Hello everybody! Today, I’m so excited to be sharing my interview with Daisy May Johnson, the author of one of my favourite books of the year so far, How to be Brave. Onto the post!
1. Hi Daisy May, thank you so much for being here! To get us started, can you describe the How to Be… series in 5 words?
“Best friends who like cake” (hee!).
2. This will make me sound like a suck-up right out of the gate but I don’t care; you basically wrote a book that is so exactly my taste it’s like I personally commissioned you to write it. So… do you have any books you feel like that about?
YES I DO ISN’T IT THE BEST FEELING EVER?? Here’s my list: A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian is basically everything I ever wanted in a book. Give me a higgledy-piggledy bookshop, a coming of age story, and people discovering who they’re meant to be in the world, and I am yours. Also: My Name Is Mina by David Almond. It’s the prequel to Skellig and I think actually better – which is saying a lot! Skellig’s so good! Anyway, My Name Is Mina is so, so beautiful and exuberant and Almond’s writing just sings and I love it entirely. And finally: Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens. When I heard about it, I was like – this is everything I’ve ever wanted – and it WAS.
3. On a similar note, part of why I loved your book so much is the boarding school setting, which is so reminiscent of books like Malory Towers et. al . What are some of your favourite fictional schools, boarding or otherwise? Do you feel, like I do, that there’s been a bit of a renaissance of this type of book in the last few years?
So I love boarding school stories entirely and I’m very fond of the golden age in particular (forgive me, but I’m about to soapbox here…!). The golden age of school stories was the early twentieth century and authors such as Angela Brazil and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer absolutely dominated children’s books (if you’ve not tried The Chalet School In Exile, it’s basically perfect WW2 school story). The baton was then passed onto authors like Enid Blyton who I really enjoy (but also find very problematic in the same measure) before the genre kind of faded out for a bit despite the best efforts of authors like Anne Digby and the great Trebizon series.
And now, I think you’re right – it’s very much back! We’re totally having a boarding school story renaissance – authors such as Robin Stevens are clearly my first pick (team Bunbreak!) but then there’s loads of people like Sabine Adeyinka, Emily Kenny, and Jo Clarke coming through – it’s exciting times!
4. A very prominent part of How to Be Brave is (my beloved) Edie’s schemes to bring down the new, terrible headmistress. Did you get up to any mischief at school? And if not, is there anything Edie orchestrated that you wish you’d done?
I have to say that even though I love Edie SO MUCH, I am very much the Hanna of the three! My schooldays were basically just me quietly trying to get through them and Edie would have been so inspiring to know (and possibly also terrifying but I think that’s all part of her charm…). I feel like she’d make everybody brave around her and you’d feel so confident with her around because you know she’d do anything for you and you’d pick up valuable life skills in the process (like how to run a revolution and how to ALWAYS have an emergency biscuit handy…).
5. Speaking of Edie (MY BELOVED), How to be True is all about her!! Were you always planning to have more than one book or did she just demand to have her own adventure? And since I love her so much, who would you say is your own favourite of these amazing characters you’ve created?
Oh How To Be True had to be all about Edie!! I adore writing her (seriously, so much fun) and I was so excited about digging into her back story to figure out how and why she became her chaotic little self. Not only did that let me write about activism and feminism, it also let me talk about macarons and chocolate spread sandwiches and make myself ferociously hungry in the process.
In terms of my favourite characters, I think I like them all! Edie’s definitely one of my favourites but then I also love how Elizabeth North stands up for what she believes in (no matter what the cost) and I love how Good Sister June believes in the strength of the girls that she looks after and how Hanna’s always got a book ready in case she needs it and how all the first years are basically a little squad for good and mischief all at once. In How To Be True, you’ll meet some new characters who I can’t tell you about without being FULL OF MASSIVE SPOILERS but I love them a lot – they’re all brave and strong and complicated and so close to my heart.
6. A little birdie (aka your recent instagram post) told me art plays a big part in How to Be True as well. How did you find researching art (and in the case of the first book, ducks)? What are some interesting new facts you’ve learned that you didn’t manage to put in the book?
Art definitely does play a big part in How To Be True, and one painting in particular proves to be very pivotal indeed … (mysterious ellipses alert!). I think How To Be True is also about learning to see and understand the world around you and realising your place in it. These are all very important themes for me in terms of art and it was a pleasure to use that to frame Edie’s story. As the book progresses, you’ll see that I also got to explore some darker themes of art history and touch upon some really complex and difficult moments. I did a lot of research for those moments to make sure that I wrote about them with respect and dignity and all of the stuff I came across went into the book in some way or another. My rule is if it interests me, then it’ll interest the reader so in it goes!
7. Your writing style is so joyful and unusual, so I was wondering how you developed such a unique voice? What tips would you give other writers on finding their own? And how do you work with the footnotes?
I took a very specific decision when I started to work on How To Be Brave – I wanted it to be indulgent. I wanted it to do all of the things I loved in children’s books and to make me happy. And it did – so much. I think a lot of your voice as a writer can come from those moments when you consciously try to do and be who you want to be and don’t think about others. (I call this writing ‘selfishly’ to my students and I think that’s the term I’m going to stick with!). Don’t write the book that you think publishing wants you or what the current trend is. Write the book that only you can and want to write. And enjoy it! My other tip on finding your voice is to teach yourself to read critically. Ask yourself why you like something and how that thing elicits that reaction. Look at the tools they use, the way they structure a paragraph or put a line together. Figure out what works for you – and what doesn’t (and it’s fine to not like stuff! Just make sure you know why…) Related to this: if you don’t read a certain genre of books or dislike certain types of characters then maybe you’re not the best person to write that genre or that genre. Try to understand what you like in literature and take the time to tease out why. It all benefits your work.
The footnotes were a very specific decision as well. I read a lot of children’s literature (not only do I write it but I also research it as an academic) and I was thinking about the things that weren’t really done. I’m always interested in a book that does things a little bit differently or tries to play around with the format of a book itself. Only a handful of children’s books had ever played around with footnotes and I wondered how they might work out in How To Be Brave (pretty well it turns out!). I think of them as Easter Eggs – not as the chocolate kind but as the little bits of bonus content you can get with something. You don’t have to read them at all but they give you a whole new layer of story to play with. Plus they’re super handy if I think of a joke or some extra information later – I can just pop it in a footnote and tuck it in at the bottom of a page. I had games with myself – as well, can I make a footnote longer than the actual text, or can I make it completely random – I try to keep myself on my toes with them
8. Also on the theme of writing, what’s your writing routine like, if you have one? Do you have any unusual habits or quirks?
I don’t really have a routine other than ‘sitting down and trying to get it done’ and I can be fairly flexible in terms of location. I do tend to write fairly quickly but that’s because my agent and I have spent a long time discussing what the book might be and how it should look and all I need to do is go off and write the thing. If things aren’t going well and I’m clock-watching, then I make myself write unbroken until the next minute and then slowly stretch that out until I’m writing for longer periods. I also like to finish my wordcount for the day on a round number so 1000, 1500, 2000 and so on as that always feels like a productive marker for me in terms of progress.
9. Finally, can you clue is in on what you’re working on at the moment?
And as I’ve not yet read it at the time of writing, do you have any hints about what’s to come in How to be True as a little bonus? I am working on the sequel to How To Be True which is called [SPOILER] and hopefully I get to tell you all about that soon enough! (I am enjoying it a lot).
For now, I’ll give you some tiny hints about How To Be True: guard ducks, revolutions before breakfast, a mysterious painting, best friends for life. Also sock biscuits (that one will make sense I promise…).
I mean, I can’t not ask you what your favourite biscuit and/or cake is?
I am very pro a pink wafer, ditto a cupcake with a RIDICULOUS amount of icing and very little sponge.
What would be your specialist subject on mastermind?
Oh wow, let me think! I’d like to say it’s “random names of pupils from the Chalet School books” but I don’t know if they’d let that in, so let’s go for “ponies from pony books” which, now that I think about it
Favourite breed of duck?
Top 3 books of the year so far?
I am always a little bit behind with publishing (so many books, so little time!) so I’m going to tell you about some books that weren’t published this year but I LOVE THEM VERY MUCH. The first is ‘The Secret Garden on 81st Street’ which is a modern day graphic novel retelling of The Secret Garden. It’s set in New York and is so beautifully done. I also just picked up a version of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland which was illustrated by Tove Jansson and it is just amazing – it stopped me in my tracks in the shop.
And I’m just rereading Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth which is an outstanding graphic history of LGBTQI+ life in the UK – it’s power, personal, fierce and I learn something new from it every time I read.
3 anticipated releases for the rest of 2022?
I am very intrigued by Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars by Nick Duerden which is due out at the end of June and talks about what happens when musicians are past their peak of fame. I’m also SO here for a new Jamila Gavin (queen, queen) and can’t wait for Never Forget You (out in July). And I am DESPERATE for Robin Stevens’ new book – The Ministry of Unladylike Activity in September. I adore everything Stevens does and can’t wait for this!
Thank you so much for reading! Have you read Daisy’s books? Are you planning to? What’s your favourite fictional boarding school? I’d love to chat to you in the comments!
2 thoughts on “Author Interview with Daisy May Johnson”
A great review. Author habits are always very interesting, and fun. Thank you Daisy May and Amy.
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Thank you so much for reading!! I feel like you would really enjoy Daisy’s books if you haven’t read them 😊😊