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'Why there's something magical about Protestant symbols such as King Billy and bonfires'

East Belfast author Jan Carson tells Linda Stewart how the colourful sights and sounds of the marching season inspired her new book, and how early dreams of becoming a football commentator faded in favour of writing

Jan Carson
Jan Carson
The Fire Starters by Jan Carson is published by Doubleday Ireland, £12.99

By Linda Stewart

We may live in the land of myth and fairytale, but Northern Ireland is not the first place that springs to mind when it comes to magic realism - and certainly not east Belfast.

Although our mythology is awash with fairy raths and giants and changelings, magic realism seems too fanciful for the Belfast tropes of grimy streetscapes peopled with hard men - instead evoking faraway places such as South America, India and the Caribbean.

But author Jan Carson says the streets of east Belfast in parade season, with the vivid symbols, thundering drums and towering bonfires, are ripe for the magic realism treatment.

Hence her intriguing new novel, The Fire Starters - years in cogitation and vivid with overheard conversations and observations gleaned on buses, in shopping centres and walking up and down the terraced streets of the city.

Grubby with realism, yet packed with a refreshing dose of the supernatural, the book documents three months of one febrile summer in the Protestant heartland of east Belfast as the marching season builds, climaxes and transforms.

But among those familiar streetscapes live a host of unexpected characters - a siren, a daytime vampire, a boy with wheels for feet, invisible twins.

"This is a magic realist novel," Jan says.

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"Most of my work is set in the real world, but other things happen - I don't do world-building or anything like that.

"What fascinated and drew me into bonfires as a magic realist is that I became really intrigued by the symbols of loyalism - the banners, the Lambeg drums, King Billy on his white horse, the Red Hand. Larger than life symbols.

"Whether you agree with the politics or not, there is something magical about those symbols. When you see the bonfire in an urban setting, and it's towering over the roofs, it takes on a magical tinge - it's like an otherworldly thing."

Jan with her mum and dad
Jan with her mum and dad

Jan, who was brought up in Ballymena but now lives in east Belfast, says it's only when you take a step back that you realise how strange it is to see these massive structures rising throughout the city during the months of May and June.

She recalls showing images of the bonfires to friends in America who thought the bonfires had been Photoshopped in: "We are used to them, but then you take them out of context.

"It's a great place to start because you get these images and symbols that are realist, but they aren't really."

Jan admits there can be a certain snobbery about genre fiction in general and magic realism in particular.

"There's a fine line between what Kurt Vonnegut does and magic realism. Some people would even classify as CS Lewis as magic realism, although I don't think it is.

"I think there can be a fine line and I am not that worried about labels. Some days I write stories that are entirely realist. Sometimes they're absurdist - they're about things that could happen but are very unlikely.

"Some people look down their nose at genre fiction because they think they're not written as well, and then I want to hit them over the head with a copy of Midnight's Children (by Salman Rushdie) - it's one of the best things I've read.

"I want to challenge that snobbery between what is literary fiction and what isn't. There's this sense that if something is inaccessible, it's good - that can really cut out a lot of people."

One of the things about magic realism is that it often becomes an indirect way to address the political situation where you live, she adds.

Jan with her dad and brother Alan as a child
Jan with her dad and brother Alan as a child

"You have people like Gunter Grass or Salman Rushdie using magic realism as a tool to unpick the politics of other countries. I think with magic realism, it gives you an opportunity to look at things that might be difficult to address directly."

The Fire Starters is set in the parading season of a particularly frenetic summer, in which a protest movement is emerging around the city following the introduction of height restrictions on the Twelfth bonfires. Young people are lighting fires in buildings in protest over the restrictions, Jan explains.

The tale focuses on two very different fathers - ex-paramilitary Sammy Agnew, who is wrestling with his dark past and is worried about the route his son is going down, and Dr Jonathan Murray, a GP who was seduced by a siren and has been left with a newborn daughter who may have inherited her mother's destructive abilities.

"The background is the political position and how much parents are responsible for what their children do," Jan says.

"That difficult relationship between fathers and their children is what really fascinates me."

Jan grew up a Presbyterian in Ballymena.

"My dad taught engineering in the tech in Coleraine and my mum was a childminder," she explains.

But one of her most formative influences as a child was her headmaster at Carniny Primary School, the late Dr Samuel Simpson, who introduced his pupils to art and the outdoors.

"I think that was one of my first encounters with the arts - he used to bring his record player into assembly and play classical records and tell us the story behind the piece," she says.

"For Ballymena in the 1980s, that was quite forward-thinking. Even though there were only about 140 pupils in the school, we had a full orchestra.

"I think you don't realise how much these early formative experiences have influenced you until you're older - there are a couple of people in my life like that."

Jan admits she was a voracious reader as a child and quickly ran through the book boxes in school. Another great haven was the town library in Ballymena - "I'm really passionate about libraries," she says.

Jan with her brother and sister-in-law Laurie
Jan with her brother and sister-in-law Laurie

"I read so much - the library was a really safe space for me. My mum would go and get the groceries and I would go to the library while she was getting the groceries.

"When I ran out of children's books, there were some great librarians who pointed me towards adult books I might like, such as Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and the Bronte sisters.

"Sometimes I would use my dad's or my mum's tickets as well. I'm still a voracious reader - in a year I get through about 200 novels."

As a child, Jan wanted to be a football commentator and remembers once interviewing Jackie Fullerton, but she began to gravitate towards the creative arts and admits to writing some terrible poetry as a sixth former.

It wasn't until she moved to the "very literary" city of Portland in Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest, that her path as a writer became clear.

"I met quite a few writers and I quickly discovered within a couple of months what I wanted to do. When I started writing, I thought, 'This is what you're meant to do'," she says.

"I've been writing for two hours a day, every day, since 2005. I've never stopped. I get grumpy if I don't do it every day."

After three years, Jan had to return to Northern Ireland because her visa had run out.

"The first few years when I came back to Northern Ireland were awful - I didn't want to be here. It was hard-going - I didn't have any friends here anymore and I felt like a complete failure. At 30 you're supposed to have sorted your life out," she says.

But while working at a day job in the Tower Centre in Ballymena, she continued writing in the coffee island outside Primark during her lunch breaks and sometimes in the evenings at Costa Coffee in Tesco.

"I think I learned this: if you are waiting for things to be easy and ideal, you will never write. If you can write in the coffee island, you can write anywhere," she says.

"They weren't very glamorous surroundings, but if you can write in the difficult spaces and parts of your life when things aren't easy, you write regardless."

Now living in east Belfast, Jan still writes in coffee shops, using the 20-minute walk from the house as the chance to plan her work for the day.

She has a particularly soft spot for Clements in Ballyhackamore and has even included the baristas in one section of the book.

"I wanted to give the guys a nod, so that they can see that I notice how great they are in there," she says.

The new book also puts Ulster Protestantism under the microscope, along with the city of Belfast and the legacy of the Troubles.

Jan says she wanted to explore the roots of where she comes from in terms of Protestant culture.

Early in the book comes a visceral and open-eyed paean to Belfast, a dissecting of the city in all its guts and glory - perhaps a love letter that openheartedly accepts all the flaws and follies, along with the perfections.

"It's not a break-up letter," Jan jokes. "It's maybe like the kind of a letter that you send to a sibling - 'I love you, but you drive me crazy sometimes'.

"I was here for a good few years when I started to write this, and a lot of it was mulled over for a long time.

"I am the kind of writer who needs to be immersed in what I am writing. I like to be able to look out through the Venetian blind and see what I am writing about.

"I was really immersed in the neighbourhood, earwigging on people in the Connswater Shopping Centre, listening on buses - it's important to spend time with the place and the characters before you commit it to paper."

Each section begins with an in-depth description of the physical geography and how it is impacted at that time of the year, with the sounds of the oncoming drums in the distance, growing louder as the temperature rises and the Twelfth approaches.

There are the parades and bonfires themselves, the news broadcasts, the talk of the ordinary people and the mounting anticipation.

"It always feels a bit like a pressure cooker - and then afterwards the tension is dissipated," Jan says.

"Then, by the time the schools are going back, it's all packed away for another year, like you're taking the Christmas decorations down."

She points out: "It's not a book that is meant to mock the culture. I guess as a writer you're always on the edge of things - it's like being a camera and recording what you see. Some things that I've recorded, people might not like. But I've tried to be truthful and say, 'All this is in this community'."

In the run-up to the book launch, Jan has been interviewed by a few English journalists and has ended up having to explain Northern Ireland and the marching season to them.

"They're intrigued - people are listening to the DUP on the news and are hearing about different aspects of our culture, but they don't understand it and they're asking, 'Can you explain this? Why do they light the bonfires?'"

Jan says part of the reason behind the book - despite the magic realism in the foreground - is to say, 'This is what it's like, this is why it happens'.

"If people in Westminster don't understand that side of the culture, they are not going to understand how to deal with Northern Ireland, and that has implications for Brexit and for the border," she adds.

"The more they understand, the more they are likely to make nuanced and informed decisions about us."

  • The Fire Starters by Jan Carson is published by Doubleday Ireland, £12.99

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