Sweet Home (Stinging Fly)
Below, Wendy answers some questions about writing and her book.
Although I had read plenty of short stories, initially I wasn’t drawn to writing in the form at all. I found all the short story arcana, the cold technics, quite unattractive. That whole quality of carving Notre Dame on the head of a match, you know? But then I realised that all that stuff was really pretty unimportant and what was significant was what I really knew all along: that good stories exist on their own terms. And so what I like is that the form can be experimental, it can be intense and it can be really expansive. And it can also be none of these things and still be good.
What is your process when writing short stories? Is your process the same with every story?
My process is always similar. I think about the story for about four weeks without writing anything down. I’ll consider the characters, the shape of it, the sentiment, the dynamic. I’ll have it on my mind a lot. I compare it to having coins in my pocket, turning them over and over, considering what I am going to buy. The anticipation is enjoyable. And then I’ll write the story quite quickly and it will possibly be double the length that I actually require. Then, and this is probably the most significant stage, I look really carefully at what I have done and see what is important. Quite frequently an element that I considered to be significant is in fact fairly peripheral and say a character I had thought marginal at best is really where the heart of the story resides. At present I am writing a story that involves a freebie calendar from a Chinese takeaway. I’m quite involved with this calendar at present but will I be surprised if it ends up being taken out? Not really.
Do you have a favourite short story or short story writer? What is it you admire?
This question always throws me into a bit of a panic. Being asked about my favourite music has a similar effect. Every day I could give you a different answer: Laura Hird, Julia Armfield, Jamel Brinkley. In the past I’ve picked stories like Faulkner’s ‘Uncle Willy’, Chekhov’s ‘The New Villa’. Today I’ll select story number 2 from All That Man Is by David Szalay, and the collection Darker with the Lights On by David Hayden. I admire how David Hayden’s stories transform the world around me. They provide altered consciousness of a very refined kind.
What advice would you give to new writers who want to write a collection of stories?
I would say, try to enjoy writing each one. It’s an exciting and at times a euphoric experience, at least I have found it so, creating something that didn’t exist before. (But the same time, try not to buy into too many self-mythologising notions of the ‘writer’ or ‘artist.’) Read your own work without vanity. Those sentences you are most proud of may well be the ones where your desire to seem clever or something is taking precedence over the demands of the story. Don’t get too hung up on thinking about the collection as an entity. For sure, it’s great when a collection is somehow more than the sum of its constituent parts, but that’s not really an aspect to consider as you are writing. Concentrate, rather, on making each story really good. Read June Caldwell’s introduction to the anthology Still Worlds Turning.
Where’s your favourite place to write and why?
Probably where I am right now, at my kitchen table. My daughter is sitting opposite me working on an essay and my husband is beside me rolling a cigarette. Now she is making me a cup of tea. Great! I don’t need a particular view or silence. I am happy getting on with my writing while people are arguing or trying to find their keys or making themselves something to eat. I like being able to ask someone, would you say ‘you gonna stop?’ or ‘stop that would you?’ or ‘would you stop?’ I never listen to music though because I get too caught in the sentiment or the beat or whatever.
What was the hardest story in your collection to write and why?
They all presented their own challenges. In ‘Locksmiths’ I was aiming for an attitude of ‘regulated hatred’, that D W Harding phrase about Austen. It needed to be kept consistent. ‘Pop Facts’ was hard until I found the right form for it, and then it fell into place really quickly. With ‘Arab States’ I wanted the central character to be ridiculous but not a buffoon, so therefore this need quite careful calibration. But probably the hardest stories were those that did not make their way into the collection: characters that I could not, to use Lisa McInerney’s term, ‘excavate’ successfully. That’s another thing for new writers to remember. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your execution is just not good enough. Such is life. It’s just a story.
Read Last Supper from the collection.
Buy Sweet Home here
Wendy Erskine lives in Belfast. Her work has been published in The Stinging Fly, Stinging Fly Stories and Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland. She also features in Being Various: New Irish Short Stories (Faber and Faber), Winter Papers and on BBC Radio 4. Sweet home has been longlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize 2019 andfor the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2019.