|‘I don’t think I would have wanted to write a book that everybody liked’ … Daisy Johnson. |
Photograph: Pollyanna Johnson
The first book interview
Daisy Johnson: seeking 'intense strangeness in a world that feels like ours'
Fen’s author explains how short stories were the perfect form to ‘do really weird things and have really weird things happen’
Thu 14 Jul 2016
he starting point was the eels,” says Daisy Johnson. These strange creatures writhe in “headless masses in the last puddles” as the land is drained in the opening story of her debut collection, Fen, spinning us off into an uncanny world where an older sister can starve herself into becoming an eel, a dead brother can return as a fox, and a house can love a girl “darkly and greatly and with a huge, gut-swallowing want”.
The result, wrote its Guardian reviewer, is is an original and grippingbook, in which “boundaries shift and slide and myth and folklore seep up from the sodden ground and insinuate their way into her characters’ solid-seeming lives”.
Fresh from a morning of publicity photographs and signing hardbacks at the top of the shiny new Foyles bookshop on London’s Charing Cross Road, Johnson ponders the real English Fens, the provisional landscape borrowed from the seas by a system of embankments and pumps. Born in the south-west of England in 1990, she went on to spend most of her childhood in the flatlands of East Anglia. She was, she says, “always aware that it had been somewhere that was fished for eels a lot … You fish for them at night, you wade into the water and there are these quite scary creatures. And then the idea that the water had been pumped away – so where did the eels go?”
It wasn’t until she moved away, first to study English and creative writing in Lancaster and then for a master’s in creative writing at Oxford, that she began to explore the strange country of her teenage years. “The landscape almost had to be diminished down into a memory for it to be something I could write about, because if you were sat in it, it would be too much … In a memory, particularly a childhood memory, it becomes almost a mythic thing.”
Even before she sat down to write, she was clear that she wanted to push these memories beyond realism. “I think short stories are this perfect form where you can do really weird things and really weird things happen and, despite being small, they seem to be able to contain that really well,” she says.
“Cormac McCarthy talks about starting The Road because he wanted to see if he could write a post-apocalyptic novel, and I guess it was a similar thing – could I write intensely strange short stories, but set in a world which felt like ours?”
But the vampires who pull on jodhpurs, polo necks and wellington boots to look for unsuspecting men in the Fox and Hounds, or the son who drains his mother of memory and language, are challenging for reasons beyond their author’s technical resources. For Johnson, the strange allows a writer to “destroy something from the inside”.
It’s a project she first explains as being inspired by the authors she was reading and studying when she started working on the collection in 2014, writers such as Sarah Hall, Kelly Link, Karen Russell and Mary Gaitskill. “A lot of short-story writers are … creating stories that otherwise might be realistic, but have this seed of change in the middle,” Johnson says, citing Hall’saward-winning story Mrs Fox, in which a woman changes into a vixen during a woodland walk: “The transformation destroys the reality around it.”
But the inspiration for Johnson’s interest in change is more than purely literary. She is addressing a world where it is still notable that all of her protagonists are female, where it is still something of a reversal to find useless, dense men playing bit parts in dramas where women assert themselves and their desires needs to be subverted, Johnson says. It is “ripe for change, is ripe for transformation, ripe for rewriting”.
She stops, waits, nods. The male-dominated stories we have told ourselves are missing such a large part of human experience that there needs to be space for alternative ones next to them, she explains, a space opened up by the irruption of the uncanny. “It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be writing about male characters, but women need to appear not only as mothers and partners, they need to appear as I-carrying figures in their own right.”
Many of these characters are young women and teenagers exploring the emotional and sexual power of their incipient womanhood. “There’s something about being a teenager – I remember it as being awful. I’m sure not everyone does, but it’s such a strange time. Everything you look at, all the little bits, like going to the pub, are really weird, because you’re going through this massive breakdown of person.”
Johnson says she was never one of the teenagers hiding shots under the table in the local pub, or bumming a cigarette in the car park outside. “I was always very good. A lot of my work ethos comes down to guilt. I don’t know if that’s good, but that’s the way it works. I never would have been one of those people, which is why maybe I can write about them, from an outside point of view.”
The world in which these fluid figures live is riveted together with shards of everyday life: burnt beef and dating websites, box sets and the tree-shadowed dirt beyond the canal where the older kids go to drink. Strange things may happen in this landscape, Johnson explains, but “I always wanted it to feel like this was something that could happen to you”.
The shifts that Johnson charts are part of the texture of 21st century life – if you’re describing people on the cusp of adulthood then “it should feel that way, that gender is fluid, that sexuality is fluid”, she says. The collection is also “rude, it’s about sex, it’s got swearing in it” – and as it makes its own transition into the public sphere, she’s steeling herself for a broad range of reactions. “There are relatives who are reading it now who I don’t think are going to like it,” she says. “I didn’t write thinking that it would ever be published.”
She’s already working on novel exploring another liminal zone – the network of canals that thread through post-industrial Britain. Mixed with the nervousness that makes Johnson sit up straight in her chair, measuring out each answer with stop-start care, is a confidence that the wide spaces of the fen have helped her to find her voice.
“I don’t think I would have wanted to write a book that everybody liked,” she says. “That would have missed the point.”
- Fen is published by Jonathan Cape, for £12.99