Jennifer Johnston interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel.
Jennifer Johnston is one of Ireland's finest novelists. She writes elegant books about relations between children and their parents, between husbands and wives, and about unlikely encounters that become friendships. These relationships are often set against the violent history of Ireland. Jennifer Johnston started writing thirty years ago. She had four children when her husband bought her a typewriter and she wrote a play that she later described as "very bad." Still, she connects the unravelling of her first marriage with her gradual decision to become a serious writer. Her first three books, which won prizes and critical acclaim, were written in a male voice. Then she decided she wanted to write about women. "I write about the insides of people's heads," she says.
Her prose is subtle, deceptively simple, satisfying Italo Calvino's demand for thoughtful lightness. She has said: "I walk a fine line. If you fall off it becomes banal and sentimental." But she doesn't fall. Like the title of her latest novel, her tenth, she sustains the illusion. The Illusionist is about an Irish woman, Stella, who is seduced by an Englishman, a trickster who invents himself moment by moment. He won't disclose any information about what he does or where he is from; he charms with magic. But he is controlling and domineering, and he conjures up an isolated domestic household in the country. Stella's only escape is through writing and then publishing. When she does, her husband throws her typewriter out the window and tears up her manuscript. But that is only part of the story. With Jennifer Johnston there's a lot more going on, starting with her sentences and her use of language. She is a pleasure to read and, as I found out, to talk to. Jennifer Johnston is 67 years old, and lives in Derry, Northern Ireland.
ELEANOR WACHTEL: You once described yourself as a Southerner living in the North. Can you tell me about your background?
JENNIFER JOHNSTON: I come from Dublin. My parents were both born there. My father was a very distinguished writer, Dennis Johnston, who wrote plays and was a war correspondent. Then he went to work for the BBC in the very early days of television. My mother was an actress and theatre director, a most distinguished and wonderful woman, very warm and crazy. I've always liked crazy people.
Why is that?
Oh, because I don't like ordinary people. I like to be surprised. I like to be constantly kept on my toes, and I find that the crazy people you meet, the people who don't look at life in any sort of traditional or normal way, appeal very much more to me than the sort of good, ordinary people that I find very nice and very good and very ordinary. I prefer people who talk to themselves, who have dialogues with the insides of their own heads, who have bizarre ways of looking at other people.
Generally we don't want our mothers to be crazy. We want consistency, not surprise. How was your mother crazy?
My mother was extremely crazy, and was not a very good mother. But she was an absolutely wonderful, warm, and vital woman. She was brought up in a very conventional upper class way and threw all that to one side when she went into the theatre. If the war hadn't happened she would have moved outside and away from Ireland, something she was starting to do just before the war. But she then started a company of her own in Ireland and directed plays, and in the last years of her life she became a television director, which was no mean feat. She was absorbed very much in her work, and when she wasn't working she became itchy. She became slightly bad tempered and very impatient. My brother and I were terribly lucky because we had, from the moment we were born, a wonderful nanny who looked after us for twelve years. And so in a way we had that solidity, a solid ground from which to develop our roots in a healthy way, and by the time our nanny left to get married we were more able to cope with the vagaries of my mother. She didn't want to sit around the house cooking and mending socks. That just wasn't anything to do with the things she had in her head.
Is that why you wanted to be an actress, because your mother was an actress?
It is quite difficult to say. I was brought up with a background of theatre, and when I wasn't at school -- even sometimes when I should have been playing hockey or something awful like that -- I used to bicycle to the theatre where my mother would be rehearsing, and I would hide in the dark and watch the rehearsals. She never found out, because I always knew when to leave so I would be at home when she got back. And so I was steeped in theatre, and it seemed like that was where I had to go. But I didn't.
What do you mean?
I had a certain amount of talent, but my mother really didn't want me to become an actress, and if I was going to continue living at home, I was going to have to toe the line. So I went to university instead, where I did no work and left without a degree and then got married. It's just as well I didn't pursue acting, because I'm a much better writer than I would have been an actress. Apart from anything else, I'm as blind as a bat and would have bumped into the furniture.
Just to go back to being the Southerner living in the North. I always feel with Irish writers you almost have to locate them. Where would you locate yourself in terms of Protestant-Catholic or Southerner-Northerner?
I don't really locate myself anywhere. I am Church of Ireland, or I'm supposed to be. I'm really nothing. I don't think I believe in God, but that's irrelevant in this country because you're either a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist, as the old joke says. I come from a mixed family. Most of my cousins are Roman Catholics. It's a quirk of fate what you're born to be, and it never has been anything that I have actually bothered about because I'm far more interested in how human beings relate to each other than how they relate to their various gods.
Often in your stories, there will be characters from different backgrounds whose lives intersect.
Yes, it's something we have to do if we're going to do for this island what we ought to be able to, because it is a great place, and we have huge potential. But we have to sort out these problems first, and we can only do that by speaking to each other, by listening to each other. We do an awful lot of talking, but we don't actually listen. I think that is one of our major problems.
A lot of Irish writers seem to have had to leave the country in order to work, and this again may be more true of the past than now, but I think of Edna O'Brien or James Joyce. You, on the other hand, are very firmly entrenched, and I think you were once quoted as saying: "Since the Troubles started, I've been miserable out of the country." Why?
That was a long time ago, and I was living in London. I really felt that my own history was passing me by, and I was getting a distorted view of what was happening here, of the reality of life in the North of Ireland. In a way that reality has passed by the people in the South, too, because you actually have to have lived here to have a reasonable understanding of the way people behave towards each other, of the terrible problems and miseries that have happened here. And when I was living in London I felt rather like one of those English children whose parents sent them to America during the war; that might have been a very good thing to do for your children if you were able to afford it, but those children missed out on a huge part of their own history, and that is something they'll never be able to feel again except by hearsay. And I felt that I was missing the anguish of my own people, and that somehow I would never be able to catch up with what I had missed. So it was a very fortuitous thing for me that I came back to live here.
How did that come about?
It was very fortuitous. I just met somebody and married. It was very inconvenient in a lot of ways, but it was very convenient in the sense that I had been in England for twenty years at that stage, and up until that time I had never really felt alienated from Ireland. Then the Troubles started, and I suddenly felt I was becoming a stranger to my own country. I didn't want that to go on happening.
Your earlier novels allude directly or indirectly to the First World War and the trenches. Can you talk about why that war was so important for Ireland?
This was the war that involved my uncles and grandparents, although not my father because he was too young. When the Second World War broke out, the South remained neutral, and the country became very, very isolated at that stage. We turned inwards in a strange and rather sick way, and it has taken an extremely long time for us to recover from that. But during the First World War, Ireland was very much involved. My mother lost a brother and an uncle. The Dublin Fusiliers were a mighty regiment, and everyone in Dublin had a relative who'd been in the war, and of course a great many had been wounded or killed. So all through my childhood there were stories about the war years. They still sang the songs that had been sung in the trenches. And it was during the war that we had the Easter Rising that would have so many consequences. The Great War had a profound effect on the future of this country because if it hadn't happened we would not now be in the same place. I believe we would now be a united country. We would not have had to go through the problems and torments that partition has given us. Also, you must remember that a very, very great number of young men were killed in that war. These men obviously would have had a different way of looking at Ireland, and might have influenced their society to go in a different direction had they lived. I have a lot of ideas in my head on this subject, and I would like to write a really good novel about the effects of the war. I may not get around to it, mind you. I tend to have lots of big ideas in my head and never do anything about them.
What you have done already is to use the war as a backdrop or as a foreground related to the Easter Rising and the connection between Irish nationalism and the First World War.
Yes, in Full Sanctuary, set in 1920, there is a sort of duel that goes on between the young soldier who has come back from the war and the young republican who is fighting in Dublin, and they have an emotional and intellectual clash over this. And that has to do with class as well. There are so many things that are mixed up in all our heads. It's quite scary. I've just written a film script based on the book, and this conflict comes out very much better in the script than it did in the book. It's much clearer; I feel I've written it much better this time.
A review of your new novel, The Illusionist, says you have made a recent slow shift from the political to the personal and from history to the home front. Why is that?
Well I'm not absolutely certain what that means, but I'll have a stab at answering it. My books have never been overtly political; I have tried to be balanced. But as you move through the years, your attitudes change, and you see things in a different light. And I have moved from writing obliquely about violence and the Troubles and the whole notion of being totally powerless when it comes to major happenings in the world, such as wars. I am now writing much more about women and about the way I see women developing. This, to me, is every bit as political as the things I was writing about before, so I remain a bit confused by the reviewer's statement.
Maybe it is a matter of staying with the obvious in terms of looking at the storylines of the novels. Or maybe it is also, as you say, a shift from men to women, and the domain of women seems to be more domestic or more personal, more the home front.
Well, it is and it isn't. But, yes, I see what you mean. But equally their voice is a valid voice, and they must be heard. I think basically what I am trying to write about now is the pain of women. And that does not mean writing great tracts against men. I am trying to depict the pain of women and show how this pain can be turned into some sort of creativity. That is what my most recent book is about. It is about taking your pain and making something positive out of it -- not moaning about it, because moaning is very boring. And that's not necessarily a political statement, but it is something that I would say to women. There are complexities and pain involved in being a man too -- but men are writing about that.
You've described your new novel The Illusionist as your best and also the most dangerous and difficult book you'd ever done. Why?
It has been difficult because it took me a very long time to write. Halfway through I stopped totally, put it away, and thought I would never get back to it. I had come to the conclusion that I was not achieving any of the things I wanted to do. It was a very difficult and painful book to write because I was writing out of the inside of my own head. I was writing very obliquely about my own experience, and that is always quite a painful thing to do if you're going to do it truthfully and not emotionally. And I was trying to do it truthfully, trying to mould it so that I could make some sense of it for other people. I wanted to touch their experience as well as my own. But in the end, when I finally finished, I realized it had worked and that I had managed to write in a way that was more adventurous and experimental. I felt really quite pleased with it. It is also funny in places. People are not prepared to accept that it is funny until they start reading it.
The illusionist of the title is Martyn, an Englishman who marries an Irish woman. He's intensely secretive and autocratic and promises his wife everything but delivers nothing. He tries to create a world around him that rigidly conforms to his own personal vision, and on the surface that doesn't seem to be such a terrible thing to do, but is that the source of his evil?
Yes, I think it is. I think that in the double-trouble life that he leads he has a sort of order in his head, and he wants everything in each of these lives to be exactly the way that he, the autocrat, wishes it to be. He sees no reason why it should not be like this. I don't like him, and so I won't go and write about a man like that again, but what I'm interested in is the effect that men like that have on women. A very large number of men, though not to such a dogged extent, wish their wives to conform to this paragon they have in their heads, simply because they don't understand any better. My father married my mother, who was a wonderful, exciting, extraordinary, and vibrant woman, and he wanted her to give up her career and look after him. That is a bit much to expect, especially of a particularly intelligent person. And when she didn't do that, he left her and married another actress and forced her to give up her career, have children, and look after him. It was a disaster.
In a way, you're answering my next question. Martyn, the illusionist, demands a wife who is completely subservient to his vision; otherwise his illusions will be shattered. And his wife Stella never quite performs within his boundaries, but she tries very hard to please him. And my question is: why do you think women do this?
Well I think it's that thing called love. And this is a very dangerous thing because when they're in love people tell each other terrible lies. This sounds very cynical, and I am not really that cynical. But I have looked at such things rather a lot. The expectation that two people will get married and live happily ever after can be founded on lies, and then these lies become things that are expected to turn into truths. When the expectations begin to splinter, that is the moment when the relationship suddenly has to turn into real love, not just that crazy sort of love that overtakes us all. The crazy love can come along several times during our lifetimes, making us into lunatics for a while -- not the sort of lunatic my mother was; it's a much more complicated lunacy, and we go down paths we never would in our normal senses. Sometimes this is a good thing, but far more often it is a disaster.
In The Illusionist Martyn takes extraordinary measures in his attempts to prevent his wife from becoming a writer. And this is a theme that occurs a number of times in your books. Is this something you experienced?
No, it's not anything I really ran into. It is after you become a writer that you start running into things, because you change as a person. I lived for twenty grown-up years not really being anything, and then I started writing. But I still wasn't being anything except somebody who looked after their kids and was sort of nice and friendly to people. And then suddenly, almost overnight, everything changed when my first book won a prize. I became a writer. I became somebody else. At this point you are no longer private; your privacy is invaded by the world or examined by the world. But you do have something that you are keeping for yourself, and I became somebody with a privacy of my own. So your closest relationships are never the same again, because you have a secret. And your secret is not necessarily something you can share. It is something that you nurture, and something you defend. And so your relationships with people close to you can become a bit damaged by this -- mine did.
At one point Martyn says to Stella that she goes away from him when she's writing. She leaves him and goes inside her own head. He doesn't like that. He wants her in front of him where he can see her.
That's right, and that happens with writers. You go inside your own head a lot. Even when I'm not actually working I spend an enormous amount of time inside my own head, conversing with myself, even just making jokes to myself. I can say things to myself that I could say only to a very few people in the world. And so I have a sort of life that runs beside my day-to-day external life, and I do agree totally that this is very disconcerting for the people you live with. Not my kids, they've grown up with me and they can, in a way, get inside the barrier because, I presume, that little door is always there for them. But it's not really there for anybody else.
It is interesting that you talk about this in connection to secrets, because secrets are something that also come up a lot in your work -- carefully kept secrets, silence. Are secrets necessarily bad?
No, I don't think they're bad at all. I would find my life without my secrets totally intolerable because it would be very flat, and I suppose in a way it is my creative being at work that invents, that keeps me and my secrets together and walking along the road. And without that creative being I would find life intolerable.
The power of words is something else that your characters reflect upon, certainly in The Illusionist. Stella, even before she thinks of herself as a writer, is sensitive to the power that words can hold over people, that words can be like missiles or roses or travellers to another world, as she says. When did you first become aware of this power of words?
Forever. I have a very strange eye disease, and I had to learn to read when I was about three years old, so I could have my eyes tested properly and that sort of thing. So I've been reading for as long as I can remember. And having a father who worked with words and a mother who worked with words, I've always been very conscious of their glory. I went to a very strange and very small school where they just taught us the liberal arts and not much else. I don't know anything about biology or science or anything like that, but as children we read Shakespeare and Yeats, we acted Synge and were exposed to the work of all these people who have not only a profound feeling for drama and poetry but for the power of the words themselves and the sound of the words. I've always listened to the sound of the words, and I always read my writing out loud to see if it sounds right. Also, the Church of Ireland liturgy is magnificent, and when I was a child I used to sit in church and listen to this wonderful, wonderful poetry. I don't suppose when I heard it the first few years I actually knew what an awful lot of it meant, but I did know that it was powerful. Word painting, in a way -- it was coming at me almost visually, and I have just loved what you can do, what you can build with words. I think one of the great advantages of being Irish is that we are all very aware of the power of words.
Was it Joyce that said that Ireland was a country with too much history?
Everybody's got too much history. It's just we muck around with ours rather more than other people do.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 1997|
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