On Collective Trauma and Resilience: Talking with S. Kirk Walsh
Though originally from Michigan and then hailing from New York, S. Kirk Walsh is a bit of an Austin legend. In her seventeen years in Texas, Walsh has grown deep roots in the local literary community. She’s the founder of the nonprofit organization, Austin Bat Cave, which offers writing programs to children and aims to “empower students to find their voices and tell their stories.” Further, she’s worked as a freelance editor and screener for the MFA program at the Michener Center at the University of Texas. Her own writing has appeared widely in publications such as Longreads, Texas Highways, New York Times Book Review, Story Quarterly, Guernica, and many others.
On top of all that, Walsh teaches a private nine-month writing workshop, which is how I first got to know her. Walsh runs her workshop in a way that, to me, feels both rigorous and nurturing, serious and fun. Put simply, Walsh is one of the most thoughtful and giving people I’ve ever met, and I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way. Even more, her attention and generosity spill onto the page, as you’ll see in her exquisite debut novel. Forthcoming on April 6 from Counterpoint Press, The Elephant of Belfast explores grief and resilience, both within a city as well as a person. Though she wrote it before the pandemic and set it during World War II, it’s almost eerie how timely the book’s preoccupations match our current moment. Perhaps this is because 9/11 was one of her central inspirations for the novel.
Over an afternoon Zoom call, Walsh and I spoke about character creation, the arduous journey to publication, perseverance in the midst of loss, and how teaching and writing can inform each other.
The Rumpus: Your debut novel, The Elephant of Belfast, takes place in Ireland during early World War II. The tender and precarious relationship between Hettie, a young female zookeeper, and Violet, a three-year-old elephant, is the book’s beating heart. Caring for Violet is how Hettie copes with the grief of her sister’s death, her father’s abandonment, and the citywide bombings, and she’s willing to risk everything to protect her. Where did this idea come from?
S. Kirk Walsh: It was inspired by the true story of Denise Austin, which I heard about on NPR in 2009. As I learned more about the story, it became apparent to me that it would offer a way to write about September 11th. There are a number of images in the novel that are related to having lived on the Upper West Side during the time of the attacks.
With the animal relationship, a part of this was inspired by not being able to have children myself. I looked at the zookeeper-elephant relationship as a mother-child one, writing about the lengths that someone would go to protect another being. For my research, I interviewed survivors in Belfast, and then met Raymond Robinson, a zookeeper at the Belfast Zoo. He is the informal historian of the zoo, and he spent a couple days with me and my husband, Michael. Also, Brian Barton, a scholar and author as well as the foremost historian of the Belfast Blitz, helped me considerably. He read the manuscript twice and provided edits and changes—and in this sense, the novel almost felt like a collaboration in terms of getting the historical accuracy where it needed to be.
Rumpus: The characters throughout are so deeply rendered. I was particularly taken with your depiction of Hettie’s mother and how grief has swallowed her. You don’t shy away from how loss has complicated Hettie’s relationship to her mother. Could you talk about your process for writing honest characters, especially these two?
Walsh: It was very hard to write the mom. My mom suffered from depression throughout most of her life and experienced a debilitating nervous breakdown in October of 2012 right when I started The Elephant of Belfast. This episode led to eight years of hospitalizations, electroshock treatments—they worked, and then stopped working—and eventually my mom becoming a resident at a long-term-care facility. It was a difficult and heartbreaking time for my family. For me, working on this novel offered up an alternate reality, where I could not think about the challenges that my mom faced. Initially, I wanted to write a mom who was nothing like my mom. But then after several drafts, I decided to give into it: In a way it was freeing to tell the truth and allow the depression to be a part of the character.
Rumpus: That makes sense.
Walsh: There were other aspects of my personal history that came into play with the story and characters: I come from an Irish Catholic family on my dad’s side. My great-uncle Bernard Kirk was an all-American football player for the University of Michigan, and he died in a car accident when he was twenty-two in 1922. He was two years older than my grandmother, so she was twenty when he died. Then, she lost both of her husbands: my grandfather to a tragic death of alcoholism—his body was discovered in an alley in Detroit—and then her second husband to a sudden aneurysm after only four months of marriage. As it turned out, her second husband was her true love, but her parents wouldn’t allow her to marry a man who wasn’t Catholic. After the death of her second husband, my grandmother took an around-the-world trip. It was extraordinary that she did this under the weight of this kind of grief. Hettie is somewhat inspired by my grandmother and all that she endured. With her grief, my grandmother turned to Catholicism; she went to Mass every day. For Hettie, she turned to animals. My grandmother wrote to me once: “I love the comfort of ritual and the power of knowledge.” And that’s what I was thinking about with Hettie.
Rumpus: Another character I loved was Mr. Wright. Where did he come from?
Walsh: Through each revision, I kept asking myself, “How can I make each character more complex and full of more contradictions?” Mr. Wright was the easiest character to realize. He’s based on the real zookeeper, Dick Foster, and I made up a lot, but his arc is pretty similar to what happened. I also had a good friend, John McNeel, who was an enlisted soldier who fought in numerous campaigns in World War II. He saw action in North Africa and southern Europe, participating in some of the war’s worst battles, including the siege at the Anzio beachhead. When I lived in NYC, John and I met for lunch regularly, and he told me stories about fighting during the war. John died in 2007 from lung cancer, but I drew from aspects of his wartime experience, like he was sitting next to another soldier who was shot and died instantly. Mr. Wright is a tribute to John—his spirit and the trauma that he experienced as a young soldier.
Rumpus: Perhaps more than grief, your novel is about resilience.
Walsh: During September 11th, I was amazed by people’s perseverance and resilience. There was something in New York City, and I’m sure it’s there now, with the pandemic, but that’s what I was writing towards—that public collective grief and resilience.
A couple days after September 11th, it was one of those pristine, beautiful days. The beauty of the day created a juxtaposition—yet another tension—to what had just happened. I was running around the Reservoir in Central Park and was returning to our apartment on West 75th Street. For a split second, there was a horse without a rider running toward me. It was a beautiful moment, but also scary. Because of the towers falling and all the death, it felt like anything could happen. Of course, there’s a horse running free in Central Park. Anything was possible.
Quickly thereafter the police corralled the horse, and then, I kept running. A mile away, the rider had been bucked, so that’s why the horse was free, but I drew from this particular moment in Central Park when Violet is walking with Hettie, the idea that people would be okay with an elephant on a road.
Rumpus: In The Elephant of Belfast, twenty-year-old Hettie is trying to decide what sort of woman she wants to be. Though societal constraints exist, the book introduces us to many women who defy the norm, such as the unmarried part-owner of the zoo, Josephine Christie, the young zoo staffer, Eliza Crowley, and the elegant singer, Stella Holliday. Was this part of your intention, to show Hettie, and readers, various ways of living for women, even in 1940s Belfast?
Walsh: To be honest, Eliza Crowley came a bit later. A reader suggested that I needed to introduce another female character at the zoo in order to reflect back to Hettie that she had more choices than other young women at that time. Josephine Christie and Stella Holliday are a bit older, and I did want to show female power, that it could exist even in a space where war is happening. Stella is based on a real person. Her name was Delia Murphy, and she sang through the night at the Ulster Hall near City Hall. I wanted Hettie to experience it, so I moved the episode up to Floral Hall, which is still a part of the zoo grounds, but is now closed and in disrepair.
In my own life, with my mom’s mental illness, I’ve had a lot of different relationships with women as role models—and it is something that has helped me a lot. Strong women. That you can age and still be powerful.
Rumpus: There is a scene where Hettie is wandering among rows of coffins, and I thought of the portable morgues brought into Texas, and all over the country, to deal with the surplus of COVID-19 deaths. It’s hard not to read your novel and think about the many collective traumas our nation has endured this past year. Do you see your book differently, given all that’s happened in the last year? Its explorations of individual and collective trauma seem especially timely.
Walsh: During one of those last copy edits, I was thinking about this: I have a good friend who works for the City of New York, and before it made its way into the national news, he told us there was no room at the morgues in the city and dead bodies were left in apartments. It was so devastating to hear that people were dying alone in this way. I got to be with my parents when they died, unlike a lot of people during the pandemic. This experience made me think about a dignified death versus the one that isn’t. When I was writing The Elephant of Belfast, I didn’t know the pandemic was going to happen, obviously.
With September 11th, I knew a few people who died in the collapse of the towers, and it never really goes away, in terms of the city’s collective grief. In the end, the human spirit does prevail, even in the face of such devastation. While visiting Belfast, Michael and I visited St. George’s Market, and it was moving to be in this space that was used as a morgue during the war. How does one process it? The pandemic is going to take many, many years to process. It’s going to take a lifetime, in a way.
Rumpus: Yes, grief is like that.
Walsh: We haven’t talked about the nuns yet.
Rumpus: You’re right! More strong women in the book! How did you decide to include them?
Walsh: One of them is named after my grandmother, Helen, and then her cousin, Evangeline. The nuns emerged during the later drafts of the novel. I was looking for ways to bring more levity into the story, and the nuns came to me as a place of refuge for Violet. As I began to develop their characters as well as the convent, it became apparent that they were going to represent that spiritual resilience—and how we can take care of each other during difficult times.
Rumpus: The book does explore Protestant and Catholic tensions. Hettie is Protestant, though the Catholic nuns’ desire to help transcends denomination. How did you approach this?
Walsh: The Catholic-Protestant conflict also came later in the drafting process. When I traveled to Belfast in 2012, nobody wanted to talk about it. When I asked about the ongoing conflict, most often the response was “No, that wasn’t going on during the war.” Brian Barton, the historian, helped me with many of the nuances and complexities of the sectarian conflict. It definitely was one of the more challenging aspects of writing this novel, but the tensions needed to be in the story.
Rumpus: In your recent New York Times Book Review essay, you write about E. L. Doctorow, how he was such a giving and transformative writing teacher. You’re also a generous and insightful writing teacher—as your student, I would know! Could you speak about your philosophy when it comes to teaching? Do you have any guiding principles?
Walsh: It’s certainly true about Doctorow, and then my other teachers at NYU, including Mona Simpson and Peter Carey. Mona focused on the nuts and bolts of being of a writer: “How do you support your writing life when you have a life?” She wanted us to commit to a certain number of hours of writing each week (twenty hours), and if we didn’t, she asked us what got in the way. It was good training, and that’s something I try to offer in my own workshop—structure, and how one goes about creating balance and carving out the time to write and making it a priority. Peter Carey’s main emphasis was revision, and couching all of the feedback through the lens of revision: what is the most helpful thing that you say to a writer if you only said one thing in terms of revision? And with Doctorow, he taught me how to be a careful reader—and that it’s good to be inspired and to borrow from other writers.
Rumpus: How does teaching shape your writing?
Walsh: I’ve been teaching for a long time now, and am just publishing my first book this year. I’ve been writing this whole time, and I think teaching has given me more empathy for myself and all the hard work it takes to be a writer. I’m definitely a writer who discovers as I write. I don’t outline. That said, working with other writers helps me to be more intentional, particularly with a novel, because it takes so long. Also, teaching reminds one of the importance of having readers. My friends, Karen Olsson and Dominic Smith, have been reading my work for over ten years—and I read for them, too. These relationships have been instrumental in keeping going when it’s been hard and disappointing, with rejection, and I think the workshop reminds me how important that kind of community is, the reciprocity of helping each other.
Photoghraph of S. Kirk Walsh by Erich Schlegel.