Jennifer Johnston brings her latest novel to life and talks how it is a 'sort of disappearing book'
‘My publishers didn’t like this book,’ Jennifer Johnston admits about her latest novel Shadowstory. ‘They don’t think people will buy it.’
Shadowstory is set during and after the Second World War and chronicles the slow dissolution of a once prominent family. Johnston describes it as a ‘sort of disappearing book’.
It is easy to see why, based on the concept, that the publishers might have doubts about its financial potential. However, the sold-out Group Space at the Ulster Hall, packed with people holding new and already read copies of the book, suggests that they might have underestimated twice Booker-nominated Johnston’s appeal.
The room sits rapt as she reads a selection of passages from the novel, introducing and waving goodbye to characters. Polly and her grandparents – the laughing, storytelling grandmother and the stoic, respected grandfather – are the heart of this part of the story.
Johnston doesn’t really do ‘voices’ as such, her prose is strong enough to stand on its own, but the speed and pitch of her voice alters as she moves between the characters. The grandmother is steady and clear, while Polly as a child is higher-pitched and a little breathness. A hint of gravel conjures the grandfather as he talks about his experience in World War I.
Some of the later scenes with the grandparents were beautifully written, but weren’t quite convincing. They sounded too much like something that would happen in a book. The accounts of Polly’s childhood, however, – sent to ‘fetch’ by the older children, suggesting Jesus as a possible emperor – rang particularly true, and were nice observed.
Johnston leaves most of the meat of Shadowstory – the impact of the Ne Temere decree regulating mixed-marriages, communism and a suggestion of incest – to those who read the book. Her well-chosen extracts, however, catch the wistful sadness of a family coming apart ‘through no fault of its own’.
After the reading, Johnston has a Q&A session with audience moderated by Arts Extra's Marie-Louise Muir. Questions range from ‘do you get wiser as you get older’ to ‘Were the Anglo-Irish doomed in Ireland’. Johnston answers the questions thoughtfully and honesty, tossing in plenty of amusing anecdotes from her own life.
Johnston also returns to the publisher’s lack of faith in Shadowstory, which has obviously left its mark. She discusses the difficulty of editing a manuscript when editor and author have divergent views on what needs done.
‘I thought it was time I stopped,’ Johnston says, recalling working on her latest novel and ‘thinking it was idiotic’. Then she hit page 114 and she realised what she was doing and where she was going with it. Although that destination will, despite a prompt query from the floor, remain a mystery until the book is closer to completion.
It is strange to realise that a writer of Johnston’s stature still feels the slings and arrows of editorial criticism. And a good reminder that the only way to get past that is to keep writing.
The appreciative Literary Lunchtime obviously appreciate that Johnston persevered and they have another novel to look forward to.
The next Literary Lunchtime will be Martin Mooney on April 25.