- 04 May 21
Acclaimed author Jan Carson discusses her compelling new book 'The Last Resort', magic realism, religion in Northern Ireland and more.
Jan Carson is sitting in her home, surrounded by Bob Dylan biographies and Agatha Christie books, and giving me a pep talk.
“Look, I’ll show you this,” she says, reaching offscreen for a stack of paper. “This is the next book, printed out, cut into literal jigsaw pieces, spread across my house. This is the eighth full redraft of a hundred thousand word novel. I worked it out the other day – that’s coming up to a million words.
“But that’s normal. I’ll probably hit about 13 or 14 redrafts before we get to the end of the summer. So, all these idiots who are like, ‘Oh, yeah, I wrote that out yesterday and sent it off to the publisher’ – nah, nobody writes like that.”
Carson again emphasises this is par for the course.
“There is this hump that happens somewhere between 20 and 40,000 words,” she continues, “where you will be convinced it’s absolute shite. But you have to power through it. I’ve talked to so many people who have been shortlisted for the Booker or something similar, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, at 35,000 words this book was horrendous’. It happens to everybody.
“Sorry, this is meant to be encouraging!”
I’m mostly just grateful she’s been able to find the time to speak to me at all.
Aside from her novel, Carson – who won the EU Prize for Literature for her 2019 novel The Fire Starters – is writing a radio series for the BBC. She’s also eagerly awaiting the publication of The Last Resort – a series of Radio 4 monologues about a group of individuals visiting a caravan park in Northern Ireland.
“And also, this year I’ve been involved in a big research project on how dementia is depicted in fiction, which is based at Queens here in Belfast,” she says, nonchalantly tacking it on to the end of her schedule.
Carson has been a community arts facilitator for 20 years, and works closely with folks living with dementia.
“From a literary perspective, I’m really interested in aphasia,” she explains, “which is the language-loss associated with dementia and strokes. It tends to throw up really interesting linguistic patterns of how people compensate for words they’ve lost, and how they use language. I’ve used it quite a lot in my own work when I’m trying to write characters who are living with dementia – I’ll try and write them with an authentic speech pattern.
“We’re very intently looking at how characters with dementia speak and think in novels. This is all probably very boring!”
On the contrary, I’m fascinated.
“There’s been a massive trend recently of using characters with dementia in crime fiction,” notes Jan.
“Particularly because that trope of not being able to remember can be manipulated, kind of like Memento. There’s been a rake of crime fiction novels with a dementia theme. And arguably, it’s not a particularly ethical way to approach it. It’s quite similar to what happened with mental health issues and the horror genre.”
Crime and dementia both have roles to play in The Last Resort, which weaves together a compelling narrative from the inner monologues of the various caravan owners at the park. But Carson has been careful in her approach.
“The ethics question is one of the big ones. I’m an artist, not the PR wing of the Alzheimer Society,” she says cautiously.
“I want to be creative in what I write, and that means I might write disturbing things about dementia. But also, I get really annoyed sometimes. For example, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half sold half-a-million copies within a couple of weeks of coming out. It says something along the lines of, ‘She was terrified because Alzheimer’s was hereditary,’" Jan explains, paraphrasing.
“It’s not hereditary. Putting that in there means half-a-million people read something that’s incredibly wrong. So, there’s a balance between telling artists what to write, and pulling them up when they write something like that. If you had written a statistic about HIV – or any other disease or illness – and it was completely wrong, someone would be down on you like a ton of bricks.”
Martha, the only character in The Last Resort living with dementia, is also the only character without a monologue. Was that a conscious decision?
“I would like to have written a voice for her, and I’ve written for radio before in a dementia voice,” replies Carson. “The problem with a piece like this – of linked short stories – is that you are using people like tropes. The characters need to link everything up, and give a nod back to other characters and things that happen in other stories.
“For one, I didn’t think that it was believable that Martha would be able to do that in a first-person voice. And two, I really am uncomfortable with using people with dementia as tropes. I would prefer to write her as a fully-formed periphery character, rather than manipulate her and make her do things I don’t think she would actually do.”
The crime element of The Last Resort comes from Carson’s love of Agatha Christie.
“She’s very underrated, as a writer,” says Jan. “We can be a bit snobby about so-called 'genre' writing. But she really can write. There are some fantastic pieces in the middle of it all. There’s some absolute shite as well, and she did get a lot of grief back in the day.
“One of the things I love about her is she has this attitude of, ‘It’s my job, I’m just gonna do it’. There’s no messing about with her. There were a couple of times where she was like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to sit here and wait for the muse to write something incredibly inspired. I have to pay the electricity. I’m writing a book’.”
Despite today’s economy and Northern Ireland’s various lockdowns, Carson seems like she’s been able to work through the wrench Covid has thrown in her plans.
“The biggest thing that changed for me in lockdown was an inability to write in the third person,” she reflects.
“I still don’t quite understand it, but I feel like because I was in my head so much, everything was coming out in the first person.”
Infusing the stories in The Last Resort with elements of mythology and the miraculous, Carson drew on the traditions of magic realism, and finished writing the stories in just six weeks.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for boredom,” she says. “For me, boredom is a kind of realm of the imagination, where if you don’t have computer games or a phone to hand, you go into your head, and you begin to explore the possibilities of what can go on in the imagination. I don’t have kids myself, but I have a little niece and nephew – and I can see the time that they spend on computers is, in some ways, limiting their ability to do all that make-believe stuff I grew up with.”
Carson grew up in Ballymena in a conservative Presbyterian household – so it’s unsurprising that religion is another theme that crops up often in The Last Resort.
“It’s hard to explain to people who are not from Northern Ireland, but I went to a Protestant school, and we aren’t taught any of the mythology, legends or old stories of Ireland,” she says. “It’s horrible to get to age 35 or 40 and realise that you don’t know the stories of your own place. So, I’m sitting here with Marie Heaney’s book about legends of Ireland. I’m 41, and I’m trying to learn this stuff now.
“That caravan park is a very Protestant realm, and they’re not tied entirely to the land, because they don’t understand the myths and the legends that are part of that place. This is part of a long series of work that I’m doing exploring the Protestant experience in the North, which is possibly not written about as much as it should be. So I find these quite easy to write, because of the background that I came from.”
One of the triumphs of The Last Resort is that it doesn’t focus solely on the darker aspects of a religious upbringing. Instead, it was important to Carson to highlight the moments of levity amongst the religious characters.
“It’s often written about in a very boring, conservative way,” she says. “But I know from growing up in it, they can be quite funny as well. I’m quite happy to invite it into my work, because it’s a huge part of who I am. The particular branch of Christianity that I grew up in is what you might call Evangelical Protestantism.
“In the church that I grew up in, which my parents are still part of, women will never have an opportunity to change things, or have any autonomy, or be able to talk from the pulpit. As soon as you raise your voice in dissent to say, ‘This is not on, I think differently’, you’re out of that community.
“As a result, there’s almost no writing or art about those communities, because anybody who raises their voice to challenge, or question, or even talk about what it’s like – they’re out.”
It’s clearly a vital theme for the author.
“It has become really important to me to not just let religion seep into the work, but to actually go after it, pursue it and make sure that it’s authentic, and that it’s written from a place of kindness,” Jan continues.
“Because this is my community. I love these people. I want to show what’s great about them, but I also want to be able to critique what I think is a bit problematic about how they do things.”
Carson was also determined to highlight the mythology of the Bible.
“The imagery and language of the Bible have really informed how I write,” she nods. “I think the Bible is the prime magic realist text. It’s full of the miraculous, or of weird beasts coming from the sea - so, it doesn’t surprise me that I’m a magic realist, because that’s what I cut my teeth on.”
• The Last Resort is out now.