Vanishing Act

An interview with the author Jan Carson

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: Though it's an eclectic picaresque book, Malcolm Orange Disappears begins with a simple ingenious premise. Can you recall how that came about?

Jan Carson: I always like to push my metaphors as far as they can possibly go. About 2006 someone gave me a copy of Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America and I became fascinated by the way he used imagery and metaphor so playfully and was prepared to stretch his readers' imaginations to the limits of believability. With Malcolm, I began with the premise of looking at old age and how, dementia in particular, and other side-effects of growing older such as sight loss and hearing loss etc might make a person feel inside. It quickly expanded to become more of a reflection on how human beings deal with loss and the image which immediately came to mind was of a person physically disappearing. I started out with a character who felt like they were disappearing and going unnoticed and within a few days of scribbling, Malcolm had begun to actually disappear physically and I had the beginning of my novel.

DA: Initially the book is told through a child's eyes. There's a sense of the, often very funny, surreal and revelatory logic of childhood, the magnitude of small things, the making of valuable lists. Whilst avoiding nostalgia, it made me remember qualities I'd forgotten regarding being that age. Was it a challenge seeing the world from that perspective again?

JC: Strangely it wasn't a stretch at all for me to write with a childlike perspective. I spend a lot of time in my job, as outreach officer at the Ulster hall, working with children and I'm always startled and refreshed by the way they describe experiences we've become accustomed to with such concise honesty. Last year I took a group of 5 year olds into the Grand Hall at the Ulster Hall for their first experience of an orchestra concert and one of them put his hands over his belly and said, with a massive grin, "This is really cool, I can feel the music in my tummy" and I was struck by how visceral and honest his experience of the music was. I also spend a lot of time with niece and nephew and they gave me a great insight into writing from the perspective of child. As a writer, the child's perspective is such a great and almost manipulative device. To remove the filters from my characters and allow them to say things adult propriety would often censor out, or raise questions about why universally accepted things are the way they are, really allowed me to wrestle honestly with some lofty concepts and ensure the novel didn't become too weighty or overly-earnest. Similarly, I think there's a freedom which comes with old age. Generally people are more comfortable in their own skins after they reach a certain age and I thoroughly enjoyed writing characters who were not afraid to be irreverent, to ask awkward questions or challenge the status quo. The process of writing such larger than life older characters was not dissimilar to writing from a child's perspective.

DA: There's a sense of Malcolm's gradual disappearance as a mirroring of puberty when things mysteriously seem to appear but there's also the sense of a fragile formative identity, which is at once introverted and inquisitive. Would that be too Freudian a view?

JC: It’s not something I’ve consciously considered before. However, I was definitely trying to recall what it was like to be 11 when I wrote Malcolm’s character. I think it’s a particularly formative age as a child is still essentially a child and both under the influence of and in awe of his or her parents and yet, there’s a growing awareness of the world outside the family unit with all the exciting potential and trauma which comes alongside trying to establish yourself as an individual. As the novel proceeds, there’s an increasingly violent war going on inside Malcolm Orange. This is a child who’s been sheltered from the world for the first 11 years of his life, trundling around America in the backseat of a clapped out Volvo Estate. Suddenly his father leaves and, for the first time, Malcolm realises that his mother is fallible, his home life is nothing if not odd and there is a world of intriguing influences and experiences awaiting him on the other side of the doorstep. For Malcolm, this process is tangible, physical and exaggerated. For most young people, puberty is a similar experience, internalised; a leaving and cleaving process which can feel like a blunt trauma. I definitely remembering experiencing an avalanche of emotions and fears during my teenage years and I think most young people will resonate with the idea that some small or large part of who they have been, disappears as they embrace adulthood and the conscious responsibilities which come with it.

DA: The imagination of children is often held up as their greatest trait but it seems to me, reading your book, that their tendency to observe so much is even more powerful. A great many of us let those qualities subside with age. Do you think writing is partially an attempt to hang onto those strengths and hone them further?

JC: Absolutely. Malcolm Orange is obsessed with what he calls, “scientific investigative research,” a process which he uses to record, analyse and basically make sense of all the small and often times incongruous aspects of his life. He measures the distance between Dairy Queens across America, curates his chicken pox scabs in a tiny museum of loss and tries to plot his mother’s escalating hysteria on a bar chart. It was terribly easy for me to write these sections of the novel. I’m not sure whether I write because I am essentially a nosy person and therefore accumulate enormous amounts of material for stories, or perhaps I am naturally nosy because I write and am constantly on the lookout for the next story. Almost every writer I know is, if not nosy, then naturally observant and drawn, like a dumb magnet towards the possibility of a story in every situation. It’s why dinner parties made up of writers, don’t really work well; there are far too many anecdotes to share. In terms of natural inquisitiveness, I think children and writers are very similar and yet for the most part children, like Malcolm, observe to understand, to make sense, to learn how to position themselves within the norms of acceptability, whilst good writers position themselves outside the situations and experiences they are observing, seeking, at all times, to preserve the critical eye afforded by distance. Writing through the eyes of a child is such a gift of a literary trope because it allows a writer to both narrate the oddities and idiosyncrasies of human beings without being burdened by adult propriety and also subtly explore the inner fears and hopes of the child narrator.


DA: There are many fascinating characters who enter the story at different stages (Cunningham Holt, Soren James Blue, Frances Farley). When you were writing the book were you aware of where it would go and end or was there an element of discovery for you as well as the reader? How did it feel inhabiting the very different minds of each character?

JC: There are a lot of very different characters in Malcolm Orange Disappears. It’s not a straight narrative. It’s more like a twelve car pile-up on a road where everyone’s heading in roughly the same direction at a variety of different speeds. I have to admit that not only did I begin to write with nothing more concrete than the image of a young boy disappearing against the background of a Retirement Community, I actually had no idea how the book was going to end until half way through the final chapter. At that point, I was sitting at 100,000 words with no clear resolution in mind, beginning to think that I’d still be trying to finish the blessed thing ten years from now. It was a situation not dissimilar to that faced by Michael Douglas’ character in Wonderboys. I know it’s a terribly clichéd thing to say but I really let my characters dictate the plot. There are some tremendously strong characters in Malcolm Orange, many of whom, like Cunningham Holt and Mr Fluff (the talking cat), have been adapted, expanded and reworked from previous short stories. Cunningham Holt has been with me for the better part of a decade in different forms and so when I came to write his part of the narrative, plot decisions and direction was based entirely upon what I instinctively felt the old man would do after ten years of keeping his company. Although I shouldn’t really have favourites, Cunningham Holt is probably the character I am most fond of in all my years of writing. I’m not entirely sure that I’m ready to be done with him yet. Having so many characters and tiny subplots also helped me to keep the writing process fresh. To spend a couple of thousand words exploring a one off character’s story, (Junior Button, Emily Fox or Haircut Molloy for example), felt like a kind of busman’s holiday from the bigger driving plotline of the book. I’m not a motorway novelist. I’ll always be distracted by side roads and diversions. The trick has been learning how to merge them back on the main route.

DA: The idea of myth features greatly but subtly in the book but it's intertwined with modern daily life and existential concerns. Do you think we're naturally narrative creatures?

JC: I am a firm believer in the power of story. I think everyone has a narrative which underpins their sense of self, their behaviour and the beliefs which dictate how we behave individually and as collective communities. I’ve always been fascinated by how people justify the way in which they choose to live out their lives and am often disturbed by the lack of awareness people have in regards to the narratives which dominate them. A lot of the prejudice and sectarianism I’ve encountered growing up in Northern Ireland stems from either allegiance to a flawed sense of narrative, often passed from one generation to the next ad nauseum, or perhaps more worryingly, a complete inability to articulate a narrative or reason for why an individual or group chooses to act in the way they do. I think we’ve all heard the, “I don’t like that particular section of the community, because I don’t like them,” argument for bigotry and intolerance and so I’ve long been passionate about helping people to articulate their narrative; how and why they came to believe what they do and act accordingly. There’s a tremendous dignity in a human being who is able to articulate their own story. It helps people to both understand their insecurities and flaws and learn how to overcome them. I was particularly keen to ensure the older people in Malcolm Orange Disappears were given fully formed and nuanced narratives for my own experience has been that older people are often typecast or ignored. Cunningham Holt’s narrative lends him an incredible dignity- he is so much more than an elderly, blind man- and, without giving away too many spoilers, a full awareness of his story ensures that his part in the novel’s climax has a particularly rich poignancy.

DA: If you'll forgive comparisons and to take nothing away from a unique work, there seem distant echoes of writers as diverse as Donald Barthelme, Roald Dahl and even Franz Kafka in the book. Has there been a book or writer that has inspired you as a writer more than any other and, if so, why?

JC: I read really widely and quite eclectically. I’m a big fan of realism and have Raymond Carver’s short stories on a pretty high pedestal and learnt a lot from him about sparseness and the importance of believable dialogue. I’d say, if I was pushed my favourite book is probably Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I think it’s an almost perfectly written piece of cold as ice fiction and it deeply affected me the first time I read it and at every subsequent revisiting. I also grew up reading authors like Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor who used their literary voices to address and honestly wrestle with big concepts such as faith and doubt which would be integral to my own themes. However, Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children were probably the most influential, challenging and reassuring books in terms of developing my own style. To see the fusion of magic realism with social commentary, and such beautiful, beautiful language really made me want to pursue writing novels like Malcolm Orange.

DA: What's next in terms of your writing?

JC: I’m currently a recipient of the Arts Council’s ACES Bursary and am using the money to take three months off work from August through to November in which to complete my next novel, Roundabouts. Roundabouts is also a magic realist novel, set in Ballymena which follows the story of a music journalist as she leaves London and moves home to live with her parents whilst completing a book about the early life of Bob Dylan. I’m currently around 50,000 words into the book, although writing has been put on the back burner for the last two months whilst I’ve worked on promoting Malcolm Orange. I’ll be spending 6 weeks of my time off in the USA researching Dylan’s early life and the rest of the time writing furiously. I really can’t wait.

[Image courtesy of Jonathan Ryder]