The Sauna Series — Wendy Erskine

Early this July I set sail to Belfast. I wanted to interview Wendy Erskine, the author of the outstanding collection Sweet Home. After spending several days in different saunas around town I finally bumped into her in a rather small steamed-up room in an Ibis Hotel. We discussed writing in general and the short story form in particular, the need to move away from the fetish of the novel (and the colossal page count), life after writing, and other unexpected topics. 


Fernando Sdrigotti: Thanks for accepting to do this, Wendy. I’m aware this is not the most usual setting for an interview but then we aren’t the most usual people either, right? 

Wendy Erskine: I don’t think we are, Fernando. But this is as good a place as any, I suppose. I come here every so often. It’s a pity the Thai place above Frames Snooker Hall closed down because that might have been nice too for this exchange of ideas. But anyway, good to see you. 

Fernando Sdrigotti: The sauna is a dying breed… Anyway, let me start with three questions to get the ball rolling. Why write, why write short stories, who to write for? 

Wendy Erskine: Why write? Because it’s fun. It can be a euphoric experience. I have my own way of working and I feel close to myself when I’m doing it. Why short stories? I kind of fell into them as a form. Although I had always enjoyed reading them I didn’t like the vibe around them, the arcana. It’s a bore. You know, all these polished, silversmithy, Faberge egg creations. Someone carving Notre Dame on the head of a matchstick type of thing. Those theoretical discussions where everyone dissects different definitions of the short story. But then I started and realised how expansive they could be, how much flexibility they offered. I don’t really know who I write for. Hopefully hairdressers in Warrington, a town planner in Leiden, an old bass player in Galashiels. I’m possibly not going to make the cut for people who are devoted to books about post-apocalyptic societies or the trials and tribulations of the grad school scene in Manhattan. Or those who love hearing about druids. But never say never. 

Fernando Sdrigotti: I asked about short stories as it’s still considered sort of a minor form, right? At least in the English lit scene seems to be the case. There’s this obsession with the novel, with length — with page count as a proof of quality. You know, in Latin America it’s nothing like this… I’d say our short stories are better than our novels — and no one gives much credit to the size of the book, because this is one of the few cases in which indeed size doesn’t matter. Are publishers and readers in Northern Ireland also obsessed with the novel?

I don’t really know who I write for. Hopefully hairdressers in Warrington, a town planner in Leiden, an old bass player in Galashiels.

Wendy Erskine: I think that in Ireland people are a little more into short stories than perhaps elsewhere. There is a kind of short story infrastructure I suppose you could say, that has been created through tradition, festivals such as the Cork International Short Story Festival and publishers who specialise in the form, such as Stinging Fly who published me. I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the role that Declan Meade from Stinging Fly has played in terms of the short story in Ireland in the last decade or so. That said, I have been asked so many times if I am starting on a novel, as though the stories as just rookie prep for something more substantial. That’s a bit depressing.  I understand though that in some ways the novel can be a more immersive experience for some people. They enter the world of the novel and remain in it for the duration. Whereas with short stories they have to recalibrate and adjust to a series of different fictive worlds. But then that very aspect is for some people part of the pleasure of the form. What can I say? They’re different things. An apple isn’t an orange, and an orange isn’t an apple. I’m interested in what you say about Latin America. There’s not the same obsession with length at all? 

Fernando Sdrigotti: Yes, not at all. Take the case of Argentina: Borges, arguably our best 20th century writer, never wrote a novel. His short stories are even quite short. And some of our best novels — say the work of Bioy Casares, Aira, Saer, Lange, etc — are very short. I really struggle to get my head around this obsession with length. At points I have come to see it as a bourgeois marker of the privilege of time (both of writers’ and readers’). At this point I really don’t know what to make of it. Do you think, perhaps, that it has to do with the short story being stronger in cultures with a strong oral tradition? 

Wendy Erskine: The leisure class with their enormous tomes… Well yes, I have certainly heard it said that the short story has more prestige in cultures with a strong oral tradition. That is kind of what I meant when I referred to the Irish short story infrastructure. That said, I think that the short story is essentially everyone’s basic mode of extended communication. You know, you meet someone for a drink or a coffee and what you do is trade short stories. 

Fernando Sdrigotti: Apologise the self-promotion but I promise it adds to our conversationI am pretty sure you haven’t read my first book in English — Dysfunctional Males, as it has long been out of print. In a way there’s a formal similarity between Sweet Home and this book of mine. My stories are between 9,000 and 15,000 words long. I haven’t counted the words in your but I feel they might be of a similar length. At least they feel a bit longer than the average short story. Is this a format you are familiar with or one that you embraced just for Sweet Home. I ask because several readers and reviewers — when referring to my book — seemed to find this length rather unusual.

Wendy Erskine: Do you know what Fernando, I haven’t, but I would love to. You are absolutely right. My stories tend to be between 6000 and 12000 words. I suppose when I started off I had no idea how long the average short story was meant to be because I had never really tried to enter any competitions or get things published. What I realised was that I nearly always wanted to run at least three time-lines — a present, a recent past and a more distant past — and I was aiming for complex, super-nuanced characters and stories whose meaning and effect did not necessarily reside in the ending. Hang on a minute here til I just tie my hair up with this elastic… OK, done, yeah, so what I realised was that a shorter length didn’t really allow me to do those things. Very occasionally I’ve written stories where someone has specified a shorter length. For me this can end up putting pressure on stuff to be symbolic; everything runs the risk of being too freighted with significance. The ending can come too quick and therefore become too important. And here I am, sounding like one of those short story wankers I suggested I didn’t really like earlier on. 

Fernando Sdrigotti: Well, from the moment we decided to write sounding like a wanker is always a risk… But let’s not use that word in this space, as people might get the wrong impression… Now, with your stories I got the same feeling I get when I read the work of my compatriot Martín Rejtman: we could end up anywhere; there is no sense of plot as such (thank god), and what we have is a succession of events that follow one another. I would say of this type of writing — to borrow liberally from Delezue and Guattari —  that is writing on “a line of flight”. Do you have a clear idea of where you stories are heading from the moment you start writing them? Or do you indeed ride a line of flight and end up in unexpected places? 

Wendy Erskine: It depends on the story. With “Inakeen” for example, I had the idea of the very final image and wanted to do something that would provide a way for it to manifest itself. With “To All Their Dues”, I knew that I wanted three people whose power relationships were entirely contingent on situation. But on the whole I don’t have a clear idea of where the stories are heading. Quite often a character I considered to be reasonably peripheral ends up being someone more compelling than I had anticipated. Something like “Last Supper”, I knew there needed to be a downward trajectory towards quiet apocalypse but I wasn’t entirely sure just how this would be realised. Same thing with the story “Sweet Home”. It’s based on the Chekhov story “New Villa” so I knew already the overall shape that things should take but again there were many potential ways of achieving it. “New Villa” is such an excellent story, I think. It asks the question of whether in life you want to be a bastard, or a stupid bastard. 

Fernando Sdrigotti: Haven’t read it but it seems it could speak to me… Another thing that struck me when reading Sweet Home is how the stories seem to tease a lot with elision. I mean, there is a lot going on, but the attention of the — very detached— narrator seems to be in the details. In a way when you finish the book you end up with the feeling that a lot happened, that you were shown some, but that you were also left out of most of it. What remains in the end is the details, and the elisions, the things that could have been. Is this is a frequent thing in your writing? 

I have been asked so many times if I am starting on a novel, as though the stories as just rookie prep for something more substantial. That’s a bit depressing.

Wendy Erskine: I’m not massively interested in going inside characters’ minds for any prolonged period of time. I mean, there is certainly interiority but not in terms of anatomisation of thought. In the stories people don’t tend to have conversations where they discuss who they are, or what they are, or that kind of thing. Something like “Locksmiths”, which is about a daughter cutting off all ties with her mother, I was going for that ‘regulated hatred’ effect, that D W Harding phrase about Austen. There is no direct expression of all the anger and bitterness that the narrator feels. But hopefully, even if you were left out of it in terms of the explicit, you’ll have felt it. Hopefully! That opacity is always there for sure, In “77 Pop Facts…” about the rock’n’roll casualty, Gil Courtney, the reader is not privileged with any information really about Gil’s own thoughts on how his life has panned out. The closest we get is when he says that the Palomar’s second album (the group he was kicked out of after the first) was as good as everyone said it was. And he slowly smokes his cigarette. Is he rueful? Bitter? Admiring? I don’t know. I’m co-opting you as the reader to make a call there, and the call you make to some degree determines your response to the rest of the piece.  I like that there is that openness there when such a lot in that story, in terms of dates, real names, real places, is very much tied down, fixed.  And yes, just generally a lot certainly is about objects — mugs, glasses, keys, crisps and so on. The details as you say.  But it’s not even that these things consistently operate as objective correlatives really. They are just important as things. 

Fernando Sdrigotti: I loved that story… Had me Googling the name of the band… And that’s all I’ll say so as not to spoil it for anyone… Another common thread between these very different stories is the discomfort they cause. In every story there is a moment (or more than one) when you feel “Jesus, this is a terrible cringe!”. I found myself shouting to the characters “please don’t do that!” more than once in this book. I mean this as a compliment, by the way. Did you intend to make your readers uncomfortable from the get-go or is this something you found yourself adopting in the process or is this me projecting, feeling uncomfortable, as a result of us being so light of clothes, in this sauna? 

Wendy Erskine: You thinking we should have gone to Costa?  To be honest, that cringe dimension wasn’t conscious but it’s very me. I love that Zola thing, that art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament. And my temperament involves doing foolish things myself and telling people about them. When we’ve finished talking about books in here I can regale you with tales of stupid stuff I’ve said or done. It is kind of what your narrator says in your Shitstorm, you know? That it ‘always boils down to people doing stupid things, being incredibly stupid all the time, or just once, being stupid at the wrong moment.’ One of the most “Jesus this is a terrible cringe” stories I feel is “Arab States”. This story is basically a rewrite of Death in Venice, but it’s a place called called Regent Centre rather than the Lido island, and a woman called Paula who works in a health centre rather than the author Aschenbach. I think that Mann said he was wanting to write about passion as confusion and the stripping away of dignity and I suppose that’s what I was going for too. I think that one of my most outstanding reading experiences involved that “please don’t do that!” shout. It was at a certain point in Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity. I can even remember where I was sitting when I was reading it. Jeez I’m hot!

Fernando Sdrigotti: Yes, and words make it even hotter! So let’s round up! What’s the plan now? I don’t mean here, as what happens in the sauna stays in the sauna… I mean with your writing. Are you working on something new? Plans to publish Sweet Home elsewhere? Writing a very long and tedious novel in order to charm book reviewers and assorted literati? 

Wendy Erskine: Well, just like many others I have a full-time job doing something else and so that, in addition to the new showbiz demands made of me (because lit fiction has its showbiz dimension just as much as any other form of entertainment and I’m sure nobody sensible kids themselves otherwise), results in not a huge amount of writing being done just at present. That said, I’ve got another five stories either out or coming out in various things. But in truth, I’m not really trying to achieve world domination via the short story. I don’t think I have a career in it as such. That’s not false modesty. I mean, I’m happy enough to bang on about all my inclusions on shortlists and longlists. I take the writing I do extremely seriously. But at the end of the day I’m just interested in what I find interesting. I’ll give something longer a go quite possibly but there’s other stuff I want to do as well like learn how to marble my own paper and listen to more contemporary music. I’ve got an essay coming up on BBC Radio 3 about doors. I wrote about Elisabeth Frink for an art mag. In terms of Sweet Home, I recorded the audiobook myself for Picador. That was fun. I don’t know if Sweet Home will be published anywhere else. I never really thought too global when I was writing it in my kitchen but I daresay people other places might enjoy it. Or maybe they wouldn’t. You think it would go down a storm in Argentina, Fernando? 

Fernando Sdrigotti: I can totally see a book like Sweet Home working in Spanish!

Why don’t I translate a couple of the stories and we see what happens? 

Wendy Erskine:Please do.

Wendy Erskine
is a writer who lives in Belfast.  She is the author of Sweet Home, published by Stinging Fly (2018) and Picador (2019).  @wednesdayerskin

Fernando Sdrigotti is Sauna Editor at Minor Literature[s]. @f_sd

About the Sauna Series: Wherever there is a sauna there is a writer plotting a masterpiece. In this series we travel the world’s saunas and steam rooms talking to people of letters. The phrase ‘mutual backscratching’ is a cliché in the literary scene, but it has rarely been used so literally.