Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has a novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, and short story collection, Children’s Children, (Liberties Press), a micro-fiction collection, Postcard Stories (Emma Press), Postcard Stories 2 is forthcoming in July 2020. Her novel The Fire Starters was published by Doubleday in April 2019 and won the EU Prize for Literature for Ireland in 2019. In 2018 she was the inaugural Translink/Irish Rail Roaming Writer in Residence on the Trains of Ireland.
Claire Faulkner: I was intrigued and a little bit jealous when I first found out about Jan Carson’s plan to spend a year with Agatha Christie. Jan, a writer and community arts facilitator from Belfast, decided that 2020 would be the year in which she read all the novels written by Christie in order of publication. There are 66 of them. If this wasn’t enough of a challenge, Jan decided to pen her own response to each novel in the form of a short story.
Claire caught up with Jan…
Jan, what inspired you to spend a year with Agatha Christie?
I’ve read many of Agatha Christie’s books in the past. I was around 8 and had read all the books in the children’s section of my local library when a helpful librarian led me over to crime fiction and introduced me to both Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. I fell in love with both. They were like my gateway drugs to the world of adult fiction. I think Death in the Clouds was the first Agatha Christie I read. I’d always meant to come back and reread them all in order and with 2020 marking the 100th anniversary of her first publication (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), now seemed like the perfect time to set myself this challenge.
Have you always been a fan? Can I ask Poirot or Marple? (I genuinely love them both, and could never pick between the two.)
Absolutely always Poirot. I grew up watching the David Suchet adaptations for ITV and I find Poirot so very familiar now, it’s like reading about someone I actually know.
What book are you up to? Are you enjoying the process of reading all the Christie novels like this?
I’m just about to begin Death on the Nile which is novel number 22. That puts me exactly one third of the way through. I thought I’d be fed up with Agatha Christie by now but I’m really enjoying watching her style and themes develop. There’s a marked difference between her writing in the first novel and the twentieth. I’ve only really noticed this whilst reading them in consecutive order. I also still get unreasonably excited each time I get to the scene in the library where all the suspects are gathered and Poirot reveals who the murderer is.
How long do you think it will take you to complete?
I plan to get the 66 novels finished by the end of November and to spend December reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography, her notebooks and the short stories.
Do you have a favourite Christie novel? I remember being completely captivated by Body in The Library when I was younger.
I regularly teach The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in my writing workshops because it’s such a fantastically good example of the unreliable narrator, so I’m very fond of that one. I also love the really creepy multiple body count novels like And Then There Were None and The ABC Murders. I tend to prefer the Poirot novels to her other works, though she was pretty fed up with her little Belgian by the time she finally managed to do away with him. There’s an amazing section in Cards on the Table which I recently read where she thoroughly lambasts Poirot under the guise of mocking her fictional crime writer, Ariadne Oliver’s signature Finnish sleuth. I love the way Agatha Christie wasn’t above laughing at her own tropes.
You’ve decided to write you own short story in response to each novel. Was this part of the original challenge for you?
I wanted some means of responding to each of the texts creatively and intended to write a short story in response to the themes raised by the books. However, I soon changed my mind as I’m not a crime fiction writer and couldn’t really see myself writing 66 micro crime stories. Instead, I’ve been selecting a single line from each novel and writing a story inspired by this line of text. Some have a crime theme. Some are magic realist. Mostly, I just let my imagination take me wherever it wanted to go.
Your responses are posted online, but also written inside the novel and left for other people to discover. I’d be thrilled if I found something like this. What sort of response have you had from people?
When the project first began I was actually able to hide the novels in public spots and leave clues in social media for people to track the books down. I had some lovely responses on social media. People were genuinely delighted to find a book and one lady even sneaked out of work to track down a novel before anyone else could get to it. Since the Covid 19 pandemic I’ve been mailing the completed novels (with short stories handwritten inside), to people who are stuck at home, self-isolating. I’ve had so many appreciative responses. I think people find writers like Agatha Christie very comforting at times like this. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve always held to the belief that Christie most fully embodies what George Orwell refers to as a good English murder in his essay, The Decline of the English Murder. Agatha Christie’s murders are good murders. They are not without point or planning. Justice is always served. Wrongdoing rarely goes unpunished. As such, the kind of crime fiction she writes reassures the reader. It makes us feel stabilised in a world which feel a bit unpredictable and out of control at the minute. I read Agatha Christie for the same reason I watch Casualty. Because I know order will be reinstated by the time I get to the end of the book or the episode. I read Agatha Christie because she can fool me into thinking everything’s going to be ok.
Congratulations on the success of The Fire Starters. Can you tell us a little about your novel?
Thank you. The Fire Starters is a magic realist novel set in East Belfast during the summer months. It follows two fathers: Sammy, an older ex-paramilitary who has stepped away from violence when he becomes a father and is now horrified to discover that his son, Mark, is actually orchestrating the riots sweeping across the city, and Jonathan, a young GP who is seduced by a siren and left with a small baby who may or may not be as destructive as her mother. Essentially it’s a novel which explores the question of how much a parent is responsible for the actions of their child. There’s a fair amount of the fantastical interwoven into the plot, a lot of quite dark humour and plenty of background for anyone unfamiliar with the Unionist community in Northern Ireland.
Apart from Agatha Christie, are you reading anything else at the moment? Who would you recommend you our readers?
I read constantly. I read both to escape and also to learn how to be a better writer. At the minute I’m really enjoying the writings of James Baldwin. He’s such a meticulous and insightful writer; so much of what he wrote in the 50s and 60s still rings true. My favourite more recent books of the last few years have been Valeria Luiselli’s amazing The Lost Children Archives, Samanta Scweblin’s Fever Dream and Tommy Orange’s There There. All wildly different novels but very much concerned with story. I’m the sort of reader who needs a novel to have an engaging plot as well as beautifully crafted language and believable, engaging characters.
What’s your next challenge?
I’m currently editing two books. My next novel to be published by Doubleday in April 2021, (as yet to be titled) and a collection of microfiction stories to be published in July 2020. This will be my second collection of Postcard Stories published by the Emma Press. If you’d like to read a sample of Postcard Stories I’m currently writing one a day and mailing them to older isolated individuals. They’re being illustrated by small children, and the stories with accompanying images can be viewed on Instagram.