How a teacher’s book of short stories, all set in her native east Belfast and inspired by the likes of Smash Hits, is already one of the year’s standout debuts
Wendy Erskine, a mum-of-two, tells Una Brankin that being given an afternoon a week off work led to her writing a compelling, bittersweet collection
It’s certainly a quotation that catches the eye. On the back of Strathearn English teacher Wendy Erskine’s debut collection of short stories are these lines: ‘There was pain and there was passion and there was no God. Some people had to wait a lifetime to find out that sort of thing, had to study and read books, gaze up at the stars. But it had been made apparent to her when she was young, it had come all in a rush when someone was whacking her with a porno mag. You might never experience that intensity of revelation ever, ever again.’
If those reflections from one of her characters makes you want to dip inside, then all the better because Sweet Home, a series of stories set in Erskine’s native east Belfast, is set to be one of the standout publications of the year. Already it’s attracting positive reviews for its fresh and bittersweet tales of everyday life in an often cruel world.
Erskine has taught at Strathearn, an all-girls grammar school in east Belfast, for two decades.
The school is noted for its Songs of Praise prize-winning choir and its accomplished past pupils, among them businesswoman Margaret Mountford, Sir Alan Sugar’s former adviser on The Apprentice; Olympic swimmer Sycerika McMahon; newsreader Andrea Catherwood and award-winning playwright and novelist Lucy Caldwell.
But now it’s time for one of the Belmont Road school’s well-regarded teachers (4.45 stars on the online RateMyTeacher scale) to step into the limelight.
Heralded by a leading Irish broadsheet as “sweet, sad and complex stories of home”, Wendy’s book has also received high praise from none other than the author’s own past pupil, Lucy Caldwell, who won wide praise for her debut novel, ‘All The Beggars Riding’.
Other students of Wendy’s have gone on to be published, including the novelist and poet Sophia Blackwell, whom she taught in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, as well as Latifa Akay, Susanna Galbraith and Eva Isherwood Wallace — both of whom have appeared in the Belfast literary magazine, The Tangerine.
“Lucy has been wonderful — she was instrumental to my inclusion in Female Lines (the critically acclaimed 2017 anthology of stories by women from Northern Ireland),” says Wendy (50).
“I only taught her for A-level, which was analytical rather than creative, but she was an outstanding student. I really couldn’t take any credit in relation to the students who have gone on to have their writing published. The work they did with me was primarily analytical. They have their own creativity.”
As for her current pupils, Wendy describes them as eager to learn, although she admits it can be difficult to get them to embrace reading.
“Teenagers have short attention spans, my own kids included,” she says. “They’re not huge readers, they have other interests, and that’s fine. My teenage daughter has such a phenomenally different existence to mine at that age in the 1980s.
“I had a wonderful English teacher — she would devote one afternoon a week to creative writing, which I loved. One time, she put up a big picture of a giant redwood tree and we had to write a story based on it. Another time it was a Van Gogh fruit bowl. She was quite radical for her time.”
Teachers don’t feature in Sweet Home. Instead, there’s a reclusive cult-rock icon ending his days in the street where he was born; a lonely woman fascinated by her niqab-wearing neighbours; and a husband and wife enmeshed in the lives of the young couple they pay to do their cleaning and gardening.
The second story in the collection, Locksmiths, focuses on a woman getting into DIY as the Troubles rage on her doorstep: “Home improvement is, by its nature, optimistic,” as the narrator notes.
“Locksmiths was inspired by what I was doing at the time, which was re-grouting a bathroom floor,” Wendy explains. “That, combined with an episode from my reading at the time, God Bless the Child by Toni Morrison, gave me the idea for the story.
“I’m interested in people on the side-lines, those who aren’t the centre of attention, the lives quietly lived. There are plenty of characters like that in the collection. I also have a soft spot for Barry in The Soul Has No Skin. I appreciate his stoicism.”
One of her first attempts at short fiction, Locksmiths secured Wendy a place in 2015 on a six-month workshop at the Irish Writers Centre, a lofty Georgian edifice on Dublin’s Parnell Square.
Earlier that year, she had been given an afternoon off work each week, and rather than devote time to her usual activities of “lounging around reading books and magazines, drinking coffees and watching YouTube videos — which I love”, she decided to try her hand at writing.
Having read about The Stinging Fly magazine’s six-month fiction workshop on Facebook, she wrote Locksmiths to win a place on the course.
“I got the train there and back, my mind buzzing the whole way,” she recalls. “I’ve only ever been to Dublin on writing-related trips. It’s thrilling. I’m a real urbanite — I love concrete. I’m not one for going for walks in forests. I’ve always loved Belfast, too.”
On the course, Wendy wrote the short story To All Their Dues, which was included in The Stinging Fly summer 2016 magazine. The first piece of writing she ever had published, it focuses on a fledgling beauty therapist whose premises are attacked by loyalists demanding protection money. Acutely observed (Lucia Berlin springs to mind) the writing feels so real that it begs the question: is the story based on a real incident? Do paramilitaries still extort small business people in east Belfast?
“I don’t know, I’m not able to tell you,” she demurs. “The characters are not real people. They don’t exist as individuals in a real world. People think the character in my story, 77 Pop Facts about Gil Courtney, is a real person. They say they had to Google to check.
“It’s a lovely compliment, but I can’t claim I’m the innovator of the structure of the story. It’s from Smash Hits magazine’s ‘pop facts’ pieces, from the 1970s and 1980s.”
Back in those days, Wendy and her brother would be taken to the library once a week by their mother, who kept “random” books in the family home in Jordanstown. Having inherited her mother’s love of reading, she went on to study English at university in Glasgow, before going into teaching there and in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Less bookish, Wendy’s father was a former Northern Bank official. He got to read Locksmiths, in Stinging Fly magazine, before he died in 2016.
As Wendy recalls: “He said, ‘It’s great to see you making something’. It sounded odd because by most indexes, I have a fairly reasonable kind of life, but I knew what he meant.
“I had a really happy childhood. I had good fun a lot of the time. I always wanted to study English, because reading was my thing more than anything else. I think Hemingway said that ‘the good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear, or it may be the wreck of his life, and one is as good as the other’.
“That might suggest that on another day he thought that personal unhappiness — as he deemed the best qualification for a writer — was not quite so crucial. I would subscribe to that!”
She has a Lucia Berlin short story collection “lying around the house” but hasn’t opened it yet. Her greatest writing influences include Sean O’Reilly and William Faulkner.
“Light in August by William Faulkner has stayed with me for decades,” she says. “And on every holiday I have had for a long time, I have taken a copy of Chekhov short stories. I love the bracing intelligence — and humour — of Maggie Nelson and Joanna Walsh. But I am also likely to be influenced by painters like George Shaw or photographers like Richard Billingham, or by music. The character Black Sail in my story, Inakeen, was inspired by the song of the same name, by the band Chastity Belt.”
Music has always been a passion of Wendy’s. In her youth she was into post-punk bands such as The Jesus and Mary Chain; in her forties, she wrote music and film reviews for an on-line blog, BlueLampDisco, named after the teenage dance clubs run by the RUC community relations branch. She occasionally reviewed books and records, but mainly produced short creative pieces based on music. The blog attracted only a very small audience, but, as she recalls, responses to it ranged from abusive comment to a proposal of marriage.
Wendy has two children, Mathilda (16) and Bobby (13), with husband, Paul, an art teacher she met on her return to Northern Ireland in 1997. Paul is also a singer in a rockabilly/western band. Interestingly, there’s also something slightly retro about his wife’s look.
In the early 1980s, she appeared on a TV discussion about Belfast fashion, wearing a DIY necklace made of chain and fishing tackle. “One of the questions the panel were asked was, ‘is there a fashion diktat?” she remembers. “Nobody knew what that meant.
“These days, much of the time when I am writing I just mooch around in an ill-fitting tracksuit. When necessary however, I can make myself look more respectable. I like Isabel Marant, The Vampire’s Wife, western shirts, leather and cashmere.
“But I’m very careless with clothes. Whether expensive or cheap, they all end up lying in a pile on the floor.”
She will be at her most glamorous, of course, for her book launch and upcoming readings from Sweet Home.
Sweet Home short story collection, by Wendy Erskine, is published by Stinging Fly Press (£12.95). See www.stingingfly.org