In the spring of 1941, four German bombing attacks devastated the densely-populated city of Belfast. Government officials, who feared that a hit to the city’s zoo might lead to the accidental release of dangerous animals, ordered a number of animals to be killed. But a baby elephant named Sheila was spared, taken home, and sheltered by one of the zoo’s first female zookeepers.
The novelist S. Kirk Walsh (whose first name is also Sheila) took inspiration from this story The Elephant of Belfast, which vividly captures a young woman’s emotional experience of historical trauma and the growth of a deep bond between zookeeper and elephant. In writing about wartime Belfast, Walsh reflected on her own experience living in Manhattan during September 11. For her, the collective public mourning that followed both traumatic events contrasts with the private grief many of us have endured during the pandemic.
—Karen Olsson for Guernica
Guernica: You recently wrote an essay for The New York Times Book Review about two events in your twenties—studying under E.L. Doctorow at NYU and injuring your arm so that you were temporarily unable to write—and how their confluence taught you to listen to books, to hear the music in the prose. “Read deeply, steal what you can and always listen for the music,” Doctorow told you. I wonder how your new novel reflects those instructions. What books inspired this one? What did you steal? And is there a kind of music you understand it to have?
Walsh: Doctorow inspired me with his ability to breathe imagination and vitality into specific historical moments and to craft such compelling, layered narratives. Two of my favorites are World’s Fair and The Book of Daniel, and I love his short stories too.
I “stole” from Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. It’s a beautiful novel about Japanese picture brides immigrating to the United States after World War I and enduring the internment camps during World War II. During the early drafts of my novel, I was struggling with all of the devastation that comes with wartime violence, and I had concerns that it might make the story too dark. A friend suggested I read Otsuka’s novel, in which children supply some levity and innocence in the face of brutality. This gave me the idea of introducing several minor characters that help give the book a lightness, despite all of the loss.
Also, I read two masterful short stories again and again while writing this book: “The Deep” by Anthony Doerr and “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” by Edward P. Jones. Both feature young protagonists who are navigating lives with limited choices.
Guernica: The novel is based on the story of Denise Weston Austin, a zookeeper who protected a baby elephant during the Belfast bombing. How did you encounter that story originally, and what made you want to re-envision it as a novel?
Walsh: 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 younger cousin, David Ramsey, called up the zoo and identified her. I interviewed Ramsey as a part of my research, and he actually has memories of riding on the back of the elephant and the animal’s distinctive “locomotion.” It seemed like a good story for a novel. And because my dad’s extended family is from Ireland, I always knew that I wanted to write something set there.
One of my teachers in graduate school, Mona Simpson, said that you should set a novel in a spot where you want to spend a lot of time in your imagination. Though I didn’t know a lot about Belfast when I started the book, I knew I wanted to “live” there for this long stretch of time. As it turns out, when my husband and I did finally travel there, we both felt right at home. The people were so kind and generous, and the sky was often a pewter gray that reminded me of Michigan, where I’m from. And the northern coastline is spectacular, wild, and rugged.
I started to look around the Internet and saw that there wasn’t much written about the Belfast Blitz, so there was a gap that I could write into. Also, I learned that the casualty toll from the Easter Tuesday attacks was about a thousand deaths, and this reminded me of the scope of the September 11 attacks. Having lived in the city during that time, I felt like I could draw from that experience to understand what it might have been like to be in Belfast during the bombings by the Germans.
Lastly, I wasn’t able to have children, and this experience of undiagnosed infertility has defined my adult life in many ways. Almost all of my characters are childless; with this novel, I was interested in exploring aspects of a mother-child relationship between a young woman and an animal, where unconditional love could also exist.
Guernica: Did you do a lot of research before you began writing? Or were the research and writing concurrent?
Walsh: The writing and research were concurrent throughout the many drafts. I read firsthand accounts and studied photos, but I finished a first draft before traveling to Belfast and interviewing survivors. There isn’t a lot written about the Bellevue Zoo during World War II, but I did find a short self-published essay by local historian Stewart McFetridge. It’s only five pages long, but the facts offered up much of the scaffolding of the novel.
The trip to Belfast was incredibly valuable. I spent two days at the Belfast Zoo, where zookeeper Raymond Robinson shared many stories about the zoo, the animals, and the bombings. I also had a chance to interview survivors of the Belfast Blitz. And I was lucky to connect with the scholar Brian Barton, the foremost historian of the Belfast Blitz. He generously offered to read drafts of the manuscript, and his detailed feedback improved the historical accuracy of the narrative.
Guernica: It must have been daunting to take on the Belfast bombing as a subject. Had you ever written about something so panoramic and violent before? Did you have literary models that helped you with this part of the book?
Walsh: When I lived in New York, I spent many hours with my late friend, the writer John McNeel, who served as an enlisted soldier during World War II and participated in some of the war’s worst battles. John’s stories and spirit were part of the inspiration for this book.
Two novels also inspired me: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann and Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. Both authors are Irish, writing about September 11 in their own distinctive way, with such freshness and boldness. Their work gave me permission to write about a city that wasn’t my own.
Then, while I was working on The Elephant of Belfast, Karan Mahajan visited my fiction workshop to discuss his novel, The Association of Small Bombs. I liked the way that Karan spoke of writing about violence: “I tried to soften the language where possible, so I wasn’t glorifying or making the violence sensational,” he told us. He also tried to make sure that his characters were experiencing more than one emotion at once, particularly in a crisis. I kept these suggestions in mind when I was writing about the bombings.
Guernica: Could you tell me more about how September 11 informed your book?
Walsh: A few weeks after the terrorist attacks, I opened a Word document and wrote down a list of details that I had experienced that day—the acrid, burning-plastic odor that never seemed to leave the air, the city buses with soot-covered hubcaps and the words emergency vehicle flashing in the narrow marquees at the front, the papering of missing-person fliers on the glass wall of the Citibank in my neighborhood, the impromptu memorials of flowers and photos that appeared all over Manhattan…there were many more, and all of them informed the writing of The Elephant of Belfast.
I did have one experience that directly inspired scenes in the book. I’ve always been a runner, and one day soon after the attacks, I went for a run in Central Park. When I was returning home, on the Bridle Path, a majestic chestnut horse came running toward me. There was no rider on the horse. It was a surreal moment. Of course, I thought, anything is possible now that my city has been attacked. Then, I realized that the police were attempting to corral the horse, and that the rider had been bucked much further down the path. When I was writing about Belfast, I often returned to this moment, to how the tragedy of massive violence and its devastation can recalibrate life—and the heart—to a different kind of normal.
On the thematic front, I was interested in exploring personal grief within the context of a city’s collective grief. During those days and weeks after September 11, our collective and personal grief was so outward, on public display, and it was acceptable. I remember on several occasions witnessing strangers in tears as they walked down the sidewalk or stood in the checkout line at Fairway. There was a relief in it. I think this has been one of the greatest challenges of the pandemic: we haven’t been able to grieve with our family and friends, or even strangers. We’ve been at home or behind Zoom screens, isolated in our grief—both personal and collective.
Guernica: You have been drawn, here and elsewhere, to write about grief. What do you think you’ve learned about how to do it well?
Walsh: Like a lot of novels, this book started with a question. My paternal grandmother suffered a lot of grief, and I wanted to explore how she survived it. Her twenty-year-old brother died soon after a tragic car accident in 1922. At the time, he was an all-American football player for the University of Michigan. Her two husbands passed, the second after only four months of marriage. My grandmother turned to Catholicism for solace. She once wrote to me, “I love the comfort of ritual and the power of knowledge.” And this is something that I drew from as a counterpoint to the overwhelming grief in the novel.
Personally, I’ve experienced a fair amount of grief in my own life. When I started the novel, my stepsister had passed from a rare form of cancer. Before that, I lost one of my best friends to AIDS, and I also struggled with grief over my own infertility. I took a workshop recently with Dana Spiotta, and she spoke about how writing a novel allows us to think about things in a deep, sustained way—that we need the long form for this kind of rich and meaningful conversation. That said, things keep changing. A few months after The Elephant of Belfast was sold to Counterpoint, my parents died within ten weeks of each other. Even though my mom and dad were elderly, it was startling. One of the themes of the novel is being an orphan, but I didn’t expect to become an orphan by the time the novel was published. During the aftermaths of my parents’ deaths, I was going through the copy edits and later the early proof pages, and as I read through the novel again and again, I felt like my characters were teaching me about resilience and compassion.
Guernica: Some of the most captivating scenes in the novel are public dances, like shafts of light in a shadowy canvas, at a venue called Floral Hall. What was the genesis of those scenes? Was Floral Hall an actual place?
Walsh: Yes, it is! And it’s located on the grounds of the Belfast Zoo (formerly called the Bellevue Zoo). The building is now dilapidated and closed. During our visit to Belfast, a man named John Hughes told me how he and his wife used to dance there together. He was a slightly austere and formal man, but his eyes lit up a bit when he talked about his time at Floral Hall. Hughes has since passed away. But I knew during that moment that I wanted to write about the dance hall.
Guernica: How did you make an elephant into a satisfying character? What found its way onto the page early on, and what did you add in revision?
Walsh: I read a few animal-related books as I was doing research: How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King and Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina. In her book, King writes: “When elephants grieve, the emotion may stream from those huge, wrinkled-gray bodies in palpable waves. If you are close enough, you can feel it in the air.” Also, I paid two visits to the Houston Zoo, and the zookeepers there allowed me to hang out with their elephants. All of this informed the writing of Violet. That said, it took many revisions to develop Violet’s character; even though she is an elephant, she needed the same kind of care and attention as a human character.
Guernica: This is your first published novel, but not the first novel you’ve written. How do you think about that long gestation period, now that it’s over?
Walsh: Even though my first two novels weren’t published, each manuscript has taught me how to be a better writer and reader. My confidence grew, then diminished, with each manuscript because there was so much rejection along the way. There was a year or so where it looked like things might not work out with The Elephant of Belfast, and once again, I was feeling despondent about not finding the right readers for the manuscript, after all the hard work. When I asked my husband what I should do next, he said, “Write another novel.” I’m fortunate to have a partner who is supportive of my creative work, whether I succeed or not.
When I studied with Doctorow, we read The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac. I remember Doctorow talking about On the Road and how Kerouac wrote the novel during a three-week, amphetamine-fueled writing session. In so many words, Doctorow said that this kind of feverish writing—particularly one fueled by drugs—would not likely lead to a narrative with much heart or meaning. In order to excavate the deeper truths of life, love, and grief, there needs to be a more steady, long-term relationship with the work. I often think about this. It is not a race. We just write until we’ve taken the work as far as it can go.