As her latest novel is published, the bestselling writer discusses the benefits that arise from exploring a difficult issue through a fictional lens
Eventually every fiction writer will be asked if her work is based upon real life. If she’s lucky the question will be a general one. “So where do you get your ideas from? Do you write about stuff that actually happened to you?”
Occasionally, however, she’ll be cornered by an animated reader who insists that a character is based on them, or that her fictional setting is actually the small town they grew up in. It rarely is. Most peoples’ perception of themselves is wildly different from reality. Write them up in scathing detail and they never recognise themselves.
The wise writer will adamantly deny any correlation between real life and fiction. To admit she’s just rebranded Uncle Trevor as Aunty Jean in order use his scandalous antics as fodder for her latest novel is likely to have the family up in arms.
Here in Northern Ireland, we like our skeletons to stay in the closets. Whatever you say, say nothing at all. Time and time again, I’ve found myself lying when asked if there’s any truth behind my fiction.
“Oh no,” I’ll say. “None of it’s real. I made it all up.” With The Raptures, my third novel and seventh book, I’m finally coming clean about my stories. Every single one of them is based on my life and the people I’ve met.
There’s a precedent for writers passing off lived experience as fiction. It’s present in novels like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit which explores themes later revisited in her brilliant non-fiction memoir, Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?
When making stuff up, a writer has nothing but real life to draw on. She might change names, dates or genders and explore her experiences through allegory or metaphor.
She might filter the truth through the lens of the fantastical as I do in much of my writing, but a writer always builds story from the blocks of what she knows and this knowledge is either gleaned through personal experience or second-hand from films, books, conversation and the like.
In my previous novel, The Fire Starters, I wrote from the perspective of Sammy, an older man, ex-paramilitary and father. I am not now, and never have been, any of these things. In writing Sammy’s experience of fear, grief and frustration I drew upon the times in my life when I’ve felt similarly.
Sammy’s emotional landscape, though wildly different from my own, was forged from a wide range of my experiences. When it comes to the physicality and personality of my characters they’re usually Frankenstein’s monsters, based not upon a single person but rather multiple tiny snippets lifted from lots of people I’ve met.
Sammy was a composite fashioned from dozens of older Belfast men I’ve encountered during two decades working in community arts. I was particularly keen to explore how he processed — or perhaps, failed to process — the trauma of what he’d lived through during the Troubles because I’d met so many men who could not articulate similar pain.
Writing has forced me to view the world as material for stories. I’ve become an extremely nosy person: watching, listening, peering through windows and out of buses, always searching for material which could be tweaked or assimilated into a story.
I prefer to write in coffee shops, sacrificing the silence of home for the opportunity to observe people as I’m writing. I need to see how people carry themselves.
I listen to the particular way they talk differently in different areas. I watch how their bodies and faces change in response to each other. I imagine this process is almost painterly.
During lockdown I lived alone and desperately missed my coffee shops. When writing the stories which featured in The Last Resort, (10 linked monologues centred around a Ballycastle caravan park, recently broadcast on Radio 4 and published by Doubleday), I had to draw heavily on my bank of past impressions and experiences.
Consequently, the characters which emerged, though varied in background and age, feel closer to representations of myself than anything I’ve ever written. Without outside inspiration, I find it difficult not to recreate myself in my characters. My own voice has a way of insisting it’s heard.
I’d be lying if I said my new novel The Raptures isn’t also based on myself. It’s set in a fictional County Antrim village in 1993; a community similar to the one I grew up in, around this time. Over the course of a single summer, a number of the children in the local primary begin to sicken and die of a mysterious illness.
The villagers struggle to discover who or what’s to blame. Their community is stretched to breaking point as they try to manage their loss and make sense of it.
Much of the story is told through the eyes of Hannah Adger. Hannah’s a feisty, imaginative 10-year-old. She’s totally confused by the circumstances she’s been pitched into. The tragedy forces her to reconsider everything she believes: religion, family relationships and reality itself.
There are magical realist elements in this novel and also a deep exploration of religious faith.
My own first experiences of narrative were the Bible stories I encountered whilst growing up in a rural Presbyterian church. I suspect this early exposure to themes like legacy, grace and retribution alongside Biblical miracles and apocalyptic imagery shaped the way I now write. I find myself consistently weaving the miraculous into my stories.
I’m also drawn to narratives which explore the complexities of faith and doubt. All these aspects are present in The Raptures alongside humour, mystery and a portrait of the rural County Antrim landscape which I love more than anywhere else in the world.
In this novel I’ve once again used personal experiences to cobble together a work of fiction from many small nuggets of truth. Like Hannah I spent much of my childhood in a village on the edge of Ballymena.
I benefitted from the security of belonging to this tightly knit community where it was easy to be known and families looked out for each other.
Though I grew up during the Troubles, and there were times when the conflict impacted our community, as a child I always felt safe and extremely secure. I am incredibly grateful for this.
I attended a small school similar to the one in The Raptures. It had an emphasis on creativity, nature and community. Hannah is inspired and nurtured by her P7 teacher, Miss McKeown.
I was fortunate to have Dr Sam Simpson as principle during my time in Carniny Primary. His emphasis upon music and art had an enormous impact upon my journey as a writer. Though Dr Simpson sadly passed away a few years ago, I’ve recently had a chance to honour his legacy with a spoken word and music commission in collaboration with the Ulster Orchestra.
I’m looking forward to sharing this piece, In the Beginnings, in early 2022.
The rural, evangelical Protestant world of The Raptures is also the world I grew up in. As a child, like Hannah, I sometimes struggled to understand the rules and how these rules could be reconciled with the world outside the church.
Like many Northern Irish people, growing up in a place so heavily influenced by organised religion caused me to wrestled with doubt and faith and what it means to be part of a church community. As an adult I’ve felt drawn to write about this aspect of Northern Irish culture.
I believe representations of evangelical Protestantism have been largely overlooked, or misrepresented in our art. There are many versions of Protestantism — Susan McKay’s recent book Northern Protestants; On Shifting Grounds bears testament to this — but in the past, the evangelical experience has often taken a backseat to more political and cultural manifestations.
Growing up, I found no representations of the community I belonged to in the books available to me. It’s hard to see your experience as valid if it’s not visible anywhere. Evangelical protestants have shaped and continue to shape the culture and history of Northern Ireland.
There’s much to be celebrated about the tradition and also much which is ripe for critique. The Raptures is my attempt to begin a respectful conversation about the tradition I was brought up in.
Finally, like Hannah I also experienced a prolonged period of sickness as a child. Though our experiences were very different, I’ve always wanted to write something about illness and childhood.
I was particularly keen to explore the way sick children are often robbed of autonomy. I wanted to think about how they might be given more agency when it comes to their treatment and prognosis.
I channelled many of my own thoughts and impressions into Hannah.
I journeyed with her and as she began to regain some degree of control, felt a strange sense of catharsis though I knew her experience was entirely made up.
It’s hard to explain where a book comes from. For me it usually begins with a clear idea of a character and Hannah Adger has been hounding me now for many years. The character is closely followed by a desire to address all the ideas and issues which are currently swimming around my head.
With The Raptures my readers are getting a storied version of everything I was thinking about during the two years it took to write. Of course, there’s a fair amount of fabricated stuff in every novel; exaggeration, hyperbole, flights of fancy and the overleaping imagination my family will tell you I’ve always had.
I write fiction. Fiction’s not real. Or perhaps it’s just a version of reality, because a story can only ever be built from the blocks of lived experience and there’s much in The Raptures which I’ve lived through.
The Raptures (Doubleday, £14.99) is available now. Follow Jan on twitter @JanCarson7280