Writing the uncanny and the lyrical

Tilly Nevin reviews Gillian Cross and Daisy Johnson in conversation

The Norfolk fens (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Although Daisy Johnson, author of FEN and Gillian Cross, a children’s writer, might ostensibly seem to have nothing in common, this talk revealed how much interchange there can be between such different writers if only in terms of principles and practice. It is fitting that Daisy Johnson, a young author herself, was seated next to a champion of literature for children and young adults. She even mentioned how she is currently busy re-reading the Garth Nix series, a series which shaped her writing as a teenager.

The uncanny, the ‘weird’, preoccupies Johnson. She is writing a horror novel, whereas Cross seems to often root her work in contemporary social issues or seems inspired by current events—when she began to write she felt as if the literary market was saturated with work that was “trying to be clever”.

Yet she also came to write because she discovered a love of storytelling when she was raising two young children. Her series The Demon Headmaster too has a sense of the uncanny about it.

As part of Somerville Arts Festival, the two writers answered a joint Q&A and then read excerpts from their books, Johnson reading a short story from FEN and Cross two extracts from her novel After Tomorrow. Johnson’s prose is striking, bold, and beautiful, and the short story she read was immediately gripping, about sexuality and unfettered desire.

Johnson admits that she is obsessed with place, having grown up in a very rural environment, and the descriptions of landscape and rural life permeate and differentiate her work. Lyrical prose creates the uncanny in its description of stark, strange surroundings. Her work is evidently influenced by horror, by the gothic and by fairytale magic realism. It refuses to be defined simply. She has been hailed as one of the upcoming best British writers and having read her work now, I’d very much agree.

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Gillian Cross’ first novel, meanwhile, was published in 1979 and is aimed at a very different audience. However, Cross doesn’t like to “speak down” to children and the extract she chose to read from After Tomorrow had a rape scene in it. The narrator, a young boy, doesn’t comprehend what’s happened to his mum, but for an adult audience it’s impossible not to realise. She doesn’t shy away from tough topics: After Tomorrow imagines a world in which the pound has collapsed and British citizens are having to flee their homes and make dangerous journeys abroad.

The book seems even more timely now in the height of the refugee crisis.  Cross said that even writing it at the time was an enormous challenge because it seemed prophetic: at the launch event, her publisher came over to tell her he’d just heard that Cameron had announced that British borders would be closed if Greece left the Eurozone. In the book France closes its borders to British refugees.

The two writers discussed their writing practices, Cross eliciting a gasp from the audience as she admitted to often using ‘Write or Die’ to write her books and Johnson causing a similar ripple of horror as she told us that Sarah Moss often writes a whole novel and then deletes it, only to start again. Both are optimistic about the future of the book industry, Cross especially.