An interview with Daisy Johnson, author of Everything Under

An interview with Daisy Johnson, author of Everything Under

Author and OED ambassador Daisy Johnson recently visited our Oxford HQ to talk to us about her debut novel Everything Under, an eerie retelling of the Oedipus myth set on the waterways of modern-day Oxford. The story follows Gretel, an OED lexicographer, as she pieces together parts of hers and her mother Sarah’s lives to work out what happened to make her mother leave 16 years ago.

Everything Under is a rewriting of the Oedipus myth, but it’s also focused on the impact of language – what came first: the desire to write something on language or the focus on the plot itself?

The Oedipus myth came first – sorry! I knew I wanted to do a retelling, and I’d studied the story at university – and at school, actually, in different ways. Gretel being a lexicographer actually came quite a lot later.

Why a lexicographer?

Because Gretel’s mum is her entire life; what has made her the way she is. So her job needed to be something that hearkens back to that, that told us that she wouldn’t be a lexicographer if it wasn’t for her mum. I got really interested in the language we speak changing the way we are, the language we speak changing our nature.

I also watched Arrival and that’s kind of what that film is about: the words we speak – do they make us think in a different way? And I was reading Kory Stamper’s book, and thought ‘yeah, that’s perfect’. I was lucky to find that book because I think lexicography is the perfect job for Gretel to do.

After your tour of the OED archives and offices, was there anything you learned that surprised you?

I did quite a lot of research but just being here – being among the stacks, sitting down with Eleanor (Maier, an associate editor at the OED) and learning how you do lexicography with a computer – kind of blew my mind. In the novel, Gretel uses flashcards when defining a word, which you don’t actually do here! It’s interesting to me how different a future book featuring the OED will be with the process onscreen and online.

Why did you choose the OED in particular for Gretel?

Since I’d come to Oxford it had always been in my periphery; I’d known people who worked at the OED. I wanted Gretel to have done well for herself. I wanted her to be a character not just defined by her mum – who she is defined by for the most part – but that she had quite a good job that she enjoyed. And the OED is quite an establishment!

I suppose also because Gretel is looking for authority, and she feels that everything to do with her mum is lacking in authority.

Like the ‘made-up’ language between Gretel and her mother? How did you come up with this and how important was it for you in the novel?

This was really important, I think, particularly for the character as this entirely isolates her. This isn’t something Gretel realizes until she’s older that, while she was really excited as a child about the language her mother gave her, it means that she can’t talk to anyone else because she has this other language in her head.

I’m interested in this idea that language can be quite antagonistic, even an aggressor, and I’m quite dyslexic so I think I do have a bit of weird relationship with language.

It was definitely one of the most fun bits of writing the book: sitting down one day and thinking ‘what do I want this language to sound like?’ I wanted it to be quite a child-like language, mimicking the sounds of things and the mouth-feel of words. I really enjoyed doing that.

Was the language all created from scratch or did it include any words that you have used, perhaps as a child yourself?

‘Duvduv’ is a word for something that is comfortable in the book, and as a child I had a blanket I called ‘doov-doov’, so that’s where that one came from. Some of the other words are stolen from bits of our culture, but ultimately it’s all come from me and the places that I have come from.

Did you do much research into conlangs (constructed languages) when writing?

A little, but really more toward the end of the writing process just out of interest. There’s a feminist book where the author makes a language up (Láadan, the language created by Suzette Haden Elgin and included in her feminist science fiction novel Native Tongue) – that was very interesting. She thought that our language was very patriarchal and I think her dream was that all women would speak this new language and we’d have our own way of talking. That’s something I’m really interested in: the idea of language being gendered.

Gendered language, and self-identifying through language, is particularly pivotal for Margot…

Yes! People ask me that a lot actually: what Margot’s relationship is to their gender. At a ‘words’ sense, if you talk to her – to him, to them – she wouldn’t talk about pronouns and wouldn’t know what the word ‘trans’ meant. Margot’s almost doing this identifying in a pre-language place; it’s a very instinctual thing that she does. It’s almost Shakespearean, even, this idea of protecting herself. She thinks: ‘if I dress up as a man, I will be safer’.

This is very much tied in with the underlying event of the novel – in particular, the words spoken to Margot in the prophecy. Was that the aim, to show the connection between language and the fated horror?

I didn’t even think about that with the prophecy. But yes, I think so. In the same way that for Gretel language has made her who she is, the language of the prophecy for Marcus/Margot has made them who they are. I guess horror is about what you see versus what you don’t see – you see edges of things – and the language throughout the book is not ‘real’, it’s not official, or you only see a little bit of it, like with the prophecy. If they knew the rest of the prophecy, if they saw the rest of the words, then what happened wouldn’t have done so. There’s a pressure on the language.

The form, too, makes an impression when reading – the story often throws you off, jumping chapter to chapter between speakers and through time…

Yes! This was deliberate, though I was worried that it would confuse people and I know that some readers have found it too much. But it is about memory, and memories being fragmentary, and I wanted the way you read the story to reflect the way Sarah was narrating it. The memories were coming to her in different ways, and she feels very discombobulated, so I did want the reader to also feel a bit discombobulated.

Is it difficult to write to scare or to unnerve?

That’s what I do, I guess! I’m a Halloween baby; I grew up on Stephen King and old horror films. I don’t know why exactly I like writing about this, but it is one of my favourite things about writing: when you feel a slight sense of uncanny, a slight sense that something is not quite right. It’s dangerous in a way because there is always a question of how much you should hold your reader’s hand… and that’s why I don’t feel it’s a book for everyone because it can be a bit nasty to the reader.

Speaking of such a sense… why did you decide to reinterpret the Oedipus myth?

Firstly, I wanted to take something that was quite ancient, something that was put up on a pedestal – because that’s what really excites me about retelling. You see it in Roald Dahl’s retelling of the fairy tales: taking something ancient that is well thought of and completely destroying it and rebuilding it in a way that can be quite taboo. Like I said, I’ve always been interested in dark things – the edges of horror, of unnervingness – and this is one of the darkest myths!

But also because of the challenge of trying to take a myth where things like fate and determinism and blinding are so massive and make sense for their own time but don’t really make sense in our time. It was a challenge to see whether I could supplant it.

How did you approach the story? Did you have a specific character in mind for each character of the original myth when you set out?

It all changed a lot – Everything Under went through seven entire rewrites from the beginning! I was learning how to write a novel, and it was very messy and the structure was quite confusing. Sarah has stayed relatively the same as Jocasta, but the rest – Fiona as Tiresias, for example – have all changed and become different characters. I definitely started out to retell the myth, but it’s actually a book about a lot of other things – the focus on language, certainly, isn’t unique to the Oedipus story.

Do you have a particular writing process? (Philip Pullman famously has a certain pen he prefers.)

I try not to have things like pens because I think it’s so hard to write anyway that if you have to be in a certain space at a certain time with a certain cup of coffee to write… I just would never do it. I write on the laptop, just because it’s faster and I’m quite a fast first-drafter, both at home and at coffee shops – I have a writing group I’m a part of.

The next novel has not been quite as difficult as this one was, but I write the first draft very, very fast, and normally go back, if not from scratch then close, so there are a lot of deleted words. I think that’s probably something to do with being dyslexic and not particularly logical, which is just how my brain works, so I’m quite in awe of those writers who can just sit down with the beginning and write until they reach the end.

Can you tell us anything about the new novel?

Yes… It’s a horror novel that is set in Yorkshire and is about two sisters living in a house.

Another retelling?

No, this is actually just me!

How has the reception of Everything Under been for you? You’re on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, one of Blackwell’s books of the year…

I know! It’s so exciting and it’s all been quite overwhelming. Around all the Booker stuff, there were two crazy weeks where I wasn’t at home but living in hotels all the time – and then I crashed.

It’s been really nice because I thought that Everything Under would be a divisive book – and some people do hate it – but just seeing people reading it and enjoying it is everything you could ever want.

Find out more about the OED’s ambassadors, part of our 90th anniversary celebrations.

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