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How watching her adored gran's slow decline from Alzheimer's inspired Jan's brilliantly moving novel

Ballymena author Jan Carson tells Una Brankin about the family tragedy that prompted her debut and why she's fascinated by Bob Dylan

She doesn't have the fierce dour face of her famous unionist namesake, but Ballymena-born Jan Carson reckons they share a similar facial characteristic.

"I've got a funny nose like Edward Carson but I'm no relation to him – nor to the poet Ciaran Carson, by the way," she tells me from her office in Belfast's Ulster Hall, co-incidentally the venue for Edward Carson's incendiary Ulster Day rally in September 1912.

Carson and James Craig's anti-Home Rule campaign is part and parcel of the history that features in Jan's role as a community arts development officer at the hall, but she is more interested in her church work and her cross-community projects with senior citizens – and on top of all that – in writing fiction.

The 34-year-old's first book, Malcolm Orange Disappears – hailed by writer Ian Sansom as "the best debut novel I've read in years" – is set in a technicolour world of magic realism a million miles away from the Ulster Hall's political heritage. It centres on the 'heartbreakingly resilient Malcolm Orange and his dysfunctional family as he embarks on a hilarious and touching adventure to find a cure for disappearing'.

If that sounds off-beat, it's deliberately so: 'quirky' is how Liberties Press is describing the story. The novel opens one week after young Malcolm's father abandons his family in a pay-by-the-week motel on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, on the Pacific north-western coast of America. The action unfolds in a retirement village, with the older people living there given the chance to share their story as the plot progresses. Jan says it was inspired by her grandmother's dementia, of which more later.

Jan spent three-and-a-half years in Portland working as an arts pastor, helping to forge links between the faithful and the cultural sector. She is passionate about helping churches engage with the arts.

"I was given this wonderful opportunity in 2005 to work alongside an existing faith community in Portland, which had almost 500 artists involved in artistic development and partnership with the city's culture and arts scene," she explains. "We provided volunteers to run arts mentoring schemes in schools and youth programmes, helped to run an art-house cinema and gallery, as well as support dozens of art festivals, and had a thoroughly brilliant time. Belfast's equivalent scene isn't as mature, but I found a truly supportive artistic community when I came home."

Still, the English Literature BA and Theology MA graduate admits she found it difficult to settle when she returned home to Northern Ireland. "When I came back from the expanse of the north west coast of America to live with my parents – mum's a child-minder and dad's a lecturer in engineering – I found it claustrophobic," she says. "There are expectations of you when you come back ... but I ended up having to work in the Seven Towers shopping centre in Ballymena – which was quite forgettable!

"I did find it an incredibly difficult and often frustrating experience, and found that distance had given me an objectivity about my old home-town which I didn't really know how to process."

Being close to her family, however, eased the transition.

"We're very close-knit and I have a niece and nephew – young Caleb has a fantastic imagination, which helped me start writing Malcolm Orange. I don't write every day; I'm a weekend writer, and I write on any holiday I go on. I'm pretty good at churning out words very quickly and I've a good group of friends who keep me at it.

"I wrote Malcolm for an hour-and-a-half at a coffee shop every morning – a friend would meet me there and stay to keep guard while I wrote. I need hustle and bustle to write; I can't write in silence. I'd get writer's block in retreats."

Jan's niece and nephew are the children of her only sibling Alan (30), who runs Belfast City Vineyard evangelistic church group on Castlereagh Street. Unconventional for a pastor, Alan goes about his compassionate duties in a rugby top and jeans, unwilling to draw a line between himself and those who benefit from his group's Storehouse food and provisions charity.

Jan volunteers for the Cornmarket-based Storehouse, which has suppliers who sell fresh fruit and vegetables to the charity at a lower cost. The major supermarkets allow the volunteers to do collections in store and they have a clothing facility and furniture warehouse in Dunmurry.

It's evident that Jan's work with older people through Storehouse and her job with the Ulster Hall is something she finds particularly rewarding. "I've always enjoyed the company of older people," she says. "I was very close to my maternal grandmother and as a child, spent a lot of time travelling round Northern Ireland and enjoying her company. She was an amazing lady with a real grace, a passion for serving other people and a natural ability to attract interesting situations.

"She developed Alzheimer's at quite an early stage and it was a very difficult journey for our family watching her lose her independence, her memories and, finally, her ability to communicate with us. Since then, I've been passionate about helping older people to enjoy their lives in the fullest possible sense for as long as possible."

In a recent article, Jan wrote movingly about her 'Nana', describing her as 'an amazing pianist, a blistering conversationalist and friend to everyone she met ... Dementia swept through Nana like a plague, leaving her incapable of playing the piano or forming coherent words ... [she was] pathetically thin, with a wardrobe reduced to nightdresses and comfortable slippers and, most upsetting of all, occasionally afraid of her own family members'.

As part of her job with the Ulster Hall, Jan organises the very popular tri-annual tea dances for senior citizens, holds reminiscence sessions and has recently completed a "wonderful" writing project for older people, working alongside Belfast Poet Laureate, Sinead Morrissey. She has also recently begun a training scheme with the Arts Council and Dementia Services Development Centre, exploring ways in which artists can address the issues related to dementia in their work, and also work alongside people living with dementia.

Jan says: "Some of the stories which came out of the sessions with Sinead Morrissey were so rich with language and detail, they inspired new ideas for short stories to work on in the future. In Malcolm Orange Disappears many of the older characters are – if not based on – definitely inspired by some of the older people I've had the pleasure of getting to know over the last number of years.

"I want to help older people and those living with dementia to use the arts to enhance their quality of life and help them to retain dignity and creative ability for as long as possible. It's something I am very passionate about and I am currently working on developing a character who is living with dementia as part of my second novel, Roundabouts."

She's 50,000 words into Roundabouts, for which she received an Arts Council Grant to fund a research trip to rural Minnesota in September. Set in Ballymena, Roundabouts tells the story of a music journalist in London who has a mental breakdown and comes back to live with her parents. ("She's not based on me but there's a lot of me in the book.")

The protagonist is writing a biography of Bob Dylan's early life in rural Minnesota – the subject of part of the author's MA dissertation in Theology and Contemporary Culture at St Andrews University in Scotland.

"I just missed William and Kate – they were there just before me, but I sat in the same chair as him," Jan recalls. "I read 43 books on Dylan for my MA, but I want to get a sense of place for the book.

"I am absolutely fascinated by Dylan. After writing my masters dissertation on his use of language in Highway 61 Revisited, I simply could not stop reading books about him and listening to his music. It became clear early on that much of his early life in Hibbing, Minnesota, was not so far removed from the experience of young people growing up in rural Northern Irish towns. The idea germinated from there.

"I did see Dylan perform once and was very disappointed – but I'm taking a punt on going to see him again in Dublin on June 17."

  • Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson, Liberties Press, £11.99, available from all good book stores, including Waterstones on-line at £11.99

Her fave books, CDs, films and TV

Q. Favourite authors?

A. Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Richard Brautigan, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Chandler. Contemporary ones would include George Saunders, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Jeffrey Eugenides (it's very difficult to stop as I devour books and really enjoy a very wide range of writers!)

Q. Favourite films?

A. I love most of PT Anderson's movies, particularly Magnolia. I also really like Hitchcock a lot and I always come back to the Wes Anderson movies because he has such a warm eye for writing characters who are both flawed and truly likeable at the same time

Q. Favourite CDs/records?

A. Low – Things We Lost in the Fire

Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited

Belle and Sebastian – Tigermilk

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Q. Favourite TV shows?

A. I only watch Casualty and Holby City but I do so religiously, and have barely missed an episode since 1997. It is my lifetime ambition to be an extra on Casualty

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