Irish Short Story Month-Year III
March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Event
A Q and A Session with Fred Johnston
I am very proud today to be able to share with my readers a Question and Answer Session with Fred Johnston. I first got to know his work through reading his wonderful short story, "Master Foynes His Galliard". ( Here is a link to my post on this great story.)
Fred has had a long, distinguished and diverse career.
Fred has had a long, distinguished and diverse career.
1. Who are some of the contemporary short story writers you admire? If you had to say, who do you regard as the three best ever short story writers? William Trevor, V.S Pritchett and James Plunkett. I admire others, Updike, for example, though find his mood disconsolate. Maugham is terrific, and Hemingway has a certain macho honesty. Younger story writers tend, with some exceptions, to be self-consciously 'aware' to an agonizing degree.
There isn't any such thing as Irish culture any longer. It's mid-Atlantic culture, pop culture. Even the vaunted 'Riverdance' music was Balkan in rhythm and tone, not Irish. Irish writers are writing directly to the American market with dreary stories of emigration and salvation in the New World. Edna O'Brien and John McGahern and the the Irish-language writer Máirtín Ó Cadhain were the last truly Irish writers. I would have to add Aidan Higgins to this list. Currently the drinks' industry and the publicans have an iron hold on politics here and nothing will ever be done, therefore, by way of legislating to cut down on the abuse of alcohol or in alcohol sponsorship and advertising. The Irish are now starting to become leprechauns again, fancying that the world likes to see them as gullible, cap-doffing drunks. We can't defend ourselves against our own political and social corruption; we're drunk from birth on our own guilt and helplessness.3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? Do you think he is right and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work? I wouldn't entirely agree with him. At the heart of much Irish writing is an undefined nostalgia for something, a melancholic longing for that which was not obtained, that which was lost. The Catholic Church for a very long time played both father and mother roles; in certain rural Irish contexts, the local politician is the father, the All-Giver, the provider. What is missing in much Irish writing is the ability to grow up, to leave the hive of home and become adult. There is no leader figure in Irish politics or culture these days, someone who is showing the way forward so to speak. We can't miss what we so seldom had: we don't miss fathers, we miss leaders.4. Can you tell us a bit about the history of the Western Writer's Centre, in Galway? Started up by myself ten years ago, it soon came under attack, and even bore the brunt of vile anonymous letters; the idea was to undermine it. Galway is a dreadfully jealous town culturally. It will rob whatever new ideas you bring. It has survived to run courses, launchings festivals and has plans to develop a modest museum of the literary heritage of the West of Ireland. Throughout, it has been bitterly opposed by the Arts Office in Galway City Hall and by the Arts Council in Dublin. There is both jealousy and fear in all of that. The Arts Council want bodies they can control easily, the local mandarins want to be the ones to initiate everything. After ten years we still operate from a single office and we still need funding sponsorship. We have many projects we wish to fulfil - that is our curse, of course. If we did nothing and showed no imagination, everyone would be throwing money at us.5. How do you view Aosdána? Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism? It perpetuates the notion that who you know is better than what you know. In my view there are writers there who are not qualified to be there by any cultural measure; to say so is to risk the wrath of members, of course. There is a great deal of lobbying goes on to get into the thing. It's rubbish to suggest that it represents the best of Irish art. Politically it does nothing, though it could be a powerful political lobby if the members weren't so easily frightened by the loudest voices. It's a sort of retirement home, really, where some residents can qualify for a stipend. There are husband-and-wife teams in there, as well as close friends.6. I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of literature of the world, that is regarded as great, is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics. How big a factor do you think the Irish weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers? I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on a tropical island, for example. I think that climate has a considerable influence on all forms of art. A sour climate, such as exists in Ireland, cultivates melancholy and a wish for death at some level; the literature, that nostalgia, comes from this. The Irish could never have invented Surrealism, it's too bright, anarchic, nor Impressionsim: Beckett and Joyce, let's not forget, had to emigrate to sweeter climes to write differently, imaginatively. Yet even Joyce turned to pure Irish melancholia in the last paragraphs of 'The Dead,' which could have originated in a 19th century story be Lermentov.7. A character in an Ali Smith short story, asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels ""Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?" Does this make a bit of sense to you? None whatsoever, though it sounds good. A short story is a billiard table; a novel is a football field. That's it, really.8. Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer? A funny word, ' modern.' Joyce, I suppose. Modern in the sense that he ignored Irish mythology and ignored the rural social mythos and was an urban writer. Ireland is a rural country and deeply suspicious of cities. Joyce flung this shiftiness back at rural Ireland and more or less said that modern times belong to cities. Ireland refused to listen, and is still deeply parochial and bitterly conservative.9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportionate to their population number of great writers? That's an odd thing, because the Irish are terrified of the printed word and increasingly litigious. Writers even threaten to sue other writers over an unloving book review. I would argue that Ireland has in fact produced only a handful of great writers, those who will last beyond their time, but many commercially-successful writers, whose milieu is the commercial publishing world of now, the instant success, the instant book. There are many more musicians than writers in Ireland whose work is appreciated at home and abroad. I think the argument reeks rather of public relations and advertising. To have, say, six decent writers out of a population of roughly four million is really no big deal. In twenty or thirty years' time perhaps one of these six will still be read.10. When you lived outside of Ireland what did you miss most? What were you glad to be away from? I missed nothing and was glad to be away from virtually everything. Could I afford to, I would live virtually anywhere else. You can scarcely breathe in Ireland and the literary world is not a nice place.11. Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country? No. We've allowed other Irishmen, speculators and wide-boys, to bury or demolish or commit atrocities on our ancient monuments. We like to imagine from time to time that we have a 'love' for our heritage, but we'd sell anything in a heart-beat.12. How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche? As with the above, this is over-stated and over-rated. We cannot easily escape the guilt that if we are Irish and living today, we are descendants of those who survived, those who lived through the Great Hunger. Survivors' guilt, perhaps. As some other countries 'use' certain catastrophic events in their history to justify present actions and attitudes, so we, from time to time, use the Famine as an excuse to batter the British and to justify our excesses. I would say there are schoolkids today who don't know the Famine ever took place but could name every New York rapper.
13. Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels? Yes, the figure of the village mutant character has cropped up in some novels and I detest it. As I detest, and cannot account for, the success of certain urban Irish novels where every male character was brutish and uneducated. In a lighter vein, the success of something like, with respect, the TV series 'Mrs Brown's Boys,' a sort of leprechaunish drag-act with pantomime gags, is testament to this. Throughout all of these, the Irishman is a funny-man dressing up or getting drunk who fears his mother and sex, is clearly repressed and when drunk becomes violent or objectionable to women and useless in the family. This is just how Punch may have preferred him in Victoria times for a British readership. And the success of these works today says that the Englishman prefers his Paddies to be thick, drunk and unable to govern himself.14. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons.” I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature? Like the Scots, the Irish were suppressed by the British and went on to become part of the oppressor's armies, suppressing other people. If by 'popular poetry' Yeats referred to locally-composed ballads and such, then that is no doubt true. Our patriot heroes all died in battle, even Cuchullain. Singing or versifying about them is a way of bringing them back to life, a sort of communal magic. They live on, as it were. This is the Irish version of the after-life, this memorialising in song and story. Irish contemporary literature is still about failure or, rarely, triumph in adversity. This of course is the antique death-and-resurrection myth: one lives in poverty and injustice in Ireland, one 'ascends' to the New World of America, where one is reborn. Our nostalgia is a form of theology. Some contemporary writers have indulged in this, but I personally find it retrograde and transparently false to the times we live in.15. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers? They have a role in the social and political climate of Ireland but they refuse to take it up, for fear, I suspect, of rocking a boat in which they feel quite safe and well victualled. They fear to upset a status quowhich gives them a modest living. I've said as much, and more, when I was still allowed to review books - I'm banned from that now - and there was indeed a backlash that in one instance cost me my job. They don't like to be criticised, some of them. They won't protest against anything, basically. For the most part, they have become entertainers.16. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan. A difficult question and I get uneasy around this 'ethnic' argument. Nor are Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were to the English, that's nonsense. The Irish Travellers are distinctly Irish, as their names suggest. I don't know quite where an argument about ethnicity comes in, I am unconvinced. Undoubtedly they have been discriminated against many times and in many instances. There have been cases where they haven't helped themselves, by appearing brazenly to flout the law, such as in the business of bare-knuckle fighting for money and racing pony-traps up along main highways. 'Special rights' is merely a form of discrimination - and what such rights would one be talking about? With respect, I don't think Desmond's stories paint the whole picture.17. Where is the best place in Galway and Dublin to get a real Irish breakfast? Fish and Chips and Irish Stew? The nitty-gritty! It's virtually impossible to get a 'real' Irish anything any longer, food included. You've a better chance of getting Irish stew as an instant meal in the freezer of a supermarket. New Ireland is too sophisticated for Irish stew. You'd more commonly find sushi. McDonagh's in Galway serves the best fish 'n' chips, Burdock's in Dublin.
18. The literary productivity of Galway is incredible. What is there about Galway's social climate that produces this? Galway produces its own image over and over and believes its own hype. Culturally it is run and lorded over by about six people. Jobs in the arts are handed from one friend or family member to another. Everyone is encouraged to believe he or she is a poet because of workshops, a proliferation of them, that seem to me to cater for Mac-Poetry. I hear the complaints in my office, so I know. Mediocrity is over-praised in order to gain a certain popularity and create poetry 'gurus,' God help us. The place is full of camps and if you attend his reading, your can't attend her reading, and so on. The Tony Soprano school of poetry. The literary productivity of Galway is infamous, I'd prefer to say. If you are a good writer you don't need this crap. If you're a bad writer it's just the ticket. In Galway we say: 'Attend a poetry workshop on Monday. Bring out your first collection on Wednesday. Teach poetry on Friday.' That about sums it up.
19. Ebooks-a great new era in reading or the start of the decline of literary culture? There's too much made of this. We are not witnessing the death of the printed book. The camera didn't kill painting..20. Is the four part history of the literature of western Ireland which you broadcasted on RTE available anywhere online? I ask this as I would love to read it. It may be in an RTE archive, I can't say. In an ideal world it would be. I enjoyed doing that series. I'm in Galway long enough to remember when there were about four poets and everyone attended the readings. Now there are four-hundred and still only four worth listening to. The series was done round about that innocent time.21. In "Master Foynes His Galliard" is it logical to see the relationship of the two women characters as intimate? did you consciously structure it based on a musical form, the galliard? My musical interests include Early Music, which I utterly adore to hear and to play on occasion. The galliard is a dance; in a sense the story represents two people dancing around each other, avoiding their own distress. We've all danced that number. No, the two women are not intimate in a sexual or emotional sense. They are friends, companions, and they are women. Their 'intimacy' is in the unspoken approaching death of one of them. I was at a concert of Early Music one evening and the story came to me. It wrote itself and I am very fond of it, if I can say that. There is a certain magic realism in it too, which is a sort of state I find myself in when I a listening to beautiful music. I go somewhere else, see different things, get peeks of something to the side of the mind's eye. Also, the story is a pretty accurate depiction of the sorts of people who have arrived in Galway and other Irish towns, more cultured, better informed, let's say, than their new environment. They are always put on the outside of things.
22. John Synge - is he the second most important 20th century Irish writer?
Some would argue against Synge, but, for instance, he is very popular in translation in Brittany, where the prevalence of a rural and fishing culture, religion and superstition and so on, is a point of identification. Synge went to Aran at the urging of Yeats. It was believed that some special social majesty existed there, some purity. But Synge's plays are not pure in either a moral or social sense, they are actually quite atavistic. There is Greek tragedy all over them. The antithesis of the plays written by Yeats, the Yin to his Yang, in some way. Yeats sought mystic elegance and order; Synge produced chaos and social primitivism, passion. No wonder that Lorca read Synge in translation and loved the work. It echoed themes of his own.
23. The Aran Islands - must see authentic experience or just for the tourists?A little of both, perhaps. But the islands have been abused and have abused themselves for commercial gain. They are beautiful, but maimed.24. Can you share with us your experience as writer inResidence to the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco, 2004.?
I had a room, en suite, to myself in an office at the Library. other Irish writers, of course, had been there. It was a marvelous experience. I sought out Monegasque writers and spoke with one such poet and translated some of her poems when I returned to Ireland. Lunch was spent outside in the sun staring straight at the front gate of the palace. Later I was to play Irish traditional music for St Patrick's day at a service there for Prince Albert, whom I met and conversed with. I would love to return some time. I discovered that W.B. Yeats is most unlikely to be buried in Ireland at Drumcliffe cemetery. I wrote a piece for The Irish Times about this rather Gothic end to our national poet. I think Yeats, at least ninety-percent of him, is still back in the ossuary at Roquebrune.25. Flash Fiction - how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits? It seems to me that this supposedly new genre is simply the French 1940's 'récits,' without the transforming imagination. It's a lazy man's short story. The French form is much more difficult.26. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?
Joyce goes to the sea in 'Ulysses', Synge and Liam O'Flaherty are bound up with it. It's a sort of amniotic fluid in which Ireland is continually being readied for birth, but the birth has not yet taken place. We are hampered and at the same time nurtured by our being surrounded by water. We are insular, afraid of the new as all islanders are. Everything we write and try to publish is like a note slipped into a bottle and tossed into the sea. We want someone to rescue us.
27. Best place to hear traditional music in Galway or Dublin? Best book store, best literary tourist experience, best "real people's" restaurant?
God Almighty! The best place to her traditional music, the real thing, is in a small country village in County Clare. Best book store is probably Charlie Byrne's Bookstore in Galway city. McDonagh's again for the restaurant in Galway. Best tourist experience? Stand in the weekly dole-queue in Galway or Dublin. Anything you want to know about Ireland can be learned there.
End of Guest Post
I strongly suggest that anyone interested in learning more about Irish literature study the webpage of The Western Writer's Center, based in Galway
There is an excellent interview with Fred Johnston in Culture Northern Ireland where he talks about a wide range of issues including his Belfast background
You can read some of his very poems here
There is a very perceptive article and interview centering on Johnston's short story collection Dancing in the Asylum here
Dancing in the Asylum can be purchased on Amazon
There is more information on Dancing in the Asylum on the webpage of the publisher, Parthian Press.
Here is the publisher's description of this great collection of short stories:
Paying for friendship, angry knicker-flashing at ex-pats, gay cruising at a medieval carnival... not exactly what an outsider might expect of folks from the small towns of Ireland. Fred Johnston’s collection Dancing in the Asylum(Parthian, 2011) introduces us to a host of fascinating characters. Sometimes funny, occasionally grotesque, always poignant, these pieces paint a wonderfully unexpected portrait of a place and its people in a time of great change, each page unfolding a delicate or deliciously devious secret.
My great thanks go out to Fred Johnston for taking the time to give us the benefit of his very interesting highly informative responses to my Q and A questions. Thanks so much Fred.
I am sure Fred will welcome any responses to his answers.