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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It Felt Like a Very 1962 Conversation

So I went to the festival and watched this fly with unusually long legs that was more like a spider (but it was flying) drift around above the writers heads at the International Writers Conference. I was pretty sure it was the spirit of Burroughs just checking into see what was happening fifty years after the major conference he attended in 1962. There was a slightly manic energy around, writers who became more dishevelled as the weeks went on. I got a shot on the same typewriter used by Sylvia Plath and had some odd conversations in the yurt. There was a man who claimed to be able to heal all pain. A lecturer stealing sandwiches who told me that Jeremy Benthem is stuffed and on display in University College of London. This pleased me. He said the lecturers used to wheel him into meetings sometimes. Then his head fell off. So they made a new one.

Ali Smith read a story about a woman whose heart becomes wooden branches that grow out her chest and begin to bud. I have chatted with Ali before but when she reads, she really is a cut above, a cut apart, she is a writer who knows how to cut, to cauterise. I was reminded of Patti Smith talking about flying shamans in society, about writers, or musicians who are flying shamans, and what that means. That drew me back to an interview I had with the artist Michael Parkes where he talked about his painting of Venus, with Mercury flying down to show the gods that this avatar’s arrival is an earth shattering, life-changing event. He said that when he tried to paint Venus he was trying to paint behind the veil, to capture the essence of something that is truly beautiful. I thought it was a political stance to take against a world that favours nihilistic art at times. It’s not that nihilism is not valid at times, it’s just that he was saying that for all this worlds trouble at the very centre, at the absolute pulse, is this light. This absolute, unbelievable light. It’s what he is searching for as an artist. He sends out a pulse, or a radar that other artists respond to because they recognise this pulse too. So I was chatting to Ali about this and it felt like a very 1962 conversation but a very important one and I was totally inspired by meeting her. Kelman was astounding as ever. I saw him twice. He had the launch for his new novel Mo Said She Was Quirky (I got mine signed) at Word Power bookshop. Word Power is one of the coolest independent book shops in the world and when I’m there I always happen upon some new interesting person, or political discovery, or novel, or poem. Elaine who runs the place is a fount of all things useful to literati and readers alike, if you are ever in town then please do pop along there. Anyway. Kelman read from an essay he’d written about the original 1962 Writers Conference, and the reasons why he was choosing not to actively chair a day at the event. I will post his essay below. Occasionally I am aware that I am in the presence of someone who is so thoroughly grounded in a sharp, political, humane, fundamentally generous truth as an artist, that I feel both humbled and like a total idiot — Kelman is one of those few people. Writers today are expected to provide many elements of a ‘package’ that is becoming standard within the industry. I have been fortunate to not be too touched by that myself right now but I see it all the time. Kelman reminds me that it is absolutely, irrevocably, okay to just be who you are as an artist. I use the word artist quite deliberately with Kelman because to me he is a master painter (with words) he is the kind of person you should study (like the young painters did back in the day) and you should not be sidelined by the controversy that seems to follow him because it is far less interesting than he is. I think people focus on his political elements because he is so powerfully honest. So I saw him twice, and he signed my book and I got to chat with him a wee bit and was probably still in the kind of awkward space I might be if I happened upon Kafka at a reading but nevertheless it reminded me that all I ever need to do is to write from a true place. By that I mean — if I write from a place that is true then it will produce something of worth. Everytime. It’s not up to me too much to worry too much about plot or what is readable, or entertaining, or marketable or any of those other concerns — that really is the business of people who sell windows — not people who are trying to express something fundamental about being. Is this overly hippified shit? I don’t know but writers like that, or like Welsh at the writers conference, they do something that is about a definitive freedom, and confidence, to develop work without limitations — other than your own. People who are caught up in the academics, in the technicality, in the mechanics — they are missing something vital. So these wee fleeting moments in the festival were great for me, like a wee shot of peyote in the desert, just enough to get a writer through winter. I have come home since the festival and finished my thesis (on writers from the periphery and the importance of peripheral works to the future of literature) which helped me clarify why my approach to words is important, and why I will stick by it.

So I have almost finished by short story collection and I am back into writing my new novel. As Kelman said when he was interviewed by Liz Lochhead — the only thing that is ever important is to return to the words. Things will change. The world will change. We may or may not be able to pay our electricity bill and that is nothing new. What still matters putting down what you choose/how you choose to do so. That might mean writing without thinking. That might mean planning every element. It might mean really learning how to listen so a voice can come through that is not just a puppetry of lit-shittery. What I think about is how totally fleeting this existence is and how I understand less about it each year and when I go, I want to know that I wrote what I had to — pure and true. To have that single minded desire to make one word follow another, or to follow one word through another as time passes.

That’s what happens, then the sun rises, and the beach light is grey, and the telly license people are still total idiots, and milk needs bought and the baby has just reminded you that this exact instant is the only one that really counts.

It is what it is.

During the festival I also read at Summerhall, in a room with a hook in the ceiling where they used to hang horses to dissect them. The place had a great atmospheric stripped back vibe about it. The event was Bucket of Tongues organised by Kevin Williamson (stole the show) Irvine Welsh (a genius and a gent) and a team of writers from Chicago vs Edinburgh brought into entertain the good and the ugly. It was sweaty, it was real, it was my favourite event of the festival. It was nice to meet Alan Bissett properly and see part of his surreal spider show. John Hemingway’s stories about his father and Norman Mailer were profoundly humane, surreal and hilarious. I met the owner of the new venue afterwards and had a great chat about Patti Smith, masturbation, and the process of creating an arts venue to rival any other in Europe. It’s an exciting venture, Neu Reekie are going to make their home there and I will be reading at their opening night this month (Belle & Sebastian are on the bill) as well as some amazing readers and animation. It’s nice to move home from London and find something like Neu Reekie going on, it has an energy, a now-ness about it you know. You should go — or be square and shit-bored daddy O.


This month I’m really pleased to be mentioned in Polari by Michael Langan recommending The Panopticon on their weeks reading list x

Polari

Here is Kelman’s article on The British Council and the Edinburgh Writers Conference

<a href="http://www.word-power.co.uk/viewPlatform.php?id=601&quot;

And now here are The Dirty Three to play you out …

Tideland

I have squirrels living in the roof of my building. They freak my cat out, are very bold and appear to have began tapping on the wall behind my bed, inside the old boarded up fireplace. Either that or I’m living next door to a Fritzel. Or, as Joe suggested, the guy upstairs spends a lot of time cutting out deals. This has made me consider two things. Firstly I need to get out of bed. At the moment I am finalising my collection of poetry The Dead Queen of Bohemia, writing an epic long short story, a novel, doing all end of degree essays yadda yadda. I do this from my pit and although it doesn’t look like Emins lovely boudoir it nevertheless is tuning me into shit like squirrels in the walls. Say no more. This reminded me that I hadn’t watched Tideland for a while. I wrote a poem that was inspired by it, I love a lot of the cinematography and the idea of darkness in childhood and the brutality of reality combined with an absolute ability to disappear into imagination and magic. The protagonist, a kid called Jeliza Rose, incidentally shares the names I intend to use if I ever drop girls, possibly twins; apparently its in the family. Eliza (one of my middle names) and Rose (i just like it). So I have to do Tideland tonight. I can live harmoniously with strange tapping squirrels.

Only four weeks to go now and my degree is done. This summer I will finish The Panopticon. I will also read some stuff that I actually want to read or re-read, like Tesla’s Ghost by Darran Anderson or Cigarettes in Bed by Adelle Stripe, John Dorsey’s book, Joe Ridgwell’s Burrito Deluxe and Lost Elation again to name but a few. Incidentally – in writing people are always going on about not being ‘incestuous’ even though all scenes: just are! I am inspired by a lot of people and interested by a lot of writers work: who are not necessarily well-known (neither am I) why is it so bad to write about that or turn people onto great shit still languishing in relative obscurity? In music, which I did for ages, it was all good to find other music you liked that existed in a maelstrom of undergrounds .. an tell all the other musicians you knew about it. Writing is too self conscious about itself. Everyone seems to be trying to be clever or create a really cool persona and be taken seriously by not fawning. Well fawning is yawnworthy right enough but writers are not cool, we’re dull as fuck and are probably best avoided.

I am not a critic. I like what I like and if I don’t like it I’m not wasting words writing about it. I don’t like critics. They lack imagination. I don’t personally feel the need to elevate myself by pulling someone else’s work apart for no reason, (critics quite often seem to be doing this to appear – credible or because they think they are the gods of good taste or maybe just to make themselves seem important to somebody?) I don’t need to appear credible, my credibility is ingrained, I have no persona to create, I am not a performer, I am a writer and poet and for me the words come first, that’s all. Sometimes critics just like a good witch-hunt. For an example of this take a look at the response to the playwright Sarah Kane’s plays. She often wrote some stunning stuff and used lyrics to great effect in her work as well. Maybe a lot of critics represent a social place in society that they feel needs to tell everyone else – they are right, and what is good and not good. That must be the other reason I don’t like them. I have never liked being told what to do and even less so, what to think.

Personas are not there are some people I adore to watch read or on stage, I could  have listened to Burroughs all day, Gertrude Stein although I don’t like all her work I would love to have seen, Henry Rollins live is great, I can watch Nick Cave do bits of his novels or poems quite happily, I adore in writers what I like in older comfortable musicians like the Patti Smith group or Can or when I saw Odetta sing at 80 years old a few years ago, a really natural sense of ease and I’d like to get to that state of ease some day. Interestingly a lot of the best writers seem to be the least socially smooth and a lot of the wankers seem so confident it gives me the creeps. I get told I’m prickly at readings and I don’t want to be I just suffer from acute social anxiety, am not too strong on the comedic crowd pleasers and what seems prickly to a lot of people .. where I come from, was just a necessary and normal way to be. Doesn’t anyone like to be scared by anything anymore? Iggy Pop was great at antagonising and weirding out audiences who came to the early Stooges years. And also – to be fair, readings are full of tossers. Every-time I go to one I cringe at how self indulgent they can often be. Show me something honest and you’ve got me. It doesn’t need to be shiny. Shiny has its place though, I guess it is different things that catch me but that raw bit that is a real writer not being a persona or even if they are; not acting, I guess I just get that the most.

Anyway. Critics. That’s for academics or theorists, I’m not one of those. I’m a writer, so if asked for honest feedback I will give it and most writers hate that. I don’t know why. Every single time I have got better as a writer it has been because someone, usually a better writer, has been able to give me good solid criticism. Words can’t kill you and they rarely pay the rent; grow a leather hide if you want to be open to genuine honesty and improve, it’s necessary!

Anyway. This summer I plan to do a load more of J.G. Ballard, also some scientific ones I’ve been wanting to read for a while, James Kelman’s new novel and perhaps some of his old stuff. I may do Mervyn Peaks trilogy, Wallace Stevens and Celine. I will read The Faraway Tree.

I did a reading last night. I got drunk before I read which helped with the palpitations. I cannot seem to get to the point of loving the sound of my own voice on a stage on my own with staring people. I would like to though. I owe the words it, I spend enough time on them. Perhaps I might read for the squirrels. Maybe they can help me relax into just telling stories or poems, and to lose my acute sense of awareness on how it is to be.

Anyway, here is my film poem from the original Urchin Belle, sayonara Jx.

It Should Be Dark,

So You Can See

There is always a scene

you didn’t see last time.

A horse wearing a dress,

a fold in the curtain

that wasn’t there

an’ a line

you never heard,

delivered as she adusts

a stocking you swear

she didn’t wear

before breakfast.

The grey skies of the first time

blink to orange glass.

That celluloid breathes,

re-coats the dream

in a silent whirr

whilst you sleep.

The barley fields

sway in waves,

an’ his submarine

is a burnt out car,

the bombs he lobs

are apples whose stalks

he pulls out with his teeth.

Bee lady of murk marches

with her square face,

an’ her widow scarf

an’ that one

creamy red engorged

eye un-blinks; your fear perceptible.

The room should

be dark, so you can see.

So you can hear the score,

as shadows leap an pirouette

along the walls

and kiss through all the adverts.

And you too

are in the silent shadow film,

wigged in smoke curls

lifting a cup of tea that points in disbelief

as horns grow out your ears

and your nose falls off.

You are different;

each time you watch.

Same jeans but sore heart

chipped nails, patting the cat

glasses on, after she died

eating popcorn, snow

an’ rain an’ hail outside

an’ that scene you didn’t notice

the last seventeen times

materialises.

And the same scenes,

they too are different.