Jan Carson's Lockdown Diary

  • Jasmina Kanuric
  • 25 May, 2020

Our 2019 Irish winner Jan Carson is sharing her impressions and thoughts while being confined to her home in Belfast during the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak. The Lockdown diary series will be updated on a weekly basis, so stay tuned to find out what's going on with Jan!  



1 June

This is my final Lockdown Diary. I’ve been writing them for almost ten weeks now. This has been both one of the most difficult and also most creative periods of my life. Whilst I’ve experienced a huge amount of anxiety and isolation over the last few months and have, at times, found it really difficult to concentrate on writing, I’ve also enjoyed a certain amount of freedom from other obligations and relished the time to read, rest and begin to write again. Much has changed here in Belfast. The Lockdown is slowly lifting and I’ve been able to arrange socially distant meet ups with friends and family. However, I’m aware that we have a very long way to go before we’re back to normal. I’m still teaching creative writing classes online and staying close to home. I’m still thinking longingly of the festivals and events in other parts of the world which I won’t be able to attend this year. I wouldn’t want to repeat this season again but I’m still grateful for everything it’s taught me about myself and my writing. I thought I’d end my Diary on a hopeful note as I look to a future beyond Covid-19.



One of the best things to come out of winning the EU Prize for Literature for Ireland was undoubtedly the opportunity to see my work translated into various European languages. Thanks to incredible support from the EUPL and Literature Ireland, and the tireless, hard work of my agents Rachel Crawford and Kate Johnson at MacKenzie Wolf, The Fire Starters is set to be translated into around ten different languages with the first two of these translations appearing in the next couple of weeks: the Italian edition, L’incendiario published by Giulio Perrone Editore, and the Spanish language edition Los Incediarios published by Hoja de Lata Editorial and translated by Clara Ministral.



As a writer it was a really humbling and exciting process to watch my words filter through someone else’s mind and see how not only words, but also ideas, cultural practices and humour translates in a very different setting. The Fire Starters is so grounded in a very specific part of Northern Ireland, I was intrigued by how it would translate in a different country with readers who may or may not have previous experience of our cultural and political backdrop. I don’t mind admitting I got a real kick out of imagining people in Madrid and Rome and Zagreb picking up the book and trying to picture what life on the Beersbridge Road or round the Shipyards might be like.



The process of working with translators has been an absolute revelation to me. I’ve been particularly lucky to work very closely with the amazing Clara Ministral on this translation. There were emails. There were long chats over coffee. There were several hilarious attempts to pin down Belfast euphemisms and I’m grateful to have emerged from this process with not only a fantastic translation but a wonderful new friend. Clara went above and beyond in her work on The Fire Starters, championing the book from the very first read and working to secure a Spanish publisher. If you’d like to read a short interview with Clara you can follow this link to my blog, I can’t recommend her highly enough. I only wish my Spanish was good enough to properly appreciate her hard work.



The act of translating is a supremely creative act and I’m only just beginning to understand this. It is an incredibly generous thing to spend so much time and effort striving to capture the essence of someone else’s art and render it in a way which will captivate readers in a different language. It’s a constant juggling act between meaning, aesthetics and that indefinable thing which makes a sentence sing and I am grateful to have worked with some fantastic translators on this book. I trust their words are serving my words incredibly well as The Fire Starters goes off to find a host of new European readers. Thanks to everyone who has worked and is working on this book. It’s been a wonderful journey so far. I hope there are further adventures awaiting on the other side of Lockdown.

22 May

This week, here in Belfast, the Lockdown regulations began to lift a little. We’re now allowed to meet a few friends as long as we remain outdoors and keep a safe distance. Some businesses are beginning to re-open and there’s every possibility I might soon be drinking a coffee I didn’t prepare myself for the first time in almost three months. After so much time spent on my own, inside, I have to admit that the possibility of all this newfound freedom feels a little overwhelming. It’s not just the safety aspect that’s concerning me, though I’m sure we’re all a little anxious about being in close proximity to people again. I’m more unsettled by the prospect of breaking my new routine. I’d just begun to get used to this strange schedule - ordering my day around reading, writing, exercise and rest - now everything’s transitioning back into another version of the new normal. I’m not sure how well I’m coping with this.


In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Timequake, the world temporarily malfunctions and skips ten years back. All Earth’s citizens find themselves condemned to repeat the previous decade, automatically making the same mistakes and experiencing identical experiences all over again. After some initial anxiety, the world quickly becomes used to the timequake. The problems only really begin when the repeated decade ends and freewill kicks in. The citizens of Earth have become so used to the new regime, they can no longer cope with autonomous thought and action. Vonnegut’s point is a timely one, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot these last few weeks. It’s amazing how quickly we can become used to almost anything. It took me less than two weeks to feel almost comfortable with this strange, restricted way of living. I shouldn’t be anxious about a return to some semblance of normalcy. But in a way, I am.


The future is such an unknown element right now, there’s a certain degree of anxiety attached to contemplating anything further away than tomorrow morning. However, if I’m honest, most of my fear isn’t concerned with what I’m about to experience, it’s more focused on what I’m about to lose. I’ve been writing seriously for fifteen years and I can honestly say I’ve never once had three, almost, uninterrupted months in which to focus upon my work. There’s always been a job to consider or a project pressing or a degree to complete. I wouldn’t want to repeat the last three months - they’ve been incredibly stressful and oftentimes upsetting - but they’ve also been one of the most creative periods of my adult life. In some ways I found it liberating to be forced to rest, to stay home and step out of my frantic work schedule. It was as if was being given a license to focus on my writing for a few months. The idea of transitioning back into a world where I’ll be juggling work, travel, social and caring commitments is a little daunting. I’m not sure if I’m ready to come out of hibernation yet.

15 May

I’ve been trying to be a little more intentional about my reading habits during Lockdown. I’ve always been a prolific reader. I usually manage to read around two hundred books a year, enjoying everything from novels and short stories, to biographies, essays, poetry and work in translation. I’m quite an instinctual reader. I like to let the books guide me and do my best to avoid focusing on the trendy reads of the moment. There’s always a huge stack of ‘to be read’ books sitting on the coffee table in the middle of my living room and depending on how I feel after reading one book, I’ll let my mood guide me to whatever I pick up next. This usually means I read a wide variety of both classic and contemporary books but, over the years, I’ve notice some big gaps have developed in my reading.


I’ve used some of my Lockdown time to intentionally read books I’d always meant to get around to reading and never quite managed to. I’ve read, and adored, James Baldwin’s work for the first time, ploughed my way through Thoreau’s Walden, (which, not being particularly interested in nature, I didn’t enjoy at all), and finally read Madame Bovary, (which I’d read so much about, it felt as if I was already familiar with the characters and storyline). I’m reading Joan Didion’s essays this week. I have a notebook and pen to hand and pause frequently to scribble down sentences and thoughts which will require further consideration. I’m thoroughly enjoying this opportunity to discover a writer I’ve read much about and never actually read myself. Reading non-fiction at the minute is helping to compensate for good conversation with friends. It’s giving me new ideas and perspectives to consider.


Reading doesn’t come as easily as it used to. I’m having to be intentional about my reading time at the minute. It helps to view an hour of reading as a reward for making it through a few hours of real work. I’ve set up a comfy corner of my living room with blankets and a place to curl up with a book. I make myself a cup of tea and enjoy some chocolate or a cookie while I’m sat there with my book. I try to use this hour of the day to slow down, to be present with a story and, if possible, push aside the anxiety of the moment, and escape into someone else’s world. It doesn’t always work. I’m easily distracted these days. I sometimes find myself re-reading the same paragraph over and over. But when a book does manage to captivate me and I feel the familiar sensation of my imagination slowly engaging, I’m reminded that reading is still the very best way to achieve a temporary reprieve from everything the world is throwing at me.

8 May

I’ve been struggling to write fiction since the lockdown began. I’m a magic realist. I usually have no problem coming up with strange and otherworldly additions to my plots. My parents will tell you I’ve always had an overleaping imagination. I’m not sure whether it’s something to do with the fact that truth is currently way stranger than fiction or the waves of lethargy and anxiety I have to push aside every time I attempt to write a story, but I’ve been really struggling to write the way I usually write for the last three months.


I’m still turning up at my desk every day. I’m a big believer in routine and my mind usually understands that when my body’s sat at my desk with my coffee mug in hand, it’s time to start writing. I’ve experimented with different ways to kickstart my imagination. I’ve dabbled with autofiction; blending my own livid experience into my stories. I’ve tried writing very short stories of less than three hundred words and attempted monologues where the entire plot is conveyed by a single narrator. I can get words down on paper but when I read these stories back they do not strike me as believable, or perhaps, if I’m being honest, necessary.


I guess, the question at the back of my mind these days is always what’s the point in writing stories? Writers can’t help people in the tangible way that doctors and frontline workers can? How can something that’s essentially made up be of any practical use to anyone at the minute? I know all the answers to my own questions. I know that stories offer hope. Stories transport readers out of their present circumstances. Stories engender empathy and understanding. Stories can, and have, changed whole societies. There is, however, a difference between knowing something in my head and knowing something in that mysterious part of me from whence real stories come. I’m disconnected these days. I know the stories will eventually return. My job is to be here, waiting at my desk, pen in hand when they finally decide to show up again.

1 May

Another day in Lockdown, another new writing experience. Earlier in the week I facilitated my first online creative writing workshop with a group of incredibly talented young writers who are involved in the Lit Insider programme based at the National Writers Centre in Norwich. I was a little anxious beforehand. I absolutely love teaching creative writing workshops and always get such a buzz off chatting to my students and hearing them respond to each other’s work. I wasn’t sure how much atmosphere we’d be able to create in an online environment. I was sat at my dining room table in Belfast. The students were in ten different rooms in another country. I was also terrified about handling the technology. I have to be honest, during this pandemic, I’ve lost more hours of sleep worrying about tech issues than the actual threat from the virus. The instant Lockdown ends I’m going to sign myself up for some kind of “understanding technology for absolute beginners” course.


I need not have worried. Hannah from the Writers Centre handled all the tech issues marvellously. The two hours flew by. My wonderful students were enthusiastic and engaged throughout and it was such a welcome dose of normalcy to hear them read the pieces of micro-fiction they’d written and respond to my prompts. Even though we weren’t in the same room as each other, the experience helped to reassure me that I can still teach and enjoy teaching. Online teaching is definitely more tiring than facilitating a class of people you’re physically present with but I can also see the potential in these new solutions. In the past I’ve often thought how great it would be to be able to temporarily silence that one person in the class who always talks too much and dominates all the other participants. It turns out Zoom has a mute function. I can certainly see that coming in handy for future workshops.

27 April

I’ve just enjoyed another first experience courtesy of the ongoing Lockdown. I was meant to be in Galway today, taking part in the annual Cuirt International Festival of Literature. I’d been scheduled to join a conversation and reading with the incredible Irish writer, Kevin Barry. I was really looking forward to the reading, though I have to admit I wasn’t that surprised when the festival, like most arts festivals throughout the world, was cancelled a few weeks back. Unlike many other festivals Cuirt elected to move much of their programme online. It was a brave decision and no one was quite sure how it would turn out.


Yesterday evening, I was able to read from The Fire Starters whilst sitting in my kitchen in East Belfast, then chat to Kevin, (in Sligo) and our fantastic moderator Peggy Hughes of the Norwich Writers’ Centre. It was an intriguing and incredibly helpful conversation watched live by around 650 viewers on Cuirt’s YouTube channel. Though it wasn’t quite the same as a physical book event -vand we all agreed we were missing the ubiquitous post-reading pints in an actual Irish pub - it was still a really worthwhile experience and a workable solution to the problems posed by the Covid-19 Pandemic. It was also intriguing to see how many people in our virtual audience said they would not have been able to attend the physical version of this event because of financial or time constraints, distance or access issues. These strange times are putting the live arts community under a lot of pressure and we’re all scrambling to find alternative ways to retain to our audiences. However, it’s encouraging to see that the industry is also being given a valuable opportunity to try new things, to reach different audiences and experiment with programming and format. I can’t wait to get back to live readings but I do hope online experiments like Cuirt will help festivals and venues become more accessible to everyone who’d like to attend.


If you want to watch Kevin Barry and myself in conversation at Cuirt International Festival of Literature you can catch up with this, and all their other fantastic events, on their official YouTube channel.

Jan Carson at Cuirt International Festival of Literature

21 April

Greetings from East Belfast. The weather’s absolutely gorgeous outside and I’ve been enjoying my daily socially distant walk around the park at the end of my street. I’ve been walking the same path every day at exactly the same time for thirty days in a row. It’s amazing how much I’ve begun to notice the environment around me. I’ve watched the trees evolve from bare branched skeletons to fully blossomed explosions of green. I’ve spotted the first butterflies of the season and been thrilled to see the herons who’d stopped coming to the park, return, to stand statue still at the edge of the pond, watching as the ducks swim by. I’ve been mindful to notice people too. The same joggers, cyclists and frazzled parents pass me every day. When you don’t have any human contact in your life, these regular strangers quickly become new friends and I always try to smile and say hello as we pass on either side of the pavement.


I’m not enjoying this Lockdown but I am grateful for the way it’s forcing me to stop and notice the tiny details I would usually miss. It’s encouraging me to be more present in the moment, to pay attention to what I’m experiencing and look for beauty and hope in even the most mediocre occurrences. I’m hopeful that this process will have some impact on my writing. My favourite writers are those like Alice Munro whose stories sing because she pays so much attention to the tiniest details of the worlds her characters inhabit. Good writing is always forensic. Writing isn’t coming easily these days but when I do sit down to create something I’ve found myself working on tiny vignettes, snapshots of moments and incidents which are focused upon paying attention to detail. Routine and repetition are teaching me how to hold a magnifying lens up to the world around me. My job is to learn how to transcribe what I’m seeing.


17 April

Here in Belfast, we’ve just heard that the lockdown is going to continue for at least another three weeks. It’s difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the idea of almost two months inside, by myself. I’ve been thinking about isolation a lot. Last year I had the opportunity to spend a month in similar isolation on a writer’s retreat in rural Scotland. My month at Cove Park, living in a small cabin in a field, with nothing but a Highland cow for company, was one of the most productive and creative periods of my writing life. I wrote a play, half a novel and five short stories. I ate, slept and breathed writing for four solid weeks and hardly ever heard the sound of my own voice. I did not miss people. I was too wrapped up in my characters to miss real people. Afterwards, when I returned to the real world and regular routine I’d look back on this month of isolation as a real high point; an experience I hoped to repeat as soon as possible.


Now, here I am, less than a year later, isolated in my own house with endless time and opportunity to create. I have a novel I want to begin and dozens of short story ideas, but writing anything more than short updates like this feels a lot like swimming through custard. I’m preoccupied. I struggle to concentrate. My brain feels lethargic. I’ve come to the conclusion that the difference between spending an idyllic month writing in a field and being stuck in your own house is choice. It’s hard to find any sense of joy or ease in a situation that has been forced upon you. It’s hard but I’m not done trying. I’ll keep turning up every day at my laptop and plodding on. Someday, hopefully soon, I might actually manage to write something.

14 April

Here in Belfast we’re entering our fourth week of lockdown. I’ve been really missing the older people I work with in my community creative writing projects. Many of them have been in isolation for quite some time and a good number live by themselves. I’m sure they must be incredibly lonely and frustrated by this stage and I’ve been struggling to find ways of encouraging them. It’s particularly difficult maintaining connections with older people as they’re often not as tech savvy as younger people, (though several of my older people are more confident than me when it comes to social media).


Since the Lockdown began I’ve been writing a daily Postcard Story on the back of a regular sized postcard and mailing these to older, isolated people throughout Northern Ireland. It’s a small gesture, but I’ve been really heartened to hear how many people have appreciated a tiny piece of fiction dropping through their letterbox. I’ve also managed to round up lots of fantastic kid artists who’ve been creating their own illustrations for the Postcard Stories. I hope these beautiful, colourful images bring a little joy into people’s lives each morning. If nothing else, they’re certainly cheering up my inbox each time I open it. If you’d like to read my Postcard Stories and see the kids’ illustrations you can follow along on Instagram @JansPostcardStories


I’m hoping to continue with this project until the Lockdown is over and I can be with my community workshop participants in person again. I’m really starting to miss them all.


9 April

Greetings from East Belfast, Northern Ireland where we’ve been in lockdown for about three weeks now. I live by myself in a tiny terraced house where my front door opens on to the pavement and my back door opens on to the alley behind my house. I’m very much missing the outdoors and learning to appreciate my allotted hour of daily exercise round the park which begins at the end of my street. In a strange way I’m also thankful to be living so closely with my neighbours. The sound of their conversations and television leaking through the wall from next door help to remind me that there are other people out there.


I’m definitely beginning to crave conversation. I’m well used to my own company and, as a writer, often spend long periods of time isolated whilst working on a book, this kind of isolation feels different. Lonelier. Less creative. More restrictive. There is a huge difference between choosing to retreat to a cabin in the woods to focus on editing a novel and having no choice as to when you leave your house. However, I’m finding ways to manage my anxiety. Routine is comforting. I tend to structure each day identically and find this reassuring in the face of so much rapid change. It’s only when something, even a really good thing, upsets the rhythm of routine that I find myself struggling to cope with the current situation. On Tuesday, my novel The Fire Starters won a Kitschies prize for best speculative fiction novel. After I “attended” the virtual awards ceremony and phoned my family to share the good news, I found myself more upset than I’ve been in weeks. It turns out you don’t just need people around when things are hard. You need people to share your joy with too. I’m learning so much about myself in isolation. In the end, I found some alternative friends to celebrate with. Sometimes you just have to make your own joy.