Daisy John­son

Friday - - AUTHORSPEAK -

Ev­ery­thing Un­der

It is hard to know now why I first be­gan writ­ing Ev­ery­thing Un­der. Why that idea, rather than any other, was the one that fi­nally stuck and could not be shaken loose. I was work­ing on the col­lec­tion of sto­ries that would later be­come my first book, Fen. I had an itch to write some­thing longer that would chal­lenge me in a dif­fer­ent way. I had be­come ob­sessed with the idea of retelling. I loved the act of de­struc­tion that was re­quired, the way a new story could emerge from the bones of an old one. I had al­ways been in­spired by myth, par­tic­u­larly Greek myth, and its be­fud­dle­ment of meta­mor­pho­sis, beauty and vi­o­lence. Friends were work­ing on fem­i­nist retellings of Or­pheus – the mu­si­cian with his lyre who de­scends into the un­der­world to res­cue his love – but I knew I wanted some­thing darker.

The myth I de­cided on is taut with vi­o­lence and hor­ror, a tum­bling shocker of a story that drags you to its in­evitable, fated end. I was drawn to the gaps I imag­ined I would be able to fill, the char­ac­ters who seemed nearly si­lenced. I was read­ing short sto­ries by Sarah Hall, Kelly Link, Claire Vaye Watkins and Karen Rus­sell . I ap­pre­ci­ated their bold weird­ness, the way the nor­mal was in­fected with strange­ness. I was think­ing a lot about the un­canny, the idea of home turned dan­ger­ous. I loved apoc­a­lyp­tic fic­tion with the sense of im­pend­ing doom and na­ture turned vil­lain. I car­ried a num­ber of books around with me that I knew were do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar to what I wanted to do: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld , Miss Smilla’s Feel­ing for Snow by Peter Hoeg, White Is for Witch­ing by He­len Oyeyemi .

I could feel the idea of a story trem­bling in­side me.

I’d writ­ten nov­els be­fore but never suc­cess­fully. I felt I was learn­ing as I went along, fum­bling for the right way. The first draft was no good. The sec­ond, third, fourth and fifth draft were also no good, the set­ting was wrong, or the voice or the char­ac­ters. It was life­less. I wrote quickly and deleted al­most ev­ery­thing. I de­spaired, but I was also learn­ing what the book was about, hack­ing the story out of the mess.

I don’t think there is magic in writ­ing – but some­times it does feel like dig­ging for a box you know is buried. One sum­mer, my part­ner and I bor­rowed a canal boat and mo­tored around the Ox­ford wa­ter­ways. The river was tan­gled and thick with un­der­growth. I saw a dead sheep half sub­merged and be­gan to al­most be­lieve that lurk­ing roots and branches were crea­tures in the murky wa­ter. I’d been work­ing on Ev­ery­thing Un­der for a few years and the set­ting had changed three or four times. The first night on the boat I couldn’t sleep for the noise of an­i­mals in the un­der­growth and, per­haps, in the wa­ter; the cold through the hull. When I got home I be­gan rewrit­ing the book again and this time it was about a girl liv­ing on a boat with her mother and a boy who comes walk­ing down the river to­wards them.

Ev­ery­thing Un­der is a book I have lived and fought with for nearly four years and it is both won­der­ful and ter­ri­fy­ing to re­lin­quish my hold and ac­cept that it no longer be­longs to me.

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