The Sunlight Pilgrims

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The Sunlight Pilgrims has been published in the UK by William Heinemann, Random House. It is due for US publication with Hogarth on the 19th July.

 

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This is me with Mariella Frostrup & Antonia Honeywell on BBC Radio 4 Open Book.

 

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Signing first editions at York Hall.

 

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Drawing below by an artist with The Skinny in Scotland, I really liked it.

 

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My second novel has been a thing I’ve held close for quite some time. I tried not to be intimidated by all the positive things that happened when William Heinemann published The Panopticon. In the end it freaked me out. Every new piece of work does this though. It just so happens I am in love with words — it won’t change now, I’ll take the discomfort for the practise of it, the feel of it, the sound and sensation and strange of it.

I had to strip this novel back halfway through the process and go back to working with my gut instincts and trusting that sound of tip-tap, tip-tap.

I spoke to a writer I really admire a few weeks ago. She was writing a new novel and despite being so accomplished and a stunning writer — she asked me to send her luck for the fear space.

I think it’s meant to be there!

Writers aren’t meant to exist in a hazy rainbow of happy-cyclonics. I will publish the first few pages of The Sunlight Pilgrims on here quite soon perhaps. I have loads more news but I have as ever, been moving, living, doing too much. I am hoping my eternal transience may halt for a while now as I am already writing the next two novels and settling in for the dark nights and early mornings.

In the meantime I’ll raise a glass this weekend seeing as The Sunlight Pilgrims is about to cross the water  and be published in the US. Stella, Constance, Dylan, Gunn, Vivienne, Barnacle — seven snowy mountains, frost flowers, gin stills, icicles as long as narwhal tusks, the long bony finger of winter herself, drinking light, to overly tattooed nephilim, BMX riding trans goth girls, and women who polish the moon — here’s looking at you!

There were three suns in the sky and it was the last day of Autumn, perhaps forever.

 

 

 

Developing Character (Foyle’s website)

So you are sitting somewhere and a character turns up. They sidle onto the tube. Or they sit down next to you in a bar. You think they’re going to read a book, or order a gin and tonic but they start chugging on a shisha, or texting in Latin, or sliding a flower over to you that you strongly suspect is stolen.

So, you are lying in bed and a character materialises making you get up and turn your laptop on. It’s begun. The years with this character. It’s awful. They’ll turn up any time they want. You better settle in and hope they don’t have any really, really irritating habits. You are going to know them like all the other people you see every day. Best get used to it.

In the kitchen in the morning you are trying to put a washing on, when you realise the thing that has been nagging at you about your character all night is the fact that they can’t see the colour blue without wanting to visit their best friends grave. So there your clothes sit, on the floor, the washing machine door open, while you go and write it down.

Some people have others to do their washing. Real writers do their own. I might get that on a sticker and slap it on the washing machine door.

Characters rarely arrive fully formed. It takes time to work out who they really are. It’s like getting to know a new friend or lover, or becoming a parent. All the experiences you share allow you to get to know someone and it is no different for characters in novels. By putting your character in different situations they reveal new things about themselves.

Be careful to not make your characters just an extension of yourself unless you are doing so deliberately. They need their own political beliefs, quirks, taste in music, likes, dislikes, memories, future goals.

Sometimes you need to let a character be more elusive. Perhaps they are only going to create a particular atmosphere when they enter a page. If your character stays resolutely beige or never develops, it’s okay to drop them off a cliff, with a parachute, saying — belongs elsewhere, do not return to owner.

Your character might change sex, name, hair colour, they might have an affair with a piccolo player in Honolulu, they could have a child growing up in Tipperary. If you act like you know everything about them, they’ll never bring you anything new. When you let them bring you new things, they’ll be much more interesting.

There are lots of tricks people use to develop character. They might write a questionnaire asking their character what their earliest memory is, or what they are afraid of, or why they have a scar on their knee, or who was the first person they kissed. These details may never end up in the story but they will help the writer a lot.

Characters need flaws. They must be in a process of becoming or even a process of never becoming. If your character starts out whole and complete then where is the space for them to grow or change? What’s the point in hanging out with them? People change and so do characters, each day that you write them. Eventually you can begin to imagine what they would think of things in your real life. That can be a little freaky. I had a character who was prominent in early drafts of a novel but by the end he was peripheral. I sat on the tube after deciding to cut most of his chapters and I could see him getting on the tube, sitting down, shaking his head sadly at me.

I mean I couldn’t actually see him!

I could see him the way I do in the books and it gets real enough for them to feel pretty true, especially when you are hanging out with them for five years in an attic.

It’s important to not always just write likeable characters, or even familiar ones. Writing furious, anti-social, frustrated, awkward, real characters is exhilarating. Writing someone who is polite all the time and just wants to be liked isn’t so interesting.

It is the space where imagination and character meet that creates memorable identities. Allow your characters to surprise you. You might have wanted to write one that only ate spaghetti and slept in a round bed but if it turns out they live in a hut on stilts in the forest where bison run underneath then go with it. You might find out they play the mouth organ and they once saved a horse from drowning. They might make you cry. Or, for the rest of your life you will have an image of them holding out their hand, helping someone off the train tracks. Let them be real. Let them be true. Stop trying to make them say things you want to say. Go out and say the things you want to say and let them say things you never knew they were going to say. If you are surprised, the reader will be too.

Some people use their characters as puppets, you can see the author pulling the strings all the way through, it’s hard to make a story feel natural when you can see the strings being pulled to create an effect or serve a purpose, that’s not my favourite kind of writing.

Writing a new character is like going on a first date. You might think this person is really chilled out then you get in a car and they’re a road rage maniac, who knew until you clicked in your seatbelt and sped off through the city at night!

Writing In Different Forms

I began writing poetry when I was seven years-old; this was followed by diaries and short stories. In my teenage years I added song lyrics and short scripts. I won a place as the youngest person on a Scottish Screen film writing retreat and wrote my first short films. I felt my skills in dialogue were a little weak so I decided to write a play for a competition I heard on the radio. I won it and spent three years writing plays.
I won an interview with a well-respected theatre company in London to write a play/film. They said my play was completely unique and distinctive in voice compared to every other one submitted however they had been arguing all morning about whether I was a playwright or a novelist. On the train home I watched the landscape whizz by and admitted to myself that I had been accruing skills so I could write novels. I quit writing plays that day.

Writing is the only artistic medium that takes place entirely in the writer’s and reader’s head. We see plays or films, listen to songs, go to art exhibitions. Novels, stories, poems take place wholly inside a person. They bring their own memories and emotions to the experience so they can never be read entirely the same way twice. I find this fascinating.
In poetry I allow discord in syntax, I go left ten times in a row then drop four floors just to get a better view. Only when the poem demands to be written do I put the words down.

Poems are a pure form. I don’t go after a poem, club it over the head and make it work, I don’t even look it straight in the eye. It’s also the only medium I always write by hand. Sometimes it feels like learning to walk on snow without leaving a footprint, impossible but somehow poems can do that, the best ones reconnect me to life and the world in a vital way.

With novels I sit down day after day and work on them. I work when it’s raining, when I’m ill, when it’s sunny, when I should be elsewhere, or when I want to do anything else but type. I turn up to write when I don’t know what is happening, when I am freaked out, when I’m tired, or happy, or lonely, or sad. Whatever else is going on in my life I will sit down each day and work on that novel. Each novel can take years. I might rewrite the opening literally a hundred times. A novel needs time to become clear, to grow into itself, to feel real.

I am writing the screenplay adaptation of my debut novel. I work closely with Sixteen Films who are making the film. We have long meetings in a little attic room in Soho where each line and every piece of dialogue or description is taken apart by a small core of people. We rigorously argue, debate, or discuss each line or action. I have really enjoyed testing the boundaries of adaptation and as the only screenwriter working on it I’ve learnt so much. I was also able to draw upon my earlier experiences in screenwriting and playwriting and that helped a lot.
Flash fiction is the poetry of the prose world, it is so generous and precise. I experiment with POV, tense, character, voice or subvert all my original intentions to really try out new ideas and skills.

Prose and poetry are the forms I have been writing for most of my life and I am still really excited by them. I will gladly commit three or four years to a new novel if it needs it. I am about to write one that will take at least three years as it is a vast, ambitious book. I have so much research to do and I love that part of the process, to meet interesting people and get my geek on.

When you edit, put your ego aside and be as critical as you can be, don’t write the life out of something but don’t indulge yourself with over attachment. Just because you like something isn’t enough reason to keep it. Every word has to serve the novel or poem or screenplay and if it doesn’t then cut it out, pin it up somewhere, and use it for something else later.

All truly great writing comes from a place of truth. If it is authentic then someone else will connect to it. If it is superficial, no matter how pretty the prose is, or how clever the poem is, it won’t get anyone else in the gut or heart so it won’t stay with them.

You have to trust your instincts and be respectful of your imagination — give it free reign, don’t limit yourself. If it is scaring you then write it, if you are daunted then you absolutely have to try it, if you are struggling then you might just be writing the piece that will elevate your work to the next level.

I can’t do monogamy with words. Each form gives me something different, they strengthen the others and I never get bored.

For the real writer there is no full stop. Be truthful, take risks, challenge yourself.

 

 

 

  • First featured on Waterstones Blog.

The Dead Queen of Bohemia (New & Collected Poems)

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Dead Queen of Bohemia, The

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The Dead Queen of Bohemia (New & Collected Poems) has been published by Polygon, Birlinn Ltd. It features 120 poems and goes all the way back to the early years of Urchin Belle & The Dead Queen of Bohemia (published by Blackheath Books in Ltd. edition – you lucky ducks if you have one) and now encompassing over 65 new poems as well. It has been emotional, to put them all together and take them out into the world but I love the book and really love the production values. I have effectively drawn a line under the last few decades of poetry and I am starting over with a new body of work now. I was lucky to get drawings by Nathan Thomas Jones on the front cover and in some of the illustrations inside as well. I’ll write more on the poetry later, the picture above is of myself and Nathan at the York Hall launch in East London. York Hall is an amazing old boxing club with stunning art deco features. I read to a beautiful crowd, they roared, they drank, they were present, my brilliant publisher from William Heinemann was there alongside newer film acquaintances, it was a great moment to remember, Jx

Queen Bee of Tuscany

Writer Jenni Fagan, Portobello.

Writer Jenni Fagan, Portobello.

I had my portrait taken by a wonderful photographer called Angela Catlin. She is a fascinating person to chat to and the first time she came out I ended up in the sea, talking about a lot of stuff and not focusing much on the job at hand. Thankfully she popped out to see me again just after I had painted my wee beach house (still here for now) the living-room is a beautiful shade of french turquoise by Craig & Rose 1929. It just looks blue to me. The pictures behind me in the portrait are some of my favourites all grouped together. The sun was given to me by an artist in Berlin, where I was working when I was nineteen. We drove to a party listening to Rammstein (with eight others in very fast car on the u-bahn) I flicked a cigarette out the window, it came back in, my dress caught fire, they all thought it most amusing. The artist was called Conrad Andreas and he did a portrait of me in ink on a piece of lined paper as well, I have another print of his in the hall. The one above that is by Jose Arroyo, a US based writer and artist. There’s artwork from my wee boy. Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, a few of mine, including my favourite oil painting, I called it Write Like The Green Man as it encapsulated my approach to words and art. A great picture sent to me by the writer Joanna Walsh, I love the colours and words. I also framed my front cover of The New York Times article on The Panopticon, it is a classic front newspaper image, the small articles in the top hand corner read: The Girl Who Loved Camellias, The Astronauts Wives Club & Queen Bee of Tuscany. I have not really blogged for two years so I guess, with this here blog I am back, throwing down the satin gloves (not wore those for years) dusting off the spiderwebs, laying down the novel I just completed (The Sunlight Pilgrims), my New & Collected poems (The Dead Queen of Bohemia), and the film script for The Panopticon. It has been a busy few years of writing, knocking down walls, building fires on the beach, railing against that which must be challenged, trying, thinking, drinking tea, working, working, after that working a little more. I will be out doing lots of readings for my new novel and collected poems next year, I am looking forward to it. I am very quietly about to kick into novel 3, which I have been waiting on beginning for ages. There is another book on the go so I am not wasting the word hours, whenever I can fit them in. Will post more regularly again from now on. To check out Angela Catlin’s work take a look on my artists tab.  Salut, salut, Jx

Listening to Lydia

I have not been blogging for over a year, this is true. I have been moving home, I wrote a new novel, also the film script for The Panopticon (I will write about that later this week) but the truth is I’ve not been blogging in part because I have had this quite definite sense of silence. Other than the words. The Writing. The seeing friends. The daily living. Sometimes that happens. The world is so curiously round and we as a race so ever-onward, ever-absorbing, what is going on with this planet is not something that moves around me.

I have felt a silence because there is too much out there and I often wish we were all born with a fundamental humanist right to safety, education, food, shelter. The fact that we are so far removed from that and when I turn on the internet all I see is everything and somehow nothing because there is a veil between what is real and true and what is observed, or fetishised, or even passed on as gossip. Anyway. This is a terrible first blog (in a year) my fridge is being overly loud, I have a novel to read by a new writer who I am mentoring. I am off to London next week for meetings about my new novel and the film. I have committed to getting two cats (when I find a home I can settle in) I have a real yearn for a dog called Hank but I think he might be two or three years away.

I read a great article by Lydia Lunch recently, she has been giving empowerment weekends to women and one of the things she said was: Pleasure is The Ultimate Rebellion. I love this! It seems a mantra to living, an antidote to fear, a way of approaching this gift of life. So, I am looking for it, in the sun on trees, attempting to bake, seeing friends in person rather than online, cultivating authentic connection as a way of being, those kinds of moments go a long, long way.

The other Lydia I listened to recently was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I ran all the way from my house with a wonderful writer friend and I really wanted to see Lydia Davis in talk with Ali Smith. We made it there just as they closed the doors and miraculously (this never happens) they opened up for half a second and ushered us in. Lydia was as amazing to listen to as you might imagine or if you haven’t read her stories do, they are stunning. While I was sitting up the back in the dark watching Lydia and Ali and the audience and listening to everything I wrote two short (extremely short) stories. I will post them below. From me. To you. Back in blog. Bought new books. Getting a train. Playing records. The clock is ticking but it never tells the right time. I’m okay with it.

My fridge just went silent ….

The writer on the stage does not look up to see the audience listening to her
in the dark room — yet each has a light shining around their head.

The writer does not look behind her, but all across the stage her ancestors
are strewn, drinking and smoking and picking at their nails and they too are
so absorbed in the words that none of them see the eldest of them all, standing

right on the front of the stage.

The eldest of all the ancestors does not look at the writer as she reads, he does
not listen to a single word either. He stands with a little pea shooter poised, and
when someone drifts, he blows a little arrow of light, right into their heart.

The other scrawl:

Everyday at 6.10am a ship goes out into the fog and honks its horn for
a blare longer than sleep and she is the only one who wakes to hear it.

She gets wearier each morning, and really it is no ship, just a broken
shower upstairs that her neighbour climbs into for the dawn shift at the
hospital, every, single, day.

In reality it is possible her neighbour doesn’t work in a hospital.

Each day when she comes home with her groceries she looks at her
neighbours door and wonders if he will ever move on.

The New York Times

THE NEW YORK TIMES

(Front Page of Literary Supplement)

SURVEILLANCE STATE
‘The Panopticon,’ by Jenni Fagan

By TOM SHONE
Published: July 18, 2013

“I’m a bit unconvinced by reality,” says Anais Hendricks, the heroine of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, “The Panopticon.” “It’s fundamentally lacking in something, and nobody seems bothered.” When we first meet Anais she is handcuffed in the back of a police car, her school uniform covered in blood, on her way to an institution for young offenders. She has no family, and has never seen so much as a photograph of any relatives. Her hobbies include joy riding, tripping on school days, painting CCTV cameras fluorescent pink and hand-delivering the lights from police cars, covered with glitter, to the desk of her local constabulary. Now 15, she still feels “2 years old and ready tae bite.” She is, in summary, “totally and utterly” messed up — “but I like pillbox hats.” She is also the best reason to pick up “The Panopticon,” Fagan’s pugnacious, snub-nosed paean to the highs and lows of juvenile delinquency. A student of Andrew Motion’s with several books of poetry to her name (a name that calls to mind the patron saint of literary street urchins), Fagan has given us one of the most spirited heroines to cuss, kiss, bite and generally break the nose of the English novel in many a moon.

The novel takes its title from the imposing rehab facility, located deep in a forest, that waits for Anais at the end of that car ride: four floors high, in the shape of a C, and in the center a hidden core that looks out, through one-way glass, onto every cell, every landing, every bathroom. Students of 18th-century English penology will instantly recognize the reformer Jeremy Bentham’s infamous plans for an omniscient prison, never built but later turned by the French philosopher Michel Foucault into a metaphor for the oppressive gaze of late capitalism. Students of 21st-century reality television will, on the other hand, instantly recognize the layout from the program “Big Brother,” in which a bunch of undesirables argue, in close quarters, over who redecorated the living room lampshade with a pair of underpants.

Where does Fagan’s structure rest on the Bentham-to-“Big Brother” scale? Somewhere in the middle. The inmates are locked up at night, but during the day are free to roam a lounge area, dining space and game room, all painted magnolia by well-meaning staff members who say things like “we practice a holistic approach tae client care at the Panopticon.” Winston Smith never had it so good. Anais lands there after she’s suspected of putting a policewoman into a coma, a crime for which she is regularly hauled into the interrogation room — but she cannot remember anything, having been on the tail-end of a four-day ketamine bender at the time. “I didnae tell the polis that,” she confides. She also does not tell them she was so wrecked on drugs at the time, “I couldnae even mind my own name.”

She is soon bonding with her fellow inmates, swapping stories and swinging joints attached to shoelaces between the cells after lights out. There’s the sicko who raped a dog, the boy who burned down the special-needs school where his foster mother taught. “We send e-mails, start legends — create myths,” she says. “It’s the same in the nick or the nuthouse: notoriety is respect.” What we have here is a fine example of Caledonian grunge, wherein writers north of the River Tweed grab the English language by the lapels, dunk it in the gutter and kick it into filthy, idiomatic life, thus leaving terrified book reviewers with no option but to find them “gritty” or “authentic.”

I have no way of knowing if the acid trip described here — which starts on the walk to school, then lurches sideways to a tower block for another drug run before concluding with a police bust — is authentic, having spent most of my school years protecting my privates from oncoming soccer balls, but there is no resisting the tidal rollout of Fagan’s imagery. Her prose beats behind your eyelids, the flow of images widening to a glittering delta whenever Anais approaches the vexed issue of her origins: “Born in the bushes by a motorway. Born in a VW with its doors open to the sea. Born in Harvey Nichols between the fur coats and the perfume, aghast store staff faint. . . . Born in an igloo. Born in a castle. Born in a tepee while the moon rises and a midsummer powwow pounds the ground outside.”

Solving this mystery — cracking Anais open — soon supplants the cop-in-a-coma as the book’s main narrative focus, as is only right, since “The Panopticon” is primarily, and triumphantly, a voice-driven novel.

Fagan’s prose rhythm and use of the demotic may owe something to Irvine Welsh, but there is a poet’s precision to some of the novel’s more plumed excursions. I, for one, was as grateful for those fur coats and that perfume as I was for the acid trips and dog rapes, the school of Welsh having long ago seized up, sclerotically, with its own druggie braggadocio. “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,” Updike said. Reading Welsh’s most recent work, you sense a writer trying, but unable, to break out of the rough bark in which early success has encased him.

He could do worse than to study the warmer emotional temperature of Fagan’s book, or the way she uses it to defrost her battle-hardened heroine — the “girl with a shark’s heart” who cleaves to her own moral code (“you dinnae bully people, ever”) and who finds herself fighting back unaccustomed tears when a fellow inmate commits suicide. “I wish that would stop,” she says of this “teary” stuff. But it won’t. Under the guidance of Angus, the one support worker she likes — possibly because of his green dreadlocks and Doc Marten boots — Anais retraces her tangled journey: her 147 criminal charges, her years in foster care, her possible birth in an asylum, where they find a mad old monk, guarded by gargoyles, who claims to have laid eyes on her “bio mum,” although Anais remains convinced that “in all actuality they grew me — from a bit of bacteria in a petri dish. An experiment, created and raised just to see exactly how much . . . a nobody from nowhere can take.”

Sometimes Anais catches glimpses of men behind the prison windows, men with no noses in shiny shoes and black wide-rimmed hats — or are they just an acid flashback? Do we really believe she is being watched? Anais and her fellows are too free to come and go (there are boat trips and double dates, even spending money) for the Panopticon to strike a truly Orwellian note. If this is Orwellianism it’s the well-meaning Orwellianism of the modern European welfare state. With its orphaned heroine, retro prison design and Gothic accouterments, “The Panopticon” glances instead back to “Jane Eyre” and all those other 19th-century novels in which children trace their parentage through a perilous maze of orphanages and poorhouses, those hulking, soot-stained establishments now having made way for the bright, Formica-covered spaces of the modern-day detention center and rehab facility.

Like Stieg Larsson, to whose Lisbeth Salander the spunky Anais also owes a small debt, Fagan plugs into our fears of youth brutalized by the very system that is supposed to care for it, while upending those fears with a heroine who would rather choke than ask for our pity: “I hate saying please,” Anais tells us. “It makes me feel cheap. I hate saying thank you. I hate saying I need anything.” But Fagan’s voice is her own, a pure descant, rising from the fray like a chorister in a scrum. “Vive le girls,” she writes, with “hips and perfumes and perfumers. Vive absinthe and cobbled streets, vive le sea! Vive riots and old porn, and dragonflies; vive rooms with huge windows and unlockable doors. Vive flying cats and cigarillo-smoking Outcast Queens!” Vive them all, yes indeed, and vive Jenni Fagan, too, whose next book just moved into my “eagerly anticipated” pile.

Tom Shone’s new book, “Scorsese: A Retrospective,” will be published next year.

A version of this review appears in print on July 21, 2013, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Surveillance State.