I’m lucky to have the very talented Jan Carson as a guest contributor to the blog this week.
Jan, a writer from Belfast, has published short stories, written for the stage and her debut novel Malcolm Orange Disappears is due for release in June –
‘After moving into an elderly community called Chalet 13, Malcolm Orange finds himself covered in tiny, rapidly expanding holes. He comes to the conclusion that he is literally disappearing so Malcolm sets out on a quest to find the antidote before he disappears completely.’
I can’t wait to give the book a read! And if you want to find out more about Jan and her writing you can check out her blog – http://jancarsonwrites.wordpress.com/ or if you want a little taster without having to click too far just read on as Jan Carson talks about…
The American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, (in a fantastic essay written in response to the inane questions people ask at literary readings), once claimed, that he’d reached the point in his writing career where the strongest influence upon his work was his own writing. Whilst I understand exactly what Franzen meant and am learning with each fresh writing project that my own quirks, affectations and small obsessions have an enormous impact on my stories, I’m still a relatively young writer, still open to outside influence, still malleable enough to be swayed, just a little, by the last amazing book I’ve read. My first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears has just been published by Liberties Press and as I make the inevitable, and rather exciting, round of readings and interviews, I’m finding myself repeatedly asked who my literary influences have been. Answering this question is always a treat for it gives me an opportunity to flick through the library in my mind and recall some of the books which have most inspired and challenged me in my journey as a writer. While there are dozens of names and dust jackets which instantly spring to mind I’d like to focus upon three very different writers and the things they’ve taught me over the last twenty or so years.
Without a really good storyline…a novel is just a really long piece of description.
My first literary infatuation was with Agatha Christie. It began in 1988 and is still going strong; last year’s onscreen death of Hercule Poirot reduced me to a blubbering wreck and prompted a rather sombre wake in our living room. As a child I was a reading protégé, chastised for reading too fast and too “carelessly.” By the winter of my ninth year I’d exhausted the local library’s children’s section and was sneaking adult books home, sandwiched between stacks of Nancy Drews and Babysitters’ Clubs. Mercifully, crime fiction struck me as more appealing than the bare-chested men and voluptuous women who adorned the Mills and Boons dominating the back wall of our local library. From Christie I learnt about the importance of plot. Without a really good storyline, a hook sharp enough to catch the most weary of readers, a novel is just a really long piece of description. Even now, some of Christie’s best novels give me chills as the subtle twists and punchy plotlines keep me surprised and captivated by books I’ve read many many times before. There’s more to Agatha Christie than plots, however. Her characters, odd and cantankerous though they often are, are genuinely likeable. Without an interfering Marple or haughty Poirot, I doubt if her work would be enjoying such remarkable longevity. Readers need memorable characters: heroes they can root for and villains capable of inspiring a good, satisfying disgust, nuanced characters like M. Poirot who irritate and fascinate and demand the reader’s attention. Characters and plot have always gone hand in hand in most everything I’ve ever written.
I cut my writing teeth on Raymond Carver. Just six months into my first fledgling attempts at short stories, a good friend bought me a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and it had an enormous impact on how I approach writing. After feeling completely inadequate for several weeks, (Carver writes with such cool ease, reading his stories proved a little intimidating for a beginner writer with aspirations), I returned to the stories and began to pick them apart, looking for clues as to why they were so compelling. Carver’s volatile relationship with his editor, Gordon Lish is much documented and there is definitely a sparse and concise use of language which typifies much of Carver’s writing and points to the necessity of wise and ruthless editing. However, it was his dialogue which first grabbed me. His characters are raw and real and incredibly believable. They have rich and often troubled inner lives but Carver is not a flowery or over emotional writer. He uses dialogue masterfully to reveal how his characters are feeling and who they most essentially are and yet this dialogue never once trips into the cinematic. It is often brief, always believable and occasionally confessional. If I could write dialogue with even half the insight which Carver has written dialogue I could retire a happy writer. For now I am learning how to listen to the way people actually speak rather than write the way I want them to speak. Therein lies the difference between decent dialogue and wonderful dialogue.
Brautigan taught me…it was perfectly acceptable to take a metaphor and push it to the absolute limits
Finally there was Richard Brautigan. To be very honest I wish someone had pointed me in the direction of Brautigan a little earlier. I was four years into my writing, hearing things like, “I like your stories but I don’t really know what they are,” when someone gave me a copy of Trout Fishing in America for a plane ride down the West Coast of America. It was as if the lights came on all at once and suddenly. I’ve never been so happy to realise I was not being particularly original in my writing. Brautigan reassured me like no writer before or since. There are parts of his work which are just a little too experimental for me; a little too beat and faddy. However, discovering Brautigan taught me that I was on a path that others had walked before; that it was perfectly acceptable to take a metaphor and push it to the absolute limits of its potential; to view language as a malleable entity; to have fun with my writing. Brautigan offered me a green light to be myself. The Abortion remains one of my favourite novels, Revenge of the Lawn, one of my favourite short story collections. I think I would have shrunk back into my writing years ago if it wasn’t for that battered copy of Trout Fishing and for this I am truly grateful.
Jan Carson is a writer and community arts development officer currently based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has a BA in English Literature from Queen’s University Belfast and an MLitt. In Theology and Contemporary Culture from St. Andrew’s University, Scotland. Jan has had short stories published in literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic, has had two of her plays produced for the Belfast stage and is a current recipient of the Arts Council NI’s Artist’s Career Enhancement Bursary. Her first novel, “Malcolm Orange Disappears” will be published by Liberties Press, Dublin on June 2nd 2014.