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'Sisters': A Thriller About A Terrifying Co-Dependent Relationship

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In her new psychological thriller "Sisters," Daisy Johnson tells the story of July and September, two British girls born 10 months apart and so connected, it's hard to figure out where one ends and the other begins. The story opens with the sisters and their single mother Sheela pulling up to the decaying coastal home of their deceased father's family. They fled Oxford after a terrible incident that's slowly revealed to the reader chapter by chapter.

Daisy Johnson joins us now. Daisy, welcome to the program.

DAISY JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me - really nice to be here.

FADEL: So tell us about this story, this almost terrifying co-dependent connection these two sisters have, with one really able to manipulate and control the other.

JOHNSON: Yeah. So when I started writing the book, all I knew was that I wanted to write a haunted house story. And as I continued sort of working on it and deleting drafts and changing it, what really came to the floor was this relationship between these two sisters who are very, very close in age. And one of the sisters is very much in charge of their lives and in charge of what they do and in charge of what the other sister says. And I was really interested in this idea of, I think, a relationship that's almost possessed and haunted and a very intense relationship and one where you and, I think, also the mother at times aren't quite sure whether it's love or obsession or - it begins to be violence, I think.

FADEL: You mentioned that you knew you wanted to write a haunted house story. And the book, like you say, is a really dark look at a sibling relationship. What drew you to this sort of psychological horror, and is it a genre you will continue to explore?

JOHNSON: You know, I've been writing scary stories and stories with monsters in them for a long time, but this book was my love story to the horror genre, which I grew up reading and grew up watching horror films. And I think I really wanted - what initially drew me to it was the sense of domestic menace, which I think is in so much horror, especially in Shirley Jackson.

FADEL: Shirley Jackson, the American horror writer best known for her short story "The Lottery."

JOHNSON: Yes. And this idea that everything in the house, a house which is supposed to be a homely place and supposed to protect you, everything in the house is turned threatening. And the sisters spend a lot of time, you know, eating cheese sandwiches and watching television. And even those small moments of domesticity become uneasy, I think.

FADEL: I noticed you dedicate this book to your siblings. And I got to ask, how much of this story did you based on your connections to your sisters or brothers?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The book's dedicated to more siblings than I actually have. But I have a younger sister and a younger brother. And we have a very, very good relationship now, but I do remember - you know, there are three years between my sister and I, and I remember when we were younger fighting a lot, you know, having these quite violent sort of wrestling matches or becoming very competitive with one another and how interesting it is now that we've known each other - you know, I've known her her entire life, and how interesting and intense that relationship is, that we've grown together and sort of made one another the people that we are.

FADEL: Yeah. Yeah, that's so true with my siblings as well. But what did they think of the book after seeing it dedicated to them and seeing this very terrifying relationship?

FADEL: Yeah. They like it, but they - it's interesting because often at events, you know, people will ask - and this happened with my last book as well - how autobiographical it is. And I see my sister looking a little bemused because, you know, it's unavoidable. Writers as magpies, and there are bits in this book which are taken from me. But I also have a very good relationship with my family. And I think sometimes people will come up to my mom and say, well, what was her childhood like - you know? - and sort of presume I had this awful childhood, which I think my family finds quite amusing.

FADEL: (Laughter). So you were just 27 when you were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018 for your first novel, "Everything Under." Did it put a different kind of pressure on you as you wrote this and as you write now?

JOHNSON: So being shortlisted for the prize really changed my writing experience. When my editor rang me and told me about the prize, I was babysitting for this little girl that I looked after. And, you know, we both got very, very excited and ran around. And it really meant that I could write full-time. And I was very lucky in that I'd already started working on "Sisters" quite intensely.

FADEL: You know, in the book, the family have this very isolated existence in the Settle House, which is now the experience of a lot of people in this pandemic. Do you think the book will or has resonated in a different way with so many living this insular experience right now?

JOHNSON: Yes. It's so strange because you write a book, and it belongs for a time entirely to you. And then people start reading the book, and you give it to them, and it's really, really exciting for it to have that second life. And I really strongly believe that once a book is published or once someone has read a book, it belongs to the reader. And it's very odd how many people have said, you know, this is an isolation book, this is a book about the times we're living in now, which is certainly, of course, not how I wrote it. But I think it is a book about being trapped by circumstances, so I think it does resonate.

FADEL: Daisy Johnson, her new novel is called "Sisters." Thank you.

JOHNSON: Really lovely to speak to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.