A Life of Books with S. Kirk Walsh, author of The Elephant of Belfast

The Elephant of Belfast, the debut novel from S. Kirk Walsh, was inspired by events that took place in Northern Ireland during World War II. Inspired by the true store of Denise Austin, the book follows twenty-year-old zookeeper Hettie Quin and three-year-old elephant Violet. The two share an immense bond and one night in 1941 when bombs start dropping, Hettie does everything she can to protect Violet.

Walsh writes with exquisite and tender prose throughout the book making Elephant an unforgettable read. Below, she answered the semi-regular “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers can get to know her better.

Author photo by Erich Schlegel

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

I struggled with reading and writing when I was growing up, so picking up a book wasn’t my first instinct. That said, there was one novel that I remember returning frequently—both to read and take in the exquisite illustrations by Jules Feiffer: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I so identified with the protagonist, Milo, and his sidekick, Tock. Around the time I started to read, my home life was unstable, and I found consolation in Milo’s disappointment and despair. I was a quiet young girl caught in my own version of Doldrums—and Milo made me feel less alone. I also loved James and The Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. My family’s edition included beautiful colored illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert; I liked studying the illustrations as much as I enjoyed reading the story of James and his extraordinary peach. 

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

Yes! Given my own struggles, I think children should read whatever engages their imaginations—Nancy Drew books, comic books or graphic novels, Mad Magazine. When I was a kid, I was an enthusiastic consumer of Bazooka gum: I loved unfolding its tiny comics, fortunes, and kitschy advertisements with each piece and discovering what was written there. Indeed, whatever it takes to read and begin to understand how meaning—and an intimate relationship between author and reader—can be produced from words on the page. 

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I remember reading both novels from start to finish during high school, but it wasn’t until second readings into my twenties and even now where I started to comprehend the horrific injustices of racism and the abuse of Pecola and then the light and shadows of Esther Greenwood’s mental illness. Both novels are masterpieces, each depicting the human psyche under different kinds of duress, and I don’t think I understood the magnitude of these characters’ suffering until I was older. I grew up with a mother with severe depression, and I wished I had a better understanding of mental illness, that her mood swings were a force all their own. My mom once said to me, “I don’t want to be this way”—and as I grew into my adult years, I felt a similar sentiment coming from Esther Greenwood and her own experiences. 

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

As I moved into my later teen years, I read countless paperback thrillers and mysteries by Sidney Sheldon and V.C. Andrews. I can’t say that I’ve read one of these kinds of page-turners since that time in high school. Indeed, these were the books that got me reading (finally!), so I’m grateful to these authors. Today, I admire literary writers, such as Victor LaValle and Dan Chaon, who take elements of horror, crime, and mystery, and incorporate into their own memorable and inventive narratives. (I highly recommend The Changeling by LaValle and Chaon’s last story collection, Stay Awake.)

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

I read a handful of short stories again and again during the writing of this book: “The Deep” by Anthony Doerr and “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” by Edward P. Jones. Both of these masterful narratives feature young protagonists who are navigating lives with limited choices. “The Deep” set in Depression-era Detroit, and it’s about a young man, Tom, who is born with a weak heart, but manages to persevere despite the odds. (The final scene of the story takes place at the Belle Isle Aquarium; not quite a zoo, but similar.) I kept returning to this story for its vital animation of human fragility, love and resilience—and this is something that I was aspiring to realize with The Elephant of Belfast. With Jones’ short story, the author illustrates how the pigeons can provide some degree of hope and optimism in an otherwise-oppressed life of a young girl named Betsy Ann. Both of these stories opened up the question of what does it mean to be captive under certain circumstances? And what does it mean to be free? These were themes that I was exploring in my own book. 

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

Like many readers lately, I read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. It’s historical fiction that doesn’t read like historical fiction because of the contemporary-like voice and the use of present verb tense. Instead, the narrative is immediate and urgent, with desperation, passion, and sorrow lifting up from its pages. O’Farrell agilely braids two distinct narrative threads into something breathtaking, singular, and timeless. 

What books helped get you through quarantining and social distancing during 2020?

I enjoyed reading Sally Rooney’s novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People. It was comforting to be transported to Ireland, but also to the mundane activities and complicated thought-lives of her young characters. I loved reading The Maytrees by Annie Dillard with Elizabeth McCracken (A Public Space online reading group, #APStogether). It’s a simple, intricate narrative about a couple coming together, going a part, and coming back together at the end of their lives. The novel is largely set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and I have missed the ocean so much during the pandemic that I found Dillard’s endless descriptions of the sand, waves, and currents to supply a sort of balm for my soul. 

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

Detroit during WW2.

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