Inner Pendulums and the Breathing Spaces of Art

Jan Carson in interview with Susanne Stich

Susanne Stich

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Belfast-based writer Jan Carson just won the Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Prize with a new story, and is currently working on her second novel. I recently caught up with her to discuss Children’s Children, her debut short story collection, which was published earlier this year by Liberties Press, following her critically acclaimed novel Malcolm Orange Disappears (2014). Our conversation proved a fascinating insight into Carson’s relationship with the place she calls home, but also her faith, and the challenges of putting her fiery imagination into words.

Susanne StichChildren’s Children is your second book. It takes a wildly imaginative approach at chronicling lives in contemporary Northern Ireland and embraces a variety of writing styles. We will look more at style when discussing individual stories, but in terms of setting the table, could you talk about what got you interested in writing, and what were some of your early influences?

Jan Carson: I actually came to writing quite late. I’ve always been a voracious reader, the child in our family who borrowed everyone else’s library tickets to maximize how many books I could take on holidays with me. My first big literary crush was probably Agatha Christie. I honestly think I was only about eight years old when I first began reading her crime novels. I wouldn’t recommend letting your eight year old read Agatha, as she’ll probably end up looking up words like adultery in the dictionary, but I’ve been hooked on her ever since and am still re-reading my paperbacks annually. Later, I remember being absolutely ruined by Wuthering Heights and I think this was the point at which I began to understand that a book could engage you emotionally, spiritually and intellectually, ideally all at the one time. Graham Greene was another massive influence and, of late, Flannery O’Connor. I love the way they wrestle with issues of faith and doubt in such an honest and audacious fashion. It was like a breath of fresh air for me as a young creative with a faith to discover that it was perfectly permissible to explore, and indeed question, God through art and, in doing so, compromise none of the story’s appeal. Other writers who’ve been an essential part of my journey are Brian Moore, Anne Carson, Carson McCullers, Capote, Carver, George Saunders and of course Marilynne Robinson. These are the people who both made me want to start writing and almost intimidated me out of ever picking up my pen. In 2005 I moved to Portland, Oregon for four years and, knowing no one in the state, began telling people I was a writer and eventually stumbled into becoming one. I’d recommend this route. Once you’ve told enough people what you are it’s almost impossible not to turn into it.

SS: There is a strong ‘Northern Irish’ feel to these stories, and there is great emphasis on the location east Belfast. After setting your first book, the novel Malcolm Orange Disappears, on the West Coast of the United States this is quite a change of setting. In a beautiful piece you authored for you discuss how, upon returning home, you wrote the novel ‘in the coffee island of a slightly rundown shopping mall in a provincial Northern Irish town’. At the time you were hoping to achieve ‘a kind of 360 degree objectivity’ underpinned by geographical distance. However, regardless of the book’s critical success (Ian Sansom called it ‘the best debut novel in years’), in your own words, you ‘were also trying to run away from home’, and describe the period between the two books as  ‘a somewhat rocky road home’, during which different Northern Irish writers sustained you as ‘bold and brutal guides’. Can you talk a little more about the process of settling back into the place you had previously left behind, and how local writing informed Children’s Children ?

JC: I have to be honest about my journey home. I had no intention of ever settling back in Northern Ireland. When I moved to Portland I was part of that familiar, ‘nothing good can come out of this place,’ set, who couldn’t wait to get away from the claustrophobia and small-town thinking we’d come to associate with growing up Northern Irish. I only came back because my visa ran out. For about six months after I returned to Ballymena first and then Belfast, I was the most miserable person here. I had a big parka coat and walked about in the rain listening to Bob Dylan, alternating between crying and feeling superior to everyone else in Northern Ireland. I actually had to go through a kind of conversion before I was able to settle here. It involved a lot of street-pounding, a fair amount of prayer and a generous dose of getting over myself. I can almost pinpoint the moment when something snapped in me, and I’m not sure whether it was a genuine love of Northern Irish culture, which came out of this incident, or just the first small steps towards empathy and belonging, but it was during a BBC documentary about the Belfast Blitz. Almost 1,000 people died during one night of air raids in April 1941. Many people lost their homes and couldn’t locate their families the next morning but still got up and went back to the shipyards to build boats for the war effort. I remember having this blindingly clear moment of revelation about how battered and yet stoic the people here are and a sense of being part of this. I felt a kind of affinity with home I’d never been able to pin down before. A tiny little grain of local pride was planted in me that evening and it hasn’t stopped growing since. It is a genuine privilege to get to work and be part of the arts community in this city, to be part of a group of people who are hell-bent on progress and willing to make sacrifices for better things to come. When I talk about being influenced by local writers I mean Heaney’s gracious coupling of words and wisdom, and I mean Brian Moore, the first Northern Irish writer I ever read who was proper good, not just Northern Irish good, and I mean writers like Janet McNeill, whose beautiful work is not known as well as it should be, but mostly I mean the not-dead poets and writers who live here. They are my peers, but, more importantly, they are my friends and champions. We have the kind of literary community here which other cities should be jealous of; warm, generous human beings who are willing not only to share their words but also their everyday lives with each other. Devastatingly good writers who often leave me sitting in the Sunflower or the Linenhall Library thinking, ‘how on earth did they fashion something so brilliant with nothing but words to work with?’ These are the kind of people I want to be around, so I’m not leaving. Iron sharpens iron. They make me want to be a better writer. They make me want to be a better person, too.

SS: There is little direct reference to the ‘Troubles’, but there certainly is a feel to the collection that goes with the label ‘post-conflict society’. What struck me as unique was your particular angle, though: all of these stories are about relationships, between parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings, i.e. family relationships, and none of these connections are straightforward. They are fraught with the complex ripple effects of shared time: fear, loss and estrangement. The title story, which closes the book, looks at this theme allegorically, evoking the endlessly complicated relationship between northern and southern residents of a fictitious island:

They held their silence reverently and wondered if they loved the island enough to be neither north nor south, foreigner or familiar, but rather a brave new direction, balanced like a hairline fracture in the centre of everything. (190)

There is much in these three lines that resonates throughout the book: silences, the question of love and belonging, and the sense of ‘a fracture in the centre of everything’. Did you set out to make the book about relationships as much as about Northern Ireland, or did that emerge over time?

JC: I’ve had this conversation with a few other writers recently, most notably the fantastic short story writer Danielle McLaughlin at the last Literary Lunchtime in the Ulster Hall: most of us, if we’re really honest, don’t fully understand what we’re writing about until after a story is completed and you read it back and see what’s been going on all along, between the lines. I think this was very much the case with Children’s Children. I’m only really beginning to realize how intrigued I am by the tensions inherent within most relationships as I stand up and read these stories to other people. Some readers have told me the stories are dark and troubled, the characters so unbearably fragile that they have, at times, had to put the book down and return to it when they’re feeling a little less emotionally spent. I wasn’t in a particularly dark place when I wrote these stories, but I was trying to capture both the brokenness and the beauty of the people I saw around me. I’ve always wondered how the Troubles impacted my generation. I was born in 1980, and while the violence, thankfully, never affected me directly, I know, from living in different cultures which didn’t have the same problems, that me and my friends were definitely living with the legacy of this period. There’s a stoicism to the way we approach life, a sense of being tied to the past and, sometimes, a dreadful cynicism about the future, which flourishes here much more than it does elsewhere. Without really meaning to I’ve managed to write a bunch of characters who are troubled and yet floundering on the edge of becoming something wonderful. Maybe this is how I see the people of Northern Ireland. Most likely this is how I unconsciously see myself. I don’t think I realized I’d done this until long after the stories were finished. I certainly didn’t set out with any such intention.

SS: Regarding tone and style, there seem to be two groups of stories. The first group, including ‘Larger Ladies’, ‘Floater’, and ‘Alternative Units’ and a handful of others,  employs your own trademark brand of magic realism, which already shaped Malcolm Orange Disappears.  In these stories you use furiously inventive imagery and language to enter complicated emotional realms otherwise shrouded in taboo, or conveniently labeled as (post-) traumatic. ‘In Feet and Gradual Inches’, for instance, is narrated by a young twin who witnesses her sister’s death and its aftermath from under a bed. What follows is a surreal and closely observed account of the family’s emotional journey, tinged with a child’s horror of surviving the unspeakable:

Beneath the bed I clamped a hand over my mouth and said, oh so very quietly through my fingers, ‘It’s me, it’s me you’re looking for.’ My heart was in my throat and my throat was in my mouth. My mouth was caught like corn grass in my teeth and could not see a way through. (65)

‘More of a Handstand Girl’ documents the alienation between a sister and brother following their mother’s death:

My brother is allergic to people. He lives in the spare-room closet. It is four years, two months and a handful of days since I last saw his face. It is no big deal. (80)

Before we look at the other group of stories, can you talk about what attracts you to this kind of voice?

JC: There’s a couple of things I’d like to say here. Firstly, I have been drawn to magic realism since I first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and realized there was a half way house between the overleaping imagination of fantasy (which I really don’t enjoy at all), and the gritty realism of Carver, Steinbeck and Nabokov, (which I’ve always been attracted to, and yet sometimes wanted a little more from). I loved the idea of writing about real things, yet being able to employ a little playfulness with plot, structure and character, giving myself permission to see how far I could push readers before I lost them. I liked the idea of letting my imagination run free, but within certain structured parameters. I lack the courage to write fantasy. I’m far too aware of the rules and limitations which pin me down, and yet, I also like making things up. I am, if I give myself the chance, a fabulous liar and so, when I write I naturally default to magic realism. It comes much easier to me than traditional literary fiction. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe allowing a child to read Roald Dahl at the same time as Agatha Christie wasn’t the best idea. Secondly, in terms of language, I have to say two things in my defense. To start with, my day job has allowed me to spend a lot of time with people who are living with Dementia. I love this community. It’s made up of some of the bravest and most honest people I’ve ever met. We laugh a lot together. Sometimes we cry. We talk endlessly, and I’ve become intrigued by the way Dementia affects a person’s linguistics. Different words have to be substituted for forgotten words. Syntax becomes rearranged, and the oddest and most wonderful metaphors often find their way into a conversation. Put simply, many of the people I know who are living with Dementia, are saying familiar things in an unfamiliar way. What an incredible privilege as a writer to be around these people, and be forced to think outside the box. These relationships have impacted my writing style profoundly over the last few years, giving me license to experiment with new ways of phrasing things and structuring sentences. I also have to say that there are far too many poets in Belfast and I have an awful lot of them in my friendship circle. Over the last few years, through a process of osmosis, I’ve found myself reading almost as much poetry as I have prose. Last year at the Beckett Festival in Enniskillen I heard Eimear McBride say that it’s time the poets stopped getting away with being the only ones who can have fun with language, and I agree one hundred percent. Reading poetry has changed the way I write prose. I now value the sound and shape of a sentence as much as I value its meaning. I enjoy ruining sentences and putting them back together differently. I no longer feel guilty for fashioning metaphors out of wildly incongruous words and concepts. I’m enjoying having fun with language. I recently heard George Saunders talk about an inner pendulum he keeps inside his head to assess the value of a sentence based on how it reads. I have a pendulum like that inside my head. It helps to keep me from disappearing into my own overleaping imagination. I spend much time reading work out loud these days and pushing sentences to see how sparse or strange they can become without losing their sense of meaning and flow, but I always have to ground myself by asking, ‘does it read well?’. I know every writer has a different creative method but this works for me, so I’m sticking with it.

SS: The second group of stories, including ‘People in Glasshouses’, ‘Den and Estie Do Not Remember the Good Times’, ‘Swept’ or ‘Dinosaur Act’, fits more readily with the classic tradition of the Irish short story, calling to mind the work of Frank O’Connor, Bernard MacLaverty, or even Anne Enright.

The characterization in these is often razor sharp but firmly grounded in a more realist tradition. Here are two examples:

My father cheated. Not just with women, also in business and sports.... He was one of those men who could not content himself with happiness. He went at it like a raised scab. He smoked and did the lottery and stuck his fingers in the trifle for a lick before it set. If you asked him straight about any of this he would say, ‘Your head’s cut,’ or, ‘You’ve the wrong end of the stick there, my friend,’ or, quite simply, ‘It wasn’t me.’ (People in Glasshouses, 33f)

He lifted his eyes from the farming section. June was working her way across the individual slats of the venetian blinds with a wad of cotton wool. She had her slippers on with her outdoor clothes, and Bill saw her, for a moment, as strangers might see her if she were a character on a television drama. She was not someone he’d wish to meet if they’d not already been married. (Swept, 107)

Were you conscious of the shifts in tone and style when you first started the collection? Do you think your writing has changed over time, and what voice do you see yourself write in in years ahead?

JC: The stories in this collection have been written gradually over a period of about five or six years. While I’m working on a novel I like to write one day on the novel and the next day focus on short stories. I have an overleaping imagination and am constantly getting new ideas for short stories. Most of them are pretty dreadful, - picture Alan Partridge endlessly dictating new ideas for television programmes into his answering machine at the Travelodge-, so it’s best I stop and write them into short stories rather than allow them to become odd little cul-de-sac plotlines in a novel. Because of this process, around half the stories in Children’s Children were written whilst writing Malcolm Orange Disappears, and the other half whilst wading through the novel I’m currently working on. There’s no progression from magic realism to realism or vice versa. Some days I’m bored with the real world and I want to indulge the fantastical; other days I’m fascinated by the minutiae of living in East Belfast and I can’t write anything but gritty realism. I get the idea for a story first and then I start thinking about the vehicle it will require to best transport it from beginning to end. I think it’s impossible to say how my writing might change or develop over the next number of years. I suspect I’m going to get more and more intrigued by the possibility of stretching language. I hope to learn a little more about how to end a story well. I struggle a little with losing interest or petering out in the last 500 words, and I definitely want to get better at this. I’d like to think I’ll still be fascinated with people whatever form my writing takes, and I guess, in a rather idealistic way, I hope I don’t get stuck in a rut where I become fearful of trying something new. I am a great admirer of Brian Moore on this point. There’s a writer who never sat long enough in the one form or tone to become typecast. I’d like to be that kind of writer.

SS: I found the women and girls in the collection particularly fascinating. In a number of stories there was an undercurrent of female silence and quiet defeat. The daughter in ‘People in Glasshouses’, for example, finds a message in ‘the sad pitch of her [mother’s] eyebrows: ‘I have failed and I am still failing’ (37). Similar sentiments are expressed by a Polish single mum in ‘Larger Ladies’, and by the grieving widow in ‘Dinosaur Act’. I thought this contrasted powerfully with the more outspoken female voices who manage to at least name the things that oppress them, as in the wildly humorous ‘Shopping’, where the female narrator is having a sexless affair in the aisles of a supermarket:

'It seems odd that we never touch,’ I finally admitted, and he pointed out that this was my first supermarket love affair and perhaps I was confusing it with a more pedestrian kind of arrangement. I had to agree that he was right, though my fingers and knees and the small of my back throbbed in protest.' (149)

In ‘Floater’, a mother addresses her young daughter (the theme of parents addressing their children is another frequent sub-theme): At first you could not manage words. You spoke spit and tantrums, heavy sentiments which fell into my flowerbeds, suffocating all but the hardest perennials. Now you simply ask. (118)

Can you talk about writing these females?

JC: Oh dear. I find writing women quite difficult, which is strange, because I am a woman. It has always come much more naturally to me to write in a male voice. There are all sorts of reasons I could give for this, but I think the most honest is that I’ve never really sat comfortably within the traditional norms for Northern Irish women. I’m scarily driven. I am extremely pragmatic to the point that I sometimes come across as a little un-emotional. I’m not particularly maternal and enjoy my own company more than anyone else’s. I have an enormous dread of hen parties, manicures and anything involving competitive baking. I fully acknowledge that there are lots of women like me, but they’re definitely not the norm where I grew up, and I was always on the edge a little as a young person, and sometimes still feel as if I am. I struggle with women who are very stereotypically female, and I don’t know if I have it in me to write with any integrity about someone I can’t empathize with. You’ll find I invent men quite easily, but any of the women I’ve tried to write are probably tapping into some part of my own life experience. They tend to be introspective and on the edge of the world they find themselves in, always looking for a way in. They’re not necessarily unhappy but they’re not that comfortable either.

SS: You’ve already mentioned faith and religion. It’s another theme that looms large in the collection. Considering that in Northern Ireland it comes with significant cultural and emotional baggage, you work it into the stories in fascinating ways, contrasting its divisiveness with its capacity to console, while also highlighting the gaps religion fails to fill for some of the characters. In ‘Dinosaur Act’, for instance, an old woman who just lost her husband finds herself spiritually isolated among the devout younger members of her family:

There was a lack in the house without Jim. There was an echo after the children and the children’s children went home. Yet, at this, the most empty moment of her life, Sandra understood that there was no room in her for God or any of his comfort. A loneliness slid between her and the rest of the family. It had a stiff back to it and it would not bend. They were church people, and, in moments of death and serious sickness, held to their faith like drowning fish. Sandra still said all the same things the children were saying and agreed with them on everything, even the funeral hymns, yet felt herself a spectre, haunting the edges of her own living room. (172f)

JC: I’ve always had a faith, and it’s always impacted every aspect of my life, so it would be ridiculous to try and leave God at the door when I write. I think these stories, more than anything I’ve ever written before, are an attempt to approach my faith as honestly as possible, to question it and wrestle with it, and attempt to make sense of it in the same way Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene brought their Catholicism to the threshing floor in their fiction. Faith isn’t always the easiest thing for an artist to carry. There have certainly been times when I’ve felt it would be simpler not to believe anything, or to have an incredibly simplistic notion of religious belief. However, art is a robust vehicle for allowing an artist to engage with God. There are breathing spaces here for the artist to sit in the gray area between faith and doubt. I found that these grey areas rarely exist in theology, and almost never in contemporary church practice. For me faith is a journey, and I want to be honest about where I am on that journey when I pick up my pen to write. The history of the church would seem to suggest that those who’ve asked difficult questions and were not afraid to be honest about their religious experiences – Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Kierkegaard, and lately Marilynne Robinson and Wendell Berry- were the people who reformed and changed the church, making it more fit to serve the next generation. Many of these people were artists first, and theologians second. I actually believe the lack of faith engagement in my generation will have a negative impact on the art we produce. There’s something about growing up in a community which can speak honestly and articulately about the big issues – faith, doubt, hope, suffering, evil - which should, when properly nurtured and equipped, produce artists who have something worth listening to. It would be a massive loss if the centuries old links between faith and art, which run all the way through church history, were to be severed in the coming decades.

SS: Wow, that’s a really powerful point, and as you say, we live in a time when, for all kinds of reasons, there isn’t much unambiguous discussion of these big issues. On a related note: what made you pick a fragment from singer songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ as an epigraph: ‘On the floor at the great divide with my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied’?

JC: I wanted the collection to hinge around the idea of legacy; the contemplation of what one generation inherits from the previous generation and those difficult decisions concerning what is worthy of holding on to, and what must be exorcised if the individual or society is to move forward. All the characters in Children’s Children are, in a sense, hesitating on the edge of the great divide between the present and a future they may or may not step into, dragging all sorts of crap with them. I think this is where Northern Ireland is as a whole right now, and perhaps it’s also where I am personally, in both a political and cultural sense, but also, as I highlighted before, in a spiritual sense. I chose ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ for my epigraph because it’s a masterpiece of spiritual wrestling. It’s about a girl who still dies of cancer no matter how much the Bible study group pray for her, and yet it isn’t a song about unbelief. It’s simply Sufjan Stevens honestly articulating what it feels like to be both blessed and seemingly cursed by the one hand, and to stand on the edge of this great divide, looking like you have it all together and simultaneously falling apart as you try to work out what to do next. I’m right there with Sufjan Stevens every time I hear this song. I think many of us could empathize in one way or the other.

SS: To finish off, I’d like to say that I loved your story titles. Many of them read like miniature narratives: ‘Den and Estie Do Not Remember the Good Times’, ‘Contemporary Uses for a Belfast Box Room’ or ‘How They Were Sitting When Their Wings Fell Off’. How do you go about finding them?

JC: I’m so glad you said this because I really struggle with titles. They always come last, and for a very long time stories have terribly generic working titles like ‘leaving home’ or ‘sorry.’ Quite often I raid the more obscure Bob Dylan songs for a title. Sometimes I’ll lift a line from a story. On several occasions I’ve actually stumbled across a killer title and written the story to fit round it. There’s no formula. As with most things I’m kind of making it up as I go along. I really wish titles came easier to me but they’re usually the very last piece of the jigsaw.

SS: Thank you so much Jan. It’s been amazing exploring these stories with you in such depth. I’m looking forward to what you’ll be writing next.