Meet the author: Daisy Johnson

The mind behind the Man Booker-shortlisted Everything Under and new novel Sisters on the power of a haunted house and the joys of making fajitas in a camper van.

Daisy Johnson, author of Sisters. Image taken by Matt Bradshaw
Image: Matt Bradshaw

There’s plenty of reason for the anticipation surrounding Daisy Johnson’s second novel. Not only have her short stories (collected in her first book, Fen) won plenty of awards, including the Harper’s Bazaar short story prize in 2016; her debut novel, Everything Under, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018, making the 28-year-old the second-youngest nominee in the prize’s history.

But the anticipation is over: Sisters is out now in the UK, and it promises to grip just as deeply as Fen and Everything Under. The story of two sisters named July and September, the novel explores the profound, ever-shifting nature of familial bonds, and the multifarious ways they’re informed by the surrounding world.

Ahead of its publication, we reached out to Johnson to ask a few questions about her writing life. She responded with the novels she keeps returning to, well-deserved martinis, and her previous life as a shepherd.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

There are too many and I admire different writers every day. I interviewed the brilliant writer Jeanette Winterson last year and though I have always loved her writing, speaking to her cemented my admiration. I hugely admire how every book she writes is different, how she always seems to be learning as a writer. Frankissstein is such a masterpiece, I’ve read it so many times and I know it is one of those books I will keep going back to.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

In an interview I once said that I would be a shepherd if I wasn’t a writer, and I’ve been asked often about this imaginary shepherd life. Perhaps I was a shepherd in another life.  

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times.

There are a few books I return to over and over, especially when I’m struggling at writing. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg, The Bone People by Keri Hulme. The last few years I’ve read White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi an enormous amount of times, trying to see how it works. It’s such a wonderful book, and I think really shows the breadth of what horror writing is capable of.

Listen to an extract from Daisy Johnson's Sisters

What the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

When I was working on my first novel I remember going to watch an event with Sarah Moss, whose writing I really love. Sarah spoke about the way she writes a novel, which is to write an entire draft and then delete every word and begin again. Though she was not necessarily suggesting everyone followed her lead, I think what she taught me was how to delete, how to love every draft and then let it go.

What makes you most happy?

My partner and I have a camper van, and I love driving somewhere with mountains or the sea and making fajitas on the tiny gas hob and going to sleep with the sound of rain on the roof. It also, of course, makes me very happy that my third book is about to be read and hopefully enjoyed by some people. 

What’s your biggest regret?

I often wake in the night and regret small unkindnesses I have done; sharp words, unnecessary nastiness. Sometimes I wake also and regret a particular sentence which never felt quite right, or the placing of a full stop. These small regrets sometimes have a habit of building and building and feeling enormous.

What’s your ideal writing scenario?

Some friends and I rented a little house in Norfolk this year and spent the whole week writing and talking about writing, eating cheese, going to the rainy beach. I wrote more every day than I’ve ever written, sat at the table or on the floor with an end-of-day martini.

...and your ideal reading one?

In the garden on a blanket with a very large cup of tea and the whole day ahead.

What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?

I really loved Real Life by Brandon Taylor. It’s set over a weekend and I really admired the intensity, the beauty.

What inspired you to write your book?

I grew up reading and watching haunted house films, and this book began as the small seed of an idea of seeing if I could write my own haunted novel. I’ve always loved the haunted house, in almost everything I write there is a haunted space or a monster in some way. The more I worked on the book the more it became clear that I also really wanted to write about a very intense sibling relationship, an overpowering, overwhelming relationship which is both wonderful and terrible. This is a book about love, I suppose.

Sisters by Daisy Johnson is out now.

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