The Hazlitt-IFOA Questionnaire: Jane Johnson

By Hazlitt

Jane Johnson spends part of each year living in a Berber village in the Atlas mountains of Morocco—a location that has provided the setting for three of her novels, including the latest one, The Sultan’s Wife. Johnson is also the publishing director of Harper Collins UK. She’s making two appearances at this year’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto: tomorrow, at Doubleday Canada’s 75th Anniversary reading, and on Saturday, October 27 at 12:00 pm.

First, second or third person?
First. And third. Sometimes second.

Nabokov had lepidopterology, Hemingway had the hunt. Do you have an extra-lingual obsession?

Which writers do you wish were more widely read?
Books reach nowhere near as wide an audience in general as they should: it depresses me that it generally takes a movie or TV series to make a worldwide bestseller.

Which rules of writing do you think should be ignored?
All of them? Besides, there are no rules when it comes to writing.

Beg, borrow and steal—are there any authors you go to when you’re stuck?
Elizabeth Bowen, Hilary Mantel, Mary Renault, for their crisp narrative techniques and sentence structures.

The books business is changing. What elements of the game are you happy to see fall to the wayside? What gives you hope?
Good to see a certain element of snobbery being trumped by market forces, and being able to download a book in seconds and start reading is like magic. It’s so good to see people are reading classics and talking about them in readings groups and book clubs. And social media means a lot more contact with your readers, which I love.

Do you think it’s fair to call writing a game? (Some writers, mostly men for example, have likened it to boxing.) Or would you prefer another metaphor?
Publishing’s a game (like horse racing, or pro football); but writing is more like climbing a mountain whose summit is obscured by clouds: a long, hard slog, with a certain degree of risk and a good deal of mystery.

Can you give any #protips on delivering a good reading performance?
Have a good strong tot of whisky beforehand.

Do you have any personal tips for surviving a literary festival?
Go easy on the first night or you’ll be wrecked from the start! And try to get some sleep. Though not during someone else’s event. Or worse, your own.

What’s your ultimate past, present, or imaginary IFOA high point?
With so much talent in one place I do worry the Harbourfront Centre may spontaneously combust…

What’s the strangest thing that you’ve seen happen at a literary festival or reading?
I’ve been to science fiction festivals all my working life so there are costumes I’ve had to blot out of my memory or I’d never sleep again. Getting in a lift with someone who’s conversing with the stuffed dragon sewn onto their shoulder is always entertaining…

Which dead writer would you most like to sit on a festival round table with, and what would you discuss?
I’d rather sit and chat with a living author: I’ve found the dead can be rather dull. With a distinct whiff of decay.

On a scale of one to Proust, how would you rate your experience answering this questionnaire?
Oh, Proust, definitely. But it is past 1am.


Dear Felix: Love, Michael
Dear Felix Baumgartner: I’m a man of many and varied accomplishments. I skipped grade three, attended my high school prom and have consistently finished in the money in my fantasy baseball league. It’s a rock-solid resumé, I know. However, it pales in comparison to the myriad accomplishments that have adorned your life. On October 14th, I watched as you stepped out from the edge of space and dove toward the earth. A pale scratch on the surface of the universe, you fell for over four minutes, traversing a distance roughly the same length as the Boston Marathon before landing on your own two feet. It was an utterly astonishing, existential victory, something mythic and beautiful, as if a divine ordinance to the necessity of life.


Do the Right Thing: Is There a Moral Truth Beyond What Our Guts Tell Us?
My dad is a secular Jew and my mum is a lapsed Protestant, so our household didn’t really run to maxims on how to lead a moral life. Unless you count eating French fries off someone else’s plate and saying, “There are two kinds of people in this world: the quick and the hungry,” I’d say the overt ethical instruction in my childhood was minimal. In my adult life, however, I feel as though ethical considerations are constantly yapping for my attention, like so many inconsistently housebroken spaniels. Partly it’s because I’m a writer and the whole project of being a writer is fundamentally unethical. Going around appropriating little bits of reality and then shaping them into something that has your name on it lays you open to charges of exploitation, misrepresentation, and invasion of privacy. Every other day I email my friend Connor to ask things like, “On a scale of one to ten, how incredibly offensive would it be for me to write a satirical cease-and-desist letter from gay culture to black megachurches saying they want their music and dance styles back?” (I’m not gay, black, or Christian.)