- 29 Apr 22
With The Raptures, Jan Carson delivered what will surely be one of the books of the year, in the first week of January. It’s a good trick, but how will the Ballymena magic realism maven fare in the Hot Press Quick Fire Book Round? Quizmaster: Pat Carty | Portrait: Jess Lowe
The Raptures’ main character, Hannah, is from a very conservative Protestant background – she’s not allowed to go to the cinema as it starts with ‘sin’. Does this reflect the way you grew up?
My mother grew up in a much more religiously conservative branch of the Protestant church. When she married my dad, who was Presbyterian, she brought some of those hangovers with her. She wouldn’t have grown up going to the cinema at all, so it took her a long time to let us go. The world that Hannah lives in is a composite of lots of different kinds of religious experiences I saw and was part of growing up.
There isn’t one version of Protestant faith; there are different versions of Catholicism, but there isn’t this incredible wide range of denominations. If there’s an argument or a division in a Protestant church, they seem to split and form another version of Protestant culture. There are aspects of my own upbringing that are very much similar to Hannah’s and there are a lot of the people that I grew up around reflected in her. Ballymena in the 1980s was a very Protestant, incredibly conservative town. There would have been girls I went to school with from a very similar background to Hannah, but there were also all of the other different versions of Protestant faith that you see in the novel.
Why did you choose a child’s voice to tell the story?
I wanted to use a child narrator because a child asks the very difficult questions that sometimes adults tiptoe around. Why do they always pray for the auntie that’s living in sin, but why do they never have her over for dinner? That’s the kind of thing that a child can ask, which exposes the problematic and hypocritical stuff, although I didn’t want to villainise these religious communities.
Hannah allowed me to strike a balance, she’s a child on a journey who’s going to ask these difficult questions. I think it’s a book about how women are treated in religious communities, because it tends to be the case that when a woman questions or critiques or challenges, they are removed from that community.
That’s not just evangelical Protestantism, you see it in Hasidic Jewish culture and very conservative Muslim communities. Women cannot remain within those communities and have any power or autonomy. That’s just the way they’re set up. Hannah’s mum is on a journey but I couldn’t make it too radical because it wouldn’t be believable.
You’ve said elsewhere that you yourself had to leave the community to have your voice heard as an artist.
It took me nearly 10 years to move away from Presbyterian culture. If you’ve been as grounded in that community as I was, as a child and a young adult, you’re leaving everything behind – all your friends and your social structure. Growing up, we would have been at church or church organisations four or five times a week, so almost the entirety of your social life and worldview was geared around the church.
Those institutions think for you, you don’t have to ask, ‘What is my stance on this?’, ‘What do I believe about this?’ To remove yourself from that is dizzying and really terrifying. And I think it’s possibly why a lot of people stay, because they know that if you begin to critique even one small part of it, everything falls apart, or else people leave and they’re extremely angry, and they just want to destroy what they’ve left behind.
So, in a way, I’m quite glad that I took my time with it, because I wanted to retain relationships, my family’s still part of that community. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t doing it from a place of anger. I hope that comes across. I don’t think it’s an angry novel.
You completed a masters in Theology – were you trying to get your head around something in your background?
That was in the middle of the leaving period. You’ll find that nearly everyone who’s emerged from evangelical Protestantism has this huge draw in their life that doesn’t line up with the teaching of the Church. For me it was art; I think this is beautiful, I actually think this is the best part of me, and I would go as far as to say I think this is holy. And yet, it’s condemned widely.
The theology actually really helped because I went to quite a liberal theology programme – I did my masters on Bob Dylan, which you wouldn’t have been allowed to do in Presbyterian seminaries. It made me realise the drive to be creative is a holy drive, I think the church is wrong, and I now have theology in my back pocket. If you want to argue with me on an intellectual level, I’m happy to show you where your theology is wrong.
Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor are influences, both writers of faith who had questions.
I love Flannery O’Connor, in particular, and I know there’s problematic stuff in there, but the way that she approaches writing about religion I think is incredibly inspiring, and Graham Greene also. Both are writers who wanted to believe, they had a desire and respect for religion, but they were also brave enough to point out the stuff that was corrupt and wrong.
I think Wise Blood is a masterful piece of writing. I don’t know how she got away with it. I think what drew Greene and O’Connor to God or the divine or whatever you want to call it, is the mystery, and that was what frustrated me most about Presbyterianism. The motto of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is ‘Ardens sed Virens’, Latin for ‘burning but not consumed’. If ever there was a definition of what it means to be an artist, it’s burning but not consumed.
Is it possible to be a writer from Northern Ireland and not write about ‘The North’?
There was a double bind for a long time. There was a sense when you approached publishers outside of Northern Ireland, they were like, ‘Oh, we’re done with the Troubles. We don’t want any more of that’. But on the other hand they’d say, ‘How dare you be from Northern Ireland and not mention the elephant in the room!’
I always say the two big things that opened it up for us were Derry Girls and Anna Burns’ Milkman, because they showed people a perspective that hadn’t been seen. Off the back of that, we’ve had a slew of really interesting re-engagements with stories about the conflict – Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son and the exploration of a queer perspective, and me bringing magic realism to the table.
I think we have a brilliant and ballsy generation coming up, and they all grew up after the Good Friday Agreement. They don’t want to write about the conflict, they want to write about gender and the environment. That, to me, shows a degree of recovery.
Define magic realism.
Fantastical stuff happens, but it has to have a connection with the real world. I’m intrigued by this bedrock of folklore and mythology that we have in Ireland. Magic realism tends to come from places which have oral folklore traditions, a strong presence of religion, strong family ties, and it also tends to come from colonialised places, places struggling to move away from empire. Where else in the world do you get all of those elements more than Northern Ireland?
The Raptures, reviewed by Pat Carty.