Art By Ejiwa Ebenebe
A Debut Author Feature with Daisy Johnson
We at F(r)iction are elated to introduce our readers to Daisy Johnson, author of the acclaimed short story collection Fen and winner of the Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Prize, the A.M. Heath Prize, and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize.
Daisy’s debut novel, Everything Under, only hit bookstores in October, but it has already garnered impressive credentials, including being shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, given each year for the best original novel written in English and published in the UK.
In this captivating retelling of the classical myth, Oedipus Rex, we follow a lexicographer named Gretel. Abandoned as teenager by her mother, Gretel tries to make a life for herself. Years later the past resurfaces, pulling her back to the canals of her childhood and into a search for her estranged mother—all the while being pursued by a mysterious creature called the bonak. This genderfluid debut novel explores questions of fate and splintered family relationships in a surreal setting that is guaranteed to leave you unsettled.
In our interview, Daisy discusses the Oxford Canal, dyslexia, genre fiction vs. literary fiction, and her motivation for diving into a retelling of Oedipus. After the interview, check out the first chapter and see what everyone is talking about!
Interview with Daisy Johnson
Let me open by telling you that this book is amazing. What inspired you to write Everything Under?
I knew that I wanted to write an Oedipus retelling for quite a long time. About five years ago, I had the idea to write it. But I think the main reason why I wanted to do it was because it was a challenge. I thought that a lot of retellings work really well in contemporary settings, but I wasn’t entirely sure if this one would. I also thought that it was such a compelling story! It’s so weird and filled with magic, and fate, and prophecy. It was something that I wanted to attempt.
Talk to me about setting, placing it in Oxford and various other locations around there. Why was that so important to you?
I tried setting it in lots of different places—it was in Wales for a bit, and it was in the city of Oxford for a bit. But then my partner and I went on a canal boat for a long weekend, and we were driving around the Oxford Canal, and it seemed such a weird place. There were people living there that had no connection whatsoever to the outside world. And I needed to find an environment where strange things could happen to the characters, and the readers would believe that they could happen in a place like that. So it seemed like the perfect location.
You have a narrator that’s obsessed with words, expressed through her work as a lexicographer and with the secret language she has with her Mum. Tell me how that bled into the prose and your understanding of the world.
I think it’s something that I have always been interested in. In my first collection, Fen, a lot of the stories appeared to be about the weirdness of language and the colonialism of language—how language can take on a life of its own, sometimes in an aggressive way.
I’m also dyslexic, so I’ve always been interested in how different people’s languages change the way they are and the way they think. So it’s something that was incorporated quite naturally into the book. But it was only in the later drafts that the narrator became a lexicographer, and I think it’s important for her to be that character because she’s completely obsessed with what happened with her when she was a child. She wouldn’t have been a lexicographer if she didn’t grow up the way she did. I think that was interesting for me—how the people who are with you as children change the way you are as an adult.
Regarding the language these characters invent, I spent a day trying to work it out. I wanted it to be a child-like language, to have the sound that children make when they think of something and the comfort words that children might use.
From the prologue, we know that a lot of this book has to do with how the past changes us. Is this something that you have always been interested in, or did it just come out of wanting to rewrite this myth?
I think it has always been something that I’m interested in, particularly how the past can change you in a negative way. The mother is slightly sidelined in the original myth, but I was interested in her, this idea of a woman who is a mother but isn’t a very good mother, and what this does to her child, what the impact of this is, the idea of trauma tracing through our lives and making us the person we are.
You’ve created a really interesting drip line to reveal the plot. Many writers would argue that certain things are essential to characters and need to come out in the first chapter, but you wait until chapter five or six to let readers in on these things, and so the evolution—the way in which we learn about these characters—is fascinating. What was it like to be that patient about it?
It took a lot of edits to get it there. I didn’t want the readers to get confused, but I also wanted readers to feel like they were learning new things as the protagonist remembered them. I didn’t want it to come in a logical order, but in a way that it was emerging to you. I did want it to feel fragmented and potentially a little discombobulated.
I’m interested in the role that sex has in this novel. Certainly with the myth you’re pulling from, that’s going to take center stage, but there are really interesting dynamics between your narrator and her mother as well as different aspects about how sex is used to bring people together and tear them apart. How did you do that so exceptionally well without going over the line like so many other novelists who write about sex in a way that is either uncomfortable or disingenuous?
I really hope it was successful because it was something that I was worried about. It’s something that I have always been interested in as a writer because often writers try not to write about sex, which I think is strange since it’s something that happens to most everybody in the world.
For the protagonist in the novel, sex is quite a complicated thing. Her relationship with sex is not simple, and I really wanted that to come across. She sees something when she is a child and it’s enough to break her in a way, to make it difficult for her to function and interact with other people. A single act has waves which reverberate through the years. I agree with you that so often the sex writers show us is awkward or disgusting, particularly for the women. The sex in Everything Under has enormous connotations, of course, but I also wanted to show that the characters enjoyed it.
I have to ask about the use of the second person. Was that in all the drafts? When did that come about?
That came about relatively early because it was clear to me that the protagonist is obsessed with her mother, so she had to be talking to her. Although I was aware that there are whole books written in second person, I think a lot of readers aren’t very comfortable with it. So I decided to do some of it in second person and some of it in first person. But I’m pleased that there is a second person perspective. I think it works, and I think it was something that the novel needed in order to give the reader the sense that the protagonist’s entire world revolves around her mother.
I want to talk about the way the mother deals with intense memory loss and dysphasia. What was it like to write about that?
It was hard because it is not something that I have any firsthand experience with. Nobody in my family has ever experienced it, so I was worried about it and did a lot of research. I read a lot of books, particularly a book by the writer Iris Murdoch’s husband, who writes about living with her when she was older and going through memory loss. That was helpful because a lot of the book is about living with someone whose memory is decaying. But it was a tricky and emotional thing to write about, how trauma can sometimes erode your memory.
I spend a lot of time reviewing genre work, and I spent a lot of this book feeling like you were hinting to something mystical while simultaneously thinking you were going to explain it away, like literary fiction does. But there was so much of me, when I was reading Everything Under, that had an incredible, uncomfortable doubt about these darker figures, about whether there was something more magical happening or whether it was explainable. Who is your ideal reader? Are you hoping to court people on both sides?
I’m glad you ask that because it’s something that I think about a lot. I think there’s a weird divide between genre fiction and literary fiction. There’s an elitism about it, which I find quite unpleasant. I read and enjoy both! I think it’s impossible to find an ideal reader, but my ideal reader would probably be somebody in the middle.
I think, more and more, people right now are writing somewhere in that gray zone, between literary and genre. And I think that is exciting. I think that the lines that have been created don’t need to be quite as stark.
How long did it take you to write this book?
From the idea until publication, it took probably about four years. But I was also working on my short story collection, Fen. I was probably writing Everything Under full-time for about two years, but it’s been in my head for a really long time. It feels strange that it is now out in the world and I’m separated from it.
Did you go through several full drafts? Are you the kind of writer that agonizes over a chapter and doesn’t let it go until it’s perfect? Or do you write the whole thing up and then go back and tear it up? What’s your strategy?
I’m a rewriter. With this book, it’s probably taken seven entire drafts written from scratch, and a lot of writing binned. This was the first time I ever got this far into the editing process with a novel, so I was learning as I went along. I don’t necessarily know if it was the most streamlined way of working, but it was definitely how this novel needed to come out. I was thinking about things as I was writing, so I needed to be shedding a lot of words as I went along.
How does writing this compare to your short story collection?
It was relatively similar in terms of rewriting. When I was writing Fen, I would write the entire story once, and then I’d go back and rewrite it again. Fen was difficult, but Everything Under was, at times, impossibly hard, perhaps because of its length. Just holding an entire novel in your head, trying to keep that world living within you is a lot harder than keeping a 5,000-word short story in your head.
Also, with Fen I was writing about a place where I grew up, which I think already lived within me. With Everything Under, I was writing about things that I didn’t necessarily know. It took a lot more sitting down and thinking everything through, whereas Fen came out in sort of an emotional stream.
When I sit down with author friends, they talk about delving into a certain relationship or using a narrative style that didn’t come naturally, and they just feel like banging their head against the keyboard. What were the parts of this book that hurt the most for you?
I found it extremely hard to lose so many words. It wasn’t something that I was ready to do. I think it’s something every writer has to get used to, shedding as many words as you can without worrying about them.
In terms of the actual plot, because I have an amazing relationship with both my parents, writing about a difficult relationship between a mother and child was quite challenging and uncomfortable. Readers often ask me if, by the end of the book, the mother has forgiven herself for what she does, and I don’t know whether that is true. I think it is actually important to write characters who are un-forgivable. But that doesn’t necessarily make for an easy character to work with.
Also, we talked about sex earlier. There is a sex scene in the book that has gone through many, many drafts. It was a very difficult sex scene to write and to read, and I found it hard to get the right balance.
What was the publication process like? Did you already have an agent for Fen? Did you randomly run into a literary agent at a cute little cafe at Oxford and hit it off?
There’s a creative writing master’s program at Oxford, and I was studying there part-time. At the end of the year, we got work sent out to some agencies. An agent got in contact with me, and we worked together on Fen and eventually sold Fen and an unnamed novel, which would then become Everything Under, to my publisher here.
So I sent early drafts of the novel to my agent. We worked back and forth a lot until we finally sent it to the editor. The draft that we sent to the editor is unrecognizable from what the book is now. Luckily, I had a very hands-on editor who I worked very well with. There were a lot of long discussions and lots of emails. We worked together to unearth the novel, and I enjoyed the process of it.
There wasn’t a creative writing master’s when I was at Oxford! Can you tell me a little bit about it?
I don’t know how old it is, but it’s a part-time creative writing program; it’s called a Master of Studies. The idea is that you go in for two years, and you have these long weekend residencies where you all stay in the same place while workshopping and writing together. It’s for people who want to try and do everything. You have to write poetry, and plays, and fiction. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. So it was amazing, and I would definitely recommend it to people.
How has it felt to get this incredible response from the writing community, critics, and award committees?
I’m completely overwhelmed and extremely happy. I think it’s quite lonely being a writer, and it often feels like you’re writing into the void, and you don’t really hear anything back. Not everybody has loved it, but I wanted to write a divisive novel. I’m just glad that people are enjoying it. It makes you feel, as a writer, that you can carry on writing, which I don’t think everyone always does.
What are you working on now?
I just got back the edits for my third book, which is a horror novel set in Yorkshire.
Now that you have moved on to the novel, is it difficult to go back to short stories?
I write short stories at the same time. Because I’m a child of the creative writing course—I studied English literature and creative writing at Lancaster, where I went to university for my degree—I think short stories are just where I come from, so I’m always going to write them. It’s such a relief after writing a novel to go back to the short story and know that you have a certain amount of words to do it in. I love short stories, I’m obsessed with short stories, and I think I’ll always write them.
Daisy Johnson was born in 1990. Her novel, Everything Under, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She was the winner of the AM Heath Prize and the Harper’s Bazaar short story prize. Her debut short story collection, Fen, was the winner of the Edge Hill Prize. She has been longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Prize and the New Angle Prize. Daisy currently lives in Oxford, UK.
Excerpt from Everything Under
by Daisy Johnson
The places we are born come back. They disguise themselves as migraines, stomach aches, insomnia. They are the way we sometimes wake falling, fumbling for the bedside lamp, certain everything we’ve built has gone in the night. We become strangers to the places we are born. They would not recognise us but we will always recognise them. They are marrow to us; they are bred into us. If we were turned inside out there would be maps cut into the wrong side of our skin. Just so we could find our way back. Except, cut wrong side into my skin are not canals and train tracks and a boat, but always: you.
It is hard, even now, to know where to start. For you memory is not a line but a series of baffling circles, drawing in and then receding. At times I come close to violence. If you were the woman you were sixteen years ago I think I could do it: beat the truth clean out of you. Now it is not possible. You are too old to beat anything out of. The memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark and then are gone.
There is a degeneration at work. You forget where you have left your shoes when they are on your feet. You look at me five or six times a day and ask who I am or tell me to get out, get out. You want to know how you got here, in my house. I tell you over and over. You forget your name or where the bathroom is. I start keeping clean underwear in the kitchen drawer with the cutlery. When I open the fridge my laptop is in there; the phone, the television remote. You shout for me in the middle of the night and when I come running you ask what I’m doing there. You are not Gretel, you say. My daughter Gretel was wild and beautiful. You are not her.
Some mornings you know exactly who we both are. You get out as many kitchen implements as you can fit on the counter and cook great breakfast feasts, four cloves of garlic in everything, as much cheese as possible. You order me around my own kitchen, tell me to do the washing-up or clean the windows, for god’s sake. The decay comes, on these days, slowly. You forget a pan on the stove and burn the pancakes, the sink over- flows onto the floor, a word becomes trapped in your mouth and you hack at it, trying and failing to spit it out. I run the bath for you and we go hand in hand up the stairs. These are small moments of peace, almost unbearable.
If I really cared about you I would put you in a home for your own good. Floral curtains, meals at the same time every day, others of your kind. Old people are a species all of their own. If I really still loved you I would have left you where you were, not carted you here, where the days are so short they are barely worth talking about and where we endlessly, excavate, exhume what should remain buried.
Occasionally we find those old words sneaking back in and we are undone by them. It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time doesn’t mean a jot. We have gone back and I am thirteen years old and you are my awful, wonderful, terrifying mother. We live on a boat on the river and we have words that no one else does. We have a whole language all our own. You tell me that you can hear the water effing along; I answer that we are far from any river but that I sometimes hear it too. You tell me you need me to leave, you need some sheesh time. I tell you that you are a harpiedoodle and you grow enraged or laugh so hard you cry.
One night I wake and you are screaming and screaming. I skid along the corridor, knock your door open, put on the light. You are sitting up in the narrow spare bed with the sheets pulled to your chin and your mouth open, weeping.
What is it? What’s wrong?
You look at me. The Bonak is here, you say, and for a moment—because it is night and I am only just awake—I feel a rise of sickening panic. I shake it away. Open the wardrobe and show you the empty inside; help you out of bed so we can crouch together and look beneath, stand at the window and peer out into the black.
There’s nothing there. You have to sleep now.
It’s here, you say. The Bonak is here.
Most of the time you sit stonily in the armchair regarding me. You have a bad case of eczema on your hands that was never there before and you scratch it with your teeth bared. I try to make you comfortable, but—and I remember this about you now—you find comfort an annoyance. You refuse the tea I bring you, won’t eat, barely drink. You swat me away when I approach with pillows. Leave it, you’re fussing, give it a rest. So I do. I sit at the small wooden table facing you in the armchair and I listen to you talk. You have an aggressive stamina that carries us through whole nights with barely a pause. Occasionally you’ll say, I’m going to the bathroom and rise out of your chair like a mourner from the side of a grave, your hands brushing invisible dust from the front of the trousers I lent you. I’m going now, you’ll say and approach the stairs with gravitas, turning back to glare at me as if to say that I cannot continue without you, it is not my story and I must wait until you have returned. Halfway up the stairs you tell me that a person has to own their mistakes, live with them. I open one of the notebooks I’ve bought and write down everything I can remember. Your words are almost peaceful on the page, somehow disarmed.
I’ve been thinking about the trace of our memories, whether the trace stays the same or changes as we rewrite them over time. If they are stable as houses and cliffs or decay fast and are replaced, overlaid. Everything we remember is passed down, thought over, is never the way that it was in reality. It makes me fraught, restless. I will never really know what happened.
When you are well enough I take you out to the fields. There were sheep here once but now there is only grass so thin the chalk shows through, lumpy hills rising from the ribs of the ground, a thin stream that burps out of the dirt and sidles down the slope. Every couple of days I declare exercise a cure and we march to the top of the hill, stand sweating and puffing at the top, and then cross down to the stream. Only then do you stop complaining. You crouch by the water and drop your hands into its cold rush until you touch the stony bottom. People, you tell me one day, who grow up around water are different to other people.
What do you mean by that? I say. But you won’t answer or have forgotten you said anything to begin with. Still, the thought stays with me through the quiet night. That we are determined by our landscape, that our lives are decided by the hills and the rivers and the trees.
You hit a bad mood. You sulk until it gets dark and then rattle through the house trying to find something to drink stronger than water. Where is it? you shout. Where is it? I do not tell you that I emptied the cupboards when I first found you on the river and brought you here and that you will have to do without. You flop into the armchair and glower. I make you toast, which you upend off the plate onto the floor. I find a pack of cards in one of the drawers and you look at me as if I’m mad.
I don’t know, I say. What do you want?
You get out of the chair and point at it. I can see your arms shaking with exhaustion or anger. It’s not always going to be my fucking turn, you say. I’ve told you enough. All of that stuff. All of that shit about me. You jab your splayed hand at the chair. It’s your turn.
Fine. What do you want to know? I sit in the armchair. It’s burning with your leftover heat. You skulk near the wall, pulling at the sleeves of the waxed jacket you’ve taken to wearing inside.
Tell me how you found me, you say.
I put my head back, hold my hands so tightly together I can feel the blood booming. It is almost a relief to hear you asking.
This is your story—some lies, some fabrications—and this is the story of the man who was not my father and of Marcus, who was, to begin with, Margot—again, hearsay, guesswork—and this story, finally, is—worst of all—mine. This beginning I lay claim to. This is how, a month ago, I found you.