Welcome, Jan. Congratulations on your début short story collection, Children’s Children, which was published recently by Liberties Press. Can you tell me a bit about the book title, a thematically unifying one, and the idea behind it?
I’ve always been interested in the idea of legacy and inheritance. The phrase “children’s children” is lifted from the Old Testament and usually appears in reference to either God’s blessing or the consequences of disobedience which descends through a family from one generation to the next. I thought this was a particularly pertinent theme for contemporary Northern Ireland where, for the last number of decades, (or perhaps even centuries), one generation has inherited the consequences of decisions made by the previous generation. Most of the stories in “Children’s Children” are about people wrestling with situations or prevailing structures of belief and behaviour which they’ve received rather than created. There’s enough fodder in East Belfast alone for about a hundred more collections on this theme.
Some of your stories are realist in approach while others have elements of the surreal or the magical realist. I must say, for me it is refreshing to read an Irish short story writer who isn’t afraid to experiment and take a more playful approach. Who are your influences and do they include any Irish writing in particular?
I have a very broad and eclectic range of influences. I always have to name check Flannery O’Connor first because she is the writer I most consistently return to. I love the way her faith informs her writing and yet she is incredibly comfortable with calling out the hypocrisy often rife within religious circles. I also admire the way she explores the darker side of humanity. When I read Flannery O’Connor I always think, aren’t people wonderful and dreadful at the very same time? I’d love to be able to write stories which leave my readers with this kind of bittersweet aftertaste. I also love Capote, Graham Greene, Steinbeck, Raymond Carver and Marilynne Robinson. In terms of magic realism and more playful takes on narrative form and content Kurt Vonnegut was a big game changer for me in my teens and George Saunders has had a similar effect on my writing and reading lately. If I had to pick a single book which made me both easier in my own writing skin and also completely overwhelmed by what you could do with words and images it would have to be Gunter Grasse’s “The Tin Drum.” It’s a beast of a book but I pretty much read it in one sitting and was struck by how much it read like something I really wanted to write and never would be able to. In terms of Irish writing I’m a big fan of Kevin Barry’s work. I love his use of language, his freedom with form and the way he lets a story breathe and tell itself in the way which comes most naturally. I’ve also been a great admirer of Brian Moore for quite a long time. His books were the first Northern Irish novels I read which weren’t just, “good for a Northern Irish writer.” They were actually marvelous by anyone’s standards. They made me want to write about the place I come from.
Many of the stories in the collection seem to explore the idea of physical presence versus emotional distance, or absence. We have the weight-loss patients in a sleep state in “Larger Ladies”; the emotionally distant human statue in “Still”; the brother in self-imposed quarantine in “More of a Handstand Girl”… Is this distance an unfortunate consequence of modern life, or something else entirely?
There’s a massive pressure on writers to explain what their writing is about and what it initially set out to achieve. Most of the time I haven’t a clue what a story is about when I begin to write. It’s only when I finish writing and read the story back, (or sometimes, more scarily, when I’m standing reading it to a room full of strangers), that I actually begin to see themes, and even my own insecurities, appearing between the lines. I never intended to write a collection of stories about distance and separation, but I can now see how this has unintentionally happened. A lot of the stories in “Children’s Children,” were written during a period in my life when I’d just moved back to Belfast after five years living in other countries. It was a strange and difficult re-integration period. I both desperately wanted to be elsewhere and also wanted to be part of an authentic community here. Looking back now I can see a lot of this tension revealing itself in these stories. They’re mostly about people tottering on the edge of making decisions, trying to decide whether they want to commit or withdraw. They probably aren’t the happiest stories I’ve ever written but some of them are painfully honest.
The stand-out story for me was “Floater”. I thought it was superb in terms of how it builds this increasing sense of dread, and the central image – that of a floating child secured with a thin ribbon to a garden fence – is both darkly comic and unsettling. It also has one of the best closing lines of a story I’ve read in a long time. What, if any, is your own favourite story from the collection and why?
There’s a story called “Den and Estie Do Not Remember The Good Times,” which I am most proud of. It’s about a lady living with Dementia and her daughter, who is her sole carer. It’s not based on one person but it is a composite story made up of many incidents and conversations I’ve been party to over the last few years. In my day job I am privileged to be part of an incredible community of people who are helping to make Belfast a better place for people living with Dementia. I hear stories about how difficult, and also wonderful, it can be to care for a elderly or ill loved one almost every day and I wanted to write something which honestly conveyed this tension. I’ve only read this story aloud a few times. It’s quite heavy. It sticks with you after you’ve listened to it. But both times I’ve read “Den and Estie” there have been people in the audience who’ve recognized their own experiences and approached me afterwards to thank me for having recorded an honest account of what every day looks like for them. It’s an honour to get to write stories like this. It might not be the best story in the collection from a literary perspective but it’s definitely the one I’m most proud to have had included.
Writing by Northern Irish women writers has been heralded as having something of a “moment” recently. What’s your opinion on that looking at it from the inside? Is it the case and if so, why now?
Following on from that, do you think there is a “Northern Irish Voice” in writing, either thematically, stylistically, or on the basis of some other commonality?
Yes, there’s definitely been, if not a rise, in Northern Irish women writing, then definitely a bigger platform for showcasing our work. I suspect it’s not that women haven’t been writing great literature here, it’s just that they’ve haven’t been given the opportunity to give this work the audience it deserves. In the wake of the Waking the Feminists movement and other recent attempts to push for equality in terms of publication opportunities, the North is slowly beginning to acknowledge the wealth of great female writers who call this place home. We’re thankful for platforms like the Belfast Book Festival, (which had some fantastic discussions, readings and panels highlighting local women writers this year), and very excited about the forthcoming “Glass Shore” anthology of female prose writer from the North of Ireland. There’s a phenomenal amount of women writing incredible prose, poetry and theatre in Northern Ireland- Lucy Caldwell, Bernie McGill, Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, the list goes on and on- we just need more vehicles for getting our work published and widely read. I’m hoping things are beginning to change for the better.
I think there’s also been a gradual change in the style of writing emerging from Northern Ireland in the last few years. There’s a playfulness in tone that I first noticed in the work of the younger poets, (Stephen Sexton, Andy Eaton, Padraig Regan etc), which is slowly beginning to infiltrate the prose writing. The writers of my generation, and the generation emerging behind me, seem comfortable to shift the focus from the Troubles, (which were almost universally placed front and centre in our predecessors’ writing), and content themselves with politics and the implications of politics as a kind of loose backdrop to their writing. Influences new, (or recently accepted), within Northern Irish culture such as the LGBT community, ethnic minority groups, fracturing religious and familial holds, and the arrival of cheap flights to other, arguably more cosmopolitan, mini-break destinations, have given us new ideas and experiences to write about and the freedom to be not-so-do-or-die-serious about every subject we tackle. It’s ok to take risks with form. It’s ok to invoke the absurd. It’s ok to mention Plato and Pokemon Go in the same stanza. It feels like a very heavy weight has been lifted off us. However, sometimes I fear that in all this new found freedom and self-claimed permission to shirk the responsibility of addressing those big do-or-die issues, our work runs the risk of becoming thin and clever and not really concerned with anything of any substance. I feel that the most exciting writing of this generation of Northern Irish writers will come from those who are prepared to write with freedom, irreverence and fresh clarity about truly important things. I believe this is already happening. I’m hopeful that there’s more to come.
My perception from taking part in the Belfast Book Festival last year is that the city has a vibrant literary scene. You have beautiful venues like the Crescent Arts Centre and journals such as The Incubator and forthcoming The Tangerine. Do you find Belfast a good place to be based in terms of writing?
I’m pretty biased but I actually think Belfast might be one of the best places to be a writer in the entire world. I travel a lot, dipping in and out of literary communities, but I’ve never encountered one I love more than my own. This place is completely unique. It’s been so tight for artists here for so long there’s a general feeling that if we don’t stick together and support each other, no one else will. What’s emerged from this outlook is a genuine community of people who love words and love each other. We’re an eclectic bunch. An average evening reading will see undergrad creative writing students, senior citizens, poets, prosers, avid readers and literary programmers all thrown together in a strange kind of muddle which should be unbelievably awkward, but actually works. I am constantly challenged by people within our community, (mostly the poets). I have people to lean on when I require encouragement and people who’ll shout at me in the nicest possible way when my writing requires stern direction. I have friends who’ve written poems and stories which genuinely terrify me with their genius. Plus, we have dozens of reading venues, a fabulous independent book shop/second home, (No Alibis), and, it’s still pretty cheap to live here. It’s not surprising that a lot of writers have moved to Belfast for one year’s study at the Heaney Centre and never managed to talk themselves into leaving.
Your novel Malcolm Orange Disappears was published in 2014 to rave reviews. How do you find the process of writing longer form compared to shorter? Do you approach them differently, or have a preference for one or the other?
I’m a little odd in the way I approach my writing. I’m very easily distracted so I’m constantly writing both a novel and short stories at the same time. I tend to write one day on one and one day on the other. My imagination doesn’t sit still for very long so the short stories are generally ideas which could potentially become unwieldy little cul-de-sacs in the novel if I don’t hoke them out and write them into short stories. I get to be a lot looser when writing a novel. The language and plot has a little more room to breathe. Short stories, I think, are much closer to poems than novels as the flow of the language and density of the idea has to be so tightly honed. I say this as someone who couldn’t write decent poetry to save her own life, but I read a lot of poetry and it tends to invoke a response more similar to a short story than a novel.
The dreaded writing routine question! Do you have a set routine? What does your writing day look like, or is there a typical day for you?
I actually work a full time job and also do quite a bit of freelance arts facilitation so time is probably my most precious commodity. I never seem to have enough of it. I’m pretty disciplined about carving out time for writing and normally write for two hours straight after work each day plus four hours on Saturday and Sunday. I’ve become quite adept at writing in the margins of my life and sliding quickly back into the flow of a story. While I often dream about having a more empty diary and not having to battle exhaustion every time I sit down to write, I sometimes think I’d be so overwhelmed I wouldn’t achieve as much as I manage within my current limitations.
What one piece of advice would you offer beginning writers?
Just keep turning up to write. It’s not the most inspiring piece of advice but the people I know whose writing is actually improving just turn up at their lap top or notepad or typewriter everyday and keep writing. There’s a small part of writing which is pure, unadulterated genius and no matter what anyone tells you this gift of imagination cannot be taught. However, the rest of the craft is no different from bricklaying. If you do it everyday, you’ll improve. If you sit around, waiting to be inspired, you’ll still be sitting around years from now talking about writing and never actually writing anything. Also, read every book you can get your hands on. Steal books if you have to.
Finally, I’d love to know what you’re working on at the moment. What can we expect from you next?
I have a couple of different projects in the pipeline. I was delighted to be asked to contribute a new short story to the forthcoming anthology of Northern Irish female prose writers, “The Glass Shore,” which is due to be published by New Island in October 2016. I also have a pamphlet of my flash fiction postcard stories forthcoming with The Emma Press in late spring 2017 and am currently around a chapter away from completing a new manuscript. It’s a novel this time -set in East Belfast during parade season- and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying writing about my neighbourhood and the people I rub shoulders with every day.
Jan Carson is a writer and community arts development officer currently based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her first novel, “Malcolm Orange Disappears” was published by Liberties Press, Dublin in June 2014. In 2014 she was the recipient of the Arts Council NI Artist’s Enhancement Bursary. Her short story collection “Children’s Children” was published by Liberties Press in 2016.