Drinking Becomes Sport in New Novel

Enniskillen-born author Jason Johnson publishes allegorical novel with Liberties Press

The press release for your new novel, Sinker, describes it as a 'joyful take on a hopeless but changing male drinking culture'. Do you see that culture as changing for the better in the UK and Ireland?

Drinking is less acceptable in some situations than it was. Getting bladdered at lunchtime is out, sinking pints while playing in the snooker World Championship is out, being hammered behind the wheel is out. The gym or the coffee shop is, in many ways, the new pub. That’s what’s changing.

But binge drinking itself is only shapeshifting, it’s not going anywhere. It’s a part of our culture that won’t budge easily and, particularly with young men, it’s still some kind of rite of passage to manhood. We all know the drill: the guy who handles his drink better than everyone else gets respect, the guy who falls over and wets himself is the butt of jokes.

Drinking games – competitive drinking – have been around for thousands of years because loading up with booze ticks a lot of boxes. It’s fun, it’s about letting go but it also helps cement group identity. Only the format of the drinking changes, not the actual fact of the drinking. The most recent binge crazes are tied to social media. For example, this ‘neknominate’ madness which we know has sadly taken lives in Ireland.

Alcohol is part of the fabric of life here in Northern Ireland. It’s what we do when we’re sad or happy, when we’re commiserating or celebrating, when the weather is hot or cold. We don’t even think it’s weird when we pour it on people’s graves, which is kind of bizarre. Some of us have poured booze on the graves of people killed by booze.

So yes, things are changing but in terms of binge drinking the most it is doing is evolving, via those who practise it, in order to stay current.

The book follows a young Irish man who competes in a professional drinking game staged in Mallorca in order to change his fortunes. It's an interesting conceit – where did the idea spring from?

It came to me as I was taking stock of my own boozing. I wasn’t getting any younger and wasn’t getting any more sober of an average weekend. I got to thinking, ‘Seriously, how much of me wants to do this and how much of me needs to do this?’

That led to me noticing more and more the role booze plays in our culture. It’s really not too strong to say that drinking is like some kind of national past-time in Ireland, a kind of hobby which has a strangely competitive and even glamorous edge to it in some quarters.

So I figured what if, by some little twist of history, someone had formulated some rules along the way and drinking alcohol had somehow became a professional sport? What if sponsors had got involved? What about the fans? The idea appealed because I could imagine the kind of crazy, tragic, hilarious, demented people who would end up making a success of it.

One of the big competitions, I thought, would be a great launch pad from which to fire the reader into immediate controversy, comedy, drama, humour, depravity and the constant risk that players might drop dead. I drew up a rough set of rules and thought, ‘This is maybe just mad enough to make a decent novel.’

If there was an international competition where big boozers could win big money to drink and remain in combative conversation for as long as possible, would you watch it? I would, even just to see how messy and terrible it was, even just to see the sparks fly between those who supported pro-drinking and those who were trying to get it banned.

I reckoned this would be a sport to which some people would cling as a kind of last bastion of personal freedom, of total political incorrectness. The idea itself came to me in Mallorca and I ended up setting it there. I had an image of a young ginger Irishman burning up in the sun as he tried to take on the seasoned pros and the thing just developed.

The subject matter perhaps makes Sinker a novel for adults, but wouldn't there have been more money in taming it down for a younger audience? Hasn't the money gone out of adult fiction?

I don’t even know what age group or market Sinker is pitched at. I’ve never thought of it that way. I just wrote it as it happened in my head. I think of it just as a funny yet thoughtful, bold story.

Its protagonist is in his 20s and I think anyone in their late teens onwards would understand the concept and get a laugh from his adventure. It’s certainly not adult in the sense of being filled with sex or drugs or anything like that, although, as you probably guessed, there is quite a lot of drinking going on.

I don’t want to do any taming down. Tame is another word for dull. I want to write the sort of book I would like to read, something that shoves me in some direction or other, that punches and follows through.

It’s hard sitting down and writing. It’s weirdly the last thing you want to do, even if you’re a writer, even if you’re writing something you love. I just don’t think I’d be the right man right now to pen the story of a magic t-shirt or an angst-ridden 14-year-old vampire because that doesn’t do it for me. There are better candidates for that, people who are more in tune with that age group.

I write what works for me as an adult. Putting words on the screen is an outlet, a way of organising what has been spinning around in my head, and as a writer I don’t tend to think beyond the adult world I live in. However, I’d like to add, with no shame whatsoever, that I am available at all times to write a novel about a magic t-shirt if someone wants to pay me to do so.

You have been labelled 'the Irish Irvine Welsh'. While that might put off those who prefer their fiction sans-expletives, Welsh has proven to be a serious writer who deals with pressing subjects and writes with great verve. Do you approve of the comparison, and is it apt?

If people don’t want swear words they really should never read any of my novels. Or go outside. I don’t really know of any places where people don’t swear, certainly not anywhere in Ireland anyway. Maybe at prayer meetings and the like, but in general we swear fulsomely. My doctor says the f-word, for feck’s sake.

I think it’s unrealistic to want modern Irish fiction to avoid the glimmer of the gutter. Besides, swear words are useful, they have a mini set of rules in themselves, they add atmosphere, information and function to language. Zero swearing in a present day story is like an episode of EastEnders where the cast all run around saying things like ‘I don’t give a stuff’. It’s just totally and completely unbelievable and, for me, is death to good, grown-up drama.

To the point – the ‘Irish Irvine Welsh’ thing is not at all apt. It was used about me after my first novel Woundlicker came out nine years ago. It was said at a literary event by another author and referred only to the colloquial Belfast style of some of the writing in the book, in the way that Welsh writes in the Scots dialect. It became a bit of a marketing line and at this stage I’d really like to see the back of it, as I’m sure would the actual Irvine Welsh.

Let’s put it like this: Irvine Welsh is a tremendous, ferocious writer who rightly blew the roof off UK fiction in the 1990s. There is no better man, given his background, his fierce intelligence, energy and maverick, rebellious nature to skewer society where and when it matters. Meanwhile, I’ve written about a university dropout getting langered and sunburned. Please let this totally inaccurate comparison end here.

Sinker is your third novel. For those unaware of your oeuvre, tell us a little about your first two books.

I write about people who face extreme situations for short periods of time. Woundlicker is about a guy who finds a secret listening device in a UK government-owned car. He’s half Protestant and half Catholic and confesses to a series of murders, basically, to a Mercedes Benz.

He has been revenge killing paramilitaries on both sides over issues he faced while growing up. His slayings don’t fit the nasty Northern Ireland murder template and society, including the police, is baffled, even a bit scared. The government, by the way, just let him get on with it.

Alina, my second novel, is about two Belfast guys who head off to Romania in search of a missing online sex worker who one of them has fallen for. One guy brings his own brand of Ulster terrorism to the place. In many ways it’s a brutal, grim, hard story. It’s really a way of looking at a newly shaped relationship between west and east Europe, but is probably too blood-soaked and bone-splintered to really make that clear.

Are you a fan of any other Northern Irish writers who have largely ignored the Troubles and all of its stifling baggage in their fiction?

Woundlicker is the closest thing to a book about the Troubles that I’ll probably ever write. It was written in 2004 and was kind of a two fingers up to the whole vicious, nasty, self-destructive little screwed-up war of ours. I’d no publisher when I started, not even a real plan to try and get it published, just a need to channel my anger about the pathetic bitching which was becoming the daily dialogue of the peace process.

One of the very best people for writing around and above the Troubles, yet taking heed of them along the way, is Robert McLiam Wilson. He is a west Belfast man but has been living in Paris for a long time now. I know many of his fans wish he’d write about home again.

But there is a raft of good Northern Irish writers out there who in their own way are writing beyond the Troubles, kicking away clichés yet still planting their work in among the culture of Northern Ireland society, which is a neat trick.

Colin Bateman is a master of the art, but there is a spectacular group of others – Sam Millar, Gerard Brennan, Garbhan Downey, Jan Carson, Tony Bailie, Stuart Neville and more – who are putting various kinds of refreshing poke into post-Troubles writing.

Having previously worked as a journalist, did you find the transition to writing fiction easy, or did fiction come first?

They’re so separate that in my mind there is barely a connection. Writing news is an almost instant thing at the end of the news gathering process – you know what the line is, you have a rough length for the story and it’s bang, crash, email. You start with the end point – with what has happened – and then describe how things got to be like that. The writing is only about five per cent of the work, and creativity is discouraged for ethical reasons.

With fiction, you basically start at the start point and keep the secrets of the plot to yourself, nailing them in as you go along to try and hold the reader’s interest as creatively as you can. But writing news has taught me a lot about powerful words, emotive words, redundant words. And you pick up little punctuation habits too, which can have impact in fiction. Also, I’ve had some mean deadlines in my time and that has taught me a great deal about just shutting the hell up and getting on with the work.

You recently made headlines when you decided to stage a competition for readers to pay to become a character in your next novel. It was an unusual approach to crowd-funding. Did it work?

That was back in 2006 and no. It turned out to be a bit of a magnet for oddballs, which was fun but there were no serious offers. It worked as a publicity stunt, but only really in that literary purists had a go at me. In fact one guy called me a ‘prostitute’ on national radio for wanting to do such a terrible thing. Sadly I wasn’t a great prostitute because I never came up with the goods, by which I mean the book never happened. Instead I didn’t write anything for a few years until the Sinker idea came to me.

What do you think the likes of Hemingway, Orwell and Dickens would have made of crowd-funding? Would they have jumped on the bandwagon, or refused to stoop?

They probably wouldn’t be overly keen. Orwell would be especially suspicious, I imagine. It’s an exciting thing on the one hand, but can seem somehow anti-artistic on the other. Personally, I’m all up for it.

Creativity is of little use unless it can be physically formed – written, drawn, sculpted, painted, performed – and we live in a world which effectively discourages creativity because so little value is attached to its development. Basically artists of all kinds have to get creative in terms of funding themselves, so whatever it takes to get the resources.

And what of your next project? Can we expect another anarchic allegory, or will you eventually grow out of all that?

I’m working on a novel about a guy who gets hired as an unarmed assassin by the Irish government. It’s actually a love story but you can be assured of some post-watershed language, nudity and even the odd death.

In fact, there is a very serious side to it, which touches on clerical abuse and the demented extremes of patriotism. And I won’t be growing out of anything, thanks very much. I’m serious about writing and serious about the way I want to write. I like doing it, I’m proud of what I’ve done and there is a lot more on the way.