Saturday 24 February 2018

'I'd be lonely if I had a clean flat with no books and just a Kindle'

The grand dame of Irish literature, author Jennifer Johnston, tells Deirdre Reynolds she is not about to hang up her writing boots

Family: Jennifer Johnston, right, told Deirdre Reynolds about her four children, who have all inherited her love of language. Photo: Dave Meehan.
Family: Jennifer Johnston, right, told Deirdre Reynolds about her four children, who have all inherited her love of language. Photo: Dave Meehan.
Cavistons Seafood Restaurant in Sandycove
Recognition: Jennifer with writer Joseph O’Connor, who presented her with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Bord Gais Irish Book Awards in 2012. Photo: Patrick Bolger.
Prolific: Writer Jennifer Johnston
Sharing stories: Jennifer Johnston and writer Tom Murphy enjoy a chat in 1989. Photo: Brian Farrell.
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

With 18 novels and several plays and short stories to her name, Jennifer Johnston has oft been described as the grand dame of Irish literature. After scooping a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards in 2012 however, Jennifer jokes she just felt old: "I was very pleased and delighted, but I'm not quite sure what it means except that I'm very old!"

Now 84, the grandmother-of-one may walk with a stick since tripping and breaking her leg in three places, but she's otherwise far from slowed. Later this week, she'll read from her latest book, A Sixpenny Song, at the West Cork Literary Festival, before heading to Armagh to speak at the John Hewitt International Summer School.

Meanwhile, the prolific author has just finished yet another paperback and begun dreaming up her next.

"It's a strange book," says Jennifer of A Sixpenny Song, which tells the story of an Irish emigrant who returns home following the death of her father. "The whole way through it I never really knew what I was writing [about]," she adds. "I'm still not absolutely sure.

"I write very short books and they take two years. When a book's gone to the publishers, I sort of lose all interest in it. They never bother telling me how many copies have been sold. I just wait and hope that the royalty cheques get put in the bank!

"I've just finished another book, which is with my publishers, so I just keep my fingers crossed. Keeping your fingers crossed is all you can do as a writer."

As the daughter of renowned actress Shelah Richards and playwright Denis Johnston, the Trinity alumna was practically destined for a life of creativity. Although it wasn't until her mid-30s that Johnston's name actually graced the spine of a book, she recalls after we meet at Cavistons Seafood Restaurant in Sandycove: "I've lived with books since I was born, more or less, because my father was a writer and my mother was an actress, and there were books everywhere.

"I'd always written since I could write – I'd always written stories and plays until I was about 18 and then I stopped. I suddenly thought, 'I can't do this'.

"I said to my mother, 'I can't write – everything's been said' – which was a very silly thing to say, and she looked at me so angrily and said, 'Of course everything's been said! Everything's been said hundreds of years ago, but it's the way you say these things that matters'."

Since then, it's the way in which Johnston has spoken about love, loss and Anglo-Irish relations,which has turned her into one of the country's best loved authors.

Her 1974 novel How Many Miles to Babylon?, about the friendship between two boys from across the political and religious divide in the First World War – has been on the Leaving Cert English syllabus for more than a decade. "The only book I did any research for was How Many Miles to Bablyon?," says Jennifer, "and that was only reading a diary I was lent.

"That was wonderful, because it told me all sorts of things about trench life which otherwise I'd have had to invent. When you invent that sort of thing you're bound to make a mistake and some old general will write you a letter."

Even after Jennifer's first book was published, she was not an overnight success. "My first was called The Captains and the Kings," she says. "In fact, it was the second book I wrote. The first was The Gates and it was turned down by every publisher in the world. When The Captains and the Kings was published it won a prize and they said, 'What about that book you sent us?' That taught me a salutary lesson that if you win a prize, the critics have to review your books forever more!"

In 1988, her Whitbread Award-winning book The Old Jest was also turned into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins. Fortunately, the name was changed to The Dawning, but Jennifer was not a fan. "It was awful," she says. "It really was embarrassing to sit and watch it. They didn't let me read the script and I then sort of became a little bit suspicious.

"But I didn't think anybody could make such a bad film as they did with The Dawning. It's not a bad book – it was the book I wrote after Babylon. It was the first time I thought to myself as I was writing it, 'I am coming to terms with language'.

"To begin with you think, 'Maybe I'm never going to write another book', and you feel it's sort of an achievement when you do. But then with that particular book, I just did feel that, 'Yes, I'm going to go on, I'm going to go on, I'm going to go on until I drop dead'."

Like her parents, who separated when she was eight, Jennifer and husband Ian Smyth – who met in college and have four children (Patrick, Sarah, Lucy and Malachi) – divorced in 1976.

Until recently, she lived in Derry with her second husband, David Gilliland, a former solicitor whom she married the same year. But her living circumstances have now changed.

"My husband is very ill and he's in a nursing home," says Jennifer, who's just moved back to her native Co Dublin after almost six decades.

"There is nothing anybody can do for him, the poor man. I go up every few weeks and see him and then come down again. This is home, as far as I'm concerned – it always has been."

Two of her children live in Ireland, two still live in London where they were born, and all four have inherited her love of language, she says. "My eldest son is a journalist, my youngest son writes film scripts and my two daughters both translate," Jennifer adds.

"My kids all went to a big French school in London. As soon as they got their holidays, we used to instantly get on the boat or plane and come over to Donegal where we had a cottage. I used to never write during the summer holidays and now I find I can't."

In the meantime, she's busy settling into her new apartment overlooking Dun Laoghaire harbour and awaiting the arrival of her second grandchild later this year. "There are boxes of books everywhere," says Jennifer over coffee.

"My son-in-law goes on holiday and takes his Kindle with him. 'Ninety-seven books in there!', he says, waving it at me. I would be very lonely if I had a clean flat with no books and just a Kindle with 97 books. To me, a book is sort of a real thing – I like turning the pages."

Ask to picked her favourite, whether her own or someone else's, she insists it's impossible: "It is like saying, 'Which is your favourite child?' You don't have a favourite child, but there are times you hate some of your children [and think], 'No, it's not that one anyway!'

"I suppose I wrote a book called Two Moons I have very strong affection for. I wrote it for my mother [who] had just died."

"Books now are all trend, apart from the sort of great and good books that are written. An awful lot of the rubbish you see in bookshops, [publishers say] 'It sold an enormous number of copies the last time, therefore we'll do the same thing again. But I think we've got some very good writers in Ireland And I'm not hanging up my boots yet, not at all. Maybe they'll have to give me another Lifetime Achievement Award!"

Jennifer Johnston will read from her new novel, A Sixpenny Song, at 8.30pm this Wednesday at The Maritime Hotel in Bantry as part of the West Cork Literary Festival, which runs from 06-12 July. See

A life in brief

Name: Jennifer Johnston

Age: 84

Name: Husband of 38 years, David, and four children, Patrick, Sarah, Lucy and Malachi

Best known as: Award-winning author of How Many Miles to Babylon?

Likes: Holidaying in France

Dislikes: French coffee

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