DAISY JOHNSON: ‘WRITERS CAN BE VERY UNFORGIVING TO THEMSELVES’
The Booker-shortlisted author, Daisy Johnson, talks to Popshot about her success, writing life and the short story she contributed to our latest issue.
The stunning short story, Marla, which features in the latest edition of Popshot Quarterly was written by none other than Daisy Johnson, author of Sisters and Everything Under, latter of which was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2018.
The Oxforshire-based author first made her name with a collection of short stories, Fen, published in 2017. We are honoured to include Marla in the pages of Popshot. It is a visceral portrait of young women on the cusp of their thirties and motherhood, and a rather unusual turn their desire to reclaim their own physical power might take.
We spoke to the author about her process and approach:
1. You’re a short story author and novelist. At what point in your process can you tell whether an idea will fit a specific form?
Short stories and novels are such distant cousins, I don’t think they would get on with one another if they met at a family party or funeral. It is true that sometimes writing a particular short story takes years but mostly they live with the writer for a brief flare of time, intense moments of illumination. Novels, on the other hand, have to sustain a writer for much longer. They are the cousin who moves onto the sofa and never quite leaves. Short story ideas tend to come to me in single sentence summaries whereas novel conceptions often arrive as a broad theme or type of writing – for example retelling or horror – a big enough subject to dig into and live with for a long time.
2. Journalists frequently mention your age, because you are the youngest Booker-shortlisted author. And yet, you’ve been working as a writer for far longer than many older novelists (who may have come to it later). Do you find those questions annoying? What role do you feel age plays in the voice of a work of fiction?
It was, of course, an enormous and delightful thing to become the current youngest Booker shortlisted author… however long that might last! At the time I did become exhausted by the question because it implied a lack of expertise, that I had not spent enough time on the work.
There is certainly an obsession with youth in the publishing world, with the next bright young thing. What is really important is the book, no wonder the age of the writer, and how well and innovatively it tells the story.
3. Thank you for your short story, Marla. It is wonderful. This issue of Popshot is about intimacy, and I wondered having read your short story, if you could talk a little bit about violence and intimacy. In the story it’s as though the main character can only explore a certain wildness, a physical form of destruction, with the people she shares an intimate history with (a sister and an old school friend), but it’s not something she can explore in her lover or understood in a previous lover.
Thank you for publishing the story, I’m so glad it found a home. The story came from wanting to explore violence in relation to women’s bodies and violence as a way of taking control. The women in the story feel their bodies don’t entirely belong to them, ahead there is childbirth or the possibility of this or there is slow aging; the acts of violence the women do to each other is a way of taking back control. It is also an exploration of the gendered nature of violence. So often men are expected to be violent, the “boys will be boys” mentality, and it is presumed necessary for them as stress relief or a way to connect with something inside them. The opposite is presumed of the woman’s body which belongs not to themselves but to the maternal or the beautiful. Marla is a retelling in a way of a story which explores this masculine need for violence, it is my feminine spin on it.
4. Sisters is such a fantastic novel. I read it recently and found it deeply absorbing but also a bit terrifying. What is it about the intense intimacy between sisters that fascinates you?
I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. The seed of the novel was that I wanted to write a haunted house story but as I was working on it the book really became about these two sisters and their very intense, co-dependent, often unpleasant relationship with one another. I have a younger sister of three years and, though we get on very well now, it is true that when we were children we fought a lot, sometimes physically, always very emotionally. I have known her for her entire life and seen her grown and change and she has seen me do the same. It’s a fascinating relationship. I’ve always been interested in writing about relationships between women and relationships which stray over lines into possessiveness or harm, the extent of the things we do to one another. Writing about sisters seemed the perfect way to explore this.
5. What are you working on at the moment?
Among other things I’m working on my fourth book. We have a very love/hate relationship with one another, we are currently wrestling. It’s a bit of a monster and I am trying to get the better of it but I’m not sure who will come out the winner. For inspiration and patience and fearlessness I am trying to follow a quote from Helen Garner’s brilliant diaries, published last year, which goes: ‘The beginner will cling and cling to her thin first draft. She clings to the coast and will strike out into the ocean only under extreme duress.’ Though this is by no means my first draft (oh for the simple uncomplicated joy of a first draft) I am trying to use this to make myself brave.
6. What’s your working day like. Do you follow a routine or is it different every day?
Some weeks I am blissfully routine-based. These tend to be when I am writing rather than planning or editing. On these weeks I try and write 4,000 words a day. I am a fast but messy writer and much of this will be slaughtered later. This rarely works often because I haven’t plotted well enough or put enough thought into the section I am working on and need to go back to the big A3 pieces of paper or the inspiration books where I tend to begin. I try and work from 9am until about 5.30pm, which is arbitrary, but the breaks from the work are as good as the writing for figuring things out so these hours are important. Within these hours, however, there are inevitably emails and other projects and Zoom meetings and online events, grumpy thinking walks along the river and reading. I think this sounds more idyllic than it is. Although there is potential for every one of these days to be completely wonderful and perfect, I’m not sure anyone is more nasty or less forgiving to themselves than the writer. They are their own worst enemy and no one should have to spend time with them, but unfortunately they have no choice but to spend time with themselves.
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