S. Kirk Walsh
It is hard to publish a novel,” states S. Kirk Walsh. The writer, who has made a career as a journalist, book reviewer, and now, with the spring release of The Elephant of Belfast, a published author, dispels the notion of a young graduate writing a book and seeing it on shelves within a few years.
Walsh says that writing “didn’t come naturally to her.” As someone who struggled with dyslexia as a child, the former Birmingham resident and Cranbrook Kingswood alum recalls finding her footing on the tennis court and lacrosse field as opposed to on the page. Yet while she says that she discovered her passion for writing during her junior year of college when she spent a semester abroad in London, she also remembers writing weekly stories in her fifth grade class at Birmingham’s Quarton Elementary School, as well as lessons from her teacher, Mrs. Weiner at Kingswood, who taught her to “always read with a pencil or pen in your hand to underline passages. I’ve been a book reviewer for a long time, and you mark up the book a lot when you’re reviewing, so I think of her a lot.”
For Walsh, writing and reading are fundamentally intertwined. As a student in the graduate creative writing program at New York University, she says that “I definitely felt like I got my education around literature and writing.” Again citing the influences of her teachers, she continues that “probably my most influential teacher was E.L. Doctorow, who taught me that reading is just as important as the writing part. To be a fiction writer, you have to be reading a lot to build an understanding of narrative and character.”
When Walsh is not writing, she, too, is an educator, running an adult fiction workshop in Austin, Texas, her home since 2004.
The Elephant of Belfast is Walsh’s third finished novel, but she believes that there is a reason it is the first one to reach a wide audience.
“We traveled to Belfast, and I interviewed survivors of the Belfast Blitz and zookeepers at the zoo. I got a lot of great material that I built the narrative around, but over time, I also trusted my imagination to make things up,” she said.
Readers are clearly connecting with the story despite the book’s release in the midst of a global pandemic. “One thing I wasn’t expecting was the book ecosystem on Instagram. There’s a lot of book-grammers out there, writing little reviews, and I’m getting tagged,” from as far away as Australia. She also saw readers in person at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book in September, as well as during a class visit to Cranbrook's Upper School in late September.
Walsh’s next novel will take her back home to metro Detroit, where she grew up and where she still has family. “I feel a wind at my back now as I work on my next book, a little more support, it feels a little less daunting. I know Detroit in my bones, so it’s a little easier. … It feels nice to be thinking about home. There’s a nice connection to place.”
Story: Hillary Brody Anchill
Photo: Mike Dolan