Daisy Johnson at The London Book Fair
After a two-year hiatus The London Book Fair returned earlier this month, reuniting the publishing community and sharing the international opportunities of literature to a global stage. In 2022 the spotlight was shone on Catalan Literature. ‘Spotlight: Books in Catalan’ encompassed a series of panel events with some of the finest writers, illustrators and translators in Catalan – both well-established and emerging – including Irene Solà who, along with Daisy Johnson, took part in a panel event on myth and imagination in new literature.
Here Daisy discusses being back ‘out-out’ on the literary scene, taking a sledgehammer to myth-retelling and what horror stories can tell us about the world we live in.
How did you find being back at such a large scale event?
[Being at the LBF] is very strange, very busy. It can be quite isolating being a writer and events are really important. It’s really good to start thinking of writing as a way of connecting with other people again, to talk to Irene and to hear the questions the audience had. It was a really interesting conversation.
Irene is a fearlessly creative and original new voice in Catalan literature. Her second novel, When I Sing Mountains Dance, draws on history, myth, and folklore while telling the story of a family. Is it fair to say that your works both explore similar themes?
Yes, definitely. There is a lot of myth moving through the things both Irene and I write. I was just re-reading her book again this morning – it’s completely brilliant. [Our work is] linked by an obsession with landscape and landscape becoming a character. That it something I always try to do and something that Irene did so brilliantly with the Pyrenees as a setting in When I Sing. Irene also spoke a lot about giving a voice to characters you sometimes don’t hear from. Filling in the blank spaces is something we both share.
Your debut novel, Everything Under, turns classical myth on its head. How do you approach recasting these tales in a modern-day setting?
At the very beginning I try to banish fear and allow myself to think I can do anything with these myths. What is really exciting about retelling is this idea of taking a very interesting story and being able to use it in anyway you like. The idea of destruction is inherent to retelling: taking something and completely destroying it and then rebuilding it from scratch. I really try going into retelling in that frame of mind. Take a sledgehammer first and then start with the tweezers, picking bits out and putting them back together and seeing where things fit. Another thing Irene was talking about, that really comes across in her work and that is really interesting, is trying to instil your writing with a sense of play. That playfulness is really important in retelling – finding and making a bit of a game and seeing what might work.
The tension of the domestic set-up and the role of the mother are central in both Everything Under and Sisters. What is it about the theme of domestic love and relationships that so interests you?
I’ve always been obsessed with those small moments that make up all of our days; making a cup of tea, dropping something on the floor, opening the door and I wanted to see if I could instil them with an uncanniness or a strangeness. Those moments are the things we all do all of the time and almost do unconsciously and I wanted to to try and fill those moments with meaning. They are really linked to being a parent and being a mother especially; the small domestic tasks you have to do and the way your brain moves through those. It’s also linked to writing about characters who are mothers who are not necessarily comfortable in that role, who don’t necessarily fit into that role the way society would like them to and how that then changes their everyday domestic landscape.
Sisters is a novel saturated in atmospheric tension, a tension that is domestic but also haunting and otherworldly. What is it that draws you to the horror genre?
In many ways it is a novel where nothing seems to happen. The sisters sit on the sofa and watch David Attenborough and drink stolen bottles and go to the beach, or open jars and have baths and I really wanted those moments to be made really large. Horror has always been about the home: a place where we are supposed to be safe, where we can go and lock the door and close all the windows. What is really frightening about horror is what if that home, what if that safe space actually isn’t safe and has been inhabited from the inside out. In Sisters I wanted there to be a sense throughout of the house beginning to be be outside and of the outside beginning to come inside; insects and birds coming through the walls. Those boundaries between the home inside and the wildness of the outside beginning to merge.
I grew up reading a lot of horror and watching a lot of horror films. Although I’ve softened slightly over the past couple of years and I find them scary in a way I never really did before. Horror is fascinating because it is a good reflection of what people are worried about at the time the films and the books are made. You can always look at them as a mirror for the era in which they were made. Horror is always a great reflection of society.
Did you find your reading habits mirrored the upheaval that the pandemic brought upon society?
I think they probably did. I read a lot more to begin with and I listened to a lot more audiobooks. I would take myself away on our daily walk and listen to an audiobook. I was reading a lot – I had piles of books around me that I was trying to get through, although I’ve since become a mother and my reading has slowed down slightly.
You have moved between both short-fiction writing and longer form novel writing. Do you favour one form over the other and how does your approach to each differ?
I love both. I started as a short story writer and that will always have a big place in my heart. I approach them differently at the beginning. Beginning a novel is like beginning a longterm relationship or beginning an extremely long ultra marathon; you have to limber up and prepare yourself for living with these characters and this story for a very long time. Short stories are really different, some short stories can take a long time but they exist in a different place in your brain. They move through you in a different way and you don’t have to carry them around with you quite as much as you do a novel. With my novels I tend to do a lot if redrafts and rewrites and a large amount of words will be deleted. With a short story it’s really about getting the central thought right and often a short story will come out much more fully formed.
I’m currently working on my next novel, which I’ve been writing for the past two or three years. I am very much in the deleting and re-writing stage and trying to work on it as much as possible and keep it in my head. Sometimes the thing that is really hard with novels is to try to keep it existing within that space all of the time and to try and see yourself into that world. There is a point with a novel where I’m thinking about it all of the time, I’m dreaming of it and it’s all I want to talk about. Creating that space is really important to me.
Daisy Johnson was in conversation with Irene Solà at The London Book Fair 2022, as part of the Catalan Culture Spotlight organised by the Institut Ramon Llull.
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