After reading S. Kirk Walsh’s piece that ran in the New York Times this past January, “How the Author of ‘Ragtime’ Taught an Aspiring Writer to Hear the Music,” I was eager to read her new novel, The Elephant of Belfast (Counterpoint). Having also studied with E.L. Doctorow at NYU for my master’s degree — he was my thesis advisor — I particularly appreciated her description of him as a teacher and his emphasis on his favorite authors. I found Walsh’s The Elephant of Belfast dramatic, historical and captivating. Based on true events, the reader is immediately drawn into her story, which begins in the fall of 1940.
We meet Hettie, a 20-year-old zookeeper in mourning for her sister, who died in childbirth. Hettie’s father has abandoned the family and her mother, Rose, is unreadable and unreachable. Lurking in the background are religious tensions that run high in Belfast. What joy can be garnered for Hettie comes through her love of Violet, an Indian elephant recently brought to the Belfast zoo. A sensitive, moral animal, Violet proves Hettie’s crutch when, in the spring of 1941, Belfast is bombed and the city is almost completely destroyed.
Before and beyond the bombing are the young men with their political leanings and young women with little voice, trying to find their place in the world. We follow Hettie on her journey, a compelling awakening set against the backdrop of war and loss.
Q&A WITH S. KIRK WALSH
Q: What about this story resonated most as you were writing it?
A: I was interested in writing about resilience, grief and faith in the face of devastating violence and loss — both in a personal sense, but also in a collective sense for a community and a city. I lived in New York City during the attacks on the World Trade Center, and I drew from many of my experiences during that time to write about Belfast and all that city endured during the spring of 1941. Also, as a childless woman, I was drawn to exploring a relationship that might borrow qualities of a maternal bond but wasn’t a traditional mother-child connection.
Q: What drew you to this historical moment, and how did you do the research?
A: I heard about Denise Austin’s story on the radio in 2009. Her identity had been a mystery, and the Belfast Zoo did a publicity campaign to figure out who the “elephant angel” had been. Her cousin, David Ramsey, called up the zoo and identified Austin — and this news was broadcasted around the world. After I did further research into the Belfast Blitz, I realized that only one novel — The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Brian Moore (1965) — had been published about the time period and place. With historical fiction, it’s often valuable to find a gap to write into, and I felt like the Belfast Blitz provided this sort of gap, since so little was written about it. After more research, it didn’t take long for me to recognize the parallels to September 11th — and this experience would help me to understand what it might have been like to be in Belfast during the German bombings.
Q: The sister connection between Hettie and Anna is profound. How did you go about creating this?
A: My paternal grandmother, Helen Kirk Walsh Wright, lost her older brother when she was twenty: His name was Bernard Kirk, and he was at the height of his football career at the University of Michigan when he died in a tragic car accident in 1922. I was thinking about my grandmother and how she might have moved through this unimaginable grief as a young woman. Also, I have an older sister (by eighteen months), who is a writer, a storyteller and an athlete, and our relationship is one of the most important ones in my life. Writers often imagine worst-case scenarios for fiction — and so I imagined this scenario while also borrowing from my grandmother’s experiences.
Q: In 1940/41, it was unusual for a woman to work with animals in a zoo. How did you create the character of Hettie?
A: As a part of my research, I interviewed one of Denise Austin’s last living relatives, David Ramsey, and he told me about her days at the zoo and what it was like for her as the only female zookeeper in the 1940s. Also, I interviewed present-day zookeepers at the Belfast Zoo and Houston Zoo (closer to my home), and they provided a significant amount of material related to the daily life of a zoo employee during this time period — from a zookeeper not being seen as a valued job to the tiresome work of cleaning exhibits. At the Houston Zoo, I was lucky enough to bathe a three-year-old elephant named Tupelo and observe the training and feeding of the entire herd.
Like any novel, it did take many revisions to animate the contradictions and complexities of Hettie’s character. With each draft, her character always changed and deepened.
Q: The hierarchy at the zoo in terms of staff is quite interesting. Can you tell us how this came about?
A: Once again, I interviewed zookeepers: Raymond Robinson and Alyn Cairns at the Belfast Zoo, and Daryl Hoffman and Martina Stevens at the Houston Zoo. Since I knew that Denise Austin was the first female zookeeper in Belfast, I understood that she would be up against a fair amount of resistance and prejudice. In addition, it seemed likely that the Catholics would hold lesser positions of employment at the cafeteria and the kiosk.
Q: No spoiler here, but life was complex in Belfast without the bombings. Relationships were threatened by the changes in the world. What is your message about environment and how it affects each of us?
A: As we learned during the past year of the pandemic and the transition from Trump to Biden, life can be unpredictable and convulsive — and one never knows exactly where the violence might come from. Sometimes individuals’ radicalized passions and impulses can end up hurting the people they love the most. I wanted to explore how one person begins to live with such violence and contradiction and if forgiveness might be possible.
Q: Tell us a bit about your writing schedule and how long it took to write this novel.
A: It took me about seven years to write this novel. I started the first draft in the fall of 2012 and then completed a polished draft in 2018. I had some ups and downs with a literary agent. I parted ways with her and ended up selling the manuscript to Counterpoint Press on my own, and this part of the process took about a year. But all the while, I continued to revise and revise.
I do my best to write every day, and usually in the morning for two or three hours. Over the years, I have attended many residencies, most recently at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, and this sort of concentrated time can be extremely valuable for composing first drafts and then the subsequent revisions.
Q: What authors do you read, and are you able to read others while you are immersed in the writing of your own book?
A: I read a lot — whether I’m working on a novel or not. My favorite authors include Edward P. Jones, Alice Munro, William Trevor, and our former teacher, E. L. Doctorow. I love discovering new writers too: I loved Jamel Brinkley’s collection titled A Lucky Man and Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You. Recently, I read Deesha Philyaw’s collection titled The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which explores the inner lives of Black women and spirituality, and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is memorable and tragic. That said, with The Elephant of Belfast and my next manuscript (also set during the 1940s), I tend to stay away from World War II literature for fear of influence. For example, I haven’t read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, but I re-read his short stories. One of my favorites, “The Deep,” is set during Depression-era Detroit and chronicles the hardships and triumphs of a chronically ill young man.