The Imagination on Trial – British and American writers discuss their working methods

Interview by Alan Burns from The Imagination on Trial, British and American Writers Discuss their Working Methods, ed Alan Burns, Charles Sugnet, 1981

B.S. Johnson was born in 1933 at Hammersmith and, except for his evacuation
during the war, lived mainly in London until he took his own life in 1973.
He did his Honours English degree at King’s College, London University,
starting at the late age of twenty-three. He was the author of seven novels:
Travelling People (1963), Albert Angelo (1964), Trawl
(1966), The Unfortunates (1969), House Mother Normal (1971),
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) and See the Old Lady
Decently
(1975). He also published two volumes of poetry, and two
collections of short fiction, Statements Against Corpses (1964)
and Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs? (1973).
He was a prolific writer, director, and producer of films and television;
his 1967 film, You’re Human Like the Rest of Them, won prizes at
two film festivals. He was poetry editor of the Transatlantic Review
for ten years, and wrote several theatre scripts, including One Sodding
Thing After Another
for the Royal Court.

Johnson’s novels are carefully crafted and formally experimental without
being flashy. He was influenced by Beckett, as can be seen from his film,
radio, and television work as well as from his fiction. And he was a powerful
spokesman for the right of British writers, indeed the need for them,
to try whatever formal innovations they thought would prove interesting.
He himself published a novel (The Unfortunates) which consisted
of unbound gatherings of pages in a box, allowing the reader to choose
the order in which to read them. But, somehow typically, he hedged the
bet by designating two gatherings as the beginning and the ending, setting
a limit to his experiment, and a limit to how much control he would relinquish.
And the subject of The Unfortunates, a deeply moving book, is the
death of a friend, which has been an occasion for writing almost since
humans began writing. He was willing to try new things, but was also devoted
to the novel as high art, to being “a novelist of quality”.

 

JOHNSON: All my novels started from a moment – usually a very pleasant
moment – when I said: ” Ah! There is a novel! I can make a novel out of
that!” The process of writing is a confirmation of that moment of recognition,
and so far there’s never been a moment unconfirmed. Whether I make it
come true or it was true in the first place, I don’t know.

BURNS: Do you have to wait for these moments to occur? Are there periods
between novels, waiting for it to happen?

Since I started writing in 1959 I’ve had to earn part of my living in
other ways so there’s always been a backlog of novels, sometimes two or
three, waiting to be written. I’ve just finished a book, and now I’m working
on a trilogy.

Can you recall one of these initial moments?

Not precisely. With Travelling People, my first novel, it must
have happened in 1959 when I was working in a sort-of drinking club in
North Wales. When I returned to England in September of that year I’d
had the idea for the book, though it was another two and a half years
before I finished it. During that time I had ideas for two more novels
which became House Mother Normal and Christie Malry. In
between, three autobiographical novels, Albert Angelo, Trawl
and The Unfortunates forced their way in, demanded to be written
out of sheer personal need, psychotherapy if you like, though I call it
exorcism. I wrote those three books to get them out of my head. I wanted
to unburden my mind: “It’s not in my mind: it’s over there, in a book.”
Those books were written to relieve that kind of pressure.

I know The Unfortunates commemorates the death of a friend.
I can understand your need to exorcise that memory. Does each book have
a similarly tragic background?

Basically yes, but I hope they’re witty, moving and poignant nonetheless.
The Unfortunates is an extreme example. In Trawl I explored
my sense of isolation, my failure to make lasting relationships. I wanted
to define this isolation and thereby understand and ease it, in the classic
way.

The memory or feeling you wish to exorcise: what form does it take?
A nagging thought? Recurring dream? A headache?

It’s a preoccupation. It takes up more time than I’d wish, more than
I can cope with. I know by experience that writing does the exorcism job
very well. I was looking at Trawl the other day, and there were
things in it I don’t remember having written, don’t remember having happened.

You write not to clarify a memory but to obliterate it? Or, by clarifying,
obliterate it?

Obliterate is the wrong word. I want to change its form so I can refer
to it voluntarily. If I want to recall how I felt at the time I wrote
Trawl I can read Trawl, but I don’t have to carry it with
me, I don’t want that stuff popping up in my mind when I’ve got better
things to think about.

You want it on the shelf?

To distance it, not obliterate it.

Once you get the idea for a book, what’s the first thing that goes
down on paper?

I carry little notebooks around, about three inches by five. I buy them
in Paris actually, for sentimental reasons. I make notes about things
I think pertain. . . things I want to write about, things I think are
useful for these novels I have in mind. . . .

I bung these notebooks into a drawer and from time to time, when I’m
incapable of anything else, I do a filing job. I prefer to write, but
as you know, everyone has times when they can’t write and that’s when
I do the filing. I tear the pages out of the note- books and stick them
into folders marked with the names (or until they have names, the numbers)
of the novels I’m going to write. Some notes are indecipherable because
I was drunk at the time, or writing on a train or whatever. I always think
I’m going to transcribe the notes into a book within a few days, but it’s
usually years.

Do you, like me, make notes almost in an absent-minded fashion, they
almost take you by surprise?

They do occur unexpectedly. I get them down in recognizable form as fast
as possible and then get on with whatever I was doing before I was interrupted.
They’re what Joyce called Epiphanies, sudden moments when one realizes
there’s something worth writing down. Something clicks in my mind and
I know I must do it. It’s a common experience. I’m pretending I’m not
unique.

Very rarely do I note down the words that actually go into the novel.
Often it will be a phrase that only has meaning for me, a personal shorthand
to recall what I saw or heard. What goes down in full is a rhythm, if
a particular rhythm takes me. There are all sorts of rhythms stuttering
away in my head, which I like to keep with me. Rhythm is the most important
thing to me.

It’s a musical thing rather than a meaningful thing?

I don’t go as far as you on that, they’re equally important. The balance
in English literature swings from one to the other. Dylan Thomas went
towards music and after him it went flat and concentrated on meaning.
Just as Bach combines sound of fantastic beauty with technical mastery,
I attempt a combination of form and content in which neither dominates
and both are in harmony. It’s arguable whether I’ve ever achieved it but
that’s my aim.

Do you note down images or ideas?

Essentially they are pictures.

Something seen? Or remembered? Or dreamt? Or imagined?

All of those, though I don’t dream much. I may see something, or something
comes into my mind that has passed the filter of memory , and thrust its
way to the surface, for reasons I’ve never understood. That’s what Trawl
is about. Trawl is an extended metaphor for the way the mind works.
The trawl goes down into the sea and you don’t know what’s happening as
it drags across the sea bed, or why it comes up, until it comes up.

Trawl has a physical shape that can be drawn on paper: Trawl
begins with a prologue, followed by exposition, then development, reaching
the highest point in the novel: then it explodes, disintegrates, falls
down into coda. The design is a line that climbs a steep incline, then
falls at a sudden point, then collapses. This was drawn on paper by a
Hungarian critic (the book was translated into Hungarian) called Georgy
Novak. The shape of the book’s construction is the shape of a trawl: it
drops quickly down, travels along the seabed and is slowly hauled to the
surface.

It’s also the shape of the keel of a ship?

It’s the shape of the first half of the book, the reminiscences.

It’s a fantastic theory. What do you think of it?

I don’t think about it at all. I feel it is there. I don’t know how significant
it is. The book has an inner consistency which I don’t remember putting
there consciously. I don’t know how the book happened. I just know it’s
right. The subconscious of the mind, all the myriad impressions one’s
ever had, is like a vast sea and this little net dives down and pulls
things up at random.

There is, down there, a mass of useless junk mixed up with things
of value: how do you distinguish the good stuff from the bad?

Empirically, by whether I use it or not. There’s some wastage. At the
end of each novel there’s always a pile of material, bits of paper not
used, which goes back in the files, available for future novels. I don’t
throw anything away. The house is overflowing with bits of paper .

Is the overall construction of the novel dictated by these early fragments,
rather like those pictures made of dots in kids’ comics? Do you join the
dots up?

Yes, but they don’t dictate the overall structure, which is after all
a very simple thing: beginning, middle and end. I start by sorting the
bits of paper, seeing which bits go with other bits, exactly “dot-to-dot”,
it’s a good image. Accidents, like the order in which the bits got thrown
into the folder, often dictate juxtapositions which weren’t there by design.

I then sort the papers into a series of other folders which represent
the sections of the novel, according to a previously thought-out structure.
Some sections are quite long, others half a page, others a couple of lines
as in chapter twenty of Christie Malry.

The second stage I call starting to write the novel proper. It can take
two or three or six months or a year, but it’s relatively the easiest
part of the book. The exact timing is partly decided by economics. Even
as personal a book as The Unfortunates had to be written on time,
as the second book of a two-book contract with Secker. The key stage is
finding the form. That happens between the first idea (the “Ah!”) and
the filling-into-sections I’ve just described. Between those two points
I work out the form suitable to the material I have in my mind plus the
stuff I’ve got down on those bits of paper. It was at that stage I settled
on the book-in-a-box random form for The Unfortunates.

How do you find the right form?

I rarely sit down and work it out, it goes on in my mind. But having
“done” English literature at university, having read the work of many
modern writers tackling similar problems, I have a compendium of possible
forms and I select one, by a process of mental trial and error. The bits
of paper with notes on do not influence the choice of form. Each bit is
like a brick in a whole house: the house is built of bricks but they don’t
dictate its architectural form.

You’ve described your subconscious as the main source of images and
ideas. What part does your conscious mind, and your awareness of social
and political factors play in the making of a novel?

Outside writing I’m a very political animal. My novels have generally
been written from a political stance but the politics have been very much
in the background. The books have mostly been concerned with other things,
like the nature of writing itself, its relation to me, not to other people
or society.

Is there a split between your political and your writing self?

Definitely. I’ve wondered about it and been concerned about it, though
Christie Malry had a definite political viewpoint. I disagree with
socialist realism: “You must write things that people can understand and
you must write things that help towards socialism.” That I reject utterly,
not because I’m not a socialist but because I am. In England I don’t think
books can change anything. Here if you want to change things you’ve got
to throw bombs or work through Parliament. Three years ago I went to Hungary
and many Hungarian writers said, “We envy you your ability to write whatever
you like.” But when they wrote something their government didn’t like
they got thrown into jail. In England no one takes a blind bit of notice.
Writers are no threat to established British society.

And whatever you wrote you could not make yourself a threat?

I think those short films we made for ACTT had an effect, however tiny,
on the fight against the Industrial Relations Act. We helped a bit in
mobilizing the trade union movement.

Isn’t it tragic that you are unable to mobilize your most powerful
talents? The heart of you as a man goes into your best writing but you
cannot harness that power to the service of your fellow man?

It’s my fellow man’s tragedy as well as mine, because he’s not been brought
up to receive whatever I have to give in the form in which I’m best able
to give it. They don’t regard books as a way of changing the world. I’m
talking about our contemporaries, not the generation of, say, Welsh miners
who educated themselves in libraries, reading Marx and Lenin, nor of the
Left Book Club in the thirties. There’s nothing like the Left Book Club
today. So I don’t write for political reasons. Maybe I’m a writer because
I’m no good at anything else. I may be no good at writing either, but
I couldn’t do anything else. I have a simple need to express myself, not
a need to have what I write read by others.

You write like Malone writes? It’s a kind of excreting and there’s
no point in explaining it, it just happens?

That’s the exact image. I just know it’s something I have to get rid
of.

Forgive the question, but does writing help you resolve questions
about identity?

Not for long: Travelling People gave me an identity in 1962 but
not in 1972.

Do you type or write?

I type at the very last stage. I work from those bits of paper in longhand
on to loose-leaf lined quarto sheets. Sometimes for shorter pieces I work
in manuscript books in pencil. One draft balloons into a second and is
worked over again and again and again. It gets interspersed with poems
that occur while I’m working on a novel. A novel gets so complicated,
with chunks of prose changing position, that I have to work on loose-leaf.
When I’ve done all I can in manuscript it’s ready for typing.

[Reads Mss] Pity anyone trying to type from that! It’s a fantastic
network of interpositions and interpolations, all arrows and re-jigs and
re-thinks and editings and crossings-out – all in very swift soft pencil.
Pencil keeps pace with the speed of your thought?

I like the graphic quality of pencil, I like the way it looks.

I do the editing job with scissors, cutting up the pages and spreading
out slivers of papers on a large table
.

I haven’t the room for that here. I sometimes use scissors if Virginia’s
typed the stuff for me, but I usually type for myself. I learnt typing
at fourteen. I failed the eleven-plus and went to commercial school where
they taught me shorthand, typing and bookkeeping. Useful. While I’m typing
I can’t revise, I can’t think. The manuscript gets into such an involved
state because I have to do all the creative work before I start typing.
Typing a novel becomes more depressing and painful every time. With Christie
Malry
, though it was short, I was bored stiff, not by reading it because
I wasn’t reading it, but by the mechanical act of typing.

When the typescript’s finished who do you show it to first?

My wife. I never show anything to anyone while I’m working on it, not
even to Virginia. I may ask her about the odd word, but it would be a
very minor thing. My marriage doesn’t work that way, Virginia’s never
set herself up as a literary critic. This started with Albert Angelo:
I showed her the manuscript and she didn’t know what to make of it. I
was very disappointed. It was the first time I’d shown her my work, and
that she didn’t see how good it was (in the way I thought it was good)
was a great disappointment.

Were you only seeking praise?

Confirmation that I’d done the right thing.

You didn’t want an informed critical reaction? Only confirmation,
even congratulation?

That’s common in writers. But my showing the manuscript matters less
and less now. It was important that Christie Malry was finished
on time, for economic reasons, there was a feeling of relief about that.
Virginia didn’t read much of that book, it wasn’t the right time for her
to read it, though I wanted her to like it, I wanted very much for her
to find it funny.

Is there anyone else, publisher, editor or agent, whose early opinion
you value?

From an economic angle obviously one’s publisher’s editor is very important.
If he likes it and praises it, apart from agreeing to publish it, that’s
a bonus. My first editor, at Constable, was very good. He took Travelling
People
. He spotted some weaknesses, though this was a year after I’d
written it and I could see them for myself. He was good for me, but he
was sacked not long after the book was published. As to critics, I have
to ignore the bad things people say about me, otherwise I wouldn’t write
any more. Some people are simply trying to stop writers writing. This
is a common thing with people who have no creative ability at all. It’s
an old cliché but that doesn’t make it less true. The thing they’d
like above all else would be to stop everyone writing because they can’t
do it. For myself I can’t allow either adverse criticism or praise to
change the way I write.

So there is no point at which the writing process is completed by
your obtaining a definable reaction?

There isn’t. There was with Travelling People and, to a lesser
extent, Albert Angelo. I used to rely on this man, Tony Tillinghurst.
He looked at the first two novels and improved them by his suggestions,
he acted as a rein on my self-indulgence. He died of cancer and it’s all
recounted in The Unfortunates. Since then I’ve never trusted anyone
enough, no one at all.

Have you tried to create a new relationship to supply this need, or
is it a need?

I find I get on all right without. The nearest thing was my editor at
Collins, Philip Ziegler, who talked a lot of sense. With Christie Malry
he made a few minor suggestions and one major one. In the book a group
of young revolutionaries discuss how to make war on society: “We could
attack the clubs!” one says. Another replies, “Yes. The Atheneum!” Then
in dialogue they named every club in England from the list in Whitaker’s
Almanac
. Philip Ziegler said it was boring, he thought it didn’t work.
Now I have some sympathy with anyone who says that that was a piece of
self-indulgence. But I like lists and I think I have the right to be self-indulgent
sometimes. But I chopped up the list and made a few other jokes, about
Pratt’s Club, The Reform Club (which is a joke), and Bucks. . . .

I understand your feelings about lists, they have an absolute quality.

Yes, the totality of the list.

Why is one drawn in that direction? Were you wrong to give in? Did
you make the wrong kind of compromise? Was Ziegler’s rationality making
a quite proper interposition, telling you to stop when you should stop?

There are many historical examples of this thing about lists. This is
not something we have invented. There’s that enormous long list in The
Odyssey
of all the ships that went there, all the places they came
from, just a bloody list.

Is there something of the ritual about it, something incantatory,
like a drum beat?

Yes. I like lists. It’s a poetic thing. A list implies that you are including
everything, it’s an absolute, an attempt to impose pattern on the chaos,
it’s all sorts of things. One’s following Beckett, he likes lists. There’s
a lot of it in Watt, and in Molloy where the guy on the
beach changes the pebbles over, he goes through all the possibilities.

And in Murphy, the guy with the biscuits, deciding in which
order he should eat them.

Yes, very funny. Sometimes Beckett plays a joke by making a deliberate
mistake to catch you out.

A list also makes a joke of or comment on traditional narrative: “Nothing’s
happening and it doesn’t matter.” A list in narrative terms may be said
to go sideways, or stay still, it makes no narrative progress at all.

In Albert Angelo the teacher calls the class register and I put
in the whole thing, with every bloody kid’s name. A straightforward novelist
would have written: “He called the register.”

And be glad to have left it at that. Very sensible. Whereas the complete
list drives the reader mad. Is that a good reason for doing it?

For me the act of writing is a way of not becoming insane. Life is chaos,
writing is a way of ordering the chaos.

Can’t writing reflect the chaos by becoming part of it? Disconnect
to the point of irrationality?

Even Babel, your book of chaos, is fixed, it is not chaos in its
own terms. The images you have juxtaposed in a particular sentence are
there for ever. You don’t reflect chaos, you use a metaphor for chaos,
because you create a new order, in a fixed pattern.

Are you ever deliberately inconsistent? In Celebrations I say
a man’s got blue eyes and two pages later they are brown. I’ve done It
purposely and I know it’s right, though I don’t quite know why. Do you
do this?

I would tend to use it as a comic device. I’ve done it with characters’
names. In a short story, “Instructions for the Use of Women”, I wanted
to tell what bloody happened to this girl but because of the laws of libel
I couldn’t name her. So each time she appears she has a different name.

That’s a naturalistic justification, but the purely arbitrary is not
for you?

I think it should be done, but not by me. Like many of your things, like
Babel, I’m glad you wrote it because it saved me having to do so.

My going so far out on a limb was partly made possible by the backing
I got from John Calder. I felt he respected my work and (consequently?)
I respected his judgement. That relationship was built up over many years,
but you have gone rather swiftly from publisher to publisher. Has that
had an adverse effect on your work?

The trouble is that one has to have an economic as well as a literary
relationship with an editor (what he thinks of your book means money)
and the two things don’t go well together. And however nice a guy the
editor is he never seems to have the power to put his judgements into
practice. Some money man, for irrelevant non-literary reasons, interferes
with the money or the publication. Ideally, in a small firm, a sympathetic
editor would also make the financial decisions.

What about other writers? For example, we’ve known each other for
years but this is the first time we’ve ever talked about writing.

As poetry editor of Transatlantic Review I know a number of poets
and I talk or write to them about their work. I went down to Port Talbot
recently to do a poetry reading with a poet called John Tripp. We talked
a lot about writing and hardly at all about money. He wrote me later saying
that unlike other English writers I cared enough about writing to help
a fellow poet. That happened in Wales. In England writers rarely help
each other; it’s a great pity. I don’t discuss the novel with other novelists
because I have strong notions about what the novel should be doing. Most
novelists disagree with me and I am not in the business of converting
them to my point of view.

Are you in the business of learning from their point of view?

No. I did that in university, studying The English Novel and reading
hundreds of them. I’ve done that bit and come to a position where I am
right. If they can’t see it then the strength of my case is such that
they haven’t properly understood.

You’re right for you, while they may be right for themselves?

Right. I was with Anthony Burgess and someone said, “Why don’t you talk
about the novel?” He said, “I don’t want to talk to Bryan about the novel:
he has views about it.” He had his own ideas and he didn’t want me upsetting
his apple cart. I have never found anyone to debate with on the subject.
When I sit down to write a bloody novel I’ve got to make certain assumptions
about the function of the novel now and in relation to every novel that’s
ever been written. No one can write the same after Ulysses. Ulysses
changed everything. But people do write as though Ulysses never
happened, let alone Beckett. These people simply imitate the act of being
a writer, a deliberately anachronistic act, like writing a five-act verse
drama in Shakespearean English. So there is nothing for me to discuss,
except with people like you who are vaguely on the same wavelength, though
the results of our work are very different.

Muriel Spark when asked, “How do you write a novel?” replied: “I write
down the title, and underneath that I write ‘A Novel by Muriel Spark’.
Then I put ‘Chapter One’ and I start writing.”

When she says that, she’s hiding from her questioner or from herself
a subconscious process she would prefer not to understand.

If that’s so she, like Beckett, should refuse to be interviewed. Beckett
says: “I don’t know how I write. I have nothing to add to what I’ve written.
If I had I’d have written it.” He won’t talk about his work. He’s about
the only writer in the world who won’t, so far as I know.

Except that so much of his work is writing about writing.

James Hanley, like many others, says, “Once I get to Chapter Three,
the characters take over.” I couldn’t write like that. I always know what
a novel’s going to be about, I know its structure well beforehand. If
I ever dry up, if there’s ever no longer three novels in my head, perhaps
I’ll sit down and write, “So-and-so, a novel by B.S. Johnson,” and off
I’ll go.

Meanwhile you have your trilogy in hand. How’s it going? Will it be
your best work yet?

I don’t think of my books competing with each other. I haven’t got a
“best book” or anything like it. I very rarely go back and read my own
work. In moments of despair, and there are lots of those, I will pick
up a book to see how I did something in the past, or to confirm that I
have written some books worth writing.