Author Jan Carson's life has been full of novel twists
Co Antrim writer Jan Carson, who embarked on an epic project to write postcards to people all around the world every day for a year in 2015, talks to Lee Henry about her admiration for Hollywood star Liam Neeson, what inspires her and how she likes to relax
Ballymena-born author Jan Carson describes herself as “a dreadful overachiever”, and when you examine some of the remarkably ambitious things the 37-year-old has accomplished in recent years, it’s easy to see why.
First there was the critically acclaimed magical realist novel Malcolm Orange Disappears, which tells the story of a boy who slowly but surely begins to vanish from sight. “I’ve always been blessed,” she observes, with some understatement, “by an over-leaping imagination”.
There followed an extensive book tour that took her all around America which she describes as “exhausting”, a follow up collection of Short Stories, Children’s Children, and a hectic schedule of organising tea parties for pensioners and similar events as part of her former job as arts development officer at the Ulster Hall, Belfast.
Most recently, she has interviewed writers and read from her own work at the 2017 Belfast Book Festival, which she describes as “fabulously eclectic”, and had her newly-penned radio monologue, UnRavelling air on BBC Radio 3 last week which was read by fellow Ballymena export Liam Neeson.
Written through the Writer’s Room initiative, the monologue focused on a concert pianist who has developed dementia as he attempts to play a piece by Ravel, and is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.
As Jan’s grandmother developed Alzheimer’s in later life, it is a subject matter which is close to the author’s heart.
“I think Liam has an incredible presence about him,” she adds. “I know this is a cliche and something I probably won’t get away with, also coming from Ballymena, but there’s just something so grave and warm and wise about his voice.
“I recently watched A Monster Calls, where Liam plays a speaking tree, and he can actually move me to tears with the tone of his voice. It has been such an honour to have him reading my work. I’d say Schindler’s List is probably my stand-out Liam Neeson film.
“It’s not a film you could ever say you enjoyed but I think it’s one of those films where you can see the heights and depths of his capability as an actor.”
Rather than sit back and relax, take it all in and appreciate her success since graduating from Queen’s University Belfast with a degree in English and a Masters in Theology from St Andrew’s in Edinburgh, however, in the midst of all this, Jan set herself a challenge.
As 2014 segued into 2015, she would write a short story every day for 365 days straight, scribble them down on postcards and mail them to friends, family and acquaintances far and wide. What became the Postcard Stories project was, she admits, almost a step too far.
“By January 8, I’d realised my mistake. There were still 357 days left in the year and I was already fed up forcing myself to develop ideas and squeeze them onto tiny pieces of cardboard, but I hadn’t left myself any room to back out. I’d already recruited 365 recipients.
“I had promised that I would post stories to friends everywhere from South Africa and China to Dundonald. If I didn’t knuckle down and write the stories, people would be disappointed. I couldn’t be responsible for disappointing old people and children, so I got writing.”
Having composed fan girl letters to English boy band Take That and Blur frontman Damon Albarn as a teenager, and kept up correspondence with pen friends in Germany and Londonderry, Jan has always prized the communicative act of letter writing.
Her love of literature was instilled from a young age. She attended Carniny Primary School in Ballymena and subsequently Cambridge House Grammar School for Girls, and remembers her parents, Robin and Joye, reading to her often.
“My dad likes to read crime fiction and my brother Alan has had a life-long obsession with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books. My parents took me to the library weekly and encouraged me to read and write, which I’m really grateful for.” Favourite authors as a young girl were Roald Dahl, Joan Aiken — “I could empathise easily with her incredible female heroes” — and Agatha Christie. As she got older, however, she gravitated more toward factual writing, memoir and autobiography, particularly the letter writing of RM Rilke and Sylvia Plath.
Short story writers are also an inspiration. “Raymond Carver is a particular favourite. The edited versions of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love are an absolute masterclass in honing the essence of a story down into a really tight form. Similarly, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear the American writer George Saunders speak twice in the last year.
“I absolutely love Grace Paley’s work and have recently enjoyed Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God, many of which are only a page long, and Dan Rhodes’ hilarious and heart-breaking Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories, where he writes little 120 word stories about his fictitious girlfriends.”
The Co Antrim author followed their lead when it came to Postcard Stories. She argues that, in the digital age, with Facebook and Netflix and a never-ending array of apps at our fingertips, the act of letter writing has inevitably taken a hit. When asked if handwritten correspondence is dead, however, Carson is adamant that it is “absolutely not”.
“I think we just need a bit of a kick up the bum in that regard, myself included. I’ve moved around a lot in my life, having lived and worked as an arts pastor — which she clarifies as meaning ‘helping to forge links between the faithful and the cultural sector’ — in Portland, for example, and I’m such a sociable person that I tend to accumulate lots of wonderful friends. As a result I’m always struggling to keep up.
“There just aren’t enough hours in the day to be emailing and phoning and catching up over coffee. I think the Postcard Stories were just a great way of saying, ‘Let me send you a wee story to let you know you’ve played an important part in my life and that I haven’t forgotten about you’.”
Though the challenge of dreaming up new ideas each and every day was difficult, the response from her readers became a spur for Jan. “People have forgotten how much they enjoy getting real things in the post,” she adds.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people have told me how they relished receiving their Postcard Stories. They’ve framed them, pinned them up on their fridges, kept them on the mantelpiece.
“I received illustrations, letters, postcards, art, even some jam back in the post as a response to sending my stories. Hopefully this is the beginning of some sort of mail revolution. If nothing else, it’s nice to receive something that isn’t a bill or an advertising flier in the post.”
The Emma Press last month published Postcard Stories — Jan’s third book in four years — featuring 50 examples of her flash fiction, all of which were chosen because of their focus on Northern Irish locations.
By writing about sights observed and snippets of conversations overheard in places like the Albertbridge Road and even the Bethany chip shop in east Belfast where she now lives, the publishers gave the collection a distinct sense of place.
“Alain de Botton, in his fabulous book The Art Of Travel, writes about developing the ability to see a familiar place through a stranger’s eyes, and this is how you can become an explorer and adventurer in your own home place, constantly challenged by the streets and sites you see every day,” she points out.
“My favourite story included in the collection is from Week 50, about a Kay Ryan poem. There are also quite a few stories about IKEA because I spent a lot of time there in 2015 whilst moving house.’
That willingness to connect with people, to forge relationships and encourage a sense of community, is a driving force in her personal as well as her professional life. Having recently gone freelance, these days she spends her working week advising arts organisations on accessibility best practice and curating events for the elderly.
Her Dementia Screenings series at Queen’s Film Theatre was designed to appeal to those living with dementia and other mental and physical health issues while she uses her new-found literary standing to foster the Northern Irish literary scene and promote other authors.
With so many plates spinning, a new book inspired by the work of Bob Dylan in the pipeline and a new career, perhaps, in writing for radio in the offing, Jan is as busy as ever, determined to overachieve at every opportunity.
Despite admitting that she is “not very good at resting”, when forced to fantasise, if only for a brief moment, about her ideal down day, she unsurprisingly keeps her attention on the arts.
“I love going to the cinema,” she says. “I go to the QFT a couple of times a week, because I can just switch off and actually focus on the film and relax there, so I guess that might be first on my list.
“I also love to be at the beach. There’s something about the sound of the ocean and the pace of being at the seaside that just seems to settle me.
“Free time is precious, though, and I like to spend it with friends and with my family. We try to do extended family dinners most Friday nights at my brother’s house and this has also become a great way for us all to connect.”
Jan’s monologue UnRavelling, which is voiced by Liam Neeson and was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, is currently available on iPlayer for another two weeks
Postcard Stories by Jan Carson is published by the Emma Press, £6.50