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Daisy Johnson

Daisy Johnson was born in 1990. Her short fiction has appeared in the Boston Review and The Warwick Review, among other publications. She was the recipient of the 2014 A.M. Heath Prize, and currently lives in Oxford, England.

Blurbs

“Johnson has a marshy imagination and wind-whipped prose. . . . The privations of rural teenage existence yield wild and elemental bewitchments. . . . Crosscurrents of connection add up to a consonance that might almost be mythic.”

– New York Times Book Review

"[Fen] is a creepy but beautiful debut book from an exceptionally talented young English author. . . . Thanks to Johnson's accomplished writing, dazzling imagination and unique point of view, it's one hell of an experience. Fen is a haunting book about a haunted place, and it's more than worth it to take the trip."

– NPR

“[A] lusty debut. . . . [Fen is] a deep dive into symbolism, from a girl who seeks to starve herself into the shape of an eel to a house in love with its female inhabitant.”

– O, The Oprah Magazine

“As a reader, the world of Fen won’t leave you. That is Johnson’s power as a writer―she creates a dark, self-aware world that feels heavy and gray and covered in mist. In her universe, if you’re lonely, you can befriend a fish. Words don’t just cause emotional pain, but they form burns and welts. The ones you love can come back from the dead. To read Johnson’s stories is to live in dreams, at once both disturbing and comforting.”

– The Rumpus

“The stories in Johnson’s debut collection straddle the drama of transformation in both the uncanny and the everyday. . . . Imaginative. . . . Thrillingly direct.”

– Publishers Weekly

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FEN

An Interview with Daisy Johnson

04/18/19

Daisy Johnson is the author of debut short story collection FEN as well as her first novel, Everything Under. The East Anglia native currently lives and writes in Oxford, England, after earning her Master’s in Creative Writing at Oxford University. She won the AM Heath Prize in 2014 and was shortlisted for the Berlin Prize that same year. Her first novel, Everything Under, has been longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. I spoke with her over e-mail about FEN and Everything Under, her creative process, and going from writing short stories to writing full novels.

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A. Poythress: I’ve been reading Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here? for my writers on writers class with Patricia McNair, and in it he says, “finishing is agony because you know you will never again read this book for the first time”. I know I felt that way when reading FEN. I put off finishing the last three pages because I didn’t want it to be over. Are there any books like that for you?

Daisy Johnson: I love that, almost elegiac, feeling. I’m pleased that FEN did that to you. The Bone People by Keri Hulme made me feel that way, I think, because I felt as if I was a different reader after I’d finished it, saw the world in a different way. Also a lot of Stephen King because of those shock, gasp moments. I’ll never forget the first time I read The Shining.

AP: Place plays such a pivotal role in FEN. How could it not? The fen becomes a character in its own. How did you develop this characterisation?

DJ: The characterisation was there already because it is the way I feel about that land. I grew up there so my memories of it are tainted by those strange teenage years. I did really want the land to feel like a character in its own right though, I think maybe that’s where there are so many stories about language in the collection: I wanted it to feel as if the land could speak. I tried to develop it by intensify a few characteristics the fen has: it’s flatness, the fact that it used to be under water, it’s isolation from other places. 

AP: Do you think that specific small town claustrophobia felt in FEN is a universal feeling for all small towns? Or particularly locked into East Anglia/Eastern England?

DJ: I think it’s probably something that everyone in small towns feels at one moment or another. I imagine in the States, or Australia for example, you must feel it even more because there is simply great distances between places. I think what is specific about FEN is that these are characters who, because of who they are, really feel the isolation; a lot of them are teenagers who can’t drive and if they could would have nowhere to go anyway. The rest of them are trapped for other reasons and I think their claustrophobia comes from this, from knowing that they will probably always feel this way.

AP: When I first started reading “Starver”, I sat back with some overwhelming feeling that told me pay attention. Why did you decide to start FEN off with “Starver”?

DJ: Starver was actually the first story I wrote. I had been working on and off on a novel and I needed the immediate gratification of a story, the joy of actually finishing something. I think it, also, is a good introduction to the collection, to the landscape. The protagonist, is an observer, a quiet watcher and she — I hope — invites the readers in, shows them what they might expect in this strange, weird place.

AP: How long did it take you to figure out the order of the short stories in FEN?

DJ: It took a while. I tried a lot of different orders based on themes in the stories or the similarities in characters. One of the difficulties was trying to read the collection as a first time reader would. In the end I think the collection is based, loosely, on age. The women in the second half — after the long middle story — are a little older, a little more isolated.

AP: The Guardian review of FEN describes you as having “restraint of [your] language”. I must wholeheartedly agree. Yours are not the lengthy short stories of yesteryear. Was that restraint a natural style or a difficult and deliberate choice?

DJ: It is probably both just the way I write and also a consequence of the sort of short story writer’s I was reading. Writers such as Sarah Hall and Kelly Link.

One of the things I love about short stories is how little can be left out, how much exists in the gaps and the spaces.

AP: Would you consider FEN a horror collection?

DJ: That’s an interesting question. Particularly as my third book, which I’m in the early stages of, is a horror novel. Writing FEN didn’t frighten me the way writing this one did. I spend a lot of time jumping at noises in the house or writing by the back door so I have a good exit strategy. But I think FEN and everything else I write shares tropes of horror; those beats of unease that gradually grow and grow until they’re unbearable, that way of putting characters up against something and seeing how they deal with it.

AP: In both “The Hunt” and “The Cull”, it’s the men who hunt the foxes while the women come to live with them. Is there a deliberate relationship between women and animals as co-conspirators while men and animals are seemingly natural enemies?

DJ: I think a lot of the collection focuses on characters that are otherwise often silenced and that this is why there seems a relationship between the women and the animals. In the collection they are given a voice and the ways they use this voice are often a violent retaliation. A lot of the collection is about taking or stealing language, about trying to gain autonomy and often the men come out worse.

AP: I’ve seen many reviews compare FEN to works by Angela Carter. How do you feel about this comparison?

DJ: It’s obviously a great honour to be compared to someone like Angela Carter. She did things that no one else was doing at the time and her short stories are fireworks of weirdness. However I am always, I think, a little flinty when the comparison comes up. There are so many fantastic female short story writers doing amazing weird things and I think we need to make sure we are reading them, are comparing ourselves to them. I was not reading Carter when I was writing FEN, I was reading pretty much solely contemporary short story writers.

AP: Did you always believe you would write short stories? Personally, I always thought I’d write novels that would change the world, but more and more lately, short stories have consumed me.

DJ: I am a child of the creative writing workshop so my first encounter with writing was the short story. I understand that urge though; while studying I was always working on a novel in my spare time. It was only, really, in writing FEN that my love for short stories became fully fledged. A good short story can, I think, change the world in the way a novel can.

AP: Once a reader finishes FEN, it seems almost like a novel as opposed to a collection of short stories. Possibly my ignorance is showing — I read anthologies instead of published collections more often than not, and novels more often than most — but that surprised me. Was this an intentional choice or incidental?

DJ: It was intentional. I wanted — to add to the feeling of claustrophobia — to set all the stories in one, imaginary, town. The characters rarely encounter themselves but they frequent the same pub, hear the same anecdotes. I wanted the reader to come to know this place, to believe that it was somewhere where strange things happened.

I do think, though, that short story collections that are not linked can certainly feel novel-like. One of my favourite things about reading collections — which you get in a very different way with anthologies — seeing the links, the things the writer returns to again and again, the way they have structured the collection to lead us through these links.

AP: Do you feel FEN is a feminist story collection? Or just a collection that happens to centre on the female?

DJ: In the same way as, I suppose, everything I write will have threads and threats of horror in them I think everything will also be feminist. What, though, do we mean by that? That the writing will focus equally, if not more, on women as well as men? That the female characters will not be limited to roles as the girlfriends and wives and mothers of more interesting male protagonists? Sarah Hall was once asked why she wrote so many female characters and she replied that she would stop doing it when they stopped asking that question. I feel the same way. No one calls out writers for having too many male characters.  

AP: You said in an interview with The Guardian, “I didn’t write thinking that it would ever be published”. I think a lot of writers feel, or at least start off feeling, that way. But what compelled you to write these stories if you didn’t think they would be shared?

DJ: Good question. I suppose the same reason any of us do creative things in our spare time. For me reading was certainly the beginning, a joy of literature, a curiosity in seeing if I could do what my favourite writers were doing. I will say, also, that I am a guilt ridden worker. My degrees were churned on the back of guilt and a lot of what I have written is spurned on by it too. Also, though I certainly wasn’t convinced of their publication, the stories were being shared with those around me, particularly the other writers on my MA.

AP: Has your process for writing your new novel changed from how you wrote FEN? Does anything feel easier? Do you feel more pressure?

DJ: Oh god! My second book, Everything Under, which is out next year, has been the bane of my life. Is that too extreme? It’s been a hard slog, four years from conception to copy edits. A lot of time spent weeping in cafes and at my desk. There are probably enough words cut from this novel to make up three more. I love it now but I didn’t always love it. I hope everyone will love it too! And yes, of course, there was that old pressure in knowing that short stories were well and good but the novel was the important thing and I had to write one to start to make a living.

However: my third book is a novel and so far it’s a joy. I float to my desk. On good days I can write 5,000 words. I’ve learnt, of course, from FEN and Everything Under, I’m hopefully making less editing work later. I also think though that some books, as with some stories, are just harder to write. They need to be harder.

AP: You said in American Short Fiction, “Maybe that is the landscape I like writing about: where it’s so quiet you can hear the strangeness you might not in other places notice”. I don’t have a question about this — I just think it’s profound and speaks to why I like writing about isolated settings as well.

DJ: I live in Oxford now and it’s always what I notice when I go to visit my parents who still live close to the fens and very much in the middle of nowhere. It’s so quiet until it’s not! That strange switch from the quiet of the day to the hunting, noisy night.

AP: I know you stated that while reading FEN, you read collections primarily written by women. Is this the same for your current project?

DJ: I think I tend to read more by women anyway but yes there were a couple of books I returned to while writing Everything Under. Evie Wylde’s All the Birds Singing, Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching, Weathering by Lucy Wood. I also read quite a bit of Alice Oswald’s poetry. Everything Under is an Oedipus rewrite so I also read books that rewrote in that way. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is fantastic and I would really recommend The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.

AP: You say writing “seemed accidental” in American Short Fiction. I think all writers who are voracious readers first feel that way — I know I certainly do. Do you have a certain “how-to” guide for your writing? Stephen King says, “write every day,” but does that work for you?

DJ: I try and not over think it. It’s easy to get caught up in the ritual of writing and then not to write anything. That I suppose is my how-to guide: just do it. At the start of a project don’t think about publishers, agents, magazines, competitions, editing: just write.

There are some things that I’ve learnt work best for me though. Writing a lot is a good one but also having days off, giving the project time to work itself out in your head, feeling that wonderful anticipation of going back to it growing. Carrying a notebook around, particularly on those days but all the time, letting the work compost and gestate, allowing it to change and mutate. Changing where you write, being adaptable. I love my desk and the quiet house when no one else is there but sometimes that’s a bit much. Cafes are good, pubs with happy hours you can work towards are better! Finding other writers to write across the table from was quite momentous for me. Their hands are moving so fast so you keep yours moving too. Each project is different so it’s feeling your way forward, groping around until you find what works.

AP: Do you try to limit yourself to one project at a time? I know personally if I work on too many things at once, I end up jumping ship and never finishing anything.

DJ: I agree. I have very bad memory and working on more than one project makes my brain feel very mushy. I’ve got better, though, at editing one project while writing another. I think the processes are different enough to do both. 

AP: I now have a list of authors a mile long to consider because of past interviews of yours. Who else are you currently reading/obsessing over?

DJ: I’m having a good reading time. I really enjoyed The Good People by Hannah Kent. I haven’t read much sci-fi but V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic was really great. I’m also, while writing a couple of new short stories, rereading some of my favourites: the Sex and Death anthology is really wonderful.

Despite myself — I was wary — I also liked My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent whose amazing writing definitely saved this from being another book by a man about a girl being abused.

My to read list is also rather massive. I’ve just discovered Anne Enright who has changed my life, I’m also really looking forward to: All Rivers Run Free by Natasha Carthew which is out next year and a lot of the books that were longlisted or shortlisted for the Booker including Elmet by Fiona Mozley and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

AP: I found FEN because I was wandering around a bookstore café and the cover design called out to me as being stark and creepy — just the mood I was in for reading. Then I got hooked. Are there any books that have been like that for you?

DJ: I came to the US this year and this happened to me a couple of times in bookshops. Seeing amazing covers and sneaking them up to the counter before I could stop myself. A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume got me because it has a fox on the front and I can never resist foxes, I really enjoyed that. Communion Town by Sam Thompson was another book that really drew me in by the look of it. 

AP: “Daisy Johnson was born in 1990.” Every time I see that, I feel both hopeful and despondent. I was born in 1991 and all I can hope is to one day have a collection half as good as yours out. Do you see other people our age and younger performing and producing and get inspired or feel the push to do more?

DJ: I can’t wait to read your collection! Yes of course. I get jealous all the time, sometimes or prizes etc but mostly of other people’s writing that is doing something I would like to do.

Though there’s a balance to find in productive jealousy and the sort that just makes you feel a bit sad.

AP: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you? The most FEN-like thing?

DJ: I’ve always been a bit of a weird sleeper. I used to sleep walk (or run actually I think) around my room when I was younger and it’s only got worse as I’ve got older. The story in "The Cull" of a woman waking and thinking she has a fox on her chest happened to me. Sharing a room with my sister at Christmas apparently she woke up and I was walking around her bed shining a phone light and saying: they’re here, they’re here. She won’t share a room with me anymore. My partner, however, doesn’t have a choice. I’ve woken him screaming or shouting that there’s something on his shoulder. It comes in waves, right now I’m not even dreaming, and I’m sure it can be attributed to many things but it always feels, in the middle of the night, as if there actually are things in the room. On the bad nights I leave a light on. On the really bad nights I get paralysis in my mouth and hands, won’t be able to feel myself moving even though I’m told later I said things I don’t remember.

AP: I think you would do well in this class, Writers on Writers. We have to do what you seemed to while writing — see how a writer does what they do, think analytically with one finger on our own writing. Any tips for someone going from academic learning to this new way of reading?

DJ: That’s tricky. I suppose read authors whose writing you feel is similar to your own in some way, read for pleasure but with half an eye on what you like and, perhaps more importantly, what you don’t like. Don’t read at your desk because then it will feel like work and really you are trying to read like someone who has just picked this book up for fun. Talk to other people about the books your reading, share them, see what people agree and disagree with about them. Steal, steal ideas and lines and characters. You can always cut them later or you can make them your own enough no one will notice. 

AP: Did you always know you wanted to Be A Writer?

DJ: I couldn’t do very much else which made it easier I suppose. I was good at all the subjects no one is supposed to be good at. Art, Drama and English Literature. Luckily my parents were really supportive, they never would have suggested I did anything other than what I wanted to. I’m also good at dog walking and recommending books.

AP: Sometimes you feel a story deep down in your bones. Did you know FEN would be made up of connected short stories when you set out to write it?

DJ: No that was a thought that came later, perhaps about half way through writing the stories. I always knew all the stories would be set in the same landscape but not that they would be so linked.

AP: Is writing and completing a novel more difficult than short stories? Do you feel the short story mentality creeping in, sometimes?

DJ: I love that image. Short stories are creepers, getting into your head, they stay with you. I think what I learnt from FEN is that the way I wrote short stories and novels are similar in many ways. I’m a messy drafter and my editing is often more like rewriting. Rewriting a short story is obviously a lot easier than rewriting a 70,000 word novel. A short story I’m working on always feels different, somehow, in my head. I can hold it all in my mind in a way you can only really do with bits of a novel.

Still I think the rules are the same. Don’t worry about your first draft, think about your character arc, read aloud, edit freely and madly and a bit wildly.

AP: And now for a silly one: If there was some sort of worldwide calamity and you could only save two books from being wiped out of existence, which would they be and why?

DJ: Such a good question! We have something over here called Desert Island Discs that I think you would enjoy…. There is one book that I read when I was a teenager and that has stuck with me. I buy it every time I go into a charity shop because I give it away so often. It’s called Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. I’d definitely carry that around in my pocket during the apocalypse. I think maybe some poetry would be a good end-of-the-world read. Sharon Olds or Robin Robertson.

AP: What was your final process for Everything Under?

DJ: The final few months of working on Everything Under were a strange time. I think often writers spend so long with a piece of work that it is easy to forget anyone else is ever going to read it. The editing process had been mostly entire rewrites, tens of thousands of discarded words, but towards the end it was small line edits, moving punctuation around, reading each sentence out loud to see if it worked.

AP: And how did you feel when you learned that Everything Under was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize?

DJ: The day I found out about the Booker Longlist I was babysitting for some friends. My editor phoned and said she had something to tell me and could I go somewhere private. I immediately thought something awful had happened. She told me what had happened and I danced around the garden screaming.

AP: I know Everything Under has just come out, but are you still working on your third novel?

DJ: Amidst the madness there is, as ever, writing to be done. To get back to my desk after a busy day is calming, to bury myself in the story once more. Except that the next book I'm working on is a horror novel set in Yorkshire and writing the scary bits disrupts my sleep, makes me sleep walk. I'm hoping that is a good sign.

AP: Thank you so much again for agreeing to be my interviewee. I’ve been telling as many people as will listen to read FEN, so hopefully this interview will push them to do it. I’m so, so excited for your novel, Everything Under, and everything else you produce in the future.

DJ: Thanks so much Amanda!

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