- 19 Dec 18
Brimming with prose, poetry, photography and interviews, the new edition of Winter Papers provides another snapshot of Ireland at its most creative. Belfast writer Wendy Erskine talks us through her contribution.
We’ll continue to say it every year until it goes out of print, but if you’re looking for a meaningful (not to mention beautiful) gift for Christmas, look no further than Winter Papers. Each December without fail, this tome delivers superb work from the best artists in the country.
The 2018 edition opens with an introduction stressing the importance of place in an artist’s life and work. ‘Home’, in the earlier parts of the anthology, can be a city, a community, a house, or a womb (as in Elske Rahill’s ‘Inheritance’, where the author writes in the second person to her unborn daughter).
In the later contributions, the idea becomes increasingly difficult to pin down. The pervasive nature of new technology and social media – as in Ian Maleney’s devastating prose piece ‘Farewell To Meatspace’ and Mike McCormack’s short story ‘I, Flock’ – mean that location becomes relative. Lisa Harding’s ‘Starving’ and Cathy Sweeney’s ‘Oranges’, meanwhile, both explore how the body and the home can become unfamiliar places.
At the beginning of the anthology, editors Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith highlight how cities with the lowest rent in Ireland seem to have emerged as artistically vibrant hubs. Former Hot Press scribe Peter Murphy also has an excellent, eye-opening interview with Rusangano Family’s mynameisjOhn and MC Hazy Hayes, which looks at the hip-hop scene in Limerick and how it reflects the city’s social pressures.
At the centre of the anthology is an exciting work by Belfast short story writer Wendy Erskine. Wendy’s debut collection, Sweet Home, follows the lives of characters in East Belfast with a mix of intensity, subtlety, and a fresh perspective. Originally published by The Stinging Fly, it was widely acclaimed. The international rights have now been picked up by Picador.
“I was thrilled when that happened,” says Wendy, speaking from Belfast. “I didn’t know all the ins and outs, but whenever the book first came out with The Stinging Fly, I knew that UK publishers might be interested in it. I was so delighted about Picador – I’m absolutely thrilled that it’s going to get a wider readership.”
Having dabbled with a music blog in the past, and also written an unpublished novel decades ago, it was only when Wendy took a six-month writing course run by The Stinging Fly – led by Sean O’Reilly – that the road became clear.
“Prior to May 2016, I honestly had nothing published in my life, beyond a recipe in the Sunday Times mag as a kid!” notes Wendy. “So even to have two stories in The Stinging Fly – that was a thrill. Then for all this to have happened, in two years, is such an unbelievable achievement.”
In the process of compiling Winter Papers, Barry and Smith had their ear to the ground.
“Out of the blue I got the email asking if I’d like to contribute a story,” she explains. “I’d no expectation that I’d be included in something like this, or that Kevin and Olivia would know that I was out there, but I was delighted. There was no blueprint of what they wanted me to write about. They just asked if I would care to make a submission.”
Wendy’s story, ‘Bryght Gehenna’, centres on Jamie Devine, a young teenager who grew up as part of his family’s country gospel band. He becomes fixated with heavy metal after his father leads a protest against the fictional Bryght Gehenna band, deeming them “satanic”. How did the idea for the story come about?
“I just really like going round charity and second hand shops,” says Wendy. “Quite often, when I’m looking, there’ll be a whole box of particular types of CD that have been handed in – country, gospel, heavy metal, that type of thing. And it’ll make me think, ‘I wonder how they got left in? Where did they come from?’”
The story, set sometime in 1980s Belfast, heads down an increasingly disturbing path. The patchwork of Jamie’s happy Christian family unravels, and the protagonist – a sexually repressed, isolated teenager – finds an outlet in more destructive tendencies.
“I had this thought,” Wendy reflects, “looking at yet another bus shelter in town that had been smashed to bits, about how the impetus to destroy is as strong as the impetus to create. So I wanted to explore that idea somehow.”
Wendy also wanted to explore how heavy metal became a vehicle for religious people to encounter the unfamiliar, the taboo.
“I’ve been interested in the popularity of heavy metal in particular types of communities,” she reflects. “They’re often conservative or rural communities. It was really popular in the North. I worked in a record shop in the late ’80s and we sold a lot of heavy metal records, so it was a scene I was familiar with. And it’s interesting, I have a friend who lived in the Shetlands, and he told me stories about the heavy metal scene in Shetland – and it was exactly the type of thing that I encountered in Belfast.”
As with Wendy’s debut collection, ‘Bryght Gehenna’ is set in Belfast. Location is key for the author, but she’s quick to stress that her stories address universal themes.
“I think it’s limiting sometimes,” she states, “to say, ‘Oh, it’s excellent the way that person can portray that particular geographical location’. It has to move beyond that for it to have any real currency. For Belfast, heavy metal was about fear of the unknown – the projection of fears about other things onto music. That was the driving force. That’s quite acute in Northern Ireland, but that was something you’d gotten in England, and in rural communities in lots of other places.”
The idea of conservative communities being confronted with the unfamiliar crops up several times in Winter Papers. Fellow Belfast writer Jan Carson addresses a similar notion in ‘No Dancing’, the essay which precedes Wendy’s short story, in which the author reconciles her fundamentalist Protestant upbringing with her progressive adult outlook, through the lens of uninhibited dancing. Aiden O’Reilly, meanwhile, offers an original take on the declining influence of the Catholic Church in ‘The Turn’.
Certain ideas recur in Winter Papers – always in original ways. Barry and Smith have done well. The collection will linger with you long after you’ve finished it.