NO-ONE could accuse Jennifer Johnston of looking at her native Ireland through rose-coloured spectacles.
But the country in which she grew up and about which she has spent her entire career writing still holds a deep fascination.
Her latest work ‘Shadowstory’ has just been published, the tale of a middle-class protestant family set in the post-war years.
“This was Ireland as I remember it,” the Derry-based author says.
“It was a closed and rather ugly place.
“Now I didn’t lead an ugly life because I came from a good family where my father was a writer and my mother an actress.
“But you could see people being frightened by the way the country was at that time and people were leaving in their droves.
“They weren’t just leaving because there was no work; they left because they wanted freedom and there was very little freedom in Ireland at that time.
“And people were frightened by the things they were being told by their church.
“They were told they had to save the souls of their unborn children. It was absolutely idiotic but people bought it because they were frightened.
“And this went on through the entire twentieth century right up until about 20 years ago or so when people began to realise that the rest of the world was getting on just fine without all this sort of thing in their lives.”
‘Shadowstory’ is told largely through the eyes of Polly, a girl torn between the lives of her mother’s family in Dublin and her grandparents home in Co Clare after her father is killed in action in the Second World War.
Growing up she becomes obsessed with her uncle Sam - who is just five years her senior - who disappears chasing his dreams after leaving for university in Cambridge
But really it is the grandparents’ story. And when Sam’s brother back in Co Clare proposes to the daughter of the local doctor, a catholic family, the question of the religion of their unborn children explodes in their faces.
“Sam was the youngest in a large family with two siblings killed in the war and he was at Cambridge at a time when all sorts of strange things were going on and people were recruited into all sorts of horrible organisations and turned into spies,” says Jennifer.
“There was an undercurrent of secrecy at the time. He wanted to see a better world and this was how he wanted to be part of creating it by going to Cuba. We never know.
“If you were a protestant then as Sam was born, you either left this country or else you put your head down and got on with what you wanted to do and avoided politics or any sort.
By and large Protestants were scared and I sometimes wonder if this notion that the Catholics had, the hierarchy was ethnic cleansing in a way.
“If you didn’t want that you left the country and went to England or signed up for the colonial service or something like that.
“Or you allowed it two sweep over you and eventually your children’s children became catholic.”
It’s a busy time for Jennifer with the new novel out, and also a play ‘Old Men are Jealous’ being screened by RTE next Sunday evening.
“I called into rehearsals when I was in Dublin last week and it all looks to be in very good hands,” she said.
“It’s not always easy with adaptations of your work because you never quite know what someone else will see in your work.
“It’s the same with having your books on the exam syllabus as some of mine have been.
“Nobody writes a book for people to do exam questions on. If I had to sit my leaving cert and had to answer questions on one of my novels I would unquestionably fail.”
Dublin-born Jennifer came to Derry after marrying David, her second husband in the 1970s.
Her study is a writers’ haven - books two deep on floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
Her earliest novels were written on a portable typewriter but these days she works on an Apple Mac.
“But it’s purely for writing - I can’t have it connected to the internet because I know my weaknesses.
“And chief among them is wasting time. And I know just how much time I could waste doing all the wonderful things that it can do if I had it right there in front of me all day long.”
“I also think I am just very lazy. I could say I worked all morning, but it could have been an house and I would have sat staring at the screen the rest of the time, thinking about thinking about writing.
“Thinking about writing is not the same thing as writing itself. In fact, it’s very different. I can’t work things out in my head – I have to get them there on screen before I can actually think about them.
While many authors rely on the internet for research for their work, that certainly is not the Johnston way. Rather, she is proud that her novels come straight from her imagination.
“Some authors are research freaks and actively enjoy that whole side of it, but that’s certainly not me,” she says.
“I did once ask my doctor what would happen if one had these set of symptoms and he was horrified and wanted to rush straight over because he feared it was terminal cancer.
“I had to reassure him it was about one of my characters. No, that’s never been for me.
I think you bring experience of everything into it when you write. You may hide it, or not even know that you are putting it there but everything that you write comes out of your own experiences. You have watched and taken part in events and it is all there inside your head when you start writing.
“I never find the process of writing enjoyable, which may be a strange thing to say, but I’ve always found it quite difficult. Yet I couldn’t do anything else. I take a long time to write my rather short books.
“I always read it out loud because I think the rhythm of your writing goes all the way back directly to you. It is the rhythm of the way in which you talk when you are thinking about what you are saying.”
No sooner has Jennifer finished working on one novel, than she starts working on the next.
The explanation is simple: If she stops work, she’s worried she may never get started again.
“I may write very slowly when I start but I have to start immediately because otherwise I always have the feeling in my head that I might never write another book, which is a terrifying thought.
“But I’ve always though that and I’m still going.”
Although work on her next project is already under way, the publication of ‘Shadowstory’ means Jennifer can catch up on some serious reading.
A new volume of letters by Samuel Beckett lies untouched on her desk and there are plenty of other books waiting to be picked up,
“I find it difficult to read seriously when I am writing, so that’s when I read thrillers. I love thrillers but I only ever read them when I am writing hard. It’s a light relief and your mind is not working as hard as it needs to when you read more serious books.”
Jennifer won the Whitbread Book of the Year for ‘The Old Jest’ in 1979 and ‘Shadows on Our Skin’ was shortlisted for the Booker Prize two years earlier.
And although she says she has little time for the Booker these days, she feels literary prizes still do have merit.
“I was very lucky because my first book won a prize which meant that my books got reviewed because everyone was afraid they were going to miss something,” she explains.
“The only way a young writer can get their name in front of the public is getting books reviewed and a large amount of first second or third books don’t get reviewed at all. You wonder how they manage. I was lucky because Id did win that prize and the rest of them got reviewed.
“Having had the career I have had has given me the confidence that I have now. When I started to gain confidence that I started really looking around me and thinking about life. Confidence came from the fact that my first three books were reasonably successful and that I realised that there was something in the world that I could do.
It’s very difficult to say where my work fits in. If you look at Ireland as a large jigsaw puzzle where all the writers are filling in their own little sections. We are broadening the view that people have about this country. I write specifically about this country and specifically about the vaguely non-religious middle classes. I don’t think there are many doing the same as I am doing.”
“When people look at Ireland in 100 years they could take down one of my books and it could slot into their picture of the country at that time.”
Shadowstory is published by Headline Review is out now in hardback, price £14.99