Jan Carson and I: the unforgettable mentoring experience

24 June 2021
Headshot of Jan Carson standing in front of a tree.

Ngan Nguyen tells us about her experience of being mentored by Jan Carson as part of Wigtown Festival Company's mentoring programme for writers in Dumfries & Galloway.

I still remember the evening I got an email from Isla to inform me that I had been selected as one of five mentees for the Wigtown book festival. I was thrilled for the rest of the evening.

Kirkcudbright must have been one of the best places to be in this pandemic. I spent my winter days exploring this peaceful and tranquil artists’ town and poured my heart into writing. I finished writing my first collection of short stories in English but there were lots of questions to which I needed to find the answers. My mother-in-law had sent me a link about the upcoming events at the Wigtown Book Festival, as she always does, in order to let her daughter-in-law understand more about Scotland. A surge of good memories flashed. 

In 2016, on my first visit to Scotland, my mother-in-law had taken me to Reading Lasses Bookshop & Cafe in Wigtown. I had enjoyed the cosy book-coffee shop and was extremely excited at discovering a town for book lovers. I always wanted to return to this town. I was a little hesitant when I saw the announcement about 'Mentoring for Writers in Dumfries and Galloway' because I am an international student in this country. Maybe this programme is only for locals. But I did need an experienced author to give me advice on my writings and the publishing process. It wouldn’t cost me a penny so I submitted my application anyway, without hope.

I am a passionate writer who has published 10 books of fantasy, travel and realistic genres in Vietnamese over the past 8 years. I will never forget the difficulties I met as a novice. I found my dream to become a writer after reading A Rose For Emily written by William Faulkner. This powerful short story in English lightened my life, a country girl who was searching for the meaning of her life and how to lead the life she wanted. I decided to follow my heart. Without support from anyone, I was struggling with writing and wondering whether my dream was an illusion. Bitterly, I found out that I didn’t put my heart into my accounting career, which helped me to make a living but it seemed to drag me day by day and squeezed my energy. 

As soon as I finished my manuscript, I took it to the two most famous publishing houses and promised myself that, ‘If they publish this book, I will spend the rest of my life becoming a writer. If not, I will choose a different career to earn a good salary.’ Luckily, I met the head editor at Kim Dong, the most famous children’s publishing house, who received my manuscript and advised me on how to send a proper manuscript to him. He then wrote an email to encourage me and advise me how to follow a writing career. Later, I had four novellas published by his publishing house.

A special thanks to Jan Carson, whom I admire as an excellent author, a devoted mentor and a beloved Belfast sister.

Isla (Wigtown) sent me a list of writers, to consider which one would be the most suitable for me.  It was such a tough choice. I spent hours and hours reading these writers’ profiles and their writings. They were talented people who could have had many influences on my writing, but I had only one choice. After reading Children’s Children, a collection of short stories by Jan Carson, I definitely got the answer. I was a bit on edge waiting for her reply. Jan Carson is a famous author who has won lots of prestigious awards including the EU Prize for Literature. Luckily, Jan said 'Yes!' 

I was so nervous about working with a popular writer, but Jan was so friendly and made me feel as though we were two writers discussing my writings. I sent her the bad stories I was struggling with, then listened to Jan’s feedback carefully in order to select which were reasonable advice. She flagged up the story on which I was totally stuck. After having three online sessions with Jan, she helped me to recognise the strengths which I should develop and how to improve my weaknesses. But the most important thing was that Jan inspired me and encouraged me with my writings. Having Jan to lead me through the writing process, to see my stories from different angles and to feel my characters as themselves more than a writer-creator myself, I feel like I drew a lucky straw. 

The future of my writing career totally depends on my ability and sometimes a little bit of luck. Having opportunities to get feedback on writing, receive encouragement and knowledge about publishing are what beginner writers like me appreciate, especially when I am chasing my dream of writing stories in a language in which I started writing just two years ago. Sometimes I stare at the screen, listening to English and Vietnamese talking to each other, then forget what I am doing. Now it’s time for me to edit my manuscript, to look for a few homes to publish some stories before reaching out to agents.

This article gives me a chance to send my big thanks to the Wigtown Book Festival and to Isla, the bridge between Jan and me, for providing wonderful opportunities for novice writers. And a special thanks to Jan Carson, whom I admire as an excellent author, a devoted mentor and a beloved Belfast sister. 

By Ngan Nguyen