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.
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.
“My family used to tell each other terrible lies – but we all used to hug each other and kiss each other and love each other,” Johnston says. “Even if you’d had a terrible row with some relation, you always made it up again. I only had one parent, really, because my father disappeared when I was seven. I mean, he used to come back and visit us – but it’s not the same thing.”
As far as the young Jennifer was concerned, these disappearances were caused by the second World War rather than by the family cataclysm that is divorce.
“I thought the fact that he didn’t spend the night was something to do with the fact that he was going back to the desert. And it was great to see him. But then he never came back at all. When I was about 14, I was told that he was gone. I think, you know, everybody just thought, ‘Children are only children – they don’t understand anything. And therefore we mustn’t let them know these awful things that happen.’”
Over and over again Johnston has explored the crippling lies, omissions and silences of families in a way that makes them uncommonly accessible. The Irish Book award will, hopefully, bring her to the attention of a new generation of readers. Meanwhile she herself keeps up with new generations of writers.
“I love Colum McCann. And this young woman I think is terribly good.” She points to a book by Claire Keegan on her well-stocked bookshelves, then bends down to rummage in a box under her desk. She emerges waving a copy of Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints. “I have now discovered this,” she says. “It’s very funny.” And Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is, she says, “the best first novel I’ve read for years and years and years”.
What of her own new novel? “The various people who’ve read it all say I’ve got my times muddled up.” Her daughter Sarah, who heads the Russian department at Trinity College Dublin, says not to worry.
“She said, ‘Think of Anna Karenina. It’s a well-known fact. Tolstoy got all his times and dates completely screwed up. People have written books about this, Mother,’ she said.”
Johnston erupts into another great chime of laughter. “There you are. I just have to think about Anna Karenina. Which is not one of my favourite books anyway – whether his times are right or they’re wrong.”
She must have favourites, then? “Well, I love John McGahern. How could you not? I love Ian McEwan. I love Jane Austen. I love EM Forster. I mean, anybody who can admit that we live in a complete and total muddle. Because so many people say, ‘Well, it’s not a muddle. It’s quite organised and orderly.’ That’s not true. It is just one bloody awful muddle from the moment you’re born until the moment you die. And you might as well just try and muddle through.”
The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards will be presented in Dublin on Thursday