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I have been writing since before I knew what a writer was, says Daisy Johnson

THE ASIAN AGE. | SOUMYABRATA GUPTA
Published : Oct 10, 2018, 3:51 pm IST
Updated : Oct 10, 2018, 3:51 pm IST

British writer speaks about becoming the youngest author to make it to the Man Booker shortlist.

Born in Paignton, UK, in 1990, Johnson debuted in the literary world with a short story collection Fen in 2016.
 Born in Paignton, UK, in 1990, Johnson debuted in the literary world with a short story collection Fen in 2016.

“It is difficult to put into words. If you had taken a hold of me a year ago and shaken me and said, listen, listen this is what will happen to you then I would have laughed at you...” Daisy Johnson, at 27, has become the youngest author ever to be a part of the Man Booker Prize shortlist.

The record was previously held by Eleanor Catton, who was 28 when she won the prize for her novel, The Luminaries, in 2013.

Chosen for her novel Everything Under, a book described by judge Val MacDermid, as one that epitomises 'fluidity', Johnson, says that much of the act/art of writing is 'isolated' and going over each sentence multiple times in the middle of the night, coupled with self-doubt and that she finds herself “grinning uncontrollably at all times of the day, dancing around my kitchen.”

“I am young but I have been writing since before I knew what a writer was," she says on her inclusion in the shortlist.

Born in Paignton, UK, in 1990, Johnson debuted in the literary world with a short story collection Fen in 2016.

Having already received rave reviews and accolades for her earlier work, Johnson's debut novel Everything Under is the one which got her to the shortlist. The book is about a young woman who grew up on a canal boat on the river with her wild, fierce mother and the young author describes, is about abandonment, a journey, a quest and remembrance.

She elaborates, "When she was young her mother abandoned her, and the book is, in part, about her journey to try and find her mother. As she is searching for her mother she remembers more and more of what happened when she was a child and lived on the river. A strange boy appears near their boat and there is something living in the water, haunting the people who live in the waterways."

Johnson says that the seed of the novel was a Greek myth which she grew obsessed with and wanted to retell. "It is a novel about memory and trauma and family," she says, adding. "It is also a novel about how the language we use makes us the people we are."

But mostly, Johnson explains, the book is a 'strange, dark myth about fate and guilt.'

Currently living in Oxford by the river, Johnson was partly inspired by the landscape there for her novel. The author who revealed that she loves wild, watery places adds that her first book Fen too was born from the land where she grew up, perhaps hinting towards the inspiration nature plays on her works.

With the inclusion of Esi Edugyan, Anna Burns, Rachel Kushner and Johnson, this year’s Man Booker shortlist sees a majority in the number of women being selected, a fact, Johnson says is 'terrible' that 'this is only the first time!'

The young author explains, "I like to think that we are riding a wave and that it might be a long-living wave. It is difficult, some days, to feel any hope in this regard. So often the books we read are limited to particular voices or experiences and I think we have a very long way to go to rectify this. I like to think, though, that the anger a lot of people are feeling at the moment will drive us forward into a better, more interesting and wider reading experience."

Everything Under has been described as a story of family and identity, of fate, language and love. Much like language which has an ever-changing life of its own, the author says these concepts too are flexible and metamorphose continuously. “This is a book about people living on the margins who see family and identity and love and, especially, language in their own original way.”

Commenting on the inclusion of American fiction in The Man Booker, a topic hotly debated by authors across the world, Johnson reveals that in this regard, she is of two minds.

"I agree that it is important to have prizes only for the UK and the Commonwealth and to celebrate that literature. However I think we need to remember that when the prize opened to America it also opened to the rest of the world, as long as the book was published in English in the UK. And I think that this is really exciting. Because I would love to see authors from Pakistan or Peru or Kenya in the prize. This is not something we are really seeing yet which I think is a shame."

As for some ‘writerly’ words of wisdom, she concludes, "If you want to write you need to read. That is non-negotiable. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read the manual for the washing machine. Read without snobbery but with open eyes, looking for what works and what doesn’t, for what peaks your writerly attention."

Johnson is currently working on her third book, a horror novel set in Yorkshire about two sisters living in a house.

The 2018 winner will be announced on Tuesday 16 October in London’s Guildhall, at a dinner that brings together the shortlisted authors and well-known figures from the cultural world.

Tags: daisy johnson, man booker prize, everything under, books and art man booker prize shortlist, fen, youngest author in man booker shortlist