At 27, Daisy Johnson is the youngest writer ever to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In this interview, the author Sam Thompson, who taught Daisy at Oxford, describes the shared preoccupations and struggles of teaching writing.
What do you like most about Daisy’s writing?
I love its strangeness — that’s the best word I can find. In Daisy’s world we live with the bizarre and the inexplicable, going through metamorphoses of body and soul, encountering the dead and the never-born, acting out buried patterns of myth — and she writes it with such conviction that you understand it’s not fantasy or magical realism, but the truth of things.
What advice did you give Daisy when it came to developing her craft?
One of the joys of working with Daisy was that it wasn’t really possible to give her advice. She understood that every writer finds her own path, and she always seemed utterly dauntless about the journey.
I think it’s an ideal situation for both tutor and student when you find you’re able to have an in-depth conversation as fellow writers about your shared preoccupations and struggles, and I hope that’s how it was in this case.
As a tutor, you read the work as deeply as you can, and try to give the writer a faithful sense of what you find going on inside it.
It was fascinating to watch the material develop. I remember reading an early draft of a story in which letters of the alphabet began to disappear one by one, both from the characters’ language and from the words on the page — it was a brilliant experiment in itself, but only in retrospect can I see how it evolved into the story ‘Language’ in Fen.
Who are the other writers to watch from the Oxford programme?
I can’t answer this question, because it doesn’t work like that — teaching on a writing programme like Oxford’s MSt isn’t about picking winners or future stars, any more than studying on such a programme is about trying to win a Booker Prize.
The heart of the matter is nothing to do with prizes or bestsellers: it’s about committed writers coming together to help their work become what it wants to be. Then if someone does win something, all the better…
Sam Thompson is the author of the novels Jott and Communion Town. He taught on the MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford University between 2012 and 2018. He currently teaches prose writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast.