Wise words with Irish Author Jennifer Johnston
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It was with a ticklish delight that I viewed the e-mail signalling the chance to attend an evening with award-winning novelist Jennifer Johnston, in conversation with Irish Times literary correspondent Eileen Battersby. I am a long-time admirer of Jennifer Johnston’s work and Eileen Battersby’s critiques are a joy to read – especially when she is not convinced by the writing. She also, in the recent past, has become a novelist. This was an event not to be missed. I clicked on the tickets and reserved two thrillingly free spaces – one for my mother and one for me.
We entered the Irish Writer’s Centre in Parnell Square promptly, as requested. Or maybe half hour earlier than requested, which gave us time to imbibe the atmosphere. As an emerging writer of fiction, this was akin to being a child in a sweetshop. Floor to ceiling book-lined shelves. Hemp-clothed tables. The smell of freshly brewed coffee. It could send an emerging writer high as a kite. A dangerous thing when the real high was yet to come. Other interested parties sashayed in and joined us. Readers of Johnston’s work in the main. The odd writer like myself. One, sporting a delicately embroidered colourful jacket, introduced herself to us and when I did likewise she said she had heard of me. Does it get any better than this?
It does. The room which we were shown into for the event had plush deep red carpeted floors and large windows looking out over the Garden of Remembrance. It was perfect, especially as war themes hover in much of Johnston’s fiction. In front of the old high marbled fire place two chairs were set, beside a table with a water jug and glasses. A little further back, the person set to record it was preparing.
Then she walked in. This 87-year-old Booker short-listed, Whitbread Award winning author, wearing a comfortable dress and colourful shawl. A grandmotherly figure, until she began to speak. Introduced as one of the world’s greatest writers with a remarkable body of work, Johnston was quick to counter that with a compliment to Battersby as one of the world’s greatest critics. We were quick to learn that we were in the company of two very sharp minds and their laughter and mutual appreciation told us we were in great safe hands. The conversation flowed with snippets of gold for reading admirers and writers alike. An early area of discussion, setting the tone, was to do with language and words. Johnston is the daughter of a playwright and she came across an interview with him, quite accidentally, in which he said that he envied her ability with language. She was always obsessed with language and wondered why her view on a word was so different from anyone else’s. She spoke of words as ‘terribly dangerous weapons’ and of her desire just to build different houses out of words. She told us how she was at a ‘big unable to write bit’ in her life which she was not enjoying. She is still, at such a great age, looking for more words.
Character was discussed throughout. Battersby noted how Johnston’s characters tend not to be happy. Engaging certainly, but not happy. Many are writers themselves. However, story is a way of finding an answer for them, for us as readers. Does she tend to hear the voice of the characters before she sees them, she was asked. She surprised us with her answer, agreeing that she does and telling us that one character came and sat in the room with her, daily, until she wrote him in. Rather than have her characters seek happiness she has them seeking the truth. The search for truth has been central to her books as has her commitment to avoid sentimentality, which, she said, drives her mad. The same can be said for descriptive overflow. Physical description is important, but don’t make it overflow, she wisely warned. Plot, she added, is less important than mood and ambience.
As a young child she learnt that if she stayed very quiet, hidden from view and listened, she would not be sent to bed. Her rich character development and her excellent dialogue can perhaps be traced to her early listening skills. Battersby noted how she makes her fiction look very easy, which might be down to the conversational tone, the first person voice. Johnston doesn’t really know. She said she doesn’t know how she writes or how what comes out of her fingers comes out, she has no control over it, but she does know why she writes. Story is a way of answering questions that people don’t dare to ask. She likes dialogue and would like to write a really good play some day, but thinks that she will not now. However, she has not tried to yet and noted that you have ‘got to start something before something can happen’. Wise words for all writers.
Johnston’s first book The Captains and the Kings was published when she was 42 and it won a prize. She self-deprecatingly said that it should not have won a prize, but that the prize changed her life. It was no longer just her and a bit of paper, but her and the world. She had a further 19 works published, many being generational, big house stories with class tensions, friendships, mother-daughter relationships, and a shadow of war. In 2012 she won a Lifetime Achievement award. It was a privilege to be in her company and it is a pleasure to read and re-read her many great works.
cover image from Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley