A writer making sense of life's 'awful muddle'
AS I stand on the front porch of Jennifer Johnston’s stately home on the outskirts of Derry, trying to figure out how to ring the doorbell – it turns out to be a pull rather than a push – I can’t help but think of her mischievous novel Truth or Fiction, the opening pages of which depict an encounter between a hapless visiting journalist and a famous, slightly sinister Irish novelist.
In the book, the novelist is intimidating and untrustworthy. Johnston, by contrast, is ease and kindness itself. She scoops me into the kitchen and plies me with brown toast and chunky home-made vegetable soup, chatting all the while about the prize she is about to receive at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. It’s a lifetime achievement award that will see the 82-year-old Johnston join previous recipients John McGahern, William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy and Seamus Heaney at the top of the glitterati tree.
Is she delighted? Dismayed? For some writers there’s a touch of the ho-hum about such awards. Johnston beams. “Oh, it’s marvellous,” she says. After the faintest of pauses, she adds, “Of course I told them, ‘In another 15 years you’re going to have to give me another one.’”
As we move, bearing coffee, into her study, Johnston apologises for the boxes. I haven’t even seen the boxes. I am transfixed by the window, an eight-foot slice of light that offers a breathtaking view over a blaze of golden trees and, beyond that, to the house’s private jetty on the river Foyle. I refocus on a collection of cardboard boxes of various shapes and sizes that, she says, contain Christmas presents for family and friends.
“I’m not actually writing every day at the moment, because I’m thinking about Christmas,” she explains. “But the minute Christmas is over, I will be.”
Genesis of a book
Her first task will be to “fiddle” with the book she has just completed. It will be her 18th novel. Considering that she didn’t publish her first book until she was 42, this is a pretty impressive work rate. Johnston throws back her head and laughs.
“Oh, if only you knew,” she says. “I am incredibly lazy. And they’re very short books. And it takes me a very long time to write each one. And I do very fiddly little wastey-timey things in-between.”
Already, however, she is slowly building up a cast in her head for novel number 19.
Is that how her books begin? “Yes. With a character, usually. And then others come and join them. In a book of mine called Two Moons, there is an angel. He’s not the main character, but he is important. And he used to come in here and sit on that sofa – and I was busy finishing whatever it was I was at, you know, and it was really annoying. This little man who looked like Danny DeVito kept coming in. He didn’t say anything. He just sat there.”
Once he made his entrance into the novel, he never returned to the study. We both look at the sofa. Nothing there but boxes.
At school, Johnston was good at English and a great reader, yet she didn’t seem to think of herself as a potential novelist. “It never occurred to me that I would be able to be a writer – though I did want to be an actress,” she says. With an actress mother – Shelah Richards – and a playwright father – Denis Johnston – it must in any casehave made sense to young Jennifer to begin by writing plays.