He was born on a Halloween day. Maybe that’s why, he says, he likes horror stories so much. Daisy Johnson (United Kingdom, 31 years old), considered the clearest heir to the teacher of the genre Shirley Jackson, read her first text by another great, Stephen King, as a teenager. “I devoured it,” he corrects. His first novel, the terrifying Under the surface (Peripheral), has been compared to those of the so-called King of Horror. The reason: “What writers become when we read.” And what is? “Some kind of recycling bin. When we create, we reuse everything we have accumulated ”. De King was left with the idea of how addictive his books were. “I wanted mine to be too,” he says.
Johnson is in a small shed in his backyard. He built it during the pandemic and shares it with his partner, who creates electronic instruments, so “it’s all full of cables and tools.” On the table there is a cup of coffee, a breast pump – she has just become a mother -, a huge glass of water, the draft of her fourth work – she published the first, a collection of stories, at the age of 27 – and some books. He always writes, he says, “about things that are buried or under water,” and perhaps that is why the reader has the feeling that he is diving into some kind of underworld when he reads it. This is the case in Under the surface, where the voice of Gretel, the protagonist, It directs him to the hell of memories and that earned him a finalist for the Booker, one of the youngest in the history of the literary award.
Gretel, a desolate lexicographer whose mother left before adolescence, lives by the river in the place where she had grown up, away from everything. After years of searching for her, hanging posters on poles and visiting morgues, the two meet again. The narrator addresses the reader in a second person who reconstructs a strange Oedipus myth by piling up memories that are not only hers. They are also of Marcus, the young man who, fleeing from himself, and from his family, like Hansel, found them when Gretel was still a child. “I like the destruction that lies in the reworking of any myth,” says Johnson.
“When I look back I see myself reading novels about tough guys and silenced, absent women. Our mission today, as authors, is to destroy all that ”, says the author.
What hides Under the surface it is “where we come from, how our genes, our nature, our upbringing shape us.” “Gretel wouldn’t be what she is if it hadn’t been for that mother. Nothing is accidental, ”says the writer, who insists on her tendency to destroy the preconceived. “Often when I look back, I find myself reading novels as a teenager starring tough guys and silenced, absent women. At that age, everything you read shapes you, and our mission today, as authors, is to destroy all that. Women writers must destroy to create. The greats, such as Margaret Atwood or Jackson herself, Toni Morrison or Keri Hulme, have had it clear from the beginning ”.
Each author opens a path. “Somehow, like Hansel and Gretel, I’m leaving crumbs on the ground that will bring me back, and that will bring the reader with me,” says Johnson. What you will do along the way is to stay on a border that does not exist, but is there anyway. “The book has often been described as a limbo-novel, at once a version of something that existed and something entirely new. The same goes for the characters, who are not exactly male or female. Marcus is not exactly a transgender character, I would say that he is somewhere between both genders, ”she considers.
Live on the sidelines
Perhaps, for this reason, because the directions are multiple and are not defined, the idea of possibilities is so insisted upon. It is a recurring thought of the narrator – in what way could it have been different from how it was, and not end up Gretel wandering around motels and forests – and it is a way, according to the writer, of “believing in a destiny that has nothing to do with it. with faith ”but that places it in the center. “To what extent does believing that we are something make us that?” Asks Johnson. “Gretel becomes the person she is because she thinks she won’t be able to escape her mother,” she says. “An absent mother, the worst possible monster, whom nobody wants to understand, because they do not want to understand that a child or the idea of being a mother can disgust you,” he adds.
The characters in the novel are shipwrecked in a United Kingdom that is not mentioned, but that beats in the background, like something that calls out from the deep sea. An unconscious political reading of the situation that Brexit has left behind? “Yes, in a sense, the UK today is like a ship that has sunk itself to the bottom of the sea, devastatingly and terribly,” he replies. And, in any case, his characters “live on the margins, in every way, because they will never live up to expectations, neither their own nor those of others. And they feel guilty because they will never be good enough and that is why they run away, drink and hurt others ”.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.