The postcard woman returns: Jan Carson on writing fiction in coronavirus era

As everyone is finding their own way to help and keep busy during lockdown, award-winning Belfast author Jan Carson tells Gail Bell of the small joys of writing postcards to isolated, older people and NHS workers on the frontline

EU Prize for Literature winner Jan Carson whose forthcoming book Postcard Stories 2 is due out in July. Her latest novel is The Fire Starters
EU Prize for Literature winner Jan Carson whose forthcoming book Postcard Stories 2 is due out in July. Her latest novel is The Fire Starters

BY HER own admission, she has become The Postcard Woman and despite picking up the very serious EU Prize for Literature for Ireland last year, it is a light-hearted label that somehow suits the ever-engaging Jan Carson.

The Belfast-based writer and arts facilitator is supposed to be in the middle of a book tour at the moment, promoting her latest prize-winning novel, The Fire Starters, but this, along with almost everything else, has been postponed due the coronavirus pandemic.

So, instead of giving a reading at a book festival somewhere in Istanbul or America (where she was to be based for a month), the Malcolm Orange Disappears author has turned her attention back to the small thrill of writing postcards.

It has been a lifelong hobby which led to the publication of Postcard Stories in 2017 and now a second volume – Postcard Stories 2 (Emma Press) – is due to launch this July, containing around 60 stories written over the past five years, many from her travels abroad.

But while the first Postcard Stories book came from a random collection of brief stories sent to friends, family and acquaintances from various locations in Belfast, the writer has now developed the concept into a community arts project linking the generations during lockdown.

Over the past five weeks, Carson has been writing postcards to older, isolated people “to cheer them up” and then asking children to illustrate the stories with colourful drawings she posts on Instagram. It has proved a hit project, with more than 100 children offering to be amateur story illustrators after an appeal went out on the writer’s Twitter account.

“The way I look at it, it’s difficult for everyone right now, but everyone is experiencing a different kind of difficulty,” she says in her soft Ballymena burr. “As well as managing your own difficulties, if you can be kind and appreciate how other people are struggling, well, in a weird way, that helps.

“I have never been much good at resting anyway; productivity has always been my coping mechanism. I think I would be in bits if I sat on the sofa and watched Netflix for five weeks.”

The postcards project has now taken on a life of its own, but it started off by writing postcards to older ladies she had been working with as part of a community arts project in Belfast.

“I still write postcards every time I travel – I counted them the other day and I’ve got somewhere between 800 and 1,000 written – so, when lockdown happened, it just seemed quite a natural thing, to write postcards to keep in touch,” she explains.

“I’ve been working over the past couple of years with older ladies from the Falls and Shankill Women’s Centres, through the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, bringing them together to write about different topics.

“The last big project we did together was reimagining Belfast and looking very honestly at the problems in Belfast and what the city might look like in the future. I haven’t been able to be with them since this happened, so I sent them little postcard stories to let them know I was thinking about them.”

And then, after she ran out of women there, she moved on to other older people she didn’t know, using social media to ask friends and followers to nominate their grandmother, their neighbour or someone in a nursing home who might appreciate a personalised little piece of flash fiction dropping through their letterbox.

“Each afternoon, I will write a story for an older person, usually based on something that’s happened that day or something I’ve seen on my daily walk around Victoria Park,” she says. “There are quite a few stories about ducks.

"It could also be about something that’s on the news – there was a great one a wee while ago about the Welsh mountain goats coming down from the hills to the empty streets of Llandudno. It was a great story and I got a brilliant picture back of the goats trying to get through McDonalds drive-thru.”

She has also taken time out to send postcard stories to NHS workers on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis after being struck by their dedication while working as the Royal Victoria Hospital’s first writer-in-residence last October.

“I was writer-in-residence for a week which was absolutely fabulous and we produced a little book of stories that came out from that experience, called Write Around the Royal,” enthuses Carson, who also enjoyed a stint in 2018 as the Irish Writers Centre’s (ICW) first Roaming Writer in Residence on Irish trains.

“I was in all the different hospital departments talking to staff and long-term patients and I got to spend a morning in ICU which was wonderful, seeing the dedication of the staff in there. The book is out next week and while it’s really a resource for patients to read while they’re in hospital, they are currently looking at the possibility of maybe selling it as a fundraiser to help the NHS.

“It contains 25 stories and they’re all quite upbeat, some quite funny. One is about a man who’s been waiting for two and-a-half months in the hospital car park queue – and if anyone knows the Royal, that could actually happen.”

Known for her humorous take on magic realism, Carson has delved into that particular genre with her postcard stories and this has, in turn, fired up children’s imaginations when it comes to the illustrations.

“Kids love that,” she tells me, “and their pictures have been very imaginative. It’s been lovely to see all the responses under the pictures and some have appeared on school websites. I’ve also been asked to make little instructional videos, teaching children how to make their own postcard stories, so it’s turned into a bit of an educational project as well.”

A “magic realist” from birth, she grew up reading those kind of stories and running wild with “far too much imagination”. Recently, however, Carson says her writing is much more realist in style and she puts that down to a world in crisis over Covid-19.

“I have a couple of friends who pointed out that the real world is so strange at the minute that there’s no real need to dip into the fantastic in writing; it’s already there,” she reasons. “I live in a terraced house in east Belfast and I don’t know my neighbours very well, but suddenly there’s this blending of our lives.

“I hear them put their kettle on, I hear their dogs barking… I am finding that really fascinating, so I’ve been dabble with some short stories around complete strangers being literally stuck together.”

But it’s not all bad. An act of kindness has a habit of rebounding on its instigator and Carson happily surveys the postcards and gifts she has received from well-wishers in return.

“I have a little shelf of things that have come back to me during last six weeks,” she reveals. “I have thank-you cards from children, little pieces of art and even a stack of postcards that someone posted to me, which is great. When I was writing the first Postcard Stories book, someone even sent me a pot of jam, but, I haven’t received any food yet.”

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