Brooklyn Magazine

Jenni Fagan knows what it’s like to be an outsider. It’s a trait she shares with many of her characters, including the heroine of her 2013 debut, The Panopticon. That novel follows the prickly Anais Hendricks as she maneuvers the foster care system in the UK, a childhood reality Fagan also weathered. When the book opens, Anais has just arrived at a juvenile delinquent center for putting a cop in a coma—a crime she cannot remember committing. Voice-driven, acerbic, and sharp, the novel earned Fagan a coveted spot on Granta’s prestigious Best Young British Novelists list, along with powerhouses like Sarah Hall and Helen Oyeyemi.

While Fagan’s latest couldn’t be further from the all-seeing eye of The Panopticon, she says she was still very much thinking of fringe culture while writing The Sunlight Pilgrims. A gritty survival tale set in the not-too-distant-future, The Sunlight Pilgrims takes place in a caravan park in Northern Scotland. Thanks to melting sea ice, temperatures fall to inhospitable levels, and the residents of the caravan park are especially vulnerable.

As the days grow colder, newcomer Dylan, grieving the loss of his mother and grandmother, befriends Stella, a transgender teen, and her survivalist mother, Constance. All three characters must learn how to navigate challenging emotional landscapes, even as the physical world—portrayed as both beautiful and deadly—shifts under their feet. For a tale about the end of the world and the brutality of nature, The Sunlight Pilgrims is human, intimate, and weirdly hopeful.

Fighting the time difference between the U.S. and the UK, I spoke with Jenni via phone while still on my first cup of coffee (she was well into her afternoon). We discussed climate change, Brexit, the origins of Stella, and outsider modes of art.

Did you set out to tackle climate change in the novel, to make it part of the setting and the thrust of the story, or did it sneak up on you?

No. I didn’t want to write a climate change novel at all. I was thinking about light, the quality of light, and how we interact with light. I had had two quite close bereavements and a baby all in a short space of time. So I was thinking about light, and I was thinking about mortality, how we incorporate grief in our life. We look for light in darkness. We look for light in all things. So really that’s what I started out with.

I came back to Scotland from London, where I had been living for quite awhile. And I kept remembering these really extreme winters when I was a child—I lived in a caravan for quite awhile when I was a kid at one point—and I remembered having very extreme Scottish winters in rural areas. I moved back expecting to have one of these winters, and it never happened. I missed the last big winter here by one year. The year before I moved back, they had to get the Army out to clear the streets so people could get milk and bread and that sort of thing. And since I moved back there hasn’t been another extreme winter.

I was looking for an opportunity to inhabit these landscapes personally and artistically. Quite often the two things merged. If I wanted to write something about climate change, I’m far more likely to write an article or a thesis or a campaign. Certainly it’s not a subject that can be ignored or should be ignored, but it wasn’t the founding purpose of the book.

As the book began to progress, and I realized it was going to tap into these Ice Age conditions, I began to meet with meteorologists and research what was going on in the global community regarding climate change. I’m always intrigued by the way that modern life is designed to detract from the fact that we’re living on a planet, and our lives our very short. I really felt that when people are living to extremes, they can no longer afford to ignore that. So really, artistically, that was the thing that intrigued me most.

At least in the beginning of the novel, the bureaucracies of the village are still functioning, so we haven’t been thrown into complete chaos yet. There’s a sense of normalcy that helps ground the book in a recognizable reality. How did you strike a balance between the day-to-day and extraordinary in the book?

I was fully aware that I could have immersed myself in the Arctic chaos that is going to ensue right across Europe. The characters in this novel, they see parts of it, but they’re very removed from the cities, they’re very removed even from the village. They’re very much on the edge, and because they’ve always been on the edge, they’re probably better suited to just getting on with it. Certainly Constance, the mother, is a natural survivalist, and she doesn’t want to freak her child out. She doesn’t see that there’s anything to be gained in running around being dramatic about it, so she knuckles down and gets on with it.

People live through extreme circumstances all the time. And they don’t always go out and loot their neighbor’s house or shoot somebody or any of those things. But quite often people are just still doing life. They still have to eat, they still have to wash their clothes, they still have to look outside the window and think, “I wonder if I’ll make it to the end of this year.” At the end of the day, nobody really knows that. We all live with great uncertainties in our own lives and in the world. And that’s just become more extreme, I think, and more publicly discussed, over the last five years. That is one of the main questions of the book: how do you live your life well in uncertainty? How do you live well and stay true to your identity?

We do live on a planet, and the weather conditions that we’ve had over the last 10,000 years have been pretty unusual. Humans have enjoyed relative stability in some ways, and obviously each year we see more and more disasters happening. We live on a planet, and planets are massively changeable. Our impact on them is huge, and we’re collectively getting to the point where we can’t ignore that anymore. We shouldn’t have been ignoring that in the first place.

There’s something really hopeful about the way characters discuss the possibility of survival, right up until the end of the book.

They choose to accept what’s happening. If they were different kinds of people, if they had different philosophies, they might fight it more. They’re not so shocked that [death] would happen. And being in a position of acceptance doesn’t mean you’re without hope. People have survived Ice Age conditions. They are all still hoping they will get through it. I often think of winter as the other main character in this book. Dylan’s completely besotted with the landscape. And it’s beautiful, stunning. But deadly, utterly deadly.

When your book published in America, Brexit had just happened. Did the politics in the book and the politics in real life resonate for you at all?

Of course Brexit happened here long after the book came out in the UK, so it didn’t feel as connected. We’re seeing a huge flux in populations, now more than ever, because of war or famine or climate change. The book has an awareness of people being in transition—and you can’t not engage with [that reality] as an artist or a writer. The question of what happens when people are denied safety or denied basic human rights is hugely important. These things always feed into my writing. I think writers, musicians, and artists are always filtering politics through basic, staple emotions. Art and literature, in particular, are a place to have these conversations. There’s something about fiction, about the imagination having free reign that isn’t afforded in real life, that makes this possible.

I was interested to learn that you’re both a poet and a novelist. Do these modes of writing inform one another, or are they quite separate?

They definitely inform one another. I recently published a book of poems, The Dead Queen of Bohemia. It’s 120 poems collected over time. I find when I’m writing a novel, I have to curb the poetry, I have to strip the words back. I write, as many people do, in a sort of stream of consciousness. I touch type, so it’s really just pure brain to the page. The image [in Sunlight Pilgrims] of “a woman polishes the moon” I lifted from a poem. Sometimes it’s a line, a theme, or imagery from my poetry that becomes a whole novel.

I don’t believe in literary monogamy. Every time I try out a new form, I gain a skillset to take back to other forms. I was a playwright for quite a long time, and it helped me learn dialogue. Now when I read a novel written by a playwright, I can always tell. There’s a stripped back quality, allowing yourself to be avant garde, to not be connected to traditional narrative forms. Every page in a play, every scene, has to be as clear as the others. When you’re writing a novel that’s 80,000 words you can’t just waffle for 40,000 of them.

So much of how you handle writing Stella’s transition is subtle and affirmative. Her narrative POV always uses gender terms like she/her. I even think about the first time Dylan sees Stella—she reads as female to him. I found that incredibly moving. How did you develop Stella’s character? What was it about the story of transitioning—or the contrast between a global change and a very personal one—that captivated you?

No, I don’t think like that. Stella just turned up on her bike, stripy tights, glittery nails, and she never stopped moving. She’s a character who’s had to fight for her own identity. She lives in fear in a small community. I grew up in care, and I identified as a child from care before I identified as myself because that’s how other people saw me. So that was my point of contact with her.

When I was younger I played in punk and grunge bands, which had a large LGBT community, so it wasn’t unfamiliar. Still, I did a lot of research because I wanted to make sure I got it right. I sent my manuscript to the writer Kate Bornstein, who edited Gender Outlaws, and I met with trans writers. And they were all like, “No, no, you’ve found her!” Ideas about gender are important to everyone; we’re all being forced into gender normative roles. But the thing I love about Stella is that it doesn’t define her. It’s not all of who she is.

In fact I was a bit hesitant to write her because of the last book. I thought, “Oh! Isn’t this a bit too close?” but I loved Stella’s relationship with Dylan. Both characters have been brought up by unconventional mothers. Stella, in her way, wants to rebel against her survivalist mother. She wants to get married and live in a house of bricks and be liked by other people. Constance doesn’t give much of a shit whether other people like her or not. When Dylan and Stella meet each other, Stella asks, “What about your dad?” and Dylan says, “My mum didn’t catch his name.” They both have to lay out their identities after being raised by such strong, unconventional women.

I was thinking quite a lot about the overlap between Stella and Anais, from your first novel, The Panopticon. They’re both spiky, young female narrators. What is it about the lives of young women who have been pushed to the fringes that captivates you? Is this territory you’ll return to?

I’ve really been writing the books I’ve wanted to read. I kept seeing fifteenyear-old girls in books who wore sparkly clothes and drank shandy and thought they didn’t resemble any of the girls I knew, or the women I’m friends with now. And I suppose in that sense I think like Patti Smith. She said the females were her muse.

All writers writing from the periphery are pointing toward the center. Because I grew up in the periphery, I think it makes you more observant of what’s going on in the culture. In my twenties and thirties, all the most vital and vibrant stories came from the periphery. Art house cinema, punk, New Wave, it all came from the fringes. I did a lot of research about the “Self” and “the Other” while writing this novel. In a sense, the periphery is a mirror, showing the center what it is. That’s why we’re artists, we’re responding to the center.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on two novels at the moment. Novel Three and Novel Four take place over 110 years, and in some ways Novel Four is really the last chapter of Novel Three. But you can read them separately or out of order. I’m trying to write the Great Edinburgh Novel. It’s a huge span of time to work in, and I hate historical fiction that doesn’t make each historical part feel vital to itself. We’re not the ones who invented sex or drugs; this stuff has been around for time immemorial. In fact, the third book is some of my darkest and most graphic, most sexual work. The character who opens that novel is also related to Gunn MacRae [from The Sunlight Pilgrims], so there are these slight nods to the other books.

I can’t hassle poems, I don’t mess with them. They might take a week or ten minutes to write, but great poems come out almost whole. With a novel, I’m riffing on something for 80 pages. I have a big space to look at a problem from all these different angles. I think a lot about when I used to make music. You would go into these dirty little rehearsal rooms and play for ten hours, twelve hours, and you keep doing it and keep doing it and that hopefully produces something. I try not to hold [a novel] too close. If you trust that artistic part of your brain, it’ll bring you the good shit.

 

Interview by Kirsten Evans at Brooklyn Magazine

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Read It Forward

Five Authors Jenni Fagan Would Invite to a Dinner Party
The author of The Sunlight Pilgrims picks her dream dinner dates.

First published by Read It Forward
BY JENNI FAGAN • 4 DAYS AGO

If you could invite five famous authors—dead or living—to dinner, who would you choose, and what would you serve? Today on Read it Forward, novelist Jenni Fagan hosts the dinner party of her dreams. Salut!

Gertrude Stein
I wish I’d spent time at Gertrude Stein’s extraordinary salon in Paris. She is a big influence on me. I would want to hear stories about all the painters she knew, how they arrived at automatism, what were the most banal and ordinary things she can recall of the surrealists, and who was the bravest? Also, I’d ask her if she ever used her wife Alice B. Toklas’s cookbook.

Nick Cave
I am a fan of Nick’s prose and I truly adore him as a musician. A dinner party made solely of writers would be dreadful, so we need at least one person who can get on the piano, involve us all in a sing-a-long, and have us waltzing on the patio before dinner. And is it just me, or would he have the best jokes and stories? I’d want to know how he found all those eras and musicians, from no-wave and punk, to garage rock and lo-fi. And if he played The Ship Song at the end of the evening, I could, in all honesty, die happy.

Leonora Carrington
I love Leonora for everything really—her painting, her prose, her politics, her astonishing life. I also love her quotes about writing: “The task of the right eye is to peer through the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope,” or another favorite, “People under seventy and over seven are unreliable if they are not cats.”

Reinaldo Arenas
Reinaldo Arenas once said, “There’s just one place to live—the impossible.” He also said, “I have always considered it despicable to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.” I would want to know everything; about his years incarcerated for being a gay man in Cuba under Castro’s regime; his move to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and his departure from Cuba on a boat for criminals, disabled or gay citizens; his lovers, his mother, his relationship to landscapes. His uprootedness and dislocation speak to me profoundly.

Helen Oyeyemi
I happen to know that Helen Oyeyemi is not only one of the best writers of our time but also, the most charming dinner guest. The first time we met she told me about a clock in Prague that can tell the time on the moon, how she had grown obsessed with keys and also what was great and good in Korean horror movies. I’d polish my teapots and serve an array of teas in the early morning before they all went home, which I know she would appreciate.

~Menu~

Pre-dinner drink:
The Paloma—a Mexican cocktail: ingredients—1/4 mezcal, 1/4 fresh grapefruit juice, wedge of lime & 1/4 soda, kosher salt, crushed ice. Run lime around the rim of the glass, dip in salt, mix your ingredients, add ice.

I am sure it is best to start a dinner party with drinks and dancing so you are more ready to sit, chat, eat later in the evening. Leonora Carrington spent most of her adult life in Mexico City, so I am hoping she might like this spirited start to the evening.

Starter:
In honor of Reinaldo Arenas, I would make Cassava bread, made from cassava flour (great if you are Paleo), and serve with tapenade on the side and a piri piri sauce for dipping.

Selection of Spanish Tapas (vegetarian for Nick Cave)—black olives, Ajillo mushrooms, Habas ala Catalana (smothered broad beans with sausage), Espinacas Con Garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas), Alubias Verdes con Ajo (green beans with garlic).

These would be small dishes that are easy to pick at—just to take the edge off our Palomas and prepare us for the main course.

I’d also hope Reinaldo might bring a few nice Cuban cigars for later, I’m sure he’d appreciate a smoke on the patio late at night, as would Gertrude for that matter.

Main:
I’d like to cook a meal that is easy to serve and enjoy—so we can focus on chatting. I’d make paella, the first would be a vegetarian version and for the second, I’d add seafood and chorizo.

Ingredients: Fresh saffron from the market in Istanbul. Garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper, mushroom, peppers, chorizo, olive oil, scallops, black Irish mussels, free-range chicken, onion, tomatoes, peas, calamari, Calasparra paella rice.

Dessert:
This would not happen until much later. I have a feeling that after the last two courses, we’d all wander down a dark country road, have a look at the Milky Way in a starlit sky, have a few games of pool, or darts at the local pub—then head back to play music and dance. The garden would be lit by fireflies in jars. We’d have a selection of the finest Parisian patisserie cakes and I’d ask Gertrude about her favorite baker along the rue de Fleurus. I bet you she’d say Picasso had a sweet tooth.

And when all the food has been eaten:

Helen Oyeyemi lives in Prague and I’m sure she’d oblige with a bottle of plum brandy (Slivovitz—she knows where to get the good stuff) or perhaps a small absinthe, especially if we were on the cusp of an aurora that night, which I’d hope we would be. She’d be setting up a little outdoor cinema on the lawn, talking Nick Cave through the greatest Korean horror movies of all time, the porch would be wide and the weather mild, perhaps a stream nearby and a swing on a tall tree in the garden. I imagine Gertrude having a snooze on the porch under a blanket. Reinaldo telling me stories about the Cuban revolution and the grit of Hell’s Kitchen, and how his first novel was smuggled out of prison and over to Paris, the only place he could publish it at the time. Leonora would reminisce about founding the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico, her love affair with Max Ernst, running away from an asylum and creating a novel about her psychotic experience. We would discuss the extraordinary way she paints. Psychic freedom. Automatism. Surrealism. Keys. Clarity. Mirrors. We would chat all night in the garden where a rose, is a rose, is a rose.

Featured Image: Rawpixel/Shutterstock.com

A Monkey Born in the Afternoon & Hidden In the Shadows

I am watching the elephant man and thinking about the elephant woman. That of course, was not her name but she had the same thing, she powdered her face, had a friend who powdered her face too, the two of them would drink in The Scotsman lounge at 5am. I  knew this because it’s where I’d sometimes find myself on a first date or after last orders, or just as a place to be in Edinburgh in the middle of the night when I’d not went ice-skating in Princes St. gardens with a man I would never really know. 

 Once I was waiting outside the bar, street rainy, lamps on the road like orange orbs, while the cleaners finished up, me peering in the window with a guitar on one shoulder and a cigarette in hand, always a cigarette, seven years now since I smoked really but that’s how it was and peering in the bar window, willing the cleaner to hurry up and unlock the door and as I cleaned bars myself on and off at certain times, I knew this (being watched while you finish sweeping floors) to be a moderate annoyance. 

That reminds me of a woman in fact that used to drink two bottles of wine on her shift cleaning each floor in the Venue, she’d finish at 11am (a bit smashed I presume) she was in her sixties and that was her days work done by then and of course to think of the Venue is to imagine gigs where I was carried over the stage, a boy with a black rose proposing, sneaking to dance clubs with a friend at fifteen and seeing our physics teacher out of his mind on ecstasy, an ex who robbed a chemist telling me he saw the flatline … you know got so high all he could see was this flat line of light and nothing, but it was a different Edinburgh then and I don’t have much idea of it now, now it’s just the lights across the water. 

I have moved to Burntisland where the street lights have incidentally, just gone out and I’m thinking of what it was like to be in The Scotsman bar at 5am and feeling David Lynch about things, staying upright was the idea, I was so upright then, so aware of the curvature of the earth.

 

It led to six years without a drop, tai chi every morning, trips to the buddhists to learn how to meditate, taught me how to make incense from coal, I got very into cycling and climbing up rocks to read in places with views, but that lady – I used to see her around and her face tumour (a growth so big) it looked painful, it was omnipresent and her eyes, looking out, her face powdered, we would see each other around all the time. I’d wake up in the middle of the night then and go out cycling (I found it a cure for nightmares and a time to have almost the entire city to myself) and I’d see her on a street somewhere.

Sometimes I would wonder if she could see in me what others might not see in her, you know, a beauty (something I did not see in myself) a sense of self undefined by aesthetics.

 

I always understood beauty was unquantifiable, elusive, not what we are told it is but the merry-go-nowhere we are meant to judge our-selves by …. well, the thing is to look in a persons eyes, all the sadness of a thousand walks home at dawn.

The lights are across the water and I used to watch them the other way round and write poems when I was twelve years old and in a car I should not have been in on a school night. It seems like a time so long gone, just a kaleidoscope of images to wonder about and right now the rain on my window and my toddler nearly two and a girl at fifteen playing gigs in punk clubs she was three years too young to drink in and writing, always writing, squirreling away words, notes, drawings, etchings and knowing even then that beauty had nothing to do with illusion yet that too will always have its draw, its place but craving something real in a world without streetlights where cats eyes still find a way to glint, the light is what we seek. 

We are all the ages we will ever be at once.

That’s a thing. A subject I discussed with an artist I’ve never met, a picture sent and on my wall and the rain still pattering on the window and tomorrow a writing day, a precious five hours to spend immersed solely in words, I’m averaging two thousand an hour, that’s five hundred every fifteen minutes, I don’t get enough hours to write so when I do I really go for it. This time is fiercely guarded and I’ve worked out ways to write faster (I start thinking of the next days writing — sculpting it in my head about twelve hours before) speed is no surprise really, I type as fast as I think. It’s the best thing I ever learnt (to touch type) has brought me endless benefits in writing, in unthinking, or has it? In actual fact I might write my next novel out by hand just to contrast and compare, why not, but this one, half trance, a focused, waited for, carefully protected state that is then held up to said light, in all its grainy early morning brutality — a bruise, a monkey born in the afternoon and hidden in the shadows, a way to learn to dance, seventy years old and a dance hall, London and a museum near, a man who understands time and me in a burger bar realising I have not enough to give — my words need that great staked out area of minutes, a place I can inhabit and invade.

 

Space hoppers.
Space invaders.
Space men.
Pickled onion. 10p a packet. Monster Munch. 

 

I have nothing more to say.

 

Wood & Wires Session

This morning the sky is blue and the clouds are unconcerned. There is a beach nearby, it’s not the most beautiful beach but I won’t hold it against it. I feel like walking. The baby has begun to say words, and dance, and shimmy backwards. I am going to stop drinking coffee for four days. My thesis is almost complete, I am writing about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper whose short story The Two Offers was published in 1859. She was one of the first black short story writers to gain publication and was one of the best selling young authors of her day. As time went on, her feminist principles helped to outcast her work and she was dismissed by scholars. Recently her work is being rediscovered. The Two Offers is about a character who believes that marriage, for any other reason than love, will cause the spiritual death of a woman (and I presume man) which feeds into one of the backstories developing in my new novel. Kafka is one of the other authors with Metamorphoses — probably one of the greatest stories in the world, I never tire of reading it. When Gregor wakes up as a bug it is only the beginning of his metaphorical transformation to the periphery. The bit that really gets me is when his Father throws the apple and it lodges in his back and somehow we all know how it feels to be that bug and live on a periphery where we clearly see the idiocy of lunatics. The third story is Mona by Reinaldo Arenas who I will blog about soon. He was a great writer, almost completely ignored in his lifetime, a Cuban poet who came from illiterate peasant parents, and was imprisoned for his sexuality. There is something about Arenas’s work that draws me back to him again. There were only six people at his funeral after he shot himself, and ended his life in Hells Kitchen in poverty, and in the final grips of Aids. The film of Before Night Falls is well worth seeing, although it does not capture his true caustic brittle nature. As soon as my thesis is finished, I can work solely on the new novel, and tidying up my short story collection — I cannae wait. Academia has had its time in my life and I’m ready to return to studying solo. It never ends the studying, writing — to me — is studying, it is how I live, and think, and dream. Right now I am studying the way my neighbour holds her son’s hand, later I’ll be studying a remote book that I had to order from a strange man, and that has taken a full month to arrive. And pianos. I’m thinking a lot about pianos. I had a Grandad who had a piano and I used to play it for hours. I always thought I’d buy one someday and keep flowers on it and sit my coffee on it, and the baby would draw on it in crayon, and the cat would sleep underneath it while I smoke at 3AM. I don’t live somewhere you could keep a piano but I will, and I’ll teach the wee one chopsticks and why you don’t need to read music to be able to play.

Here is Coeur de Pirate in the Wood & Wires session.

The Dead Queen of Bohemia Wins Poetry Book of the Year at 3AM

Dear peoples of the new decade,

I just found out that my recent poetry collection The Dead Queen of Bohemia, is Poetry Book of the Year at the discerning 3AM Magazine stable. I am keeping some most excellent company, see below for winners of the other categories, all well worth checking out. I’m now going to celebrate with a cup of tea and a waltz with Gringo so shimmy sideways, polish the moon and kick against the pricks always! The angels of fire are sleeping, and it is time we dreamt their dreams.

Jxxx

3:AM Awards 2010

deadqueen

3:AM POETRY BOOK OF THE YEAR 2010
Jenni Fagan’s The Dead Queen of Bohemia (Blackheath Books)

tommccarthyc

3:AM NOVEL OF THE YEAR 2010

Tom McCarthy’s C (Jonathan Cape)

newruins

3:AM NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR 2010
Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso)

 

blackhole

3:AM ALBUM OF THE YEAR 2010
Jon Savage’s Black Hole (Domino)

 

robinsonruins

3:AM FILM OF THE YEAR 2010
Robinson in Ruins, dir. Patrick Keiller

 

Cover 17.1.indd

3:AM MAGAZINE OF THE YEAR 2010
Nude


melville2

 

3:AM PUBLISHER OF THE YEAR 2010
Melville House (interview with Dennis Loy Johnson)

killauthor

3:AM WEBSITE OF THE YEAR
> kill author

journeyminds

3:AM BLOGS OF THE YEAR 2010
A Journey Round My Skull
Dangerous Minds