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Arts

Jan Carson compiles year-long postcard challenge into new book, Postcard Stories

The holiday postcard may be falling out of favour but Belfast author Jan Carson tells Gail Bell how writing postcards every day for a year formed the basis of her new book

Author Jan Carson – Postcard Stories started out as a challenge to get her writing again, but went on to become a book in its own right Picture: Mal McCann
Gail Bell

A RANDOM collection of brief stories sent to friends, family and acquaintances from various locations in Belfast, make up the eclectic content of Jan Carson's new book, Postcard Stories, to be launched next week.

The book, based on "thoughts, events, and people observed in Belfast", aims to highlight a panoramic view of the city – although the final 52, chosen out of an initial 365 – were often written during her travels abroad.

Postcard Stories launches just ahead of the seventh Belfast Book Festival, which is also taking up a fair amount of the Belfast author's time, either for workshops, talks or tips on 'The Art of the Short Story'.

Far removed from previous publications, including debut novel Malcolm Orange Disappears, then Roundabouts and short story collection Children's Children, her Postcard Stories, somewhat ironically, evolved from the dreaded writers' block.

"I started it as a means to an end, really," Carson explains. "It was a project that I hoped would re-energise and challenge me and get me writing again – but, at that stage, I didn't envisage it becoming a book in its own right.

"After Malcolm Orange Disappears I was very weary and had no new ideas. I was knackered, basically, what with 200 readings and all the stuff that comes with a book publication.

"The postcard challenge in 2015 was initially to kick start something else but then, as I became more involved, it became the main event."

Halfway through, though, she was beginning to wonder if she regretted taking on her mammoth challenge to write a story on the back of a postcard every day for the whole year – Christmas Day included – and then post them to the large number of people who had signed up to receive one.

"I did have a moment when I thought, 'What have I taken on here?'," she muses, during a break between her various writing commitments and her other full-time job as a freelance community arts officer, working with older people.

"But, people had already sent me their addresses and were expecting a postcard, so there was no way I could back out."

Unsurprisingly, a few of her experiences from events with older people have made the final cut, among them, the time she "lost" her own father in an Ikea store, as well as other people she met through her work as an outreach officer at the Ulster Hall in Belfast when part of her duties involved organising tea dances for senior citizens.

The ageing dancers clearly made an impression, all the more so, perhaps, because of Carson's instinctive ability to engage with older people, eased by the fact, no doubt, that her grandmother suffered from dementia and was the inspiration behind the debut 'Malcolm' novel where the action unfolds in a retirement village.

In her latest book, Carson looks back on some of her experiences with this age group, recalling with poetic poignancy in one particular postcard story, "the ill-defined anxiety of whether a room was there for the entering or the leaving" (week 47 of her postcard odyssey and sent from the Ulster Hall).

In another dispatch from the Ulster Hall (week 40), she describes, with perfectly balanced bittersweetness, the mental chaos caused by "Myra's missing teeth" and how she "points at her open mouth, all the time looking like a woman who has lost a very vital thing".

In others, the English Literature BA and Theology MA graduate – who hails from Ballymena and hasn't entirely lost her accent – the humour flashes and fizzes in a deadpan, less melancholy way, particularly in her postcard to Kate Bryan (week 44) in which she addresses Narnia writer, CS Lewis.

Sent appropriately, from Belmont Tower, east Belfast – home to the CS Lewis Centre – Carson recounts the disappointment of her own very ordinary wardrobe experience which failed to reveal a "portal to another world".

She writes: "I did not encounter Narnia, only the back of my wardrobe (which is made of plywood) and some coat hangers jangling together like biscuit tin lids."

With so much to say and so little space, she started off writing 150 words on each postcard, but soon found if she squeezed the size of her writing accordingly, she could stretch it out to 300 words per card.

"That was one of the biggest challenges; it was a lesson in discipline," she adds, "but it was such an incredible, and sometimes overwhelming experience, to find and develop a different story every day for a year – not to mention a wonderful way of reconnecting with friends across the world.

"Many recipients still have their original postcards, which is lovely – some have them sitting on a mantle-pieces, stuck on a fridge or are framed and hung on a wall. They are certainly an alternative to the usual 'Wish your were here' type of message scribbled on the back."

:: Published by Emma Press and featuring illustrations by Benjamin Phillips, Postcard Stories will be launched at the Strand Arts Centre in Belfast on May 30.

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