Daisy Johnson’s debut novel Everything Under (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) turns classical myth on its head and takes readers to a modern-day England unfamiliar to most. As a child, protagonist Gretel lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of 16, though, and those memories have faded, but a phone call from the hospital forces Gretel to delve into her past.
Gretel is a young woman who lives a solitary existence. Why do loners and outsiders offer a good starting point for fiction?
Firstly, I think it is because their world is up for grabs. The imagination can run wild – they are beyond the society we know. Secondly, I think that loners make good thinkers. They dwell on things, they let worries and paranoia run inside them and this is the perfect starting point for a writer.
Gretel is abandoned by her mother and spends time in the care system, yet she grows up to have a successful academic career. How important was it for you to challenge stereotypes about what children in care can achieve?
This was not one of my first considerations but I love the idea of it. Gretel is stubborn, a loner, who feels like she never fits in. The moment when I decided she would be a lexicographer felt momentous for me, as if there was nothing else she could have done, and I imagine this is the way the character feels about it. Despite the difficult circumstances of her childhood she finds a job which suits her entirely. She does this in an unhealthy way, by blocking off all memories of her childhood, and the result is not a positive one.
Gretel works as a lexicographer and has a fascination with words. Is this an interest you share?
As a writer words are always something I’m thinking about: is this the right one? Have I used this one too much? Can I use this word somewhere? For Gretel words are emotional, linked to her childhood and to what she has lost; by becoming a lexicographer she is trying to regain control over them, return language to a place of logic. For me too words are emotional, linked to places or people, to the thing I have chosen as my occupation. I think one way Everything Under could be summed up is that feeling you have when you are trying, and failing, to think of a word, the space in your head where that word used to be.
Gretel goes back in time to tell her mother Sarah’s story, tracing it back to before Gretel was born. Why did you choose to tell Sarah’s story through Gretel’s eyes and not her own?
In earlier drafts a lot more of the novel was from Sarah’s point of view. However this changed as I redrafted. The whole novel is told by Gretel, although she takes on other people’s voices and memories to do so.
I wanted to explore the idea of how we tell stories, how memories decay and change over time, how – in the telling – they can be reformed. In the opening of the novel we discover that Sarah has dementia: some of her memories are crystal clear but many are frayed, starting to vanish. She feels that it is vitally important that the story be told, and yet is unable to do, and so Gretel takes on the role of storyteller both for her and for other characters.
Last time we spoke to you in 2016 your novel was in its early stages. All you could say was there was a crocodile. When did it become the Bonak?
It was quite late in the drafting process that the Bonak appeared. I knew that I wanted something to haunt the canals and to reappear throughout the novel. I was very taken by stories of crocodiles in New York drains but in the end the creature needed to be more strange, uncanny in how little is known about it, almost mythic. My writing is often populated by weird animals but this is the first time I’ve really invented a creature from scratch and I’m very proud of the Bonak. Sometimes, walking along the canal where I live, I think I see something moving through the water. It has taken on a life of its own!
The river serves the magic realism in the book, just as the marshy wetlands of the Fens do in your 2016 collection of short stories. How did growing up near the water in the flatlands of East Anglia aid your imagination and development as a writer? And is it a coincidence that the other places you’ve lived, Lancaster and Oxford, have canals at their heart?
I think there is something myth-like about the stories from childhood, the ones we only just remember but that are repeated to us over and over. I remember watery moments in my childhood well: the time the forest near where we lived got icy and we crawled over the ice on our bellies and then I fell in and had to run, freezing, home; or the swimming lessons that we had after school, the taste of the chlorine, the vending machine snacks. The fens is haunted by the idea of water, the earth is black with moisture. Perhaps growing up in such a strange place made me want to write about strangeness.
I think it is a coincidence that I’ve ended up in cities with canals, though it is a happy one. My house now is a two-minute walk from the river and I feel at home here. The river is always changing through the seasons and it is a little bit of wildness that I felt like I needed in the city.