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.