Martina Devlin interviews Jennifer Johnston

These two popular local authors – We can claim JJ as a local author now that she’s moved to Dun Laoghaire ­– met for a public conversation one Friday night in the Heritage Centre (Dalkey), and then again at lunchtime the next day in The Royal St George Yacht Club, at a book lunch put on by Writing.ie and Dubray Books. Rain pelted the roof of the Heritage Centre, prompting JJ to remark at one stage that we might be there for the night, but the next day turned out lovely.  These notes are compiled from the two conversations.

To begin, JJ read a letter written by her uncle Billy 5 days before he was killed at Gallipoli during WWI. The letter arrived after the telegram saying that he was dead. It said that in two hours of fighting they had lost 12 officers and 450 men. JJ’s grandmother also lost her favourite brother at the Somme, and these two deaths ‘really did affect the inside of her head.’ JJ doesn’t understand why we, as a species, cannot learn not to do this (ie go to war) – and here we are on the verge of doing it again.

She tells great stories about her family and her childhood. During the 1916 Rising, for example, Her paternal grandfather, a judge, lived on Lansdowne Road near the railway tracks. Because of its strategic position, the house was occupied by rebels. JJ’s grandmother sat in the coal cellar with a parrot for the duration. Later, they got a letter from the men involved, apologizing for having knocked down a wall.

Because she was partially sighted, she had to learn the letters for the eye charts very young, and she could read from the age of 4. She said one of the best things anyone can do for their children is read to them. She also heard many stories from their housekeeper, May, who had been a member of Cumann na mBan.

JJ has written all her life, from the age of about 6. Her mother (Shelagh Richards) was an actor, her father (Denis Johnston) was a writer; their house was full of books; it was not considered a strange thing to do. It was the only thing she was any good at in school, and she was too lazy to work at eg Maths. The school was very ‘Celticky’, full of Synge and Yeats and the like. Because of her partial sight,she’d wander off and read once people started to play games like tennis. Alice was a revelation. She realized it was doing something to her that no other book had done; that you could do things with words that brought characters to life.

Her parents separated with no comment, it just happened. She was far more traumatised when her mother and May had a row and May was fired. She used to want to be an actor. She’d go and sit in the stalls while her mother was rehearsing, but her mother never knew she was there. She went to Trinity but didn’t finish her degree. Later they gave her an honorary doctorate. (At schools, teachers try to shush her on this point).

She learned a trick for How Many Miles to Babylon? – to stay out of the trenches because she knew nothing about them. Alec’s greatest problem is chilblains, and JJ knows all about those. Her uncle Billy is not in that novel, she knows very little about him. ‘They didn’t talk about him. They all had their own preoccupations about that war – its not our fault if we know so little. This is what happens in countries where there’s been civil war.’

She is disarmingly frank in her attitude to her own work. She thinks The Gates is bad – she didn’t think so at the time, obviously, but she does now. MD said that as a writer you have to learn in public. JJ agreed and said that one of the ways you really learn is by doing things wrong. She regrets not putting more work into the character of the mother in Babylon. ‘She’s a sort of bad witch. I never had the energy to take her out of the book, fix her and put her back. At schools I’m always asked about her because she comes up as an exam question.’

She dismisses her own Shadows on our Skin. MD reminds her that it was shortlisted for the Booker, but JJ dismisses that too. ‘You either win or you don’t … The Brits, God love them – they can’t cope with the Irish metabolism.’

Asked which of her novels she likes, she says Two Moons. ‘It was the first time I felt I’d succeeded in writing a proper book, the first that seemed to me to have worked.’

Her literary heroes are Chekhov, EM Forster and John McGahern. ‘You can take away your Joycean fireworks and give me McGahern any day.’

 

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