In the latest in our book series, Belfast-based JAN CARSON tells SOPHIE GRENHAM about the death of THE INDEPENDENT BOOK SHOP, her love of Shakespeare, and making art ACCESSIBLE TO THE ELDERLY …
Belfast native Jan Carson deftly juggles her demanding role as a community arts development officer with writing a word or two. The literary powerhouse kicked off her glittering career with the critically acclaimed Malcolm Orange Disappears in 2014.
That same year, she received the Artist’s Career Enhancement Bursary from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Her short stories have been published in such literary journals as Banshee, The Honest Ulsterman, Storm Cellar and The Incubator. Jan’s new book, the exquisite Children’s Children, has been described by Donal Ryan as, “Heartbreaking in places, hilarious in others, always utterly enchanting and unforgettable.” Jan has contributed a short story to New Island’s forthcoming anthology of female prose writers from the North of Ireland, due for release in October this year. She is currently working on her next novel.
I live in the Belmont area of East Belfast. I moved back to Belfast from Portland, Oregon about seven years ago and have been living in the city ever since. My house is in the middle of a street of little terraced houses which runs on to Belmont Road. I have fantastic coffee shops, bakers, grocers, butchers and an old art deco cinema right at the end of my street. I love living here as it’s the kind of urban village environment where it’s still possible to get to know your neighbours and the people you buy your food from. There are also a lot of artists, writers and musicians who live around this area. There’s nothing I love more than dandering out for a pint of milk and bumping into someone I know. We’ve actually just started a monthly post-work pint meet up for artists living in East Belfast so more people working in the arts can get to meet similar souls who live near them.
I’m a bit of a creature of habit. I can only write properly in public spaces so I a lot of my spare time in coffee shops. I circulate between the coffee shop upstairs in Waterstones book store, Clements on Botanic Avenue and Common Grounds which is a fantastic independent coffee shop tucked behind Queen’s University. I’m sure the baristas are probably sick of the sight of me, taking three hours to drink one Americano. I actually rarely write in my house. I find silence quite intimidating and prefer the bustle of being in a noisy coffee shop with plenty of people to eavesdrop on and watch when I need a little inspiration.
If I do write at home I have to be honest and say it’s usually in bed with a glass of wine. One of our local playwrights, Jimmy McAleavey recently told the Press that he’d commissioned a special writing bed with fold away shelves and a table for leaning on. My bed isn’t as fancy as Jimmy’s but I do have towering stacks of unread paperbacks on either side and occasionally find one has made its way under the duvet. I tend to write better in the evenings so even if it’s the middle of the day I’ll probably have the curtains drawn, trying to trick myself into thinking it’s time to be inspired.
Sadly we’re down to our very last independent bookstore here in Belfast, but fortunately for us, it’s a particularly great one. No Alibis on Botanic is a bit of an institution in Belfast. It’s one of those small but bottomless bookstores where you go in looking for one thing and emerge an hour later with a lot of really interesting books you never meant to buy. It has just the right amount of clutter and, more often than not, a local writer or two lingering round the bookcases. David and Claudia who own No Alibis are both tireless champions of Belfast writers who are never done hosting readings in their shop, and also a great font of bookish knowledge. We’re very fortunate to have such a wonderful wee bookstore on our doorstep. I’ve lost track of all the great readings I’ve attended in No Alibis and lately it’s been a pleasure to read there myself. It’s less of a book shop and more of a home for Belfast writer’s and book fanatics.
I’ve talked about this a few times before and it’s not exactly art but the thing which probably made the biggest impact on my early life as a creative was Inspector Morse. We’re not really a creative family. I come from a long line of extremely pragmatic engineers. But we do like crime programmes in our house and I have a very clear memory of watching John Thaw as Inspector Morse and just being fascinated by all the references to art, literature and music. Inspector Morse was probably my first encounter with Shakespeare, classical music and literature and as a child I was deeply drawn to this world and wanted to investigate for myself. Wuthering Heights was probably the first novel I read which profoundly affected the way I see the world. I still read it almost annually and am transported back to the first time I read it as a sixteen year old, completely blown away by its passion and intensity. My touchstones now are Flannery O’Connor and Bob Dylan, both artists who not only created well but also lived well with purpose and audacity. Every time I come back to their work I find something new I haven’t noticed before. I think this is the mark of great art: the ability to appear fresh no matter how many times you’ve encountered it.
I don’t have any particular place that I regularly go to retreat but I have to say that I’m a real sucker for the sea. If I go too long without getting to the coast I begin to get a little bit claustrophobic. I have a particular fondness for Victorian sea side resorts off season. I love Brighton and Margate and Bognor Regis, but only when they’re not heaving with tourists. I quite often take some time off in the middle of the winter and go to one of the seaside resorts, take long blustery walks along the prom, play the 2p machines on the pier and hole up in a coffee shop to write and eat cake. I’ve often thought that I’d love to write some guide of travel guide to Britain’s off-season holiday resorts. You see an entirely different side to these towns when the tourists aren’t there. I’m not sure what it says about me but I find the wild beaches, the shuttered up holiday shops and bundled up dog walkers much more interesting than summer season.
On the day job
I have quite an eclectic job working for the City Council here in Belfast. I’m based in the Tourism, Culture, Heritage and Arts department but much of my job centres around art provision for our older residents. I absolutely love what I do though no two days look anyway alike. I run tea dances, supervise some fantastic creative projects engaging with our older people, help to make our arts venues and events more accessible for older people and in the process get to meet some of the most interesting people in Belfast. It’s a bit of a dream job for a person who loves story as much as I do. These last few years I’ve been focusing a lot of my work on engaging people living with dementia with the arts. We’ve run singing groups, theatre projects, writing workshops, a fashion show and lots of dance. It’s been so inspiring to see people journey through this difficult time of their life with vitality, honesty and the ability to continue contributing to community. I’m always inspired after I’ve been with our older people and quite often itching to get writing.
Malcolm Orange Disappears (€15.75) and Children’s Children (€14.99) are published by Liberties Press and available from all good bookshops.
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our June issue, out Thursday June 2.
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