was all that. People have gone to see where Gil Courtney used to live. I wove in loads of real stuff to make it seem convincing. Even the name was a blend of Courtney Love, Courtney Barnett, Gil Scott Heron and so on. People felt that he was very knowable as well because he was a kind of character that a lot of people feel sympathetic towards: the person who could have made it but, because of bad luck and/or personal frailty, didn’t.


Specificity is something I think about. When you supply lots of specifics you end up shutting a reader out in the sense that they cannot include what they might like to supply themselves. I suppose that’s why people enjoy stuff like, I don’t know, Wonderwall or something. The lyrics are meaningless in a way so you can deposit in them whatever you want. But this all needs to be negotiated pretty carefully. I am trying to get a balance. Enough that you feel these characters are real. Not too much so a reader isn’t collaborating. Not so little that we descend into a chasm of ‘you’re my baby don’t mean maybe’ emptiness.


TCB:
You’ve spoken before on the influence of music on ‘Sweet Home’, where characters and stories have been suggested or inspired by different musicians and songs. Is music a crucial part of your creative process?

WE:
I never listen to music in the background when I’m writing because it is too distracting. It’s funny, because I am happy to write in the kitchen with people drifting in and out, asking me questions about what’s for tea, asking me when I’m going down to the shops. I can zone all of that out quite easily but I get too caught up in the sentiment of a song, or a beat or whatever. But say I want a character to feel really intense about someone, I’ll stop, listen to Afterglow by the Small Faces, and then I can write it with a bit more precision. Black Sail, the character from Inakeen, was inspired by the song Black Sail from a band from Seattle called Chastity Belt. The title of the collection, Sweet Home, was a little reference to Sweet Home Alabama. The song is an interesting one, layered with meaning. I wanted to have a quotation from Merry Clayton who sang backing vocals on it at as the epigraph to the book, where she says that Alabama was not sweet home for so many people. She didn’t really want to perform on it. Her husband, the jazz musician, Curtis Amy said she should do it and she should sing the shit out of it. Which she did. Merry Clayton also did the amazing vocals on Gimme Shelter. On reflection, I could just as easily have called the book Gimme Shelter.

But the main thing, really, is that music should just be part of the fabric of life as far as I’m concerned. You know, Frankie Knuckles, ‘Your Love’ is played at a guy’s funeral and his mum doesn’t think it’s appropriate; a guy goes to a blues festival; a man and the fella who’s doing his garden listen to some dub reggae. I’m not interested in trying to look cool. I just want music to be part of what these people experience.


TCB:
I think I’m right in saying that your breakthrough in writing was via a course offered by Stinging Fly, and they were your first publisher as well – can you tell us a little about that process, and how much of an impact Stinging Fly has had on your writing life and on short fiction in Ireland?

WE:
Well basically I had one afternoon off work for a year and I wanted to do something with that time. I saw that Stinging Fly ran a six month course on a Monday night and I signed up to do that. To get on the course you had to submit a piece of writing and I wrote the story Locksmiths. I’d never really written a short story before apart from one about young girls killing a paedophile. It was a kind of Paula Rego thing. I entered it in a competition in a glossy Northern Ireland mag, a sort of Northern Ireland version of Hello. It wasn’t really what they were looking for. I am absolutely aware that, were it not for Stinging Fly, I wouldn’t ever have had a word published. I did the course with Sean O’Reilly who is such a great teacher, in addition to being a great writer. Stinging Fly, for people who have never heard of it, has produced a lit mag for over 20 years and then for 15 years it has also been a publisher. It is essentially one person, Declan Meade. He is so unassuming but connected to so much great writing that comes out of Ireland.

At the end of the course I got a story published in the Stinging Fly magazine. That was the first thing I had ever had in print. It was ‘To All Their Dues.’ As a result of that, Declan sent me an email saying that he would be interested in doing a collection with me. That was a great email to get. I have it saved on my phone and still look at it, now and then. I knew that this was an enormous opportunity and so I thought, I’ll try to write a story a month for a year. And that is what I did, more or less. People said, oh your life is going to change when your book comes out. I thought that was total nonsense at the time, and indeed I was right to think that. My life hasn’t changed in any profound way at all other than I have got to meet and work with some brilliant people that I wouldn’t ever have encountered otherwise.


TCB:
Are you working on new fiction at the moment? I’ve seen a short story about a Chinese calendar and a novel about a Maoist cult mentioned online …

WE:
I am always working on stuff. I’ve written non-fiction about body builders, teenage sons, satanic metal, Dutch painting, sculpture. And I have written quite a few stories too. A couple are coming out with Rough Trade Books, and I have also got other projects on the go. I am going to do a new book of short stories too. There’s a guy I read about in the paper who used his artificial limb as a bong. I have got a character who is kind of his spiritual brother. But I haven’t found the right story for him yet. Still trying with that one. The Chinese calendar story is completed. And the Maoist cult is a very long story, never published. It’s one of my favourites though.

TCB:
We’ll end by asking, for the benefit of our readers, what are some of your favourite writers, stories, or novels?

WE:
Just off the top of my head: Hellfire by Nick Tosches; The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner; Mr Alfred MA by George Friel; Diary of a Rock and Roll Star by Ian Hunter; This is the Place to Be by Lara Pawson; Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth; Good Behaviour by Molly Keane; Symphonie Pastorale by Andre Gide; My Childhood by Maxim Gorky; Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig; Radetsky March by Joseph Roth; Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh; And on Piano by Julian Dawson; Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman; Collected Gerald Manley Hopkins, Periodic Table by Primo Levi, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; Women are the Scourge of the Earth by Frances Molloy; Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon; The High Lonesome by Barry Hannah.

Some of my favourite writers at present are June Caldwell, Adelle Stripe, Benjamin Myers; David Keenan; Linda Mannheim, Fernando Sdrigotti, David Hayden, Darragh McCausland, Nicole Flattery, Graeme Armstrong, Chris Power, Ronan Hession, Kerri ni Dochartaigh, Wayne Holloway, Eley Williams, Jan Carson, Lee Rourke, Kevin Boniface, Vicky Grut.


Favourite stories are ‘Uncle Willy’ by William Faulkner; ‘The Barbecue’ by Mary Ward Brown; ‘Imaginary Friends’ by Laura Hird’; ‘Blood’ by Janice Galloway. These are all great stories. ●











Wendy Erskine lives in Belfast. Her work has been published in The Stinging Fly, Winter Papers, Female Lines: New Writing from Northern Ireland and Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber) and read on BBC Radio 4. Her first collection, SWEET HOME, was published by Stinging Fly in 2018 and by Picador in 2019. //// You can follow Wendy on Twitter via: @WednesdayErskin ////








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