Jennifer Johnston: 'What do I do with my life if I can't write?'

The revered author contemplates her creative well running dry after an almost 50 year career - and much more - ahead of her appearance at Seamus Heaney HomePlace

Jennifer Johnston is a quiet writer. She speaks quietly and writes quietly, while making her points emphatically. She persuasively draws in the reader. Not for her an over-emphatic, shouty approach. She communicates not in capital letters writ large but in polite upper and lower case, perfectly punctuated sentences, harmoniously phrased, delicately balanced - proper sentences built around elegant understatement and an unerring ear for the beauty of language and the powerful impact of words. A consummate, unforced storyteller, she makes the accomplishment of her craft seem almost easy. She is, quite simply, one of Ireland's finest living writers.

On October 14, some of her many devoted readers will have the opportunity to come face to face with Johnston at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, where she will be in conversation with her friend and fellow novelist Martina Devlin. Together, they will talk about a literary legacy, which is revered and respected as much for its powerful narrative style as for its masterly use of language. Like Heaney, Johnston's writing emerges out of her own home place and background. The experience of growing up in a privileged Irish Protestant family during the turbulent 20th century often results in her characters being caught in a kind of hyphenated identity, delicately poised between a settled past and an uncertain future.   

At the moment, however, she is not a happy writer. In fact, by her own admission, she is not, at present, a writer at all. Nothing, no person, no place, no situation is popping into her mind to inspire and motivate a new novel. Unsurprisingly, this unfamiliar state of affairs is a source of considerable annoyance. 

'I seem to have stopped,' she declares, speaking from her home overlooking the sea at Dun Laoghaire, just south of Dublin. 'Never before have I not been able to write - except for a brief six month period years ago, but then somebody said something to me and I went home and carried on where I had left off. It was like magic. I don’t think that’s going to happen this time. 

'Once a book gets going, that’s the way it continues until the end. It may not at first be in my head for it to be like that, but once it gets going I can feel it taking charge. A character, a person usually worms itself into my mind and pops up at strange moments. There’s usually something about one or two of the characters that will demand attention but basically I think I’m a bit confused at the moment. And it bothers me. The thing is, what do I do with my life if I can’t write? I mean, I’m a writer. Nothing is popping up at me at the moment, but I hope it will. I don’t like being popless.'

One of Ireland's most important contemporary novelists, Jennifer Johnston will discuss her almost 50 year career on Sat 14 October at Seamus Heaney HomePlace

One of Ireland's most important contemporary novelists, Jennifer Johnston will discuss her almost 50 year career on Saturday October 14 at Seamus Heaney HomePlace

Given her vast canon of work, which began in 1972 with The Captains and the Kings, winner of the Author’s Club First Novel Award, it is difficult to imagine that Johnston will remain ‘popless’ for long. A stern critic of her own work, she judges that first novel to have been unworthy of an award, though few would agree with her assessment. Only recently, another distinguished writer Dermot Bolger described his fondness for it, praising  '… its sparse intensity and intimacy and how the simplicity of the writing belied the complexity of her characters.'

In the course of a career spanning almost 50 years, Johnston has written nigh on 30 novels and six plays, as well as poetry, a libretto, short stories and several volumes of non-fiction.  

'When you list all the titles, yes, it is an all-encompassing body of work and some of it is not very good, which is inevitable,' she observes. 'There’s bound to be something that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Still, those early years were wonderful times. I felt that I was being creative when I was working with words, very determinedly. I have two minds about whether I enjoy being a writer or whether I don’t enjoy being a writer. Words are our greatest joy; whether you are speaking or writing, every single person in the world is the guardian of words. Words are disappearing again now and it’s very strange what we are doing with ourselves. Perhaps that’s why I’ve stopped writing. Perhaps there’s not any point. I did write a few good books but I was never as happy as in the first 15 years of my writing.'

She talks ruefully about the fact that her last book Naming the Stars was not especially well received, even though she admits to being fond of it herself. Its territory is familiar but the narrative form is unusual, veering unpredictably between the third person and the first person through the voice of the central character, Flora, whose life has been blighted by a little-remembered incident many years previously. One senses it references to Johnston's own family connections.

'People seemed to think it was a bad book, though I didn’t think so myself. I’m rather fond of it,' she reflects. 'It wrote itself the way it wanted to write itself and I’d always had this thought in my head that this is not going to be a long book. It didn’t want to be written any other way. It kept saying to me ‘I know you’ve written all this before, but let people have another look’. So I just thought this would be a sort of simple book about two old ladies and it's not going to bother anybody too much. But I’m afraid it was not widely liked.

'My mother used to pull my leg and call my books ‘novelettes’, but that was when she was cross with me. It used to infuriate me when she did this. She never could make up her mind whether she liked my books or didn’t like my books. I think she probably didn’t read most of them!'

Her ear for a story, the eloquent simplicity of expression and the deceptive ease with which she creates character and plot are just some of the qualities which set Johnston's books apart. Her themes are at once intimate and universal, encompassing a wide sweep of human experience – family secrets, tangled relationships and social division; compelling issues of gender, class, religion and politics are subtly examined through the spectrum of Protestant and Catholic, male and female, young and old, dead and alive, urban and rural contexts. Much as she dislikes recurring references to the Big House novel, her characters frequently come from or exist within the orbit of the upper middle classes, a milieu which, especially within the period of pre-partition Ireland, makes for rich and fascinating source material.

Another motif to which she frequently returns is that of friendship, often across the social divide. Flora and Nellie, the two elderly ladies who prop up each other in Naming the Stars, are, respectively, the daughter of a military officer and a housemaid, who came to them as a young girl. Flora lost her beloved father at El Alamein and had a fraught, complex relationship with her mother. Her much loved brother was also killed in action. In Nellie, she finds a confidante and a constant, someone who, in spite of her lowly rank, understands her and her past better than anyone else. At the end of the book, they look up at the stars and raise their glasses … to truth. It is a powerfully understated moment.

'Friendship is important to me, personally and in my books,' she says. 'I have had very good friendships in my life and I am very pleased to be able to say that.  

'I come from an extraordinarily large and very friendly family. They have always given generously of their friendship and it just seemed a normal way to live, until I started writing. Then I thought maybe there’s something in this that we haven’t really looked at. I also have many good friends outside the family and my brother does too. He swims every morning during the year in the sea at Sandycove and he’s admired so much by everybody because he’s so friendly. New people come along all the time. A party of Russians came along recently and Michael became a friend of theirs almost immediately. It seems so natural to me and this is one of the things I found when I lived in the North all those years. People looked at you all the time. They didn’t stop and listen. They wanted you to be like them.

'Ours was not a stuffy home, far from it. My mother was creative, of course, but my dear Johnston grandparents were very nice, kind, gentle people but they were not really creative people. My father then turned into one, much to his own father’s rage. His father went mad trying to stop him writing plays.'

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A play adapted from Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon ran at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast in 2014

Less well-known is the fact that through the centuries, hers is a family steeped in the legal profession, with a royal connection dating back to the Tudor dynasty.

'My grandfather was a well-known and high-up judge. He came from the North and went to the South and stayed there for the rest of his life. My mother’s father was a lawyer. The law has been in our family since the days of Henry VIII. His Lord Chancellor Thomas More married my ancestor, a lawyer whose name was Roper. The king gave him land in Ireland and he went and lived there, which was the beginning of the Roper family. Sometimes, we all boasted about it - and sometimes we didn’t!'

Born in Dublin in 1930 to the distinguished playwright Denis Johnston and the actress and director Shelah Richards, the creative arts were an integral part of Jennifer's childhood. She remembers being regularly taken to the Abbey Theatre of an evening to say goodnight to her mother, who was hard at work ‘being someone else’. Johnston lived in Derry for 20 years, an experience which, as she will explain, was not an entirely happy one. She began married life with her first husband in Paris, the romantic City of Light.

'Living in Paris was great, that felt like being grown-up,' she says. 'It’s a lovely city. Basically, I loved the French. The moment you become a friend of a French person, you’ve got a friend forever. Then I moved to London, which is a great city to live in. Everything that I ever wanted in life was sitting there saying ‘come and join me, come and see what I’m doing, come and listen to my band, come and do this and do that'. I found all this wonderful but suddenly, when the Troubles in the North got really bad I wanted to go back home. I felt I understood about those children during the war whose loving parents sent them to the United States to be safe, but they weren’t really safe at all.'

Her first novel, published in 1972, during the early years of the Troubles, took as its backdrop the First World War, a period and a setting to which she has returned time and time again. She is passionately interested in history but says that when it comes to interpreting the past she is more inclined to trust novelists than historians.

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'I was at a very nice and proper school, where we read books, we read real books, right from the age of four up to 17. We also read history books. But it always seemed to me that history books were written by people who were trying to explain some enormous mess that we’d all got into but were never going to be able to explain. Whereas novelists can explain things in their own way. That’s why it’s so important that children read. It’s sad that parents don’t seem to see books as anything other than a frivolity these days. Reading should be a joy for a child not a chore.'

When she began writing, one wonders whether she had been tempted to focus on the Troubles, given all that was going on back home at that time.

'Yes I was, but I shied away from it. I had to, otherwise I would have been telling lies. Or I would not have been telling the truth. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, it just doesn’t work. Sometimes it just turns into some sort of… yuck. As well as being preoccupied with language, I am preoccupied with truth and I don’t know how any of us deals with that, really.

'The First World War was the only Irish war, you see, a big, grand, enormous war,' she says. 'If you’re going to write about a war, it had to be that one rather than the next one - World War II - which the Irish were only very peripherally involved in. Many of the people I write about had fathers, grandfathers, brothers, and uncles who all went off to the war. Most of them hated it but they did what they thought was the right thing to do.

'And we’re never going to sort out this problem we have with the North [of Ireland] because it’s still there, sitting there, waiting to take a bite out of our leg if we move. Do you think that people are trying, really trying to be truthful and honest and have conversations and not tell their children stupid jokes about what they would consider to be ‘the other side’? People go on doing that all the time and it’s absolutely ghastly. I lived in Derry for about 20 years and I could never get away from this. It was there. It goes on and on and it’s not getting anybody anywhere. It got more and more depressing and when I left, about two years ago, I thought, well, I’m never going back there again. I came to Dublin, which is where I'm from, and it’s good being back.'

Jennifer Johnston

As her skill and confidence as a writer grew, she did subsequently take on the Troubles, most effectively in Shadows on our Skin, which was shortlisted for the 1977 Booker Prize. The central characters are Joe Logan, a working class Catholic boy and his teacher Kathleen Doherty, with whom he forms a close relationship. Watching the friendship develop with some trepidation is his hard-working mother, a woman worn down by poverty and an abusive marriage. But the ultimate threat to Joe’s happiness comes not from his over-protective mother but from the intervention of republican politics and sectarian division. Johnston writes the final tragic episode of Joe and Kathleen’s story with a lyrical ferocity that leaves the reader reeling.

All her life she has been an avid theatre-goer and admits that one of her remaining ambitions is to write a play.

'Not just a play, I would like to write a good play. I have tried and it has never worked, so I’ve sort of given up a bit. I’ve written a few and they’ve been done but they haven’t been greeted with great applause. I’ve had the awful experience of sitting watching something that is your child up there, being acted well and nobody likes it. The funny thing about my plays is they’re like walking, talking novels. I enjoy writing monologues but these days they have a reek of not being able to afford to put on plays if they’ve got more than two people in them. They’re going to have to deal with that.

'The theatre has got to be made to work again. Unfortunately, I feel we are losing out on theatre in a big way. It’s all gone a bit crazy and it’s a great shame. At the moment, theatre in Ireland is dead. But things can be done. The two greatest playwrights that have lived are Shakespeare and Chekov and there are millions of people in their plays. They used words in a most marvellous way and we have to find a way of getting our audiences to experience and share that sense of marvel.'

Jennifer Johnston is in conversation with Martina Devlin at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace at 3.00pm on Saturday 14 October. For more information on the event and ticket booking, visit the Seamus Heaney website.