Ciaran Carson: The Pen Friend

As his new novel The Pen Friend is published, Ross Moore talks to Ciaran Carson about writing, music and fountain pens

In your new book The Pen Friend (read an excerpt here) there are quite a few references to events and even characters that first appeared in your 2008 poetry collection For All We Know. Did you work on both of these books at the same time? I’m interested in the switch of genre between prose and poetry or vice-versa. Was it the case that For All We Know left more avenues to be explored?

As a matter of fact The Pen Friend was written first, about four years ago. I sent it to several London publishers; typically, it would be well received by literary editors, but when it came to the marketing people, it was dismissed as deeply uncommercial. Who would want to buy a book whose protagonist was a fountain-pen nerd? Written by a middle-aged man? So I was very pleased when our local Blackstaff Press took the plunge with it.

When some years later I began For All We Know. I don’t think I consciously had The Pen Friend in mind, but motifs from that book began to creep into the writing, and For All We Know gradually became an alternative version of The Pen Friend. I don’t think of writing poetry as being that much different from writing prose: I like to think I take equal care with the cadences of both.

As with your earlier prose works, The Pen Friend has many autobiographical fragments. Do these facts or fragments ever act as a ‘jumping off point’ in the writing of your prose or are they another level of reference in the work?

It seems to me that even autobiography is a kind of fiction. We all dramatize our lives, unconsciously. Memories are narratives. And I’m interested in how ostensible autobiography rubs up against obvious fiction. Recently a couple of readers of The Pen Friend commented to me on details of the book which they took to be my own experience, but were in fact made up. Which goes to show how easy it is to lie. People want stories to be true. The con man operates on that principle.

You’ve been writing a very enjoyable column for The Journal of Music, could you speak a bit about any current traditional musicians you particularly admire?

I recently wrote a blurb for a CD, The Pleasures of Hope, by two brilliant young Belfast flute players, Harry Bradley and Michael Clarkson. Their playing is full of wit and humour, not to mention amazing technique. It’s the kind of playing I envy and aspire to. Moreover, they have listened to the past masters, absorbed whatever they did, and made something new of it. That’s what the tradition is all about.

And any favourite session or person you’ve enjoyed playing music with recently?

I always enjoy our weekly session in a small downtown pub which I won’t name. There’s a couple of fiddlers and fluters there – they know who they are – that my wife Deirdre and I play along with amiably. It’s as much about the camaraderie and the crack (I refuse to write craic) as about the music. Or the music should always encompass crack. Hence the tune title, and the title of one of my books, Last Night’s Fun.

If you could play tunes with musicians from any period in history, what gathering would make a good session?

The accordion player Joe Cooley, the fiddle-players Bobby Casey and Paddy Killoran, flute-players John McKenna and Peter Horan (still living); and a great singer, Darach Ó Cathain, for the odd song.

The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University seems to be going from strength to strength. Would you consider your directorship of the school to have affected your own writing practice in any way either directly or indirectly?

I don’t think so. The writing comes from a different place to administration or even teaching, though I’ve had a few students of late who have led me to clarify my thinking about what writing is and what it’s for.

What are the best books, of any genre, that you’ve read in the past year?

Tim Robinson, Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness, a wonderful piece of prose mapping; Mary Jo Bang, Elegy, a haunting and meticulous exploration of grief by an American poet not widely known on this side of the Atlantic; and Gerald Nordland, Richard Diebenkorn, a fascinating and lavishly illustrated account of the American painter

Do you have any books you are particularly looking forward to getting through over Christmas?

I’ve just begun Stefan Zweig’s biography, The World of Yesterday, and it’s quite brilliant already. I bought my wife Deirdre three detective books for her birthday, which falls exactly a week before Christmas: Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time; and two by Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather and Messenger of Truth. I’ll be reading whatever she’s not reading.

The Pen Friend is available now, published by Blackstaff Press.