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Writing in the Margins by Jan Carson

Writing.ie | Magazine | General Fiction | Interviews
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By Jan Carson

I have just written and published my first book. I’m rather pleased with it. In the five years I’ve carried it from conception to actual papery birth it has come to feel like an extra limb; both a wonderful asset and another responsibility to drag round my already cluttered life. It’s not the best book I’m capable of writing but I have consoled myself with the understanding that it is the best book I could hope to write whilst juggling a job, degree, house, family and all the many other responsibilities most debut novelists have to contend with. For most of us newbies seeing your first book published is enormously exciting. If we’re honest it’s something we’ve been mentally rehearsing since we first fell in love with the notion of writing. However, it can also be a brutal lesson in managing the tension between what you have created and what you hope to be capable of creating, five, ten or even fifty years down the writing road. As an experience it is not without its limitations. For me, the publishing process was mostly an incredible adventure but it was also overwhelming in places and occasionally frustrating. It wasn’t the critiques or even the editing process which proved somewhat draining; it was managing the expectations I’d developed after years of listening to other writers.

I attend a lot of literary events and, when the inevitable author Q and A rolls round, there are a number of questions which pop up with frightening regularity. “What are your influences?” “Where do you get your ideas?” “What are you working on now?” And my own personal bug bear, “What does your writing process look like?” I loathe this question above all others for I rarely hear anyone answer it honestly. If I’m to believe the authors I’ve heard about this year everyone has a regimented writing routine, everyone has a delightful and extensively book-cased writing spot, everyone is free to devote enormous amounts of uninterrupted time to their writing and whilst occasionally struggling with brief bouts of writer’s block, (always reported in the past tense), everyone seems capable of simultaneously writing good books and being a functional human being. It took me months to realise that there was a reason why I feel such a grand, and grumpy, failure in comparison to these prolific prosers and disciplined poets. I am not an established writer. I am a debut novelist. There is a world of practical difference between these two points as significant and undeniable as a continental fault.

jan carsonI work almost every day, occasional evenings and on average, one weekend out of three. I love my job. I am the arts and outreach officer for a Victorian Concert Hall which has, over the last four years, come to feel more like home than my own living room. On the most epic work days I truly believe that I have the best job in Belfast and, even on the worst days, would still place it Top Five. My job feels like a vocation and yet, if I’m being entirely honest, most days a small and significant part of me wishes I could stay home and write and not have to worry about where the money for mortgages, electric bills, biscuits and tea bags will come from. It’s a rare evening when I arrive back from work fully energised and able to focus on my writing. In fact,more often than not, it’s a combination of guilt, self-discipline and strong coffee which keeps me writing anything at all.

Malcolm Orange Disappears was written over a period of almost five years, squeezed into the increasingly slim margins of my life so I felt at times like I was dipping in and out of the manuscript like a nervous tourist. I wrote in the oddest places: during lunch breaks in the coffee island of a provincial shopping centre, on the bus between Dublin and back, on the door of various arts events, checking tickets between sentences, by a continental swimming pool, at many, many airports and once, whilst waiting for the credits to start at the cinema. Each night, just before I fell asleep my plots, seemed to take on a life of their own. These were always my best and freshest ideas yet I would oftenhave to hold these half-bakedwonders tightly for hours or even days before I got the chance to scribble them down.

I’m not complaining. Every writer has to begin somewhere and with, generous benefactors a little thin on the grounds these days, it’s often necessary to supplement writing with what my school teachers would have called “a proper job.” A quick glance along my bookshelves reminds me that this isn’t a new trend. Raymond Carver wrote short stories, albeit masterfully, because his primary means of income left him no time to write novels. James Joyce dabbled in cinema as a means of supplementing his meagre writing income and many, many fiction writers taught, lectured or moonlighted as journalists to keep themselves in typewriter ribbons and hard liquor. I never expected to make my fortune from books. As an English and Theology graduate with an awkward side of Byzantine Studies completing my academic credentials, I never expected to make a fortune from anything. It’s not the fact that I have to earn money outside of writing which feels like a pinch, it’s the process of learning how to write well within my current limitations.

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Time is the most precious commodity I have these days. While this could feel constrictive I’m slowly beginning to realise that it is actually an opportunity to develop discipline at the beginning of my writing career. I’ve learnt how to make the most of the margins, being purposefully selective and challenging with my reading time, drawing inspiration from my “day job” so it compliments rather than distracts from my writing, teaching myself how to slide quickly into a place of focus and inspiration and, perhaps most interestingly, enjoying the perspective which comes from returning with fresh eyes to a paragraph or chapter after a break of some time. Of course, I look forward rather optimistically to a moment when I can devote more time and concentration to my writing and hopefully reap the benefits. For now, however I write within my limitations as most debut novelists do, part of a proud tradition of literary life juggling.

(c) Jan Carson

About Malcolm Orange Disappears

‘The best debut novel I’ve read in years‘ Ian Samson.

Malcolm Orange Disappears introduces us to eleven-year-old Malcolm Orange as he struggles to cope with an absent father and an increasingly absent mother, and a childhood spent travelling the highways of America in the back seat of an ancient Volkswagen.

The novel opens one week after Mr. Orange abandons his family in a pay-by-the-week motel on the outskirts of Portland and takes off for Mexico. Mrs. Orange is devastated and depressed, possibly still suffering the side effects of giving birth to Malcolm’s newborn brother Ross in the parking lot of a shopping mall. Malcolm is delighted, anticipating his first permanent home. He coerces his unresponsive mother into taking a job at a local retirement village.

The family move into Chalet 13, becoming the youngest residents on a cul-de-sac of elderly individuals and couples, each with their own story of loss and survival to share. Soon after moving into Chalet 13, Malcolm finds himself covered in tiny, rapidly enlarging holes; he concludes that he is literally disappearing. As his mother is so traumatised that she has lost her grip on English and cannot bring herself to touch her own children. Malcolm is forced to employ the assistance of his elderly neighbours as he embarks upon a quest to find an antidote before he disappears completely.

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About the Author

Jan Carson completed a BA in English Literature in Queens University, Belfast, and a Masters in Literature in Theology and Contemporary Culture. Jan is a Community Arts Development Officer in the Ulster Hall in Belfast. She has led many creative writing workshops and read extensively in Britain, Ireland and the United States. She runs a monthly literary event at the Ulster Hall which has showcased Irish writers such as Jennifer Johnston, Glenn Patterson and Ciaran Carson.

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