We The Humanities: Interview with Daisy Johnson, University of York

This week you can find me over at @wethehumanities, a rotating Twitter account where people working in the humanities get to share ideas, experiences, and stories. I’m using my week to talk about the grey areas between fact and fiction, dream and experience, stories and everyday life – as well as people who cross back and forth over the walls of universities and academic institutions.

Writer, researcher, and librarian Daisy Johnson blogs on children’s literature and literary tourism – which also happen to be her research topics as a doctoral candidate at the University of York. She began by telling me about her thesis.

I research children’s literature and literary tourism in the United Kingdom. I’m interested in what happens after the book; that moment when you visit somewhere in the real world that you’ve previously read about in a book.

I think I’ve always been interested in literary tourism without quite knowing what it is. I visited the Achensee in Austria when I was younger, solely because of my interest in the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, and ever since that point, I’ve been interested in the edges of the literary experience and what happens when you experience the fictional in the real world and vice-versa.

Literary tourism isn’t a new phenomenon, but I do think that the contemporary manifestation of it is something quite peculiarly interesting. Harry Potter’s a great example of what I mean; things like Pottermore, and the computer games, the films, the play, the original novels, and the site of Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross all present a slightly different manifestation of literary space – but it is still a literary space. When I’m catching the Hogwarts Express in Orlando, I’m denying the rights of the real world upon me at that point and willfully inserting myself into a constructed fictionalised version of reality. When I’m playing on the PS2, I’m part of the Harry Potter literary landscape – even though it may not quite be a landscape that we recognise as one. I’m fascinated in the position of the reader in creating, perpetuating and experiencing such a dynamic representation of literary space, that may range from the physical to the conceptual to the virtual, and what that actually entails on the part of the reader and the reading.

You work in public libraries alongside your academic research, and you also write fiction too. How do the three things inform one another?

The dialogue between public libraries, my writing, and my research is quite vital to me as the three do directly influence and inform each other. Libraries are an important space for me professionally, but also in how they allow me to continue to make sure that what I’m doing in academia has a reach and value outside of that sphere. Working in libraries also means that my professional knowledge of children’s literature is constantly challenged, expanded and refined, which is incredibly rewarding and something I love. As a writer, I’m very conscious of the practical relationship between academic writing and creative; the focus on planning, structure, the layering of arguments and of clues, and the ability to take editing and criticism on the chin.

Childhood TV viewing has shaped your relationship to stories: I’ve heard you talk about 80s cartoons alongside Stagecoach and John Wayne’s turn in that. How has your childhood encounter with storytelling shaped your adult career? Does it matter what medium a story is delivered in?

I recently reread A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett ( here’s the evidence! ) and was struck by how gorgeously written it was. As Sara says, quite elegantly, “Everything’s a story”. We story our lives on a daily basis, from Donna Noble’s decision to turn left instead of right, through to (spoilers!) Jo’s decision to marry Professor Bhaer instead of Laurie. Everything is a story, and we are participants in that storying act. We walk through the city one way and then the other; we eat in one restaurant and then another. I don’t think I’ve ever seen story as a book-bound act; and that’s something that comes from my childhood exposure to story, both visually and also through my parents, but also through my university which genuinely changed my life and my writing. I write to try and find the space in between the story on the page and the story of the reader, and I hope my research investigates a similar space.

What’s your favourite thing about what you do?

Academically : I get to write about texts that are a genuine joy to interrogate, and have been rarely subjected to such interrogation.

Professionally: Small children who are so excited about a book they’ve read that they can barely breathe.

Huge thanks to Daisy for taking the time to grant this interview. Find out more about Daisy and her work via her two sides – Did You Ever Stop To Think? and Big Boots and Adventures.

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