Wendy Erskine has just released the paperback edition of her acclaimed short story collection, Dance Move, published by Picador. Based in Belfast, with a plethora of publications printing her stories, Wendy’s an intuitive short story writer whose first collection (Sweet Home) was shortlisted for several awards, including the 2019 Edge Hill Short Story Prize, and won the 2020 Butler Literary Award.
Dance Move is a strong collection of tales, filled with characters who are difficult to let go long after the book is finished. Whether it’s Roberta and Mr Dalzell in ‘Mathematics’, Marty and Rhonda in ‘Golem’, or the insecure Linda in ‘Secrets Bonita Beach Krystal Cancun’, this collection has a wealth of conceivable people whose lives you want to imagine continuing on beyond the depths of the pages.
Wendy spoke with SNACK about how she started out, her writing process, and what she’s currently working on.
This is your second collection of short stories, and your name has become renowned for the short story format. How did you start out in Northern Ireland?
I’ve read that there is a trend in Spanish slang, when talking about someone who has an overinflated idea of themselves, to say something like he’s the ‘yeti of the fridge freezer’ or the ‘colossus of the corner shop.’ Renowned writer of the short story is maybe something similar! But you know what, I am delighted you think that.
I started out writing short stories in 2015 when I did a six-month course with Stinging Fly, who publish a magazine in Dublin. I travelled down to Dublin every Monday on the train. I had a story published in May 2016 and then Declan Meade, who runs Stinging Fly, asked if I would be interested in putting a collection together. I knew that this was a brilliant chance so I worked pretty hard and wrote one story a month for a year or so.
Initially, however, I wasn’t drawn to writing short stories. The way they are talked about can be so off-putting: the short story arcana. So technical and soulless – all this discourse of perfection and polish.
Your stories carry trauma, heartache, humour, and joy. Do you set out intentionally for there to be balance in your collections, and often within one story?
My stories always start out with the characters. I let them lead the way and I try never to force them into the role of vehicles for particular ideas, or ciphers for certain concepts. Of course characters could be described as constructs and not ‘real’ in any meaningful way, but for me they are the whole point of what I write. And if these characters are to some degree recognizable people, then for me they need to operate in a world like our own where, as you say, you can experience heartache and joy in the same half hour. I don’t set out to do this really intentionally. It’s not schematic. It’s just how things naturally roll with me.
But of course there also needs to be a degree of artistry at some point. I don’t want things to be mawkish or sentimental, or for a tonal shift to be jarring.
In the story ‘Secrets Bonita Beach Krystal Cancun’, for example, we move from cocktail sausages bobbing about the deep end of a swimming pool to child sexual exploitation. It’s a risk but it is one I am always prepared to take.
You also can create entire worlds within a few pages, immersing readers into each of your stories. Have you ever felt compelled to transform any into the novel format?
Well, I can let you into a secret. ‘Cell’, a story from Dance Move, was originally going to be in Sweet Home, but I asked if it could be left out so that I could potentially make it into a novel. I felt there were a lot of complexities that could be further developed and that, since it covered so many decades, there was room for more exploration. I also just liked the idea of staying in the world of Maoist cults for a little longer. But then, I reconsidered. I thought that the story worked well enough as it was.
Do you have plans to return to any of these characters again? I’d love to find out more about these fleshed-out beings. Isn’t that lovely that you should feel that way?
But no, I don’t have any plans to return. I kind of think that it’s just over to you now. You can imagine a life for these people, these fleshed-out beings as you say (and I love that description). You can imagine an existence and eventualities for them, beyond the confines of the 6,000-word short story.
Clearly the Wendy in the collection is modelled after you, and I appreciate the brief cameo. What is your secret to achieving this level of characterisation?
My usual way of working is that I produce a very long first draft: sometimes up to 20,000 words. That means that characters, even quite peripheral ones, have had, to continue your metaphor, a more fleshed-out existence than the one that appears in the final draft. My hope is always that the complexity, shade, and nuance will still find its way into the final version.
When it came to putting myself there, I made sure I was a bit of a dick. Imagine a writer inserting themselves into the story as something other than a dick! I wouldn’t want that.
What are you working on next?
I am writing something a lot longer but which, I hope, has the same sensibilities as my short stories. It’s sex and class, humanity and sleaziness, community and isolation. But mainly it’s just about people.
Image credit: Khara Pringle