The novel Everything Under is a retelling of Oedipus Rex, but it is about so much more than that. It’s a visceral and emotional book, told through bodies of water and bodies of people, reaching forward and back as inexorably as a river.
It’s a shame when the youngest person to do something is boiled down to a statistic, a kind of Guinness Book of World Records simplification. Daisy Johnson is at risk of that. At twenty-eight, she could be the youngest author ever to win the Man Booker Prize, earning the honor for her novel, Everything Under. But reducing Johnson to this piece of trivia has little to do with the luminous, intricate work she does as a writer.
Johnson and I discussed her craft and process for writing this book, monsters and myths, and family, both within Everything Under and in her life.
The Rumpus: So how did Oedipus Rex inspire you? What parts of it did you find resonant with the story you wanted to tell, and what parts less so?
Daisy Johnson: The myth was the seed of the novel and—while a lot has changed in the drafting process—that is really the only thing that has stayed the same throughout. I knew that I wanted to do a retelling and, I think, I was looking for a challenge. Oedipus Rex is very much a product of its time, and I was interested to see whether I could fit the story into a contemporary setting. I was inspired by its wonderful, bodily weirdness and violence. It’s a myth filled with babies left in the mountains for wolves and gender transformation and blindings. It also very much has a structure which makes the story feel inevitable; right from the start, there is no escape from the events, and this is something I wanted to steal and put into the book. I wanted the book to feel as if it was rolling uncontrollably to its end.
Rumpus: Did you ever feel restricted by the play?
Johnson: Everything Under went through an enormous amount of rewriting and drafts, and I think part of this had to do with finding the right way to use the myth. The book is a retelling but is also an exploration of a lot of things which the myth has nothing to do with. I personally love retellings—taking a story and reworking it in some way, using ideas to dart off along different avenues. There are retellings in Fen, my short story collection, as well.
Rumpus: How did you assemble the book, and when did you decide about the varying POV? It’s written in alternating points of view and timelines, and I’m wondering whether you jigsawed sections together or wrote them continuously. I can imagine you struggling, going back and forth, but I can also imagine you just writing it and making it look easy.
Johnson: I know that I didn’t make it look easy. Friends rescued me when I was crying in coffee shops. One once told me that if anyone complained about their job as much as I complained about writing this book, they would tell them to quit. In a way, I was learning how to write a novel. But it was also a tricky book to write, as you point out, because it’s fragmented and structurally complex.
My technique for this book was one of intense rewriting. The very first draft is unrecognizable from the finished product. In fact, the fourth and fifth draft are probably quite unrecognizable, too. I would begin with a set of ideas I wanted to explore, a general plot and characters, and then work on an entire draft. At the end of the draft, I would read through and take anything I thought I could keep (which in the early drafts was very little) and then work from scratch again.
I wrote this book entirely from scratch perhaps seven times. It was not a streamlined way of working. It was hard, and I despaired at the end of each draft. Gradually, though, something came together. Gretel appeared and, with her, the idea of language and memory. The POVs changed throughout, and I did a lot of trying things out in one voice and then deleting that and trying it out in another. By the end, I had a load of different threads and scenes, and had to print them out, lay them on my study floor, and move them around to try and find the best way for them to work.
Rumpus: Do you think of yourself as primarily a short story writer or primarily a novelist? Which do you prefer?
Johnson: I think of myself as a writer. I will always write short stories because they are where I’ve come from and because I love working on them. But equally I love novels and am very aware that they are my bread and butter. I have been living with short stories for a lot longer, and I feel I still have a lot to learn about novels, which is exciting. I am also working on essays which are so different and, because of that, enjoyable.
Rumpus: One of the parts of the book that spoke most to me was the troubled mother/daughter relationship. But your acknowledgments indicate that your relationship with your mother isn’t troubled. Can you speak to how you created what’s between Sarah and Gretel?
Johnson: I have, luckily, a really wonderful relationship with my mother. Although this book came from me, and I am buried within it, the characters are not me.
The relationship between Sarah and Gretel came, at the start, from wanting to write about a mother who does not find motherhood natural. In the Oedipus myth, a child is left on the mountain to be eaten by wolves. I wanted to examine the idea of a mother abandoning her child and what that would do to her, how that would change both her and her child.
Gretel was not there in the earlier drafts of the book. She is not from the original myth. She came about because I needed a character to look in on the action—an outsider—an observer who would stand in for the readers’ eyes.
Though my relationship with my immediate family is very good, not all of my family get on, and I suppose I was influenced by that, by the disappointment that comes from a lacking family member. We are expected to love our family no matter what, but this is sometimes easier said than done.
I was also very much influenced, I think, by the missing mothers strewn throughout literature and in finding this mother and bringing her back and seeing what that would mean. King Lear was one of the first places I saw this mother-shaped gap and became intrigued. I was also interested in what happens when an older parent—one with whom we have had a troubled relationship—can no longer fend for themselves. For this I read a lot, but Iris Murdoch’s husband’s account of her dementia was most helpful.
Rumpus: Do you consider Sarah’s relationship with Marcus to be child abuse?
Johnson: This is a really interesting question and one I’ve never been asked before. The things that Sarah does to Marcus are horrific, and I think no one forgives her less than she forgives herself. She is, in a way, driven mad by what she has done. But there is also the question, throughout, of how much she knows, of how much she realizes. And this is something I wanted to leave for the reader to decide. I also want them to decide what they think about Sarah. The things she does are awful, but she has her own issues and problems, and these fuel her every action. We expect mothers in our society to be perfect in a way we never expect fathers to be. She is not perfect.
Is it child abuse? Considering it now, it’s interesting to think about every book and film that portrays an older man having a relationship with a younger woman. We are saturated with those stories. This is a relationship about an older woman and a younger man. Marcus is older than Lolita. But he is also intensely vulnerable, young for his age, lost, confused.
Rumpus: Can you say more about Sarah’s character? I found her difficult to grasp—the book seems to stop just short of making her villainous.
Johnson: I wanted to examine, I think, what it means to write a woman character who is not nice, maternal, easily moved to kindness. At one point Gretel describes Sarah as being like the leader of a cult. I think this is a good overall description for her. She likes power and control because she feels so unable to control her own life.
I wanted the readers to decide what they think about Sarah, and if she had been made a villain they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do this.
Rumpus: One more mother question: I felt the book positioned the mother/daughter relationship as a primary (as in primal) story, because of the “I” perspective of the daughter to the “you” of the mother. Any thoughts on this?
Johnson: A lot of people have asked why I used the second person in some of the book and really, I think, your question answers this. For Gretel, her mother is the pivotal character in her life, the person around which all else moves. Gretel could only address the story to one person. She is not speaking to us. She is speaking to Sarah. And I do think there is something primitive, almost animal, about their relationship. When Gretel is young, there is no one there but Sarah; she has contact with no one else. They create a language together, and because of this Gretel grows up like no other child in the world does. Later, when they’re older and Sarah is sick, the relationship swaps places, and Gretel is the mother and Sarah is the child. So in a way they are always trapped in this, as you say, primal place.
Rumpus: Part of the book centers around a spectral monster called “the Bonak.” Is the Bonak derived from a reference I’m not aware of, as an American, non-resident of an English riverside?
Johnson: No, it’s an invention all my own! I wanted a hard word, almost a sound rather than an actual description of something. I wanted it to be the sort of word that a child might come up with to describe something that lives under their bed or in the wardrobe.
Rumpus: What is the Bonak to you, literally? Or is it deliberately murky and conceptual?
Johnson: The Bonak is what I am afraid of. In that it is whatever any of us are personally afraid of. I have never thought specifically about what it means to me, but I suppose I’m afraid of heights, not being able to write, someone following me home at night. In Everything Under, the Bonak is a creature that lives in the water and steals pets and children. But it is also memory. The fear of remembering. Or the fear of remembering incorrectly.
Rumpus: What is the idea of “the river” to you? As metaphor, as literal place where you live? What did you think of when writing about “the river”?
Johnson: I live by the river in Oxford and, as someone who was a rural child, it is still necessary for me to stomach the city, if only just to know that it’s there if I need it. Some of Everything Under was written while driving a canal boat around the Oxford waterways.
Some of the river-related things I thought about or read while writing were: The fact that anything could be beneath the surface and we wouldn’t know. The book Dart by Alice Oswald. The rivers of the dead, particularly Lethe, which steals memories of life from the dead. Charon the dead ferryman and the idea of guides in fiction. Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi and the idea of loners and idlers haunting the rivers on canal boats. The structural idea of rivers and how this relates to memory: tributaries, Oxbow lakes, etc. All the language around canals and canal boats: locks, windlasses, sacrificial anode. The idea of water as a feminine element, which is annoying except when you look at rivers, where it becomes intriguing. The idea of water as baptismal, making us the person we are supposed to be. Which is sort of what happens to Marcus.
Rumpus: How do you feel about the Booker nomination?
Johnson: It is, truthfully, the best thing that has ever happened to me. It’s not something I ever even considered for Everything Under but it is, of course, what every writer writing in English aims for and to have it for my first novel is just overwhelmingly wonderful. It has also meant that I’ll be able to live off my writing, which I haven’t really gotten my head around yet!
Rumpus: Can I ask indelicately whether you think it’s a good thing that Americans are now part of the Booker pool? (I don’t.)
Johnson: I cannot decide. I loved the novels by American authors which were on the list this year—I think they were doing really interesting things. But I do think it means that books from the UK and the Commonwealth are being missed out on, and that is a shame. It is hard for me, truthfully, to answer this question after being inside the Booker machine and spending time with the writers from the US.
Rumpus: Oedipus is very, very old, one of the oldest stories still circulating in Western culture. But the Bonak is completely new. Did you consider that juxtaposition, the old with the new?
Johnson: I considered it a lot. Oedipus is old, but the story I was telling was set in contemporary times, and was about, in a way, what it means to live in our world at the moment. What I love about myths is their timelessness, how applicable they can be to us even now. If I could have one wish for my writing, it would be for it to feel timeless, for it to mean something to a reader in fifty years.
Photograph of Daisy Johnson © Matthew Bradshaw.