Photo Courtesy of Bradley Quinn Jackie De Burca Today’s guest is the acclaimed author Jan Carson from Ballymena in Northern Ireland. In 2019, Jan won the EU Prize for Literature for her second novel, The Fire Starters, which is one of the best books I have ever read. Set in East Belfast, The Fire Starters is a highly entertaining, exhilarating read that reveals an intimate understanding of human nature that has merged surreally yet successfully with fantasy. The book left me extremely curious about Jan’s imagination, which will be one of a number of subjects that we’ll be chatting about today. Thanks so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule, Jan, to join us. Jan Carson Thanks, Jackie. It’s lovely to be here. Jackie De Burca Thank you, Jan. Now let’s jump in with what I feel is a crucial question, Jan. How would you describe your own imagination? Jan Carson Oh, gosh. The Fire Starters cover My father will tell you it’s over-leaping, but it’s a bit out of control. He calls me a champion exaggerator. But it’s definitely healthy, anyway. I tend to see the world as it is and then put another layer on top of it all the time. Jackie De Burca Okay, that’s an interesting way to put it. So, you grew up in Ballymena town, Jan, which is around 27 miles north of Belfast. Was there anything from your childhood, you know, the life or environment that you feel might have triggered…
Home Travel Belfast Ireland From Belfast to Portland Oregon with author Jan Carson – Travel Inspires

From Belfast to Portland Oregon with author Jan Carson – Travel Inspires

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From Belfast to Portland Oregon with author Jan Carson – Travel Inspires

Photo Courtesy of Bradley Quinn

Jackie De Burca Today’s guest is the acclaimed author Jan Carson from Ballymena in Northern Ireland. In 2019, Jan won the EU Prize for Literature for her second novel, The Fire Starters, which is one of the best books I have ever read. Set in East Belfast, The Fire Starters is a highly entertaining, exhilarating read that reveals an intimate understanding of human nature that has merged surreally yet successfully with fantasy. The book left me extremely curious about Jan’s imagination, which will be one of a number of subjects that we’ll be chatting about today. Thanks so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule, Jan, to join us.

Jan Carson Thanks, Jackie. It’s lovely to be here.

Jackie De Burca Thank you, Jan. Now let’s jump in with what I feel is a crucial question, Jan. How would you describe your own imagination?

Jan Carson Oh, gosh.

Jan Carson inspirational places The Fire Starters cover
The Fire Starters cover

My father will tell you it’s over-leaping, but it’s a bit out of control. He calls me a champion exaggerator. But it’s definitely healthy, anyway. I tend to see the world as it is and then put another layer on top of it all the time.

Jackie De Burca Okay, that’s an interesting way to put it. So, you grew up in Ballymena town, Jan, which is around 27 miles north of Belfast. Was there anything from your childhood, you know, the life or environment that you feel might have triggered that over-leaping imagination?

Jan Carson I think a couple of things were important for me growing up.

First of all, quite obviously was books. I was a really, really prolific reader. I used to get all of the library tickets from everyone in our family and go down to the Ballymena library on a Wednesday night and take out as many books as I could get my hands on.

Ballymena Town Hall Jan carson author home town
Ballymena Town Hall

So I had very quickly read through almost everything in the children’s section and by the age of about eight, had progressed onto, for some reason, crime fiction. So, I was into- quite deeply into Agatha Christie and Ruth Randall and stuff. But at 8, I didn’t know how healthy that was.

And I think the other big factor for me was – growing up in a quite conservative Presbyterian – rural Presbyterian church. So, a lot of times sitting in church, long church services, quite bored, having to use my imagination to provoke things.

And then also, I think I am very grateful that my primary storytelling language came from the Bible and particularly the things like the parables and the apocalyptic literature. And my first memory of church was a two-year sermon series on the Book of Revelation, s0- you know, you can see where the magic realism comes from when your first encounter with the Bible is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Mark of the Beast and all of that.

JDB Okay. And what about Ballymena as a place to grow up, Jan? How was that for you?

JC I guess it was grand whenever I was a young child. It was very safe. John Hewitt in his poetry, he talks about the coasters in terms of middle class Northern Irish people during The Troubles. And we definitely were coasters – It passed us by for most of – thankfully. I’m very grateful for that. I think as I grew older, it became quite a difficult place. It is very conservative.

And we definitely were coasters – it passed us by. Thankfully, I’m very grateful for that. I think as I grew older, it became quite a difficult place, it is very conservative. Back in the 80s, it was very much Paisley town still. And there was a lot of legalism associated with kind of the Protestant community that I grew up in and not a lot of space for art or expression. So the idea of being different from other people was frowned upon. So I definitely found that as I moved into my teenage years, I found that really difficult.

Jackie De Burca Okay. So quite restrictive from how you’ve described it?

Jan Carson Yeah. Yeah. And just a sense of wariness about people who dress differently or think differently or question things. And I was definitely always a questioner. Even within the church context, I was the one that was putting their hand up and saying, “Why? But why?”

Ballymena Jan Carson Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson, Deauville Film Festival, 2012

By Elen Nivrae – Flickr: Festival Deauville 2012 – Jour 8, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21169221

Jackie De Burca Okay. In a quote, Jan, from an interview that you did with the Belfast Telegraph, you said about the actor Liam Neeson, “I think Liam has an incredible presence about him. I know this is a cliché and something I probably won’t get away with also coming from Ballymena. But there’s something so grave and warm and wise about his voice”. Is there something grave, warm, and wise about Ballymena and its people?

Jan Carson I don’t know. I think maybe they’re – It’s been interesting as I’ve kind of moved away from Ballymena. I have found some of the outliers…

…people like Liam Neeson and Cathy Brown, who runs the Seamus Heaney Centre down in Bellaghy, and they are Ballymena people, but from that artistic mould of questioning things.

And I think those people have a real, there’s a gravity and a wisdom to what they’re doing and what they’re questioning. But they’ve also retained the stuff I love about Ballymena and their sense of community and respect. I kind of wish I had known some of those people whenever I was the teenager scuffling around the town looking for kindred spirits.

Jackie De Burca Okay. Yeah. That’s understandable. So you said, Jan, you used the phrase “coasters” in terms of the very badly named Troubles. Did it affect, you know, you, much in Ballymena? Talk us through how that was for you as a young person.

Jan Carson I think it’s always there. My church community was impacted by the Teebane bomb. And I remember that as a child and just that feeling in the church family of loss. And it’s something that was on the TV suddenly coming very close to home.

So that’s I remember and I remember the news being on and also more – I think it made us quite local. And, you know, when I say like I wasn’t – The first time I was in Dublin, I was 18, which people from England and stuff struggled to believe that. But we, you know, there was a sense that it wasn’t terribly safe to go over the border. And even going up to Belfast –

Belfast with author Jan Carson Tall Ships 2009
Tall Ships 2009

Like going into Belfast in the ‘80s for me, felt like a relocation. And the wariness of seeing that more of a strong presence of soldiers on the street and people taking your bags and the checkpoints in all avenues and things, it felt like a different world and not as Ballymena did.

JC  And I also – I mean, I have a really strong memory that I’m never -probably never gonna shift of getting caught up in a bomb scare. Well, take out my bomb in less than in the Ballymena Seven Tower’s Leisure Centre and on a very snowy night. And I was very little. I think I was five or six. And we had to get out of the pool and run down the road in our swimsuits and through the snow. And I remember being absolutely terrified that night.

JDB Wow. So – Well, that’s something I obviously didn’t know but that’s a very strong memory, I can imagine.

JC  I don’t think there was any bomb at all, but just that sense of, you know, it coming closer to you. You can watch things on the TV and know, oh, they’re talking about places that I know and this is part of my history and my culture. But until it comes right up close to you, you don’t have that same kind of visceral response to it. So, I think there was a moment of realisation somewhere in the upper primary scale of, oh, this is happening to my Northern Ireland, not just Northern Ireland on the news.

Murlough Beach Northern Ireland
Murlough Beach Northern Ireland

JDB So you mentioned earlier, Jan, in terms of your imagination that was triggered to some extent by, by the church parables and so on. Do you think that having Belfast, you know, a little bit under 30 miles down the road and seeing what was happening on the news and also what you’ve just told about the bomb scare, do you think that, in any way, would have contributed to your very active imagination also?

JC I don’t think so. I guess, you know, I only came to write about Northern Ireland and think about it creatively quite late on so almost all of the things that I was engaged with creatively because I didn’t come to writing till I was 25. And I actually was much, much more involved in the music scene in Belfast.

JDB OK.

I did visual art for school. So, I was really interested in visual art as well for a long time. And it wasn’t – this sounds awful, but I wasn’t interested in Northern Ireland.

JC I was looking to America and to London and to places outside of Ireland from my influences. And so I don’t think the Troubles really was there present with me until much, much later when I began to seriously unpick some of that. And I’m kind of ashamed to say this and I went to a Protestant girls grammar school in Ballymena and we got to know Irish history. So, there was a real silence around the history – with the past history and the more contemporary history that it – And I, you know, I had to go back and reteach myself a lot of that in my 20s because I just had a huge gap. I don’t even know if I could have articulated to you in my teens what the Troubles was.

JDB  You’re not the first person in this, in this series of interviews, Jan. You’re not the first person to have talked about that sort of skewed experience around history or history being sort of presented in a certain light that wasn’t really – Well, it was quite far removed, or at least very simplified version of the truth.

JC Yeah. And I think it’s- it’s shocking in a way to have sat through that history all the way up to A-level and into undergrad at Queen’s. And to have never encountered Irish history, but to know American history and Russian history inside out just seems really, really strange to me.

JDB Yeah, so you studied history in Queens.

Queens University Belfast with Jan Carson
Queens University Belfast

JC I did. For –

…at Queen’s, you have to do three subject – or I don’t know if you do know, but back then for your undergrad, you had to do three subjects for your first year. So, I did a side of Byzantine Studies, along with Social Anthropology and English.

JDB Okay. Okay. Definitely.

JC But I dropped out the first year.

JDB Okay. Definitely. So going back to before, you know, when you were still quite a young person, you’re in Ballymena. Did you head off with your family, Jan, at all on day trips or holidays to any environments that were really nice?

JC Yeah, I mean, I – we’re very, very lucky. My daddy is a real country guy, like he grew up in the countryside and was really, really keen for my brother and I, and my Mum as well to get out at the weekend and explore.

So, we were always heading off for what in Ballymena you call a “wee run in the car”. And we’d usually be down in the glens or riding the north coast or forests and climbing Slemish and all sorts of things like that. So I’m very, very grateful for that.

JC And then, when I was six, my Daddy lost his job a month back and retrained as a teacher. So, he then had – he went from like never being at home until I was in bed to always being around and having very long summer holidays. And he liked to use the whole summer holidays. So, we actually- we would usually go to France for a full month and camp.

JDB Wow.

Slemish Mountain Jan Carson childhood memories
Slemish Mountain

JC And Dad would drive the whole way down Scotland and the whole way down England. And then one summer, the entire way down France to the top of Spain.

JDB Really?

JC That was really good fun getting out and experiencing different cultures. And – and, we’d also do – I’m very, very fortunate as well. Like I know – I know Scotland, England, Wales, part of Britain really well, because we were always holidaying there as well. So, I’ve been all over every Victorian seaside resort in England. 

JDB OK. So yeah, that’s – that’s quite formative in terms, in terms of the amount of travelling you yourself have done over the years afterwards, you know.

JC Yeah. Never, a bit bizarrely, not – never on planes. I don’t know if they were aware of their carbon footprint or what it was, but we didn’t do the continental holiday thing, really, we- you know, we got in the car and we explored and I guess to some extent they were quite cheap, low budget holidays. Like we quite often be camping or staying at a BnB. And my dad had a wee gas stove thing that he’d take and we’d make potatoes and bacon or whatever by the side of the road. But they’re really lovely childhood memories of being free to explore the Yorkshire Dales or, you know, learning to swim in Llandudno or whatever it was. And it’s great.

Llandudno Jan Carson childhood holidays
Llandudno

JDB Fantastic. So, are you one of many children or what is the family set-up, Jan?

JC So, there’s just me and my younger, but much more mature, brother. He’s three and a half years younger than me. He has always been a maturing influence.

JDB Okay. So you’re – obviously, great holidays abroad. Great adventures. As you were growing up, you mentioned that you were going to the library every Wednesday. Were there family members or school teachers who played a prominent role in encouraging your creativity, your writing, and so on?

JC Not really.

JDB Okay.

JC I had a– When I got to A-level, I had two fantastic English teachers at A-level that were really, really- brought me on. And Mrs. Findlay and Mr. Knox and they both really instilled a – particularly, Mr Knox made me fall in love with Wuthering Heights, and that destroyed me. So that – at that point, yes, but not until then. And I’ve realised it recently that my Dad is a great reader, but he’s all crime fiction, so he absolutely loves crime fiction books. And I realised actually at this weekend, I went out to see them and we watched – there’s a programme on called “The Nation’s Favourite TV Detective.”

And I realised just how much of my bonding over the years with Dad has been over Morse and Poirot and Taggart.

And he would read all the books and I would rate them, tell you much about them. So- so much literary fiction thing and definitely no interest in poetry or theatre. But he does love his crime fiction and he would always have a book in his hand on holidays. I think we have wee bit there. But there’s almost no creativity in my family. They’re all engineers.

Game of Thrones Carnlough Harbour Braavos Canal
Game of Thrones Carnlough Harbour Braavos Canal

JDB Okay. That’s interesting. That’s – That’s unusual, isn’t it? Not even if you were skipped back like even one generation, Jan, would there be any sort of artistic flair?

JC No.

JDB No? Okay.

JC It’s really interesting.

They just don’t really know where I came from. Like Daddy taught engineering and his Dad was an engineer working on the railways, and my grandparents on the other side were businessmen. So they’re all very logical and mathematical.

JC My brother, he did his masters in engineering, and so there’s – there’s no– There’s a creativity to engineering but–

JDB Of course. Yeah, but it’s – it’s not normally lumped in with the creative arts as such as a–

JC Well – No, I don’t know where it came from – not there anymore.

JDB Interesting. That’s really interesting. So, I’m guessing, going back to what you said, Jan, about Ballymena and then starting to feel, you know, different and all of that type of stuff. So you also had that with your family, in so far as your creativity starting to budge a notch.

Game of Thrones Audleys Field Robb Starks Camp Oxcross
Game of Thrones Audleys Field Robb Starks Camp Oxcross

JC I mean I think they’ve always been – they’ve always been reasonably supportive. And I think they’ve known from quite young on that I’m – a bit different and wired a wee bit different and encourage that. And I think as well, there is a thing around about learning still – you know, that you do well in school and they know you’re reasonably intelligent. And that’s also something to be proud of kind of thing. But not the – you know, we would never have been one of these families that had serious discussions about Jane Austen ’round the dining room table. – Sometimes, I do get quite jealous of families where there is a real rich seam of creativity.

But I also love them. Like my family keeps me really grounded, you know, constantly. And even my – I’ve got a wonderful relationship with my niece and nephew here are twelve and ten. And my nephew will constantly ask, “What are you writing this week, Auntie Jan? What’s it about?” And I’ll tell him and he’ll say, “That doesn’t sound very good. I wouldn’t be interested in that.” And he’s great. It just keeps you on your toes all the time.

JDB Okay. That’s – that’s funny. It’s a – It’s just interesting. I’m – I’m fresh with your “Unfortunate Children of Belfast” in my mind.

JC Yeah.

JDB And I’m just sort of wondering, I’m wondering, in a way, was that feeling of difference – did that have anything to do with your inspiration for bringing that into the book?

I think so. I think particularly there is a – one of the unfortunate children in The Fire Starters has got wings and her parents keep pushing her off high things to get her to fly, even though she can’t and not so much me, it was more of an observation because that – that kind of sense was endemic around the community. And I had other friends that were trying to do things that their parents didn’t understand.

And that sense of, you know, in Ballymena where I grew up – and this is a bit of a generalisation – but there is an expectation that if you were like me and you liked books, you would go to university, you become a teacher, and you move back to Ballymena and get a bungalow and teach.

Titanic Belfast and SS Nomadic Belfast with Jan Carson
Titanic Belfast and SS Nomadic

JC Which go into an English degree and then decide to write my books. And so, there is a sense of, sometimes of – I mean, and you have to understand as well, like my family is slightly different because my dad did go to university. But for most of my friends, they were the first generation to come out of Ballymena to go to university. And they went off and saw things and experienced things that their parents’ generation just hadn’t. And when they came back, there was a disconnect.

JDB Yeah, yeah, of course.

JC I don’t think we talk about that enough in Northern Ireland. Like, I was born in 1980 and definitely everyone who – about 75 on for about 10 years, they were experiencing some of that disconnect because not only did they get to go to university, but they’re also the generation that experienced cheap travel and experienced the Internet for the first time. So we have a wealth of experience that the previous generation didn’t have.

So it makes sense to me that it would be hard for your parents to understand you because we’ve seen things and experienced things they didn’t experience.

JDB Yeah. Definitely. So how were your student days? Because you – you went, if I did my calculations correct, Jan, you went aged 18 to Queens, didn’t you?

Yeah, I kind of wasted my undergrad and – and I didn’t waste it in the way you’re supposed to waste your university time. I was really miserable for three years.

JDB Oh, were you?

JC – that awkward. Yeah. “What am I doing with my life?” I just – I really wish I could go back and do my undergrad again, particularly as there were – I got a lot of the last professors and teachers at Queen’s before there was a new intake.

And so I had people like Edna Longley and Michael Allen teaching me. And I didn’t appreciate what I was sitting under. And I- I wish I’d gone back and done it again. I’m very involved in the writing community here in Belfast and I see the new intake of undergrads coming in, go into every reading and every discussion, and I think, “Why didn’t I do that?” And I just did the bare minimum and then went home to cry because–

Queens University Belfast Jan Carson author
Queens University Belfast

JDB Right. That’s – That’s so – It’s so unfortunate. But I think I mean, I went – I studied history in Trinity and I went aged 17 and I didn’t – I didn’t make exactly like yourself, Jan. I didn’t make the best out of it at all, you know.

JC There was a huge culture shock for me coming from a very conservative, almost entirely church community, that there was very little in our life except church to this whole world of, you know, students and student life. And, you know, I didn’t drink. I was scared of pubs. I didn’t know how to socialise with people who were different from me. And that took a while. And there was a culture shock thing there. And I – I wish I could go back and do it again cause it was a gift doing three years of English and have acquaintance with all of those amazing thinkers.

JDB So what happened then? You had those three years. Did you come out the other end to those feeling – was there a shift, Jan? What happened?

JC This is a desperately depressing story – sorry.

JDB Okay. Go on.

JC I can’t lie of that. And I worked for the Presbyterian Church for four years.

JDB Oh really?

JC It was more of a retreat back into oh, what say if I go there? But I will say, I think that four years was probably the most – so far, anyway – it was probably the most difficult four years of my life because there was something in me fracturing and coming into my own and learning who I was and that, you know, faith is still an important part of my life, but it doesn’t look like it – the faith of my childhood and it certainly doesn’t look like a very tight, legalistic Presbyterian faith, but that – that four years was very important for me and challenging some of those things and thinking through it and asking questions.

JC And at the same time, I was beginning to meet lots of other people to start moving out into the music scene and the art scene and finding kind of, kindred spirits there.

JDB Okay.

JC But still then kind of running back and feeling guilty about it a little.

JDB Well, I mean, it sounds – it sounds from your description, Jan, like such a very strong church background, such huge contrasts. You know, at such a young age, really–

Titanic Made in Belfast Festival Belfast with Jan Carson
Titanic Made in Belfast Festival

JC Yes, it’s- it was quite, quite all-consuming. And – and it’s – I have so much patience for people who have – who have been brought up with ideas and concepts and things that are – are countercultural to how, you know, you’re supposed to see the world now, because it is not easy for me, even from- you know, seeing the entire world and everything through one lens to try and change your opinion. It doesn’t happen overnight. There has to be this wrestling difficult period where you’re challenging things and you’re questioning, you know, “Why do I think that about this issue?” And learn what to hold on to and what to get rid of. And I think sometimes, we expect too much of people.

We think, you know, you can move from thinking this way about an issue to this way overnight. It doesn’t work like that. So, I’m actually, I’m quite grateful – Though it was a very hard period, I’m grateful that I had space to move through it and there were some amazing people who walked through that period with me. My brother, for example, is fantastic and other people who are still in my life – now came into that and allowed me to think through and question and were very gracious with my –

JDB Okay. And tell me a little bit about your involvement in the music scene, Jan?

JC I helped to run a little music venue at Queen’s where we did Spoken Word and …

…some singer-songwriter stuff, which I really loved doing that. And I would have – I spent – I had been friends with a lot of folks that were in bands and- and my brother and I had a really beat up car. So the band, driving up the people who drove amps and speakers and things to gigs, which I really enjoyed. I’ve always enjoyed music.

JC And I love – I love being around creative people. And I still do. Like I don’t necessarily have to just be around writers. I love being around filmmakers and musicians and visual artists and talking about the process of creativity. I think I’ve always been drawn to those people and I loved being in that community. It was one of the things that kept me sane and healthy through that period.

JDB Okay. So, tell me something – You mentioned that you left Belfast, aged 25, out of pure frustration. What happened to make you feel like that, Jan?

Shopping in Belfast City Centre
Shopping in Belfast City Centre

JC I think most of us, probably, me, like, I need – Me, I needed to draw a line and be somewhere where people didn’t know who you were.

There’s something about the physical geography of Northern Ireland, but also the kind of psychology of it because it’s so small, you can never get away from your parents or your extended family or your neighbours.

It’s that thing that we love where you say, you know, within 30 seconds of meeting somebody, you’ll realise you’ve got mutual friends. That can also be really claustrophobic.

JDB Yeah. Of course, yeah.

I knew within me I was beginning to become more artistic and to challenge and think about things. And I wanted to be in a kind of space that I can do that. And so that’s – that’s what I, I left. And it wasn’t so much that The Troubles or, you know, the politics of the place. It was more – “I need to breathe a wee bit for a while.”

JDB That’s understandable. So you went off to Portland, Oregon. Why did you choose Portland? Out of curiosity, what drew you there?

Portland Oregon with Jan Carson author
Portland Oregon

JC I think I ended up there by accident. You know, so, I actually thought I was going to Portland, Maine. I didn’t realise there was two Portlands.

JDB Okay.

JC Or – So I wanted to – I wanted to explore the two sides of myself because faith was still really important to me. The art was becoming increasingly important. And so, I was- I looked for a role somewhere that I could have both.

And because I worked in the church up to that point and there are a number of places in the bigger churches across the world that have a designated arts pastor role and get, you know, it’s looking at where theology and creativity intersect. And so, I just – I sent out my CV to every single one I could find. And a large, large church in Portland were the first people that got back. And they initially offered me a paid internship and then transferred into a job after about a year. So I mean, I went out there knowing absolutely no one. And just to try and start again.

JDB Okay. How was Portland for you? Talk – Talk to me about the environment, the experience there.

It was the maddest culture shock and it was wonderful.

Portland Oregon with Jan Carson Belfast author
Portland Oregon

JC I’d spent the summer before working as a secretary in the offices of the Presbyterian Church, like the head offices. So I went from that to about three days later sitting on a bus with every kind of diversity and every kind of craziness that you can think of going on around.

And Portland in 2005 was just a super alive, vibrant city. It’s become a bit of a cliché of itself recently. And I think just – there’s a lot of what we would – we would have called the yupsters- kind of a cross between yuppies and hipsters. So maybe try – trying to look arty. But they want kind of – they want the nice lifestyle as well.

But back then, it was just – there were film directors everywhere. There were writers everywhere. There were musicians everywhere. We went to see different bands every night of the week while we were in the Powell’s bookstore, which is the world’s largest independent bookstore. And just saw whatever writer was coming through, there was a writer reading every night for free.

JC So, you know, you’d be dying their watching Patti Smith or Salman Rushdie or Jonathan Safran Foer or Douglas Coupland. And I just love that. I never had anything like that in Belfast and that was amazing.

JDB Wow. It does – it seems like you couldn’t have ended up in a better environment for that particular stage of your life, no?

Powells bookstore Portland Oregon Jan Carson
Powells bookstore

Adam Jones, Ph.D. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

JC No, and I think as well, like, the church community out there was really progressive. So really open-minded, quite liberal, really safe, and supportive, but just absolutely shot through with art as well.

So, you know, it’s with people within our community who were – And one of my – my good friends is a camerawoman for Tarantino. We had people like The New York Times Best Sellers list and huge graphic designers. And I loved that you could have a vibrant faith and be completely sold out for your art and creativity as well.

JDB Well, that’s fantastic. So just moving towards the stage, Jan, where you’ve returned home from Portland and you wrote your first novel, “Malcolm Orange Disappears”, which was published to great acclaim in 2014. How did the environment that you’d left behind- tied to that triggered this first novel?

So, I didn’t want to leave Portland. My work visa run out. And I got chucked back home and not even to Belfast. I ended up spending the first – most of the first year back at home in my parents’ spare bedroom in Ballymena, which was horrific.

Like, I literally went from a – I interviewed Bon Iver one Thursday and the next Thursday, I started work in the Yankee candle shop in the Tower Centre in Ballymena.

JDB Okay.

JC I – the other way and I worked in the gift shop for about nine, ten months, gift wrapping candles and – And there was nothing in my life, like while I’ve been away, all of my friends from Belfast had moved on and, you know, settled down, bought houses, got sensible jobs. I was back living with my Dad.

And at night, the only place that was open in Ballymena to write was the cafe in Tesco’s. So, I would drive to the cafe in Tesco’s and start writing this novel, which became Malcolm, which is all set in Portland. And it was kind of – I don’t want to be here, so I’m going to write about the place that I want to be.

So that’s where that came from. And I – I did – I chipped away at it for years and years. It took me a long time to write it. I think it began in 2009 and it finally got published in 2014.

JDB Okay, okay, got it. And did – did you – When you say it took that long to write, were you writing for most of that time or were you approaching publishing houses?

JC Writing and revising. And I didn’t know how to write a book. Like I’ve – I have never once in my entire life done a class on how to write. So it’s just making it up. And so at one point, I think it was 200,000 words long.

JDB Really?

Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson
Malcolm Orange Disappears by Jan Carson

JC Yeah. – Just and– so, there was a lot of editing and I was also – I was writing quite a few short stories. So, I actually wrote my first short story collection at this – in that same period.

JDB Okay.

JC I would have dabbled in the short stories as well at the same time. And I was knackered as well. Like – and I tell you what, like, I think everybody should work retail or – or bar work at some stage in their life because it’s – it’s so exhausting but you also learn so much about human beings.

JDB Me too. Absolutely. Yeah.

JC And that was – that was a really good experience for me, to do that for a year.

JDB Yeah. It is. No, it is. And so, when – when did you move on to Belfast? When did you leave Ballymena and go to Belfast at that stage?

JC I – So 2009, I lived with my folks and then I had a – a terrified scamper back into church work for about nine months. Where I –

JDB Okay. Really? Okay?

JC I lived in Rickmansworth in Hertfordshire for nine months and then literally was about 30 seconds on the job and was like, “what am I doing here? This is a big mistake.” So I had to – I mean, after three months and worked six months to pass it on to the next person. But that was – that was there. And then I came back and I got a job in the Ulster Hall as a community arts officer, which is the big Victorian Music Hall in Belfast. And I loved that job, which just was the absolute best job I think I ever had in the community and the team. And it was such – it was such a freeing thing after years and years and years of working in churches to just be able to breathe.

JDB Yeah. So how long were you working there and around that stage, Jan, wasn’t it that you started to live in East Belfast?

C.S. Lewis Square Belfast with Jan Carson author
C.S. Lewis Square Belfast

Photo Courtesy of Bradley Quinn

JC Yeah, I sort of moved around lots of divey houses for a while and ended up settling over in East Belfast. And I worked in the Ulster Hall from 2010 through to 2017. Really quite a long six and a half years, I think, it was, in different formats and different variations of the job, the all-community arts engagements, and at the same time, I – I also completed a Masters in St. Andrews, then long distances, kind of Scotland backwards and forwards there as well, and wrote a couple more books.

JC So it was a busy, busy time, but really full of – just really sort of grounding myself in the literary community in Belfast. It became very apparent from day one at the Ulster Hall that they wanted to have a literary input to the – the outreach work they did because there’s such a legacy of writers involved in the Ulster Hall. Dickens is right there and Arthur Conan Doyle and all sorts of like- our own Northern Irish writers. So, they wanted to celebrate that. And that was my ticket into making contact with a lot of the other writers, contemporary writers, in Northern Ireland. And I loved that. Just like – it felt like coming home kind of thing.

JDB Okay. Now, in various interviews, Jan, you’ve described yourself as an overachiever. And the amount of energy that comes through, you know, when you speak about the, obviously, the work you’ve done, and you’re writing in the middle of the different jobs you’ve been doing. Do you feel you’re an overachiever because you feel a responsibility towards what you do? And I’m referring to both the – the arts and the community work and your writing.

JC Yes, I think with the community stuff, it’s – there’s a part of it is your responsibility. At worst, it becomes guilt and nobody should be in possession of guilt. And I am trying to work on that at the minute.

But mostly, I think it’s their responsibility and a sense of wanting to do it really well. I believe that. And the people I work with deserve something really good. And it annoys me to no end when I see community art that feels like the lowest common denominator kind of profession. I want people who are in my projects, in my workshops and things, to come away shocked by what they’ve achieved because we are capable of that.

So, there is – there’s that sense of like I want to give some people something really special. And I’ll also be really honest and I’d say I have absolutely no capacity for boredom.

JDB Okay.

JC So, most of it – the things that look like excessive productivity are just me going, “I can’t sit still. What am I gonna do now? Well now, you know, I’ve got a new idea.”

JDB Okay. Yeah.

I don’t understand boredom. I don’t understand sitting in front of the TV at night, just – in my TV. And I’d rather be creating or thinking or scheming or whatever it is.

JDB Okay. You mentioned, Jan, obviously, the distance course in St. Andrews – that was a Masters, wasn’t it, in Theology and Contemporary Culture.

So from what you’ve just said now, that seems like quite of a logical choice. You were bringing in your very, very solid church background, both from your childhood and obviously your work life. And mixing that obviously with contemporary culture. Talk – talk to us a little bit about the actual masters and the environment, because you did go over there fairly frequently as well in St Andrews, didn’t you?

St Andrews Scotland Jan Carson
St Andrews Scotland Jan Carson

JC I was so fortunate I fell in – so, in my year group, we were about 10 people in the masters in Theology and Contemporary Culture. And they are – they were just wonderful people, like from such a range of experiences and life backgrounds.

And we all got on like a house on fire. So, after our first week together, we and for the rest of the four sessions we went over, we would always hire a big house and all lived together for the week and then spent most of our times after classes in the pub, seriously arguing and debating and thinking and it was also – it was a little bit like being in Portland. Like to have this group of people around me whose faith was important to them, their ideas and thought and art and creativity was also incredibly important.

Like, some of those people are still my dearest friends, and they’re all ages and all – they’re all over the place. But we still try to meet up every so often. And the course itself is just wonderful. St. Andrews is just – it’s just – it’s a gorgeous space to be doing university. And it’s got the Theology department is – it looks like something out of Harry Potter. It’s wonderful. But we also had wonderful professors. They were provocative but respectful. They would throw ideas out that – that people didn’t agree with and provoke critical thought and challenge things. But you always felt safe. And I loved that. Like, you know, Theology can become a real space where people destroy each other. And–

JDB Of course, yeah.

JC –I love that- you know, one of the things that they were very clear on, is you know, you can have completely different theological ideas from someone but we must leave this space respecting each other. And I think we all did.

JDB Yeah. So important, obviously. Now, another place that you’ve been spending time in over the last four years is Karmøy, which is in Norway. It’s an island. You’ve mentioned also there that you’ve – you’ve been working with – within the high schools. And you’ve filled, you know, quite also another community of people around you there. And this is all been part of the Creative Europe Writing Programme. Why do you love this place and the people, and your experiences there so much, Jan?

Karmøy Norway Jan Carson
Karmøy Norway

JC So this came out of – I was at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, about four years ago, and I got chatting to an older couple at the bar and they were Norwegians, Odd Henning and Hil Dreyden – and we got on like a house on fire and they said, “You’ll have to come and stay with us.”

Little did I know that they, Odd Henning, runs this Creative Europe project for a huge chunk of Norway. So that was made up – for life at that point. And I think I went out for about a week to 10 days, once a year, every year now for four years. And I just love it. The students are amazing. And The Troubles is on their history curriculum. What were they, GCSE level? And so, I work with them, responding creatively to the themes raised by The Troubles and the literature around The Troubles.

JDB Okay.

JC And young people are just – They’re so intelligent and so articulate and I think as well there’s a huge amount of compassion and wisdom to the way they approach their thinking. It’s part of the Norwegian way of life. They treat their children with an enormous amount of maturity and they expect maturity from them.

JDB Okay.

JC And I love working with them. We write stories together and we read together and we discuss and I get to work with the teachers and train them up on how to use creative writing within the classroom. And I think that openness – I’ve done a little bit of schools work in Northern Ireland and I’ve always found it reasonably restrictive. You know, it’s so tight to the curriculum here and they just seem to trust their young people. So a huge part of last year was watching Derry Girls and responding to Derry Girls.

JDB Really? And can they understand the accent?

Jan Carson Well, we did have to put the subtitles on sometimes. They love it and they’re able to draw parallels between things like, you know, Norway, like we always hear about Scandinavia being a utopia. But there have been issues with rising fascism and issues around kind of intolerance of people coming from other places to live in Norway. And I think they are really quick to pick out, you know, here’s something from your background. We could learn and apply to what it’s like to be here in Norway at the minute.

JDB Okay.

 

And I’m always really passionate about places learning from each other’s experiences. And I guess that’s one of the things that really saddens me about the EU and Brexit. It’s been such a joy to get to know writers from other places with a background of conflict and to see, you know, what they’ve learnt from their situation and how it might apply to us.

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