Fred Johnson, the prolific Belfast born writer, took time out of his busy schedule recently to spend a few hours chatting about life and literature in a quaint shabby-chic café in Galway City. Having just recently published his fourth novel ‘The Neon Rose’, a tale of martyrdom and deceit where the city of Paris is the central character in a novel saturated with love and crimes of the heart.
To date, Fred has published eight books of poetry, four novels, as well as being a pragmatic letter writer on subjects of war, social conscious and of course posing the most daring of questions ‘why?’ In Fred’s own words, “I tend to think that writers and artists have a civic responsibility, I’m not alone in that and it’s not a new idea.”
He is also the recipient of the Hennessy Literary Award, numerous bursaries, the ‘Prix de l’Ambassade’ for translation, he has held the position of writer-in-residence in the prestigious Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco, to name but a few accolades he has had bestowed on him. Not to mention in his spare time he was also a founding member of the Irish Writers’ Co-operative in Dublin with Peter Sheridan and Neil Jordan; setting up the Cuirt Poetry Festival in 1986, Galway’s leading literature festival; teaching creative writing at the National University in Galway and running, on a full time basis, the Western Writers’ Centre.
But, the strings to Fred’s bow do not end there; he is also a talented musician, having recorded two albums of traditional music with Parson’s Hat and a solo album just last year.
So, where does all of Fred’s energy come from? Fred was born in Belfast in 1951, his father being from Belfast and his mother from Dublin, “all my father’s people are very staunch Methodists and the Methodist tradition is to get out there and do it!” Fred explains, “One uncle ran for the old labour party in the old Stormont, my other uncle was a trade union man in Harland and Wolff, the working man.”
A philosophy that has stood him well; “I just write,” Fred explains pragmatically, “as George Bernard Shaw said, ‘I writes neurotically’, I think I probably do, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t write something, whatever it is, I have certainly a very strong compulsion to write, a need to write and a feeling of withdrawal if I’m not writing.”
It wasn’t long before Fred’s family moved to Canada from Belfast and after a number of years they moved back to Dublin. Fred continually changing schools along the way, by his own admission this had a profound effect on him, “I’ve never been really able to have roots. I’ve been as happy in one place as another, when you spend a lot of time on your own and you don’t have siblings you tend to create fantasy figures and fantasy worlds to enable you to cope. Later on you transfer that into whatever form of art you have and it becomes a kind of narrative of your life; which you build up as you go along, so it’s no huge leap from the child with stories in his head to the young adolescent trying to put them on paper. And then finally typing them up and sending them out to some people.”
Thankfully, Fred did just that, and has been prolifically writing ever since; inspiration though is also an important part to the whole writing process and what more of an inspiration could you have than the city of Paris as a living, breathing, central character to any book? Fred regularly travels to France, giving talks and lectures in various universities and generally soaking up the atmosphere of Paris itself; it was on one of these many trips that the seeds for ‘The Neon Rose’ were sown, “I was walking up the Rue de Rivoli, one of the main streets in Paris; now when you beg in Paris you can’t actually ask anyone for money, it’s a strange kind of Parisian thing; you kneel down, facing the crowd as it’s coming on and you wear a little placard around your neck, usually ‘I am hungry’ or something like that, but, this one said, ‘Je suis Irlandais’, ‘I am Irish’ and this chap, he was in a dreadful state, a very long beard, dishevelled, he was kneeling down and he was sort of bent over like an S. I couldn’t believe it, so I went back to him and I asked him was he Irish and he mumbled, I couldn’t make it out, he couldn’t raise his head and he just kept apologising in the middle of the street in Paris, saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’, to me! He’d just folded, like London or New York, if you are down and out in Paris, people walk over you; you cease to exist. And then I thought, he didn’t get off the plane or the ferry thinking this was the ideal. It could be me, it could be anybody, the slide from point A to point B is very easy and I wanted to write a book about that and how it could happen. After that the book began to write itself and the characters began to talk for themselves.”
It took Fred four years to finish his current novel, but, as with any writer he has more plans for at least one of the book’s central characters and ever true to his nature, Fred also has a new book of poetry coming out this October called “The Oracle Room”, which is being published by Cinnamon Press in the UK.
Finally, we get around to discussing the writer’s writer, the authors that Fred would read, “I would go to Robert Graves certainly to learn about rhyming and structure. For a novelist, to learn about short sentences and sharp editing, I would go to Hemmingway; I would definitely have a look at the novels by Hugo Hamilton and the short stories of Billy Roche, he’s a playwright but he is also a musician, I like people who are writers and musician as well; I also like Gabriel Fitzmaurice, he’s an old hand, a bit of an all rounder and he has an interest in traditional music. Gabriel also harks back, in his style of poetry to an older tradition of making things rhyme, as well as writing children’s books, he’s an all round writer, which is what writers should be.” Fittingly spoken by a true all rounder.
Fred Johnson Author published NI Homes & Lifestyle
Words & images by Tina O Rourke