Jan Carson interview: girl from the north country

Carson’s invention and vigour with language draws on the poetic vision of Bob Dylan and her knowledge of the linguistic difficulties of dementia

Jan Carson first heard Like a Rolling Stone on the radio in her early teens, before she had ever heard the name Bob Dylan.

“There’s no other song on the planet as fresh and simultaneously familiar,” Carson says. “I remember thinking, this is probably the best song in the world, and that was that – I was hooked on Dylan before I even knew who he was.” Dylan’s music and words have been a pulse through Carson’s life ever since, although she has stopped trying to figure out exactly who Bob Dylan is: despite devouring his music and reading deeply about him – she did her Masters on rhetoric in Dylan’s early work-the poet-musician remains a mystery to her.

“The more I read, the more I felt as if I didn’t know him at all. He was an enigma of conflicting anecdotes, self-penned mythology and fleeting guises. It’s possibly why my favourite Dylan song is the rarely played oddity, I’m Not There, which lent its name to Todd Haynes’s 2007 epic attempt to capture the many Dylans on the big screen. Bob Dylan isn’t there. He doesn’t exist. An artist, in my hard learnt opinion, is only ever there to give birth to art.”

Separating artist from art helps Carson achieve distance in her own work: “I’m not there when I look at it critically. I’m just the vehicle that coached the story, or the sentence, or the clever little turn of phrase out onto the page.”


Dementia and language

Carson’s use of language in her new collection, Children’s Children (Liberties, 2016), owes something both to her job in the community arts sector, where she works with older people, some of whom have dementia – and to Dylan’s poetic vision. Each story in the volume offers language which takes the side gate rather than the front door, giving a fresh approach to sentences which never feel self-conscious. Roald Dahl’s gobblefunk in The BFG was first conceived by his wife Patricia Neal, following stroke-related aphasia; likewise Carson’s invention and vigour with language borrows something from her knowledge of the linguistic difficulties of dementia.

“I find dementia fascinating from a linguistic perspective. For the last few years I’ve been closely studying the way speech patterns can be impacted by the illness. Although people living with dementia often lose or misplace words, they frequently find different, kind of circuitous ways of expressing what they want to say. It’s been such a challenge for me as a writer to look at language in the same sort of way, to resist the cliche or the overdone metaphor, to try to pin down a fresh way of saying something which has been said before. In this, and many other aspects, I find my friends living with dementia to be truly inspiring people.”

“Forgetting yourself is worse to live with than arthritis, or losing the sight in both eyes, or even cancer.”

These are the words of Den, who cares for her elderly mother in Den and Estie Do Not Remember the Good Times. Carson embraces the hard facts of ageing and dementia tenderly and with humour – but also in darkness. In a tragi-comic scene, Den’s mother Estie believes her teeth ought to be listened to; sometimes they channel the voice of her dead husband, sometimes it is the voice of God.

“Den is relieved to hear this. God, she can manage. Yesterday it was Samuel talking out of her mother’s teeth. Samuel is Den’s father; or rather, was Den’s father. Samuel is dead now and this, for some reason, is a concept more difficult to explain to Estie than the possibility of a live man in her mouth, speaking.”

Her ear to the old woman’s mouth, Den is fearful she might be bitten. The crescent marks on Den’s wrists are the imprints of her mother’s frustrated rage. Den wishes she had someone to recount her daily absurdities to, sharing the grotesquely funny side of things, but she is alone; her mother is fast turning into a stranger. The physical and emotional strain, the financial hardship, the grim repulsions of the body are awash with the ache of remembered love, a love that is dredged up routinely – love as an act of will. Full of sharp imagery and painful humour, the story is crying out to be read aloud.

Dylan and words

The sound of words matters just as much as what they mean, suggests Carson – something else she says she has learnt from Dylan.

“Dylan understands how to manipulate a syllable to best effect. I’d love to say I heard the music first, but more than anything else, I heard Dylan’s lyrics and I wanted to write something as shotgun sharp and perversely beautiful as ‘she’s a hypnotist collector, you are a walking antique,’ or learn how to place a word so the reader knows – as you know when you read the lyrics to Hard Rain – that every vowel in that chorus refrain is meant to be stretched out into an existential howl.”

Writers have an easier journey into old age relative to other artists, argues Carson; audiences will tolerate a faltering reading, or a writer who misremembers a line; being an older writer often comes with literary accolades. But for musicians like Dylan, it’s much more performance related.

“If your art form is essentially performance-based, as Dylan’s is, the audience often has little patience for how older age might change or even limit your ability to execute your own work to the same standard as you might have achieved in your youth. This seems desperately unfair to me, and also a little ignorant. Many of our artists change their style or practice as they grow older. It’s not necessarily a decline in standard. It’s often just a new avenue, a new way of expressing their creativity. Why does an artist like Dylan have to be one thing? Why can’t older Dylan be an entity, linked to, but distinct from, his Greenwich Village era self? There’s honour and dignity in viewing our older artists like this but it also places an inherent value upon the listener, reader, or audience member. Are we discerning enough to leave our pre-conceptions at the concert hall door and actually be challenged, moved or inspired by a performance which isn’t what we’re expecting?

“What if you’d never encountered Dylan’s work before and came to him as the raspy-voiced blues singer he often appears as today? I think many of us would still see the incredible talent in his arrangements, his songwriting and even his performance. Maybe, we could be enjoying the many, subtly different Dylans rather than demanding a kind of composite, Platonic ideal of Dylan – a creature of base nostalgia who, for all his lack of nuance or musical progression, might as well be a Bob Dylan tribute band.”

Style and substance

Like the first song that got her hooked on Dylan, there's both freshness and familiarity in Carson's stories. Whilst luxuriating in the surreal, the familiar breathes through real places, like Belfast. Carson sets many of her stories in her native Northern Ireland, the wit and rhythm of an east Belfast narrative contrasting with imaginative philosophical scenarios – such as the opening story in the collection, Larger Ladies. Here, middle-class, overweight women pay considerable sums of money to be put into a coma, and attached to devices for months at a time in order to lose weight.

“Here they were now in unflattering positions: double chins doubling on the pillow, grey roots emerging along their scalp lines and shadows creeping across their upper lips like teenage boys. They were without make-up in this room, which is to say they were defenceless, and also without wigs and false nails and fake tans, without the corsets and girdles and hold-your-belly-in pants they never left home without. Which is also to say they were honest as they had not been since childhood.”

There is something dystopian about this room full of comatose, cocooned women but Carson couples this with the heartsore character of nurse Sonja, who works the nightshift looking after the sleeping patients. She is forced to bring her four-year-old son Dylan to work, as she has no one to look after him. To her ears his name sounds harsh in a Belfast voice, contrasting with her Polish accent. Dylan doesn’t like being in the same room as the unconscious women, who often cry out and make gruesome noises in their slumber. “I’m a bad mother,” she confesses to the bodies as they sleep.

This is a good example of how Carson shows a fresh Northern Ireland from an unexpected perspective. When it comes to where the North sits in relation to the literary scene in the Republic of Ireland and the UK, she compares it to the child of divorcing parents, where both spouses think the other is looking after the child’s wellbeing. But things are changing in the Belfast literary community she says, with a greater flux and flow of writers than before, and new blood with magazines like The Tangerine and small presses like The Lifeboat. She is grateful too for the interest and support from Irish literary journals and festivals, and in particular from publisher New Island, whose forthcoming anthology, The Glass Shore, showcases women writers past and present from the north. Carson is included in the anthology, alongside women’s voices which span three centuries. Carson’s story is about leaving Belfast for London, and engages with questions of where Northern Ireland is positioned culturally, in times which are changing fast.

This is typical of Carson’s writing, blending an old tradition of storytelling with modern concepts. Reading Children’s Children, what lingers is a sense of truthfulness, magic, and Carson’s wry humour with its dash of darkness. Perhaps it’s her openness to mystery which gives her narrative this peculiar mix of the surreal and earthy honesty: “The times I’ve come closest to losing my faith have been the periods when circumstances or groups of people have caused me to stop wrestling with mystery and accept pat answers and platitudes.”

This brings her back to Dylan, to one of his lines she loves, and quotes often, from Visions of Johanna:

"Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial,
Voices echo, this is what salvation must be like after a while."

“My faith runs through my work like a kind of spinal cord and it’s always been the mystery of the divine which has attracted me to God. I’m sure this wasn’t what Dylan was thinking about when he wrote these lines – but for me they’ll always be a kind of warning against the desire to explain or quantify something as infinite and complex as faith. So much gets lost when the answer becomes more important than the question.”