Wendy Erskine: a flash interview

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1. Wendy – having written fiction previously, you were returning to an existing interest when you signed up to the six-month Stinging Fly writing course. I’ve heard great things about this course from other participants, could you tell us how it helped shape your writing?

It’s true that I had written a bit before, just for my own amusement really, but I’d never had anything published. I had an afternoon a week off work for a year and so it transpired that I ended up on the Stinging Fly course led by Sean O’Reilly. There are things that you won’t get from this course. If it’s a group affirmation experience, a congratulation fest that you’re after, then it’s no good. There’s no focus on writing at the sentence level, you know, stuff like syntax or the path to a more epigrammatic style. But it showed me totally new ways to think about narratives. It was a brilliant and illuminating experience. Here’s a fraction of what I learnt: the questions I should ask of any story, including my own; the importance of scenes; the need for brutal honesty when writing and reading my own stories; the significance of writing without vanity.
2. In an interview with the Independent newspaper, you said “I want to deal with the biggest themes possible” – the stories in Sweet Home are nicely understated and devoid of the usual Irish clichés – so is that the essential themes lie more in the everyday existence of your characters?

Yes. What a comically grandiose thing to say. Daft really, I suppose. When the stories first came out, there was a lot of (lovely) stuff about how they gave such a vivid sense of East Belfast and so on and how quotidian detail was rendered so carefully. I was delighted people should think that, but at the same time I’ve no interest in writing local colour literature or producing something that is the literary equivalent of a sub, sub-Chuck Close painting. I’m not messing about. There’s no inconsequential shuffling around in East Belfast or any other location. My stories involve existential meltdown, guilt, trauma, acute loneliness, alienation, violence, disintegration, loss. But here’s the point: these ‘big themes’ also constitute the every day for so many of us. So, you know, maybe not so daft.

3. Can I ask, out of a personal curiosity, what inspired you to write “77 Pop Facts You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney”? The structure is most unusual for a short story. And of course I wondered and had to find out whether or not he was a real person! 🙂

Gil Courtney is not real but he is a type of person I am naturally drawn to in the real world: the person who could have been a contender, had it not been for circumstances, or bad luck, or perhaps their own conduct. I knew I wanted to write about a character like that, a type of Syd Barrett figure, and that I wanted to deal with questions about the validity and importance of art that only ever reaches a fractional audience. The story was originally about 15000 words long and told in a conventional manner but it just didn’t work. It was only when I considered how I could match form and content by using the list of facts that could be found in a music mag that it actually came alive. Lots of people have thought he is real. People have said, oh yeah, I got the Gil Courtney album on Discogs. It wasn’t all that. I can see why he wasn’t a success. It’s been funny. But use the word ‘facts’ and even in this post truth society it still carries an authority. And the name Gil Courtney: it’s got echoes of Gil Scott-Heron, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Gillespie, Courtney Barnett, Courtney Love. If readers thought they’d heard of him before, it was because they had. Sort of.

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