Writing on Water: A Conversation with Daisy Johnson on “Everything Under”




IT’S DAISY JOHNSON’S last reading on the last day of her American tour. A dark, snowy night in Minnesota, people arrive cocooned in outerwear with frost-nipped noses, and stand around in little puddles of melted snow. They’re here to see the author of Everything Under, a Man Booker shortlisted retelling of the Oedipus myth that stays with the reader well after the final page. Widely celebrated as the youngest Booker Prize nominee, Johnson deflects questions about her early career success, instead promoting the work of other writers, and speaking about the significance of telling women’s stories in new ways.

The book has an almost mystic, magical quality. In true mythic mode, the novel’s characters crusade for their own safety by evading memories, recovering memories, avoiding monsters, becoming monsters, recording language, and making up new languages to tell the stories that resist expression. During Johnson’s reading, the room seems to echo her words on the page. During a passage describing a mysterious monster, for instance — the “Bonak is here” — a latecomer charges up the center aisle to take a seat up front. Or when she reads the line about “old words sneaking back in,” a radio blasts a few lines of an old song from the other room. A week after the reading, I corresponded with Johnson a bit more about this uncanny way her words jump off the page and the challenges of contemporary mythmaking.

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AMY E. ELKINS: Everything Under is a world-building novel. Characters emerge as carefully crafted studies in how people present themselves to the world, and you devote pages to developing what those worlds look like — barns, kitchens, and canals become vivid settings for the unfolding dramas. In that way, your work is very visual, and I wonder if parts of your creative practice live off the page. I’m curious about how writers engage with the other arts: do you craft, dance, or paint? Are there visual artists who have inspired your aesthetic approach to myth and storytelling?

DAISY JOHNSON: This is a really interesting question. I think I am a visual person, the landscapes and places I am writing about are almost always based on somewhere I have been in reality, even if that place has changed a little in the writing. My process of editing is quite physical, printing out the pages and moving them around the floor, trying to see the right order. I think about the structure of literature quite physically, whether a book is a series of intersecting circles, or a straight line, or a straight line broken up with circles or other lines.

I used to enjoy painting and drawing but, as the thing that was my hobby has become my job, I’ve done less of it. I hope one day I will return to it. I love artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Jackson Pollock whose enormous work changes so much depending on your position to it. Francesca Woodman’s photos are something I think about a lot, the way the people in them intersect or are subsumed by their landscape.

Francesca Woodman! Now that you mention it, I can see how your work on the page seems to be in almost direct conversation with her photographs, which are so haunting and so personal but also deeply tied to much larger expressions about what it means to be a woman in the world, or even to just be a body in space.

In Blind Spot, Teju Cole describes the parallel experience of walking through a city and taking a series of photographs. He writes, “As some elements slip out of view, new ones become visible.” Was there anything that surprised you about the reception of Everything Under? Unexpected things your readers saw or didn’t see?

That’s so true about Woodman. So many of the women in her images seem to be dissolving or somehow becoming swallowed by their surroundings, it is a battle to occupy space. Another artist I love is Tom de Freston, whose enormous paintings often do something similar, the landscape and background volatile, sometimes seeming to encroach or endanger the inhabitants of the paintings. His most recent paintings seem, often, to be of domestic scenes, which is something I’m interested in (and we can see in Woodman too) and how we inhabit these spaces that are supposed to be safe (the home, the family) but are often anything but.

There is so much that readers have seen in Everything Under that I didn’t see. It is one of the most surprising and most enjoyable things about having a book published. Once the book is out of your hands, it does not belong to you as the writer anymore. Every reader has a different experience of it. I even like hearing about the times readers didn’t enjoy it because they found it confusing or for another reason, it changes the way you view your own work, which I think is very important. I do not write in isolation, I write for the people who will read the work. Everyone has an opinion about the dog in the book! Someone once asked me if the dog was eaten at the end. I had never considered this, but I thought that was perfect. Of course, it should seem like the dog was, possibly, eaten!

Poor Otto! I like the moments when he provides comic relief, always digging up the garden in a moment of crisis. In the novel, the narrator Gretel realizes she needs to search for her mother on the edges of society, and you could argue the book explores subcultures, especially in the context of sexuality and space. At one point, Gretel says, “I remembered how you used to say that we were outside everything.” Much of the novel centers on people living in boats or on the banks of canals. How did you research the Oxford boat community, and what is the most interesting thing you learned about this culture?

I struggled with where to set Everything Under. It felt a very pivotal thing to get right. My partner and I spent some time driving a canal boat around the river that surrounds Oxford, and I was taken with this landscape and with the people who populated it. I think the most interesting thing I learned about it was how isolated from the normal structures we take for granted these people are. They inhabit their own system of rules and structures and would never, for example, ring the police.

That’s so interesting, and I’m impressed! Did this watery space, combined with the nonnormative social structures you observed in the canals, influence the way you approached gender fluidity in the novel? I’m thinking in particular of the two transgender characters.

Certainly the book is about people on the fringes of society, whether physically or socially or bodily. It is about characters who are often sidelined and because of that, I think, they are good watchers, great narrators and observers.

The first reason that I wanted to write about transgender characters was because of the place gender change has in myth. There is a character I was thinking of in particular called Tiresias, a prophet who was born a man but lived for seven years as a woman. I knew I wanted to magpie this part of myth away. Another aspect of gender change I was interested in was the Shakespearean sort where characters change gender out of fear or necessity.

Many people have drawn comparisons between writing about water and writing about gender fluidity. This is not something I have done purposefully, but water comes into everything I write and often some sort of fluidity is not far behind: people change gender or shape, language is movable, death is not the end.

My first encounter with your work was reading “Starver,” a short story about a woman who turns into an eel in your short story collection, Fen. I read it sitting in a kayak, fairly convinced that fiction and real life had compressed and that an eel might appear at any minute beside the boat. No eels appeared that afternoon (just an inquisitive muskrat!), but I’m curious about the role of place, ecology, and metaphor in your work. Do particular concerns about the environment make their way into your writing?

I love that you read “Starver” in a kayak. I think it should only be read that way! Fen came, I think, from a place of anger. A lot of this anger was about the position of women in the world and in literature, the type of women who are written or not written about. But some of it certainly came from fears about the things we are doing to our world. I wanted a lot of Fen to be an answering back from otherwise silenced characters, and some of these characters were the animals that inhabit the fens and the landscape itself. I think a part of Fen was almost a thought experiment, an imagining about what would happen if the landscape and the animals could answer back, an almost apocalyptic uprising.

Most of my writing is set in the countryside, and I think it is because here it is clearest that the intersection between the world and the people is an uncomfortable one, an unequal one, a battle.

It’s a striking idea, that we might think of short story collections as a series of thought experiments (or a thought experiment that unfolds through a series of stories). Like you, I don’t think short stories get the attention they deserve. What is the most interesting story you’ve read lately?

This is not the way it is for all writers of short story but certainly for me the stories in a collection are linked, and come from wanting to explore a particular idea or see a thought to its conclusion. Each story folds out from the other like a fan or like a Russian doll, but they should also be able to stand on their own. I think this is why I love short story collections, because they can be read from start to end and that will give the reader one perspective, or they can be dipped in and out of just as easily.

I’ve been dipping in and out of Samanta Schweblin’s collection Mouthful of Birds recently, which is great. I’m reading it this way because each story has such an enormous punch to it that it doesn’t feel right to read it in one sitting. They are unapologetically weird. I’ve just finished one about butterflies that made me squirm, in a good way.

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Amy E. Elkins is a scholar, writer, and artist who teaches at Macalester College. She specializes in visual art and literature, modernism, and feminist approaches to the archive.

 

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