About The Author
Daisy Johnson was born in 1990 and currently lives in Oxford. Her short fiction has appeared in The Boston Review and The Warwick Review, among others. In 2014, she was the recipient of the 2014 AM Heath prize.
In the liminal land she depicts in her debut short story collection, Fen, the wild is always close at hand, ready to erupt. This is a place where animals and people commingle and fuse, where curious metamorphoses take place, where myth and dark magic still linger. So here a teenager may starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A woman might give birth to a - well what? Daisy Johnson combines English folklore and a contemporary eye, sexual honesty and combustible invention to create a reading experience like no other.
Earlier this year, exclusively for Foyles customers, we produced an exclusive signed and numbered limited edition sampler of 250 copies containing 'Starver' and 'Blood Rites', the first two stories in the collection, which is now available in full.
Below, Daisy introduces her book, the 'unquiet land' that is her stories' setting and subject, how the fen locked itself into her head and the narrative thread that runs through the stories of things that return, even if you'd rather they didn't... And, exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler chatted to Daisy about her interest in myth and folklore, her collection's preoccupation with bodily functions and her path to publication.
Plus: hear Daisy talk about her book here.
The Author At Foyles
On Writing Fen
A while ago I wrote down the first idea for Fen. The story seemed to come out of nowhere; as if it had been waiting. It was about a girl who starved herself until she began to take on the shape of an eel. I did not realise, at the time, that I had written the first story of my collection; that the setting would become so central. It was a story about being a teenage girl and about being impatient but it was also a story about a place I’d not considered for a while.
I never thought I’d write about the fen. We moved around a lot when I was younger. The rented houses we lived in held secrets. We had an old Morris Minor that my mother drove us to and from school in. It would break down a quarter of a mile from the house and we’d push it home in our summer school dresses. Once I slipped, cut open my knee; bled. I wrote in those houses and I kept writing until we’d pretty much moved away from that land.
My father dreamt of hills, of the Sussex Downs but we lived around Cambridgeshire and Essex and we were never far from the fen. I just didn’t realise. The fen is wetland and the earth is so dark it’s nearly black. It is not the coast. It is land that dreams of being coast. Not all of the stories came as simply, without fuss, as that first one. Most of them wrestled out; fought, were changed; but they were all about that imaginary town in the fen. One pub, one lake, one train platform town. I should have known. Of course it was going to return to me; of course I was going to write about it. The fen had locked itself into my head; into my blood.
When I started writing Fen I was living in the city and for a while I thought foxes were following me. I saw the first one late at night, about twenty minutes from my house. I was walking home and it was running along the road. I saw them regularly after that. Not surprising. Cities have foxes the way the countryside does and Oxford was no different. Except each time I saw one I was closer to my house and so was it. One morning I went out my front door and there, ten paces or so away, was another. It wasn’t watching me but it was loitering with intent all the same. This short story collection is about things that return; that come back even if you’d rather they didn’t and that’s what happened. Sneaking in over the spires and the buses. Flats and floods; loneliness and boredom.
I still see foxes occasionally, running along empty roads or digging in bins, but not in the same way I did then. Not as if they’re following or trying to tell me something.
These are stories about women and girls. I am unapologetic about that. The men in these stories are brothers or fathers or sons and mostly the women love them or want to. But these women also love fish or houses and the men in these stories are cannon fodder. They come and go as they please but they pay for it in the end. The women in these stories feel the way the land does. As if they’re missing something. Mostly it’s just an itch they are uncertain how to scratch, an impatience. Mostly – because that’s the way itches are often scratched – they have sex. They drink. They watch films or listen to music. Sometimes they try and leave. But in Fen, leaving is never much of a possibility.
These are stories about a place that remembers being under water. This is unquiet land; land that watches and hears and learns our language. In return, language spoken here isn’t the same as in other places; it’s taken over, changed or destroyed entirely. Remember that Beckett play with the woman grasping her umbrella, sinking down a little further into the earth each time the lights come up? She talks and talks but no one is listening; beside the ground, sucking her and her words down.
The two stories in the pamphlet are also the first two stories in the collection. They are an invitation to this land and an introduction to the women who inhabit it, the women who stand at windows, keeping watch. The land is so flat they can see what is coming.
Questions & Answers
Your book is a love letter to the fens but there’s an ambiguity there too, isn’t there, the pull of the landscape making it seemingly impossible to leave. Do you feel this same duality within yourself?
It is clearly possible to leave the fen – I’m sitting at my desk in Oxford now – but perhaps only physically. The memory of it alone has a pull. I suppose the fens are the same as a long-gone, once loved, teenage partner who you think you’ve forgotten until you realise everyone after them is doppelganger-like. I don’t love that fen lover anymore; I remember loving it then but now, perhaps, what I’ve tried to do is write it away, write it out.
In fact, it’s the people who are the outsiders in this collection, aren’t they?, often at the mercy of nature, even when they’re not actually being consumed by it.
They’re not supposed to be there. They’ve colonised that land but there is always a sense that the hold is tenuous. Like houses built on the edge of cliffs or over sinkholes.
There is a loose connective thread between the stories, with characters, for example, drifting in and out of the Horse and Hounds. Was it important to you to provide a sense of community and continuity or did this just arise naturally as you went along?
The stories always shared a certain mood and they always belonged to the same landscape, the same set of rules. The language the characters would have used to describe themselves was always similar. In later drafts the links were intensified; the same pub, for example, or the repetition of certain rumours, such as the Helena-and-the-bike story.
In the end the collection is less connected than it could be because those who worked on it, along with me, thought: why should we have to think of this as a novel? I don’t think of it as either. I don’t think that should put people off. I think it should excite them because they can choose how to read it.
Words are withheld, stolen, burn and cause real physical pain or consume those on the receiving end of them. As a writer, how keenly do you feel a sense of responsibility for the words you set down, their power to wound as well as to soothe or provoke?
I feel it keenly though perhaps more in terms of provocation. I think Ben Marcus was right when he wrote in the introduction to New American Stories: ‘A story seemed to find its place here when it did not look away from what was coming’. I’m not sure our literary words should be for soothing.
My Dad described Fen – rather gleefully – to a friend as full of sex and swear words. That is purposeful. In the collection one of the characters talks about the white space between paragraphs into which sex falls. We don’t want to risk the Bad Sex Award or the bad taste award. Responsibility is a big word but if anything I felt a responsibility to write in that white space.
I hope I win the Bad Sex Award.
Folklore plays an important part in the collection. Is this something that has always been significant for you?
Yes. I had an audio tape of the story of Troy when I was younger. I listened to it over and over. What is it about myths and folklore that keep people coming back to them? You can see the mistakes the characters are making before they even begin. It’s the same as watching the girl in a horror film walking down into the cellar. They can’t hear you but you sit there shouting: don’t do that, don’t you know they’re in the wooden horse?
What is even more interesting to me are the rewrites of those old stories. Reading Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes knocked me for six. How could he do that? How could he flash Cinderella’s pants and then have Red Riding Hood parading around in a sexy wolf coat? It was blasphemy; it was glorious.
The human characters, especially the women and girls who are the focus of your stories, share a sense of aloneness, loneliness, longing and being trapped. How far is this a function of the landscape they inhabit?
True, there is something about the fen that fosters aloneness: you can see what is coming but when you look you realise nothing is.
Except the land is a character in the collection as much as any of the humans. I think if the landscape were answering instead of me, it would disdain the word function. Functionality brings to mind washing machines, ironing boards, sturdy cars. The land goes about its business. And the characters, I think, would feel this way wherever they lived. It is something in them: the longing for more and more and more, the loneliness they feel even when they are not alone.
The fen feels like a place in quiet turmoil, the whole of nature united in self-preservation; foxes, albatrosses, horses, fish, all are sentient beings, interchangeable, both pursued and courted by their human neighbours. Do you feel that however much we may try to subdue nature, it will always have the upper hand?
On a small, personal scale. When you’re in a house in the countryside at night it can feel that way. Noisy as a city with all that shuffling and barking and hunting. When it rains water comes through the walls of the house my parents live in. My sister brings down mummified mice from the attic to draw. The nettles are head high.
Otherwise no. I think we’re a beating and nature’s got its head under its arms waiting for it to be over. So, this is also, perhaps, a speaking back. In the collection animals are afforded a power they do not really have and they take advantage of that.
There is a preoccupation with bodily functions, especially ingesting, egesting and subsuming creatures and words. Were you surprised yourself at this recurrent thread or did you know at the outset that it would feature so strongly?
There is something very bodily in those old tales about people or gods turning into animals. There is also something very bodily about being a human.
I’ve always, I think, been interested in ideas of edibility. I like horse burgers, horse Carpaccio. I enjoy snails. I’ve never eaten dog but the skewered guinea pig I had in Peru had bones soft enough to chew through. Perhaps I enjoy making people feel a little uncomfortable. I’m not surprised, then, that this collection is preoccupied with bodily functions although it was not something I set out to do.
You talked earlier about responsibility and I thought about that while I was writing the first story in the collection: 'Starver'. It’s about a girl who turns into an eel but it also could be read as a story about control through eating. I felt a responsibility to write that story well.
Another recurring theme is that of returning, especially people dying but returning in other forms, simultaneously themselves and Other. Can you say more about this?
To think of it another way: a lot of the characters are waiting. Sometimes they wait and nothing comes. This is mostly the better outcome. When anything does come it’s been called or at least hoped for. It’s that old careful what you wish for. Or perhaps careful where you're doing your wishing.
It’s something to do with memory, with what we rearrange or switch around in our heads, with what we choose to keep. It’s also something to do with balance, with a pound of flesh.
Fen is – as you’ve pointed out – preoccupied with language, with words. I’ve noticed that those who return in the collection, who come back changed or strange are never the ones allowed to speak. The Other is silent or silenced. So instead they steal or turn our language back against us.
Giving birth is a more than usually precarious occupation with mythical, mystical outcomes. How would you feel about becoming a mother yourself?
I never knew I was so interested in motherhood until I started writing Fen and then it seemed inescapable. I’ve been thinking a lot about why that is. I’ve passed the point where my grandmother started having children; I’m drawing close to when my parents had me. The debate is unavoidable. If you are a woman and don’t have them you’re an oddity; presumed – just listen to the words – barren, sterile. You’re a ticking clock left to run down. If you do have them but continue to work you’re half-hearted, not maternal rather selfish, self-obsessed.
Pregnant women are portrayed as other-worldly, glowing, almost sensuous. Alternatively, they are horror-fodder, see Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen. Even Twilight is enough to put off any broody teenager.
Right now I would feel unqualified. But equally I would feel – and what’s wrong with that – selfish. I have a coveted room with books and a desk, a door that closes. I have three clocks on the wall and they are quite enough to listen to as it is.
Having a debut published, especially when it’s a short story collection, is notoriously difficult. Can you describe your path to publication and what the experience has been like for you?
I studied Creative Writing and English at Lancaster and then Creative Writing at Oxford. It makes me irate when people are dismissive of these courses. The beginning of my path to publication was in studying writing. The writer is no longer – if they ever were – that despondent figure, locked in their garret, friendless but for their manuscript. On courses like these you get a tough skin; you learn how to kill all those darlings you thought you could never even slice at.
The experience has been akin to fumbling in the dark or walking backwards on my hands. Luckily everyone else seems to know what they’re doing.
In the second year of the Oxford MA I started working on Fen. At the end of the year a pamphlet of work was sent round to agents. Jack Ramm emailed and asked to see the rest. Agents are gate-keepers, I’d met them before, bandied my wares, been frightened. Jack was different. We worked on the collection together and then sent it round to publishers. I worked with Alex Bowler, and others, at Jonathan Cape until it was done.