A writer making sense of life's 'awful muddle'
Her first effort was about a girl who had had an abortion. Richards gave it to various people in the theatre, including her London agent, to read. “He said, ‘This is a dreadful play, but you are a writer. So go away and write me a novel.’ Which I did. That was The Gates, which no publisher really wanted. But they all wrote me very nice letters saying, ‘We’d like to see the next thing you write.’ The next thing I wrote was The Captains and the Kings – and that was instantly published.”
Does she ever reread those early books? “Not if I can possibly help it,” she says grimly. “I can’t bear The Gates so I really don’t have anything to do with it at all.” What’s wrong with it? “Everything’s wrong with it.”
Johnston is brisk and unsentimental about her work, and about the prizes she has accrued over the years, including the Whitbread and the Irish Pen awards. She got a Booker shortlisting for Shadows on Our Skin. “A silly notion. If you’re going to give a prize to one of my books, that would not be one of the ones I’d have given it to.” She quite likes Two Moons, she admits, because it reminds her of her mother.
“I like The Illusionist. That’s a book of mine that fell through a big hole. I don’t think anybody ever bought it at all.” This was thanks to an ill-timed convulsion in the publishing world. “It’s quite a good book, I think,” she says.
It has become a commonplace among commentators to tag Johnston as a “Big House” novelist. Even the mildest scrutiny of her oeuvre reveals this to be ludicrously inexact: she is, if anything, a chronicler of Irish families and the million tiny cuts they inflict on each other in day-to-day living.
For the most part, though, hers are Protestant Irish families – and Johnston has been almost alone in chronicling, with a dry wit leavened by occasional blazes of fury, the many small but significant dislocations which mark the lives of a minority community in an overwhelmingly Catholic cultural milieu.
Last year’s Shadowstory, for example, finds an otherwise benevolent grandfather exploding into blistering anger over the Ne Temere decree that, for generations, demanded that the children of “mixed marriages” must be raised in the “one true faith”.
It’s an odd, almost impolite topic to find in a book published in the new, all-together-now, supposedly secular Ireland: which is precisely the point.
Johnston’s narratives are also often punctuated by the rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer. This, she insists, is an aesthetic influence rather than a religious one.
“The Shakespearean language is just so wonderful. I think probably having a mother who was an actress made me more aware of the sound of language – as much as the meaning, in a strange way.
“From about the age of 10 on, I used to ‘hear’ her her lines. You get the whole thing of language from two perspectives when you hear somebody their lines.”
She pauses, then adds: “She used to get furious if you gave her a cue that she wasn’t quite ready for. She was ‘having a little pause’, she would say.” The tone of wry affection might have come right out of the pages of Shadowstory, with its strikingly tactile portrait of the relationship between grand-daughter and grandparents.