Jennifer Johnston Interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel
Wachtel, Eleanor, Queen's Quarterly
ELEANOR WACHTEL hosts CBC Radio's weekly literary program Writers & Company on Sunday afternoons. Two selections of her interviews, Writers & Company and More Writers & Company, have been published by Knopf Canada. This interview was first broadcast on the program and was initially prepared in collaboration with Nancy McIlveen.
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. …