DANCING IN The Asylum is a new collection of short stories from long-time Galway-based author, Fred Johnston. It is the second story collection from Johnston who has also published four novels, eight volumes of poetry, and had three plays performed in a writing career that spans more than 30 years.
Over an afternoon chat in the offices of the Western Writers Centre, which he founded some 10 years ago, Johnston reflected on his career to date and discussed his new book.
Interestingly, Dancing In The Asylum does not appear from an Irish imprint but from the enterprising Welsh publishers Parthian Press.
“It’s very difficult these days to find someone who will publish a collection of short stories,” Johnston notes ruefully. “That’s due to various reasons - because of the recession, because of editors’ preferences – for them it seems easier to print a novel which would be financially viable than a book of stories.
“I simply couldn’t find a publisher in Ireland even though all except one of the stories have been published previously so would have a certain cachet. So I tried Parthian and coincidentally their commissioning editor was a lady from Loughrea – though I doubt that was a factor in their accepting the book. I think the short story form is creeping back but it’s a form that is hard to sell.”
While Johnston has produced novels, poems and plays, Dancing In The Asylum is something of a return to his first love.
“I started out only wanting to be a short story writer,” he reveals. “When I was young I was mesmerised by the short story form, Graham Greene in particular who we were studying in school. Then I discovered people like John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh all of whom were using the short story form.
“I loved the compactness and neatness of it. The first piece of writing I ever got published was a short story, with David Marcus’ ‘New Irish Writing’ page in The Irish Press. Poetry for me came much later.”
Born in Belfast, Johnston lived for a time in Dublin where he set up the Irish Writers’ Co-Operative with Neil Jordan and Peter Sheridan. In the late 1970s he moved to Galway, and like many another before and since, he came for a visit and ended up staying. He initially arrived to attend a two-week writing workshop given at UCG by Anthony Cronin and “just couldn’t find my way home afterwards,” he laughs.
The title story of the new collection vividly portrays the full sweating horrors of a heavy drinker, Pritchard, going through the physical and psychic agonies of drying out in a hospital. It then delivers a wonderfully surreal, dream-like finale.
“I enjoyed writing that story,” Johnston admits. “They’re strange places, where everything is topsy turvy and Pritchard finds himself in this world that he can’t relate to while at the same time he’s pondering the mess he has made of his life.”
Another arresting story is ‘Bolus Ground’ which presents a fraught encounter between an ageing painter and a bugbear critic. Again there is a surprising and, in this case, macabre (though darkly funny ) denouement.
“The artist character is getting on and is crotchety and fed up with the whole scene and with reviews and has a nasty streak,” Johnson observes. “It’s about what happens when someone becomes so tired of trying to be an artist in the true sense. At the same time he’s also somebody who has had his loves, he’s not inhumane.”
The arts and their impact on people’s lives are a recurrent motif throughout the collection.
“The arts do have a huge impact on people’s lives from the humblest event to the largest,” Johnston notes. “It’s only natural, having been involved with them to one degree or another over the years, that they should pop up in my work.
“We’ve grown unaware that there is art all around us that is quite accessible, for example when you’re talking to kids about poetry they don’t want to know about it because they think it’s Wordsworth and these remote individuals, but when you start talking about rap music which they listen to then they get interested and say, ‘Is that poetry?’”
Finally, I ask Fred for his thoughts on where he sees Irish writing within the world of today’s recessionary Ireland.
“We have internationally acclaimed writers so there is a perception abroad that there is this flourishing thing called Irish writing which has done us proud and we can’t deny that,” he replies. “On the other hand the effect writers have had in, say, engagement with politics or social events or protests of any kind hasn’t been quite as remarkable.
“I think there’s more that writing could do and that writers could get more involved with politics of their day. I find it interesting that in creative writing classes what people want to write about hasn’t changed. They’re not rushing to write about the recession, they’re talking still about themes like home and family so it’s questionable how much the times we live in have impacted upon novice writers, it doesn’t seem to have hit there yet.
“Sometimes you’d love to open a paper or magazine and read a story or poem that tells it how it is but I haven’t really seen any; we don’t have our Strumpet City or a book like Brian Cleeve’s Cry of Morning which was about how Dublin was developing in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s – we haven’t had a novel like that yet about our present recessionary times, it’d be nice to see one!”