Belfast City Hall Jan Carson

Exploring East Belfast with author Jan Carson

Jackie De Burca Jan, going back to your time in East Belfast and of course, you travel a lot then you’re going back, that’s your—that’s been your base now for quite a number of years. Why do you love that environment so much? Because obviously, you do.

Jan Carson A couple of reasons. I love the closeness of it. I live in a tiny wee terraced house. You can possibly hear my neighbour’s dogs barking here cos they go off every so often. But I love that sense of living closely with people.

And for a writer, there’s so much material in it. And I know some people probably would baulk at the idea of being so close to the subject that you’re writing about, but for me, I need to be right in the middle of it. And most of my community work is now within a kind of six-block radius of where I live. I write about these streets. I live in these streets. I know the writers and the artists who live in my community. It feels very healthy and very ingrained in who I am.

Jan Carson So, I think there’s that. And that’s been a huge part for me. It’s been really healing. And we’re right in the heart of Protestant Belfast here. And if I stand and head out the door, I can see Union Jacks and other flags, which we will not mention. And there is this- for me, there was a sense of coming to peace with who I was whenever I moved to the east because I was, you know, spent a long time coming from Ballymena, having a very strong Protestant identity. My Dad, my Dad’s father was in the Orange. It’s there in our family and it’s frustrating me. And I don’t like it or appreciate it. And this experience of being in this community has taught me how to be a bit more nuanced about my background and who I am. So, I get to ask questions about – seeing as I do about religion – I get to ask questions about, you know, what about this community is good and worthy of celebration I want to hold on to and what needs to be critiqued or let go of? That’s a much more mature response to identity than just “I’m going to throw everything out.”

Jackie De Burca Yeah, of course.

Titanic Belfast, South East Elevation
Titanic Belfast, South East Elevation

Photo Flickr user Gerry Lynch/林奇格里 

Jan Carson And I find that being here has allowed me to do that. So, yeah. I still get frustrated when I’m trying to get the car out to the end of the road, and there’s a band parade and I have to sit there for twenty-five minutes. Like that still annoys me.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, yeah.

Jan Carson But also, like I’ve been out and chatted to people at band parades and some of them have reasons for being there that I would question and some have reasons for being there that are so legit and so much part of who they are and family and community and about – I’ve had to say, “that sounds great. I completely understand why you love this culture.”

Jackie De Burca OK. So, it’s kind of like, in a way, you put yourself in the middle of something that’s supposed healing, but is like an ongoing creative project, too, I suppose.

Jan Carson Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, like if you know the kind of arc of my writing and, you know, it started everything that I wrote when I moved back from the States – was set in the States for years or else it was set in a kind of abstract not pinned down place that was nowhere. And the more I’ve come to love this neighbourhood, this community, the city, the more focused the writing has become. It’s kind of got closer and closer and closer.

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

St Mark's Church, Dundela
St Mark’s Church, Dundela

Photo Flickr user Gerry Lynch/林奇格里

Jan Carson And I actually find and love that and I’ve written quite a few stories are just set in my house.

Jackie De Burca Oh really?

Jan Carson I’m very tight now.

Jackie De Burca Okay, let’s talk about that in a little bit, because I was going to refer to lockdown. But one question, just before we concentrate on lockdown and East Belfast, which we will do again. Your first Postcard Stories book that was published in April 2017 – Tell us a little bit, Jan, about how that actually came about as a concept.

Jan Carson So I had writer’s block in 2015. I’d just published my first short story collection.

And I, for the first time in my life, I didn’t have any ideas. I couldn’t think what to write about. And so, I set myself this challenge of writing a short story every day and to make it manageable I said, it’ll be small, it’ll fit in the back of a postcard. And to keep me to it, that I would actually follow through, I promised 365 friends a story on a postcard. So, I had to post them cause I had all their addresses. The first collection came from that.

We couldn’t publish them all. Some of them were terrible, but we picked one a week. So there’s a week’s or a year’s worth of stories in the first collection.

CS Lewis Statue - The Searcher
CS Lewis Statue – The Searcher

Jackie De Burca Okay. Now, the second collection, which was released quite recently before our interview today in July of 2020. Have you linked this particular collection, Jan, to community work and also to CoViD-19?

Jan Carson Well, it was all written before CoViD-19, so it predates it. The second collection, I continued to write postcards stories, but they became more something for me that I use as a kind of travel log. So, a lot of stories in this collection aren’t set in Belfast. And there are a few that still are because sometimes, a really good story strikes and you have to get it down. But a lot of them were based on the travelling I’ve done since the writing has taken off. And I’ve got to travel around the world to festivals and things, and people no longer want a postcard home that says, you know, “Weather is nice. Wish you were here.” They’re like, “I want a story. Can I have a story, please?” That’s where those came from.

I have, during lockdown, I actually started writing postcards stories again as something that I felt I could do to keep in touch with the community participants I’d been working with at the start.

A lot of my community arts projects are based on older people and at the beginning, technology, like Zoom and Skype, was very difficult for them. So, I started writing a postcard story each day of lockdown and posting them out. So, something physical was coming in the post and that morphed and got out of control very quickly. And I ended up just sending them to anybody who was isolated or feeling a bit lonely. So, we took nominations from friends. And I think we ended with about one hundred and twenty when I finished.

Jackie De Burca Really?

Jan Carson About three and a half months of writing postcard stories. And I was very, very lucky to have a ton of amazing young artists who offered to illustrate them for me. So, we had a hundred and five little artists from around the world drawing pictures for the postcard stories this session. So, I’m hoping that we might be able to publish a collection of those. Just the lockdown postcards at some stage in the next year or so.

East Belfast mural
East Belfast mural

Photo Flickr user Sam Bailey

Jackie De Burca Wow. And did you get much feedback from, you know, from the people who nominated the recipients? Did you get much feedback about how—

Oh yeah. It was lovely. It kept me going. I live by myself so I was quite isolated for a lot of lockdown as well. And the feedback that came back from people who’d received postcards or folks who had nominated maybe a parent in a nursing home who they couldn’t see at the minute. We had one older lady who actually would post them everyday so everybody else could read them online. And I had one lady in Scotland, who would phone up her sister each day and read the daily postcard story down the phone, too.

Jackie De Burca Oh really?

Jan Carson And I had another couple of my wee artists. They live down the road from a man who was widowed just before lockdown started. An older man. And each day, they did their own illustration and went down to his house, read the story through his window because he was in isolation and posted their illustration to him. So that’s actually – that’s gone to our public records office as an archive. All of their art and my stories which – things like that. Which really tears you up in some way.

1st July East Belfast
1st July East Belfast

Photo Flickr user Richard Robinson

Jackie De Burca Really? Of course. So, I mean, basically, they’ve been like a lifeline to some people, really.

Jan Carson Yeah. So, it just meant that, that man for three months got a visit from two happy 10-year olds once a day. And there’s a story and a bit of art. And a wee bit of chat.

Jackie De Burca So, Jan, you’ve mentioned just beforehand that, you know, you live by yourselves. Of course, lockdown would have had a huge impact on you. And on top of that, the local environment that people have been experiencing because of lockdown and CoViD-19, I know lots of people personally who really appreciate their local environment much more — and perhaps even more like a child might see it. From your writing, it’s really obvious to me that that’s an integral part of your talent and who you are. Have you ever wondered why you’re like that?

I think I’m just nosy, Jackie.

Jackie De Burca Okay.

I really like looking at things when I’m out and about, and I definitely — like I totally agree with you about coming to appreciate the space immediately around you during lockdown. And I live just along the road from Victoria Park and for 80 days until lockdown lifted, I walked exactly the same route every single day and I noticed everything. You know, every little flower that came out, every rat that had appeared, every piece of rubbish. And I think there’s something about that that is actually a really good discipline to learn as a writer– to pay attention to what’s around you.

It doesn’t come naturally to people, I think. Particularly nowadays, we tend to dash from here to the next thing, not aware of what’s around us. But as a – we read a poem at school of like, “I’m gonna notice the details and the little things that other people missed.” And so I did. I really appreciate having a green space close to me. We have a fantastic thing in the East called the Greenway. And the Greenway is an off-road path that links up every single park in this part of the city. So it means you can — I mean, it means my nephew, who lives five miles from me, can cycle from his house to my house without ever being on a road, which was a gift.

Jackie De Burca Of course, yeah.

Victoria Park Belfast Jan Carson
Victoria Park Belfast Jan Carson

Photo Flickr user Gary Hamilton

Jan Carson I took so much advantage of the Greenway during lockdown.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, that’s well, I mean, it’s – people — I think people really realise, Jan, at a time like that. I’m very privileged because I live on another farm. So, it’s almost like – I wouldn’t say I’ve been untouched, that would be an exaggeration. But, having green space of any sort close by, I think a lot of people have, you know, learnt to really, really appreciate. Going back, Jan, to the days that were your normality before the new normality that we’re all dealing with, and you were travelling a lot, you know, pre-CoViD-19. How many weeks per year were you away doing book festivals, workshops, and so on, Jan?

I think last year was really bad. So, I was in 25 countries last year and I’d spent two-thirds of the year – I keep a track of the nights I sleep in my own bed. And it was less – it was just over a hundred.

I think it’s been a hundred fifteen nights in my own bed. But within that, I was very, very fortunate. I had two-month long residencies—I was a resident in Grovepark in Scotland – which was wonderful – for a month. And then, I also had a residency in Paris at the start of this year for a month. So, and that took a fair whack of the night’s off of my own bed away.

East Belfast View Jan Carson
East Belfast View Jan Carson

Jackie De Burca Okay. And normally in the summertime, apart from the residencies that you’ve just mentioned, you do spend quite a bit of time, don’t you, Jan, down south in Ireland, and you’ve mentioned to me that you feel very much a part of the Irish writing community. I find that really interesting. You know, as a northern Protestant and particularly as you described, how important your faith is to you. You’ve obviously experienced a deep level of inclusion and acceptance and that you have a sense of belonging, you know, when you’re down there. Why do you think this is? How do you feel that’s come about?

I think, you know, I think there is an openness in the south. It’s very humble. And to be in West Cork or Limerick or Tipperary or Southport, and have people come up and say, “I don’t really understand that much about what it means to be a Northern Protestant, but I like to learn that attitude that I normally get faced with.”

Jan Carson It’s not, “Oh yeah, we’ve got that covered. We know everything.” It’s more a respectful, “I don’t understand, but please tell me.” Maybe it’s because that’s how I’ve had to posture myself as well, like I said earlier in the interview. But I don’t have Irish history like I — and there are huge gaps in my learning and I certainly don’t understand what it would be like to have grown up, you know, Catholic in this side of Ireland. It’s not within my range of experience. So, you can find that in all of those dialogues across difference, you have to begin from a position of humility of going, “I can only understand what I’ve experienced.” And then you either say, “And I’m not interested in your experience.” Or you say, “Tell me about your experience.”

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Newtownards, East Belfast
Newtownards, East Belfast

Photo Flickr user Nick

Jan Carson It’s very basic. I just think it’s about openness, really. And then also, once again, super nosy – I want to know what it’s like for other people in different places, you know, it’s absolutely the same when I – the last place I went before lockdown was I see Enea and I end up in a bar two – two o’clock in the morning with a Ukrainian writer and a Belarusian writer, a German writer, a Lithuanian writer, and I think a Slovenian writer. And that’s – for hours. “Here’s my experience of growing up in the weird place I’m from. What was it like for you?”

Jackie De Burca Okay. Yeah. That’s fantastic. One of the things as well, Jan, because you’ve moved around so much. It’s very much part of who you are, I think, as a person and a writer. And you sent me this wonderful article in preparation for this interview that – it was close writing for Kin magazine. I would love to read up more of it, but I’m only going to read out a very short excerpt from it. You wrote, “I’ve always written best in the in-between spaces — airports, boats, trains. There’s the freedom to be found in the liminal, which seems to encourage creativity.” Would you like to expand a little bit on that, Jan?

Jan Carson Yeah, I think for me, travel has always been really important. And I think I’ve tried for a long time to understand what it does to me. But I think there’s something about- you leave one place and you leave your preoccupations and your, you know, yourself to some extent behind and you haven’t yet arrived at the other place where you take on their preoccupations and understand the responsibilities of that place. And in the middle, you’re kind of stripped back to the bones of yourself. So, there is a real sense of anonymity in airports and trains and places like that where, you know, people don’t know you. You can be anything you want. And without that baggage, I find that much easier to write. And I think you can do that as well. Like I have become very much – I’m kind of sad about this but I’ve become a residency writer in the last wee while, where residencies have offered me in-between spaces of, you know, leaving here and my preoccupations in Belfast and go and be physically somewhere else for a month where I can just be a writer and just focus on the words. So, there’s that. That thing about liminal spaces, I think, is really important. And I think – and you know, I need to do some work on this, but I think it also translates even into what it is to be Northern Irish. Because we are an in-between kind of identity. I have a British passport and an Irish passport. I have a very strong Protestant background, but a real affinity with the Catholic communities that I’ve worked with as well. You are, in a sense, an in-between kind of person here. A lot of people would see that as a negative. But I actually – I love it. I think it gives me a freedom to play around with and to be really creative in that liminal space.

Titanic people
Titanic people

Photo Flickr user Tom Iestyn

Jackie De Burca I think it’s interesting. I’m taking in and digesting what you’ve just said. I think, in a way, that in-between is, at least I feel as a reader of The Fire Starters, I think that in-between comes into The Fire Starters, Jan.

Jan Carson Yeah. I mean, I’ve said a lot about, you know, writing closely about the place that you are. But within that, you have to be distanced as well. So, to be a writer is to be a camera and to always be trying to observe and having a kind of objective perspective of things as well. And I think it’s impossible to achieve, like you’re never going to separate yourself entirely from the stories you tell. But that’s what we’re striving for. And this sense of like being present but on the edge of things, kind of. And yeah, I kind of — I enjoy that. And it gives me a freedom to play around with and work with – and there’s an essay in there I would love to write at some stage. I’m still pulling it apart, what it would look like.

Jackie De Burca Okay. Now, obviously, The Fire Starters, which was your second novel that we’ve just been chatting about that won the EU Prize for Literature in 2019. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I particularly loved about it is how I wouldn’t have described it as the in-between until you spoke just recently. It was for me, the fantasy and the reality, the way they’re weaved together so wonderfully in the same web. The storyline – how did that come to, Jan? Was it inspired by any particular events or characters?

Jan Carson I think there’s two main protagonists in that. Jonathan and Sammy. And Sammy’s an older man. He’s an ex-loyalist paramilitary. And I think his character very much came out of a lot of community arts projects that I have facilitated over the years with men of his age, ilk, and experience. And the thing that really came to mind was their need to talk and their inability to talk and communicate about what they’ve been through. And so, I wanted to create a character who, you know, has seen a lot, has been implicated in a lot and is responsible for awful things and, you know, has survived it but really needs to vent and express themselves and can’t. And so, I guess that’s where Sammy came from. And there’s a lot of me in Jonathan, the other character, who’s a young-ish GP who has – he’s quite different. With Jonathan, his repression isn’t coming from a religious background. It’s more — his parents have been very cold with him.

Jackie De Burca Yeah.

Sam Thompson Bridge, Sydenham, Belfast
Sam Thompson Bridge, Sydenham, Belfast

Photo Flickr user Andrew

Jan Carson Well, he’s equally like some of the experiences I’ve had growing up in the Presbyterian Church, quite tight with himself and doesn’t find mixing and socialising and things like that come easily or naturally. So, I guess he’s on a journey towards them, you know, finding himself in some ways and being more free with who he is.

Jackie De Burca Yeah, I mean, the character, but – both of the characters are absolutely amazing, obviously. And then, you know, you’ve given — you give Jonathan, the character in the book, the gift (inaudible – 00:21:07) of a baby who might be a siren. Where did that come to? How did that come to you, Jan?

Jan Carson Yeah, I think – and it’s really, really hard to talk about where things come from. They just appear sometimes out of the blue, and I tend to work around with concepts when I’m working in the more magical elements of my writing. I tend to think – what is the idea or the kind of constraints that I want to play around with and then what could be assembled for that. And the big symbol running through The Fire Starters is language and the power of language. And you know, language has the ability to be destructive. And when I started to think of that, a siren seemed incredibly obvious. And because when sirens speak and there’s chaos and it came quite quickly, that seems to me like the best vehicle to explore the destructive power of language.

Harper Street, Short Strand, East Belfast 1973
Harper Street, Short Strand, East Belfast 1973

Photo Flickr user Torfaen Corvine

Jackie De Burca Okay. Now, the time you were living in East Belfast, obviously, you’re still living there, but at what stage did you start to write The Fire Starters? How long were you living in East Belfast and how much do you think the environment has affected your creativity in terms of that particular novel?

Jan Carson That is a working novel, and I always say and it was done – It was written in my head. Just pounding the pavements of East Belfast. At that stage, I was – I was living in East Belfast, but working in the Ulster Hall in the city centre, which is about a 40-minute walk in from my home. So, I would walk at night to work each day and look and watch and take notes and look at the shape of the streets and the people. And so, it was very much constructed in my head while I’m out in the streets. And — I guess The Fire Starters taught me so much about writing a novel because it is the first one — my first novel I’d written after having been edit it and realising that it’s probably best not to just throw two hundred thousand words on a page and see what happens. And the biggest thing that I realised is how much work is done in the head before you ever sit down at the keyboard. So, it was maybe six to nine months of thinking about Jonathan and Sammy and the spaces and the situations before I actually put any words on paper. I’m terrified. I’m actually — I’m about to start a new novel today. First of September has been in my diary for ages and I’ve been carrying it for nine months.

Jackie De Burca Okay. Okay.

View of East Belfast.
View of East Belfast.

Photo Flickr user Andrew Stewart

Jan Carson So, it feels just about ready to burst out. Yeah, and there is a process now for me and I’ve got another novel coming out in July next year, which is just on final edits at the minute. And it was very much the same with it, nine months to a year of thinking and then a furious four-month blast of scribbling. And then lots of hard edits after that.

Jackie De Burca Okay, so it sounds your process is quite fascinating in terms of, you know, what you’ve said about The Fire Starters, Jan, and the ones that you’ve been working on for the one that you got to start writing today and the book that will come out next July. With The Fire Starters, you’ve been pushing yourself in the environment, absorbing the environment at the same time as just feeding, I suppose, those characters coming from your years of experience within the community work and so on. Did you feel that there’s any one or two paragraphs from the book that best reflects this that you would like to read?

Jan Carson I guess the first section was the one that came closest and earliest for me, this Belfast section. And I’m thinking in a furious sit down and splurge- quite close. And I wanted something that not only talked about Belfast but also had a rhythm to it and a kind of flow of Belfast as well. And that’s what came out to it. It’s probably the most visceral kind of piece in the book, I think. So, there’s that. Do you want me to read it?

Jackie De Burca If you would like to read a small bit it would be lovely.

The Strand Cinema, East Belfast
The Strand Cinema, East Belfast

Photo Flickr user

Jan Carson I see, hold on. I’ll just grab the book here.

Jackie De Burca Okay.

Jan Carson Right. Just read the first page. Really.

Jackie De Burca OK.

Jan Carson “This is Belfast. This is not Belfast. Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates, and second names. In this city, names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city, truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after The Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘Sure all looks the same to me.’ The Troubles are over now. They told us so in the newspapers and on the television. Here, we’re very great with religion. We need to believe everything for ourselves. We’re all about sticking the finger in and having a good hook around. We didn’t believe it in the newspapers or on the television. We did not believe it in our bones. After so many years of sitting one way, our spines had set. We will take centuries to unfold. The Troubles have only just begun. This is hardly true either. It depends upon who you’re talking to, how they’re standing, and which particular day you’ve chosen for the chat. Those who are ignorant of our situation can look it up on Wikipedia and find there a three-thousand-word overview. Further articles can be read online and in academic journals. Alternatively, a kind of history may be acquired from talking to the locals. Piecing this together will be a painstaking process, similar to forging one jigsaw puzzle from two, or perhaps twenty. The Troubles is too less a word for all of this. It is a word for minor inconveniences, such as overdrawn bank accounts, slow punctures, a woman’s time of the month. It is not a violent word. Surely, we have earnt ourselves a violent word, something as blunt and brutal as ‘apartheid’. Instead, we have a word like ‘scissors’, which can only be said in the plural. The Troubles is/was one monster thing. The Troubles is/are many individual evils caught up together. Other similar words include ‘trousers’ and ‘pliers’. The Troubles is always written with a capital T as if it were an event, as the Battle of Hastings is an event with a fixed beginning and end, a point on the calendar year. History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again, like stealing.”

And I have just been working all weekend with the Ukrainian translator, trying to translate that into Ukrainian–

And this passage has just baffled all of the translators because there’s so much work playing in it–

Jackie De Burca I can imagine.

East Belfast Sunset
East Belfast Sunset

Photo Flickr user Pete

Jan Carson Oh, yeah. That’s the thing about The Troubles is a word in the plural. It just doesn’t translate well. So, it’s been fun. I’ve worked with three translators very closely so far, but we have, I think, 13 translations going through at the minute.

Jackie De Burca Really? Cause I just think immediately in Spanish, what would we say would be more like “The Problems” really rather than The Troubles.

Jan Carson Well, the Spanish translation’s out. It’s just published and it’s actually doing really, really well. So, my Twitter feed is full of comments from Spanish writers that I don’t understand. But I think they’re like, you know—

Jackie De Burca I’ll take a look. I’ll take a look later on today, Jan, when we’re finished. I didn’t actually know that the Spanish translation was out. So, let’s imagine just that. Let’s play with the imagination a little bit. Let’s say a friend from Spain, a Spanish person, is coming to see you in Belfast. Where would you, apart from– you know, if it wasn’t too close a friend, you wouldn’t want them to stay in your house. Where would be the place you would like to put them up? Put them up in a hotel or a BnB? Where would be your favourite place, Jan?

Jan Carson Gosh, see, that’s a really hard question because I’ve never stayed anywhere in Belfast except my own house. But I do love – it’s a little bit outside of Belfast, but I love the Crawfordsburn Inn, on the way to Bangor. And it’s the kind of – the lovely thing about living in East Belfast is you’re on the edge of the city and you can be out towards the sea and Bangor and all of those places really quickly. And the Crawfordsburn Inn has a big fire and lovely gardens out the back. And I do sometimes escape out there for a wee glass of wine and a read by the fire.

Crawfordsburn Inn
Crawfordsburn Inn

Photo Flickr user Ronald Francis

Jackie De Burca Okay, okay. That sounds quite idyllic. And what about the same Spanish person, and they’d – we’ll say that they read the Spanish translation of The Fire Starters. Where would you be taking them? You know, in terms of seeing the sights. Mainstream. Quirky. Where would you go with them, Jan?

Jan Carson When I first moved back from the States, I had so many friends come to visit and I had the guided tour down to like about two hours, to take in everything. And in a – to be honest, you’re going to get a lot of eccentric things like, with me. But I love (inaudible – 00:32:08) around the shipyards. I think you can tell the whole of Belfast’s history from the shipyards. I had a — for one summer, I had a strange job, giving tours of the Thompson Dock before the Titanic Museum was built. So, I learned a lot of the history of Belfast Lough and the shipbuilding industry. And I love the way it parallels the rise of the city. And, you know, there’s a huge amount of The Troubles’ narrative that’s woven into the shipyards as well. And it’s also my story because my daddy’s first job was in the shipyards. So, I do love it down there.

Titanic's Dry Dock Jan Carson
Titanic’s Dry Dock Jan Carson

Jackie De Burca Okay, that sounds like a great, as you say, slightly not eccentric, but yes, sounds like a real – a sort of a gritty, but properly historic kind of introduction to Belfast, I think, no?

Jan Carson I think my favourite, whenever I go to other places and I get to do that a lot, not at the minute, obviously, but I love it when I get both the kind of historical narrative of the place but also someone’s personal history woven into it. So, we’re very fortunate that you usually have some kind of a chaperone or minder and they will take you round in Prague or Barcelona or whoever it is going, “That’s my favourite bar. And also, here’s what I think of Barcelona.” And I love that. So, I would want to do, one day, that in Belfast.

Jackie De Burca Okay. And if you were doing that again for a guest, where would you bring them either – it doesn’t have to be one or the other. What restaurant or restaurants would you bring them, Jan?

I guess I’ll jump in the East again as well, sorry, but we’ve had like an explosion of good restaurants around East Belfast as well, like they’re mentioned, like kind of poking fun at them in The Fire Starters. There’s an area called Ballyhackamore, which has become more — So up there, but more quirky stuff going on down around here. So, like about five years ago, we had a beautiful new public square built right at the end of my street called C.S. Lewis Square and celebrating C.S. Lewis as one of East Belfast’s most famous sons.

Jackie De Burca Of course.

Jan Carson There’s actually a fantastic restaurant in the square and which is made out of shipping containers called Freight and it’s a really, really good space and food in a very quirky space. So, you’re inside a shipping container. I love that we’ve got really high-end fine dining right in the middle of urban East Belfast and it’s fantastically used and appreciated as well.

Jackie De Burca Okay, that sounds amazing. And what kind of food are they serving there?

Freight Belfast Restaurant Jan Carson
Freight Belfast Restaurant

Jan Carson Oh, just a range of stuff. Their menu turned is quite a lot. So, the chefs are constantly trying, like, new things. I’ve had lots of really, really nice food out there. And the lovely thing is in the summertime, they spill out onto the square so you can eat outside. Maybe not today. It’s drizzly out there, but it’s really hard to explain the difference that the square has made to this space, because previously, it was a space that was quite rundown and, you know, at risk of any social behaviour and stuff. And it’s now, this beautiful space that is full of families and culture. And in the summer, there’ll be people — musicians out there playing. And we’ve got a restaurant, there’s a brilliant coffee shop there as well. And it’s lovely seeing the transformation of the space, not through gentrification, because it’s being used by all of the folks who lived around there as well. I love that.

Jackie De Burca That sounds almost like — how long was the Square there, Jan? Because it sounds almost like, sort of like, it will be an iconic place in the future to show how change can happen that way, you know?

Jan Carson Yeah, I mean, we do hopefully, by using that as a message at the minute. It’s been there for five years. And it’s also – you know, I’ve mentioned the Greenways. A lot of the Greenway routes come to a head at the Square. So, it’s almost like the heartbeat of East Belfast for all of these walking past and things that are going off. And it’s just so well used, and there’s a maze, and a sculptor has made these amazing sculptures of the characters from Narnia. And they’re all reminders – and it’s presided over by the most enormous Aslan that you will ever see. It’s like the size of a van kind of thing.

Aslan Sculpture from Narnia Jan Carson
Aslan Sculpture from Narnia

Jackie De Burca Wow. Well, fantastic. It sounds like an amazing space. And lastly, in terms of Jan’s tour of Belfast for whoever is lucky enough to go on to it. What bar would you – do you have a favourite bar or is that too difficult to choose?

Jan Carson No. I don’t know if it’s my favourite, but the bar – and it’s probably a very obvious thing to say, but the bar we spend most time in is The Sunflower, and which I have waxed lyrical about that before. But it is a wee gem and they have an amazing range of craft beers. Got an fantastic outside space with a pizza oven. But more importantly, they are so, so open and supportive of the arts. So, a lot of the reading sessions that happen in Belfast happened upstairs in The Sunflower. And it’s tiny wee pub. But used to be one of Belfast’s caged pubs with the cage over the front door. And it’s been transformed into this just really vibrant hub of creativity. Everything that’s good and positive about new Belfast. So, when we have our — there’s a series of readings called The Lifeboat Sessions, poetry readings in Belfast, which usually happen on a Tuesday night and at the same time, that the ukulele orchestra meets in – I just love picking your way in from a cold, rainy night, clambering over like 40 people, playing ukuleles to walk upstairs to find there’s four, eight people upstairs listening to poetry.

Jackie De Burca That’s fantastic.

Jan Carson It feels alive and it feels just that – that’s the kind of Belfast that I would want people to come and see like, this is what we are now.

The Sunflower Bar Jan Carson
The Sunflower Bar

Jackie De Burca Okay. No, sounds amazing. So, you mentioned earlier on, that today was the day you were starting your new book. Do you want to tell us a tiny bit or can you, at this moment?

Jan Carson Yes. So, it’s this – this one is going to be — it’s got shades of historical fiction because it references back to the – Northern Ireland was one of the main training grounds for the American G.I.s who came over to serve in the Second World War. So, thousands of them were stationed in Belfast before they got deployed to the front. And at one point, 10 percent of the entire Northern Irish population was American G.I.s. And of course, they met local women and there were romances and there were engagements. So, in 1946, after the war was over, there were three boats which left Belfast Lough, full of war brides who were heading back to America to meet up with their partners out there. And since the book is actually set on the last boat that leaves Belfast Lough and the book explores some of the women who were going out – But there is a — I don’t want to go into it too much, but there’s a different – element to it as well because— So, I’ve been doing a lot of piercing around the shipyards and looking at Belfast Lough and reading the War Memorial and the public records office have been brilliant for accounts and diaries and letters from the women who had those actual experiences. So that’s been fantastic, fun reading as well.

Belfast Lough
Belfast Lough

Photo Flickr user Mark McCourt

Jackie De Burca OK. Well, that sounds intriguing. Obviously, one for people to be looking forward to. And finally, Jan, the book that is being released next July. What is the title and a quick synopsis?

Jan Carson Yeah, I actually have two books out next year. So, there’s one before–

Jackie De Burca Oh, do you?

Jan Carson Yeah, I have a short story collection coming out in early 2021 called The Last Resort, which is ten linked short stories and commissioned by Radio 4, so it will also be broadcast over 10 weeks on Radio 4. And it is set in a caravan park in Ballycastle and it — ten different residents in the caravan park with mysterious goings on up there. So, that will be out hopefully by February time next year, then July is my next big novel, which has a working title at the minute of No Promised Land. And it’s set in 1993 in a fictional rural village in County Antrim, where a really tragic thing happens in the local primary school. And it’s about — actually, you know, not Troubles related all, which I specifically didn’t want it to be a Troubles incident, but it’s about this small, quite religious and rural community response to a really difficult thing happening. And both books are obviously magic-realist element in them too.

Short Strand, East Belfast 1974
Short Strand, East Belfast 1974

Photo Flickr user Torfaen Corvine

Jackie De Burca Yeah, well, obviously we’d be disappointed if it wasn’t like that, Jan. So that’s quite a lot of it. You know, there’s you’ve got three, two books, sorry, coming out next year and the one that you’ve started working on. I really appreciate, Jan, all the time. We went actually over our scheduled time today, Jan. I really appreciate that, especially given that you’ve started writing your book today. And thank you so much for coming on.

Jan Carson You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Jackie De Burca Thank you, Jan. So, don’t forget to check out the other interviews in the series that includes a lot of other great talents from Northern Ireland, including authors like Henry McDonald and Malachi O’Doherty. That’s it for today, folks. Thanks so much for listening and hope to have you back soon.

Mike Paine We hope you enjoyed this episode of the Creative Places and Faces Podcast. If you would like to apply to be a guest or a sponsor, be sure to check out the links below the podcast. Until next time. From all of us here, take care, stay safe, and be creative.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.