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Jan Carson: Author and Arts Administrator


'I tend to view novels as a series of mountain peaks'

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into writing?

As a child I was a voracious reader and used to wangle library cards off other family members in order to borrow as many books as I could at a time. I studied English Literature at Queen's, have a Masters in Theology and Contemporary Culture from St Andrews and have been working in the arts scene in Belfast, Portland, Oregon and London for the last 14 years. Currently I work as outreach officer at the Ulster Hall.

I never seriously considered creating until I found myself working in a very vibrant arts community on the west Coast of America in 2005. Other writers and artists encouraged me and scribbling away at short stories quickly became an essential part of my days. It's been a different experience from facilitating art and I feel it's really helped prepare me for what to expect as a writer starting out on this journey.

What work took you over to the other side of the Atlantic? What was it that brought you back to the UK?

I'm passionate about helping churches begin to engage with the arts sector in a supportive, honest and meaningful fashion and have spent a lot of my life doing so. In 2005 I was given the opportunity to work alongside an existing faith community in Portland, Oregon which had almost 500 artists involved in artistic development and partnership with the city's culture and arts scene.

We provided volunteers to run arts mentorships schemes in schools and youth programmes, helped to run an art house cinema and gallery as well as support dozens of art festivals and had a thoroughly brilliant time.

After my work Visa ended I reluctantly returned to Belfast but quickly found a similarly dynamic arts community blossoming. Community and collaboration has always been incredibly important to me and while Belfast's scene isn't as mature as some, there's such imagination, energy and a truly supportive artistic community that I found it easy settling back in.

Tell us about your first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears.

It's a magic realist novel set in Portland, about a little boy whose father abandons the family forcing Malcolm's mother to take a job in a retirement community. The stress causes Malcolm to begin to disappear and he then goes on a quest to find a cure alongside his new, and rather quirky, friends from the retirement community.

Essentially it's a novel about loss and how different people deal with it, but it's far from being a traditional piece of literary fiction. I work a lot with elderly people at the Ulster Hall and am constantly inspired by their stories and the lives they've led. I wanted this novel to honour older people and give them a chance to be centre stage for a change. I started writing it in 2008 and many, many late nights and early mornings later, finished it just before Christmas 2012.

What were your first thoughts when you learned about the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's ACES Awards?

I don't really see myself as a professional writer and so it took some convincing for me to actually think about applying and beginning to look seriously at developing my career as a writer.

How did you react when you found out were amongst those receiving the award?

I was just really relieved. I work very long hours so my writing has to be squeezed into the margins of my life. This can be a frustrating situation for a writer. You know you're not writing the best material you could be, but limited to writing the best material you can while holding down a busy job.

The ACES scheme is going to allow me to take three months off work to focus on my writing, which feels like such a large breathing space I can barely believe it. I'm intrigued to see what kind of writer I am when I'm not simply a weekends and evening novelist.

You'll be using support from ACES to complete your second book, Roundabouts. How do you think working at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University will help you?

I already work quite closely with the Heaney Centre through my job and have always been so inspired by the calibre of writing coming out of the centre. I've also been very jealous of the community of writers the centre has and am looking forward to my first formal experience of critique and assistance.

Writing is a solitary pursuit by its nature so the community aspect is essential for keeping you motivated and on track. I'm lucky to have a lot of good friends who write and keep each other accountable, but the Heaney Centre affiliation promises to really build upon this.

Can you give us a preview of what Roundabouts will be about?

It's a novel about provincialism and explores a lot of the ideas around what it means to grow up in a small rural town. The two main protagonists have recently returned to Ballymena after having lived elsewhere for a long time and are struggling with how their lives have turned out. It's another eclectic novel and centres around the Causeway Safari Park, Bob Dylan's early life, driving lessons, caravans and a very reluctant ghost.

Does your writing process differ at all when working on novels compared to screenplays and short stories, as you have done in the past?

Short stories come quite easily to me. I don't have a terribly good attention span and find that I begin to get distracted by other ideas after 5,000 words – perfect short story timing. I tend to view novels as a series of mountain peaks. Each chapter always seems to have a point at which you feel like you're pushing an elephant up a large hill, then there's always a coasting period on the other side.

In a novel you really have to fall in love with your characters. If they don't intrigue you and occasionally surprise you, it's very easy to get bored with the whole plot. Reading is the one discipline I do my best not to neglect when I'm writing a novel. It keeps you on your toes and eager to see just how well other people write. It's not a matter of being influenced, it's more about being challenged to pick up the gauntlet and have a go yourself.

Could you see yourself adapting any of your books into screenplays in the future?

Absolutely. In fact, because it's set in Ballymena, I'm going to write a character into Roundabouts who's regularly mistaken for Liam Neeson in the hope that he might be tempted back home!

Why are the ACES Awards valuable to writers in particular?

Partially I have to say it's the support and encouragement all of us have had from Damian Smyth, head of literature at the Arts Council. He's a real champion of young writers and the ACES scheme let us take advantage of all the opportunities and encouragement he brings our way.

It's also a really good chance to be part of a group, for a change. Writing can be quite lonely, especially the long haul of novel writing, and just having structured opportunities to talk with other writers is invaluable. Finally, for me and several of the other writers, the ACES scheme offers a little breathing space to focus on writing without distractions.

Visit the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website for information on funding opportunities and more.

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