Thursday, 1 June 2017

Writer's block and postcard stories: Jan Carson on her new book

We are very proud to have published two fantastic short story collections this month: First fox by Auckland author Leanne Radojkovich and Postcard Stories by Belfast author Jan Carson. There are of course stories behind all stories, and we asked Jan to tell us about hers.

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By the end of 2014 my imagination was almost worn out. I’d just returned from two months in America promoting my first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, and researching a book about Bob Dylan. I was juggling a more than full time day job plus the onslaught of speaking engagements and interview requests which seem to come hot on the heels of a new book. I wanted to write some short stories but every time I sat down at my lap top the inclination evaporated and I’d find myself fiddling about on Facebook or simply falling asleep, (there are, it has to be said, both positive and negative aspects to being the kind of writer who likes to write in bed). I had very few ideas. This was not normal for me. I have always been blessed by an overleaping imagination. My parents, who knew me as a non-stop talker long before they knew me as a writer, aren’t quite as romantic. They call it a tendency to exaggerate wildly and take most things I say, both on the page and off, with a generous pinch of salt. Still, my imagination has served me well over the years. I’d never before been short of ideas for stories, so much as the time to actually get them written. In December 2014 I found myself, for the first time in my writing career, exhausted and without any ideas worth developing.

Jan Carson, author of Postcard Stories
Now, with hindsight, I have come to realise that this might have been a good time, to relax, rest and catch up with my creative self. But I am not very good at resting, and writing is the only way I know how to relax, and I am, (I’m finally ready to admit), a dreadful overachiever. So, instead of taking a wee break from writing I began the New Year by setting myself a ridiculous challenge. I would write a short story every day for the duration of 2015. This would force my imagination back into fifth gear. This would get me writing again. This, I quickly discovered, would feel like trying to push a particularly unwieldy elephant up a hill for 365 days straight. Thankfully, I’d limited myself to the two hundred or so words per day which I could, with cramp-inducing care, squash on to the back of a regular postcard. By January 8th I’d realised my mistake. There were still 357 days left in the year and I was already fed up forcing myself to find ideas, to develop ideas and squeeze these half-baked ideas on to tiny pieces of cardboard, but I hadn’t left myself any room to back out. I’d already recruited 365 recipients for my Postcard Stories. I’d already promised I would post stories to friends in South Africa and China, and slightly less exotic, Dundonald. If I didn’t knuckle down and write the stories, people, (including small children and very elderly ladies), would be disappointed. I couldn’t be the responsible for disappointing old people so I got writing.

By mid February the art of finding a daily story had once again become instinctual. I would listen in the line at Tesco, find myself all ears on the bus to work, eavesdrop on my colleagues and devour Radio 4 documentaries with an appetite I hardly recognized. My imagination went from first to fifth gear in a matter of weeks and by the time I’d completed the project on the 31st December – the last Postcard Story dropping into a Portrush postbox on a stormy New Year’s Eve at the North Coast – I was seeing potential stories everywhere. It is testament to the success of the experiment that I was to spend the entire first fortnight of 2016 resisting the inclination to write about all the Postcard Story prompts I kept stumbling upon as I made my way from one end of the day to the other. I closed the book on Postcard Stories, started a new novel and was grateful to have my imagination back. I never, for a minute, thought that my little postcards would have a life beyond the various fridges and mantelpieces they’d landed upon. They belonged to a season in my life which hadn’t been the easiest and I was thankful for them, but ready to move on.

However, last summer, when the Emma Press expressed an interest in publishing a collection of the Postcard Stories, and I took them out of storage to begin re-reading them in order – January through to December – I began to realise that they were more than just snapshots of a difficult year. Each one was a little anchor connecting me to a person, or family, who had had some part, however small, in shaping the stories I tell. There were postcards to my parents, my cousin in China, my old housemates from my years living in Portland, Oregon, university friends, now relocated to exotic places like South Africa and Bristol, the older people I’ve grown to know and love through my arts practice. I started to get excited about curating a little collection of these short stories. This would be a snapshot of so many of my most important people. This would be a way of giving something back to them; a small token of my gratitude for the part they’d played in shaping me. I chose my epigraph from Sam Allingham’s beautiful short story collection, The Great American Songbook, “your life so full of people, you can hardly believe it will ever end,” because this is a collection as much about the people who inspired these stories, as the stories themselves.

I am grateful to the Emma Press who immediately understood the spirit of this pamphlet, who held each little story gently and coaxed the goodness out of it, so the editing process was a joy rather than a trial. I am grateful also to the fabulous illustrator Benjamin Phillips who caught the spirit of the stories and created images which are both beautiful and very human. It is such a lovely object of a book because of all their hard work. It is such a pleasure to be able to give this back to the fifty two friends included in the pamphlet and the three hundred and thirteen others who we couldn’t quite squeeze in, but are nonetheless important, for having helped me remember why I began to write stories in the first place.

Postcard Stories

ISBN 978-1-910139-68-4 / RRP £6.50
Publication date: 16th May 2017
Pages: 80 / Stories: 52 / Illustrations: 6

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