In the next in our series of author interviews, we chat to Northern Irish novelist Jan Carson (above), who’ll be teaching our seven-week Write Here… in Belfast novel-writing course from February 2019. Jan’s debut novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, and short story collection, Children’s Children, were published by Liberties Press, Dublin. Her next novel The Fire Starters will be published by Doubleday in April 2019. Here, she talks to us about shaping characters, writing in the midst of busy shopping centres and how she escapes the family on Christmas Day in order to add to her wordcount.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you became a published author? Did you always want to be a novelist – and who and what helped you along the way?
I’ve always been a big reader but I never really wrote much. I moved to the US in September 2005 and bought myself my first laptop before I left Belfast. When I arrived in Oregon, I told people I liked to write. It was a lie but it scared me into actually beginning to write stories. By 2007, I was having short stories published in different literary journals. I began my first novel in 2008. Actually, that’s a lie. I wrote a whole novel in 2006. But it was terrible. I binned it almost straight away. However, it did teach me the discipline and fortitude required to write something as long as a novel, when you’re more accustomed to the short-story format. I finished my first decent novel by around 2011 and a friend who worked in publishing took an interest in it and helped me secure my first contract. It took me almost six years from beginning that novel to seeing it on the shelves. With my fourth book I acquired an agent, Kate, who is brilliant and helped to secure a three-book deal for me. This has given me a level of security as a writer but it means I’m now expected to produce a manuscript per year. My whole approach to writing has changed. I’m much more focused now. I write every day, whether I feel like it or not. I’m more comfortable with writing first drafts that are going to go through multiple edits. In the past I was something of a perfectionist and this made me quite a slow writer. Finding a good agent and a good editor have been two of the most important things that have happened in the last couple of years. Kate takes a lot of the pressure off me and deals with publishers directly so I don’t have to worry about it. Alice, my fantastic editor, has really helped me to hone my writing, in order to focus in on the best parts and cut out the flab. I’m always amazed how she can make a chapter say more, even though she’s taken the wordcount down.
How do you get the ideas for your books?
Ideas come from lots of different things. The way I write novels is that the main plotline often runs alongside lots of different smaller plots, so I’m always on the lookout for ideas or characters which strike me as interesting. I listen a lot to people chatting in coffee shops, on the bus and at Tesco. It’s amazing how many stories begin with an overheard piece of conversation. I also love to research different topics. My new novel, The Fire Starters, is set around parade season in East Belfast. Though I live there, and grew up in a Protestant community, I’d never really looked into the roots of some of the cultural traditions associated with bonfires, the Twelfth of July and the Orange Order. It was really interesting to find out a bit more and also stumble upon some really interesting details I knew nothing about.
When do you write – and why?
I have no pattern to when or where I write. I’ve got such a crazy work schedule that it never looks the same two days in a row. However, I do prioritise my writing. So, I’ll sit down at the beginning of the week and schedule two-hour blocks of writing into each day. I’m getting much better at turning down appointments if they threaten to encroach upon my writing time. You have to treat it like a job.
You’re faced with a blank Word document or empty piece of paper in front of you. How do you begin your book?
Every time I start a new book it feels a little bit like giving birth. There’s a kind of pregnant period in which you’re thinking about the characters and the plot, maybe taking notes, collecting small pieces of research. I always put the actual moment of writing the first sentence off for as long as possible, but eventually there comes a point where I feel compelled to start writing. Then, it’s almost a relief to start getting your ideas down. I’m becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of a rough first draft, so I’m not too concerned about the first sentences being perfect. I almost always come back and change my opening.
What’s your writing process? How many words do you set yourself and what do you do your writing with?
I write on a very light laptop that I carry almost everywhere with me, so I can make the most of any small moments of free time I get. I write for two hours a day. I almost always hit around 1,000 words in two hours unless I’m at a tricky part in a novel. Each day, I like to try and leave my writing in a spot where it’s easy to pick up the following day. I write every day of the year except Christmas Day. Though sometimes I sneak away from the family and have a sneaky wee write then, too.
Do you work in total silence – or do you prefer to listen to music while you write?
Neither. I’m a strange writer. I can’t stand silence and don’t really listen to music that often. I actually like bustle – so often I write in busy spots like coffee shops or airports. I like to be able to watch people, how they move and interact, when I’m writing a story. Some of this practice came from my early years of writing, when I wrote in lunch and coffee breaks at work. I worked as a sales assistant in a shop and most of my first novel was written in the coffee island of a shopping centre. I’ve had to learn how to write in strange and noisy places because I’ve rarely had the chance to write in silence. I’m glad I can do this now as it really helps me have continuity in my writing when I’m travelling around the world.
Where is your desk – and what’s on it?
I’m afraid I don’t have a desk. I don’t have a regular writing spot. I mostly write outside my house. But when I’m at home I quite often write at the kitchen table or in bed, with a cup of tea to hand.
What are the greatest obstacles to your writing?
Time constraints. Most people who aren’t writers don’t realise how little money there is in publishing books. Most of us are madly juggling different jobs and projects in order to make ends meet. I’m pretty disciplined about fitting my two hours of writing each day in around my other commitments, but I often fantasise about what it would be like to have unlimited time. I’m usually coming to my work tired and it would be wonderful to see what writing with a clear head and no other preoccupations would actually feel like.
What’s more important to you – characters or plot?
I’m always drawn to people. I’m quite a nosy person. So, I’m usually attracted by interesting, unique characters. I’m a firm believer in the notion that a well-developed character will really help shape your plot. I’m currently working on a novel set in a primary-school class and, before beginning the novel, I wrote a short story about each of my characters. It was a tremendous help when it came to writing the novel having already spent so much time getting to know my characters and how they’d react in different situations. Saying that, I also love a strong plot and I’m not a big fan of stories where nothing really happens.
What do you think a creative writing course can do for an aspiring author?
I don’t believe you can teach imagination, but if an aspiring author has ideas, I think a creative writing course can really help give them the necessary tools to shape these into powerful stories. I also firmly believe in the community that emerges from creative writing courses. Much of what we do as writers is incredibly solitary – so a creative writing course can offer an essential opportunity to find community with other writers. Learning how to workshop pieces, take feedback and creative criticism is an important part of writing, and a creative writing workshop can be a safe, non-threatening environment in which to develop these skills.