The interview was published in a 1981 book called The Imagination on Trial, which was edited by Alan Burns & Charles Sugnet and contains interviews with numerous British and American writers (including JG Ballard, Ishmael Reed and Eva Figes).
Below are some excerpts from the interview between Burns and Johnson, looking at politics, community, critics and confidence:
- “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.’
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “For me, the act of writing is a way of not becoming insane. Life is chaos, writing is a way of ordering the chaos.”
- “In England writers rarely help each other”
- “No one can write the same after Ulysses. Ulysses changed everything. But people do write as though Ulysses never happened”
- “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.”
Chronologically – and not including reprints or publication of notes, letters or other texts not written with the aim of publication – this may well have been the final “new” publication by B. S. Johnson.
It is moving, yet also fitting, that his final comments here are ones referencing uncertainty, self-doubt yet a robust – and objective – acknowledgement of the validity and power of his writing, even if it’s one he is unable to believe in.
I know the feeling.