Daisy Johnson and Alan Trotter discuss their latest novels, how they approach research, and the ways in which myths, horror movies and detective fiction influence their writing.
Reading Muscle I kept thinking of it like a series of Russian dolls: one inside the other, an endless number of them. Each doll surprised me more than the last. How much did you have to wrestle with this structure? Was this always going to be a novel with time travel?
It’s a novel entangled in violence, so much violence you find yourself hardly noticing it by the end. Did writing about violence impact the way the novel was written, or was it the other way around?
I am so glad that you liked Muscle, it means a lot, not least because you were about the first person to say something nice about it as it first stuck a toe out into the world. And because I’m a little awed by both your short stories and by Everything Under.
I wrestled with the structure of Muscle a lot. The first complete draft had most (but not all) of the same parts as the finished book, but they were tangled, maybe impenetrable. I don’t know if it was because I worked on the novel for so long, but it felt like I’d written it around myself, until I couldn’t quite get out and there wasn’t much hope of a reader making their way in.
Then, as I redrafted, I realised that what I’d actually been doing was stocking a workshop, so that (most of the time) when I needed a particular piece for the book I was making, I just had to reach out and it was already there. I had all these parts, and a sense of how they should fit together. With a bit of work, they did. It was as if I had to do the writing first and then make the book later, which is probably not the usual way to go about a novel.
Muscle wasn’t always going to have time travel, no, though that came reasonably quickly; it wasn’t long before Box sat down to read a time travel story. I think it probably appeared because the book was about being stuck with yourself – your place in the world, your choices, your limits – and time travel gave another way to nose around that.
Your novel is about determinism, too, and it also goes to fiction to find a way to talk about it. In particular there’s one Greek myth that feels like the backbone of the book. I don’t even know if I can say what the myth is! Can I? Do you want/expect people to know the myth as they start your novel? Was it the thing you started with? And was it the fatalism of that story that drew you on?
The violence in Muscle: I really started with the main character, Box, and the book’s approach to violence depended on him – he’s determined by violence, it’s the thing he’s expected to offer up, so it could become boring and it could become mundane.
One of the things that really struck me about Everything Under was the way you manage tension. There were scenes where as a reader I’d be wary, braced for something shocking to happen, and then I’d be lulled, and then just as I relaxed, you’d spring a trap. They’re like beautifully constructed scares in a horror film. Do you like writing those moments? (You must! They’re so good.)
I love what you say here about writing the novel around yourself, boxing yourself in. I found this with Everything Under as well, perhaps because – as with Muscle – the structure is sort of exploded. I often wonder what it would be like to write a chronological novel from a single point of view, I am both drawn and repulsed by the idea. Similarly the writing and structuring – or editing I suppose – of Everything Under felt like quite different processes, and it took a while to move between the two. Do you feel more comfortable in the writing or editing process? How did you begin the project that would then become Muscle? Was it always going to be about the things it is about?
I always debate whether or not to tell people which myth Everything Under is based around. Especially when I’m doing events there is always the question of whether to discuss this or leave it secret. So many, nearly all in fact, of the reviews of the book give away the myth within the first few sentences, which was frustrating. I don’t want anyone to find out the myth and feel as if they don’t want to read the book either because it gives away something or because they don’t know the myth. A lot has come from the myth but the book also took many twists and turns that I didn’t expect and explores things that the myth does not.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do a retelling. I suppose I was a bit obsessed – and perhaps still am – with the idea of retelling, the implicit destruction that is required. The fatalism of the myth was certainly a factor in my choosing of it, the story has such a rolling quality to it which I felt was a real gift for a writer, each of the characters feels as if they are falling down a steep hill and nothing will stop their momentum.
I couldn’t decide whether or not to ask this question but it is something I really want to know! I am sure you can refuse to answer and the mystery will only deepen further. One of your characters is nameless, identified only by a dash. I loved this. Can you tell me more about it? Why is he nameless?
I’m glad the moments of tension are good, that is a relief. I grew up on horror novels and films which I still watch a lot of. I think writers can learn a lot from this genre – I think it taught me how to write tension, how to structure a scene. Sometimes it backfires and I write everything like a horror movie and there is no change in pace or suspense. I’m working on something closer to a traditional horror novel at the moment and, interestingly, the actual horror scenes are the thing I am struggling with most. How much is too much? Where to draw the line? When to show and when to only suggest and hint? I think Muscle did this really well, balanced the thin line between what the audience saw and what they didn’t. Are there particular scenes you really enjoy writing?
When I write I constantly loop back through sentences and paragraphs and pages, again and again, reworking them and reworking them. The first time I write a sentence it can be a mangled and barely comprehensible thing (which adds a real frisson to this email-chat-for-publication process), so all writing tends to feel like editing. But I enjoy myself most when it’s still a process of invention, when unexpected things appear on the page and I can pursue them guilt-free.
What do you think it is that repels you about writing from a single point of view? There’s something in that unease I relate to strongly. The thing that skeeves me out the most is the idea of a third person, distanced omniscience that we are expected to take at face value: I always want writing to undermine itself; I want all vantages to be suspect. Is that something you feel?
I started Muscle with a sense of a voice and maybe one page (a version of which is still in the novel) about ____ being thrown from a moving car and landing at Box’s feet. It was already about some of the things the full novel would be about, but it picked up other things and jettisoned some of them (and then reacquired some of these) as it grew – in its ungainly, Brundle-fly-ish fashion – towards what it finally became. Some things were immediately clear (using genre-constraints as a metaphor for more pressing & human internal struggles), and meant that I had to go and read a lot of detective fiction to write it properly. Was there a research side to Everything Under? Did you do a lot of looking for the material that you were going to destroy and remake? (And did you do deliberate research into things like lexicography and canal living as you were working, or were these things you had experience/a sense of?)
I’m happy to talk about _____ and why I called him that, but I’m worried this email is getting really long so maybe I should play it mysterious. One part of it is that _____ is a volatile, unpleasant, vicious person, and to have a main character who’s name is an underscore felt a little hostile towards the reader, so in that way his name suited him. There’s more to say, but that was definitely part of it.
I’m excited to read your next novel now! When did you start writing it? And how thorough a plan do you have going into it? I’ve been thinking about your story ‘Blood Rites’ in Fen lately, which is so good, and based on such a pristine, perfect horror idea: it feels so original, and yet has an eerie, timeless, myth-like quality. Do you like Shirley Jackson? Lyudmila Petrushevskaya?
I’m not sure if there are scenes I particularly liked writing (‘I’m liking this!’ is not at all how I feel at any given moment when writing). The moments that were easiest to write (which I know is not the same thing) were maybe the scenes where the detective, Mike Swagger, gets to be dominant, and things come closest to the conventional detective story. That stuff has a really powerful draw, and the whole book was written in resistance to it, trying to use the genre without getting used by it. In terms of enjoyment though, there is one particular passage with Polly at the end, and I remember the day I spent writing that clearly and fondly. Part of the reason I enjoyed it so much is maybe as simple as: it was good to be doing my thinking for a while in sympathy with a character who wasn’t fundamentally a monster. She was one of the last parts of the book to appear and (maybe because of that) I liked her the best.
I like the idea of writing undermining itself. I wonder if that is something writers are doing more and more, and whether it suggests a lack of confidence in everything else that is going on around us or whether that is taking the thought too far. I think I’ve only just started to work out why I don’t like writing single point of views, and I don’t know if it will always be the case. For me the process of writing a book, or a story, seems to be largely about finding the right way to tell it, how to have the writing style and structure reflect what is happening to the characters. At the moment I often seem to be writing stories in which the characters are discombobulated, uncertain, anguished or self-destructive and a simple structure doesn’t reflect that. I want the readers to feel these things, and multiple voices seems, at the moment, like the right way to do this. I think I long to write simply, to have single voices and straight-forward narratives, but at the moment it doesn’t fit with the sorts of things I’m writing.
Is Muscle the book you always thought you would write? I read your short story Godspeed recently and enjoyed it a lot. It seems to explore some of the things you are doing in Muscle – time, that idea of the writing undermining itself as it goes along, uncertainty – but it was interesting reading you writing in a contemporary voice, so different from the wonderfully pulpy voice of the novel.
A lot of the early research for Everything Under was quite joyful in hindsight, but a panic at the time: reading as many novels about every possible small thing that I wanted to put into the book. This began with reading other retellings – A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski were particularly helpful – but then I branched out into books which merged genres, horror novels, novels about grief, novels with exploded structures. I stole and then had to cut out quite a lot of my stealing because it was too obvious. Nearer the end of the process of writing there were things I had to research more carefully, the degenerative illness being one of them and the lexicography being the other. This was new to me and made me very nervous. Was there anything you HAD to do for Muscle that felt out of your comfort zone? How does it feel to have finished the book? How long did it take you to write?
I’d love to know more about ___. The idea of being purposefully hostile to the reader is so interesting. I often think about how much to hold the readers hand, and this seems like something Muscle purposefully plays with. Sometimes, as a reader, you feel like you’ve just been pushed down a flight of stairs, which is a compelling and different way to read.
I think I probably started writing the new book as Everything Under was going through its final edits, a few years ago. I tried to be a better, more efficient planner with this one because I was such a useless planner with Everything Under, and I think I might have cut a few drafts out of the process which is exciting but also frightening. I sometimes feel that if I don’t hate a project for most of its conception it must not be good, which is stupid – is there a state you exist in with a project where it somehow feels superstitiously important? Writing to me often feels like wrestling with an as-yet unidentified creature. I love Shirley Jackson, and have recently fallen back in love with her because of the loose version of her The Haunting of Hill House which is on Netflix. It is both awful and wonderful at the same time. I haven’t read the second author you mention but will hunt her down. Are you a planner and a plotter or a plougher-inner? Is it possible to categorise what sort of writer you are? Are you working on anything new at the moment? Are you finding it hard to switch off the voice of detective fiction or do you, in fact, not feel like you’re finished with that genre?
I loved Polly and I thought it was very clever that she was in the book. Perhaps as a salve to all the hardcore masculinity. I wonder if it is possible in the reading to tell which part a writer enjoyed writing the most.
It took me more than a decade to write Muscle. Over the course of that time the book changed a lot (and I did too). Now, doting on it from a small but growing distance, it feels as if the way it grew out of the voice was more or less inevitable, but actually all of it – not just the structure, but how it felt to read – changed and kept changing until fairly late in the process.
Honestly, it feels really good to have finished it after all that time. There came a moment, it was at the copy edit, where I returned to it expecting to find large things I still wanted to write (expecting to find it still missing a limb, or to spot an open wound that might need patching up or tearing open) and instead it just seemed complete and as a result no longer mine, and the lightness of that moment was worth the time I put into the writing.
Still, I was wondering today: if I didn’t mean to publish and I was just writing for myself, would I write and finish and start something new, or would I just write and rewrite the same novel over and over, and make one shifting, unsettled thing that could be about whatever was occupying me at any time without resting anywhere? (As things actually are, I’m hoping that book two doesn’t take nearly as long to write as Muscle did.)
Do you think you write differently (with more confidence? or maybe it’s more complicated than that?) knowing now that you have a waiting agent, and editor, and audience for the next novel? And have you enjoyed seeing Everything Under leave you behind and make its way in the world? Are there responses or perspectives on it you’ve particularly enjoyed seeing?
You can probably tell from the fact that it took me more than ten years to write Muscle that I am not a planner. I think I share your superstition: I feel like I need to be wrestling with something as I write it (you make writing sound like the creature in Everything Under, the Bonak!). There’s real excitement doing it that way and I worry that without the flailing horror of that process I’ll get bored, but I’m going to change, or try to, or moderate the best I can. I have an idea for another book (an idea and some notes), and I am trying to plan more before getting myself in trouble. I’m aware we don’t get many decades, so I really want to write this one faster. I’m excited to be out from the hardboiled genre and voice.
I feel like maybe I should be embarrassed to have been caught being hostile to the reader. I think Everything Under is full of this really palpable empathy towards your characters, even as they’re discombobulated or tortured or struggling: does that seem true to you?
I think the idea for naming _____ might have started with a novel I was reading that, as part of a character’s backstory, gave a place name as an initial with an underscore. It said something like ‘For a while he had taught at R______ University’, and it was meant to lend verisimilitude, I suppose, to make it seem like maybe this is true and the identity of the institution has to be protected, or whatever, and it struck me in the complete opposite way, it felt so false and ostentatiously artificial. Having a character called _____ appeared as a way to use that artificiality, as well as to make it about this character’s peripheral-ness and their unpleasantness, and getting rid even of an initial presented this challenge to the voice, a constant prod at the reader, a reminder of the presence of the page.
It presumably also grew from Kafka, who I think about constantly, and particularly K. in The Castle, which I think is the greatest novel I’ve ever read. If you had to name the person whose writing rattles in you more than anyone else’s, who would it be? Or does it change?
I’ve always thought that once the work is published it moves out of the writers’ hands and belongs to the readers. There is, like you say, a lightness to that, it’s passed away from you. I love it when readers bring up questions or comments which I never thought about – the novel is a shifting thing, still being written but not by us. People ask a lot about the dog and the symbolism of that, someone once asked if it was eaten at the end and I loved that because I hadn’t considered it but it made perfect sense. I even (sort of) like it when people say they don’t like it, because you want to write something divisive, and any reaction seems better than neutrality.
Some days I think I write with less of the panic which accompanied Everything Under, and I think maybe that has less to do with having an agent etc and more that I didn’t know what I was doing with Everything Under. A lot of the process involved teaching myself how to write a novel. Other days I think this is rubbish and every project is harder and easier in different ways. Some of the process seems to be leaving behind that previous work, giving up the ideas and preconceptions that came with getting it to a publishable place. I’m having a bad week with the current novel draft and that makes me feel various things. Partly I think (romantically, credulously, truthfully) that it is supposed to be a wrestle, like you say, because novels are bastards and part of the process should be a fight. Yes! Let all of our books be Bonaks.
Sometimes people say: it’s so good to hear that writing books is hard for everyone and OK, here is a cauldron of my tears and how could this be easy for anyone? I also think that a lot of the difficulty comes from thinking about things that can’t help, and shouldn’t be merged with the writing process, like, for example, money.
I think that I lived with the characters for long enough (although actually not as long as you lived with yours) that I couldn’t hate them despite everything they did. But I did at times hate the reader and feel like leading them astray because I thought that they could only understand what they were reading if, like the characters, they got a bit confused.
I love those novels which stay with you. I almost wish (although of course not because it was awful) that I could go back and be a teenager reading Stephen King and Peter Hoeg and Keri Hulme again, for the first time at that age where you are so ready to be knocked for six by a book. I think The Bone People did that for me, really caught me out, and made me like the sort of books that people call difficult. There are a few books over the last years which have done that for me and I’m glad I still have the capacity. Evie Wylde and Sarah Hall and Helen Oyeyemi.
Reading now feels different I think because (as I tell students) I’m constantly critiquing someone’s comma use, but there is a beauty in that too. I was envious of Muscle in that good, inspiring way. I like being a writer magpie, there is always something to steal.