Fen (Jonathan Cape, £12.99), a debut collection of stories from 24-year-old Lancaster graduate Daisy Johnson, explores all the aspects of young womanhood you might expect but each story has strange and mystical happenings you definitely do not. Inspired by folklore and the wetlands she grew up in, it is a startlingly original and memorable collection.
This is your debut collection of stories. Can you tell us a bit about what’s led you to this point?
I was on the Oxford creative writing MA when I started writing the short stories that would become Fen. I had a really good community of people reading the stories, giving me their thoughts. At the end of the course there is a reading and a pamphlet of everybody’s work is sent round to agents. Jack Ramm, who is an agent at Eve White, got in contact with me and asked to see the rest. We worked on the collection together and then sent it out to publishers. I then did edits with Jonathan Cape until the collection was finished.
Tell us about the title – are the stories literally set in the Fen? What is your connection to the area and what inspires you about it?
I grew up around the Fen. It’s this strange, marshy area in the East that’s famous for eels and for dark, fertile peat. The stories are set in those specific fens though the town is not a real place. What really intrigued me about this land was how it used to be under water and then was drained. There is something a little unnerving about that – not only the fear of floods, but the idea that the land might remember being under the sea. The idea that no one was ever supposed to live there. What always struck me about the Fen is that it’s so flat you can see everything coming. When I went to university in Lancaster I realised how unused to hills I was.
What knits these stories together as a collection?
They are all set in the same small, one-train-track town. The town is isolated, surrounded by wetland. There are odd things happening: the foxes are growing brave, words are twisting, turning dangerous. The stories are about the women and girls who live in this landscape.
Many of the stories explore coming of age and young womanhood – first romances, body image, desire, sexuality, choices between education and domesticity, young motherhood. Are these the themes you set out to explore with an original approach, or did they emerge as a product of your own experience?
I always knew I wanted the characters I was writing about to be women. I thought it was important and felt there was a lot to say. The men in the collection are eaten, abandoned or killed and that too is purposeful. This is a collection about growing up as a woman and what that is like. Some of this comes from my own experience and some from that of other people I know.
How influenced are the stories by folklore?
While not influenced by specific folklore the stories in Fen certainly use those old tales as starting points. The fen landscape is such that you can almost imagine those things actually happening there. I read a lot of Greek myths when I was younger and have continued to be fascinated with metamorphosis and superstition. In those myths the metamorphosis is violent and some of the stories in Fen reflect that.
There appears to be a pattern in many of your stories – they begin rooted in realism before becoming mystical. Was that a conscious decision to gain the reader’s trust and attention before revealing more complex concepts?
I like your thought about lowering the reader gently into a world before breaking it apart. I read a lot of short stories by women while I was writing this collection and it seems to be a structure that appears again and again. Writers such as Sarah Hall, Kelly Link and Karen Russell do this really well. This is also something to do with the world the stories are set in. While things happen that would not happen to us, the world is ours and I wanted that to be clear. I wanted there to be a growing feeling of dread that, perhaps, these things could happen here too.
Do you have plans for a novel?
I am working on a novel at the moment which will come out in 2017 with Jonathan Cape. The book is in its pre-walking stages. The walls of the room I work in are becoming increasingly covered in incomprehensible spider diagrams, strange drawings, half-formed thoughts. All I will say is: there is a crocodile.