Jenni Fagan and the Sunlight Pilgrims


I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet the brilliant Scottish author Jenni Fagan for an interview for The Sunday Times. She was recovering from having launched two books (a new novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, and a book of poetry, The Dead Queen of Bohemia) within the space of a week.

Text of the interview can be found below, or a slightly shorter version is on the Sunday Times website here.


17 April 2016, The Sunday Times

TO JENNI Fagan, the poet and author of the highly acclaimed The Panopticon, politics and art are very closely interlinked. Through her fiction, she deals with contemporary crises in social care, climate change and transphobia; but it is the recent rash of decisions to cut arts education and library provision across the country that arouses most anger – and to her eyes the trail of blame leads right to David Cameron’s door.

“It’s really horrible to be living through the current climate when they are stripping out the libraries, cutting art and music in schools,” she told the Sunday Times. “The Conservatives at the moment don’t seem to realise the immorality of what they are doing… They are stripping out culture, bit by bit. The idea that art and culture should only belong to those who can afford it is despicable.”

To Fagan, who grew up in the care system in Scotland and considers herself essentially self-educated, the impact of library closures – such as the 16 libraries axed by Fife Council in December – upon low-income families is particularly vivid.  “It’s such a hard reality to live in poverty… to not even have a library, or an art gallery, or a basic quality of education with a music teacher coming in every Friday… I think it’s a crime. I really do. I think they should be convicted for it, I think they should never be allowed to be in power again.”

April has been busy month for Fagan who last week launched two new books in three days; a poetry collection and her second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, which marks a departure from her previous work in both subject matter and scope. Set in a semi-dystopian near-future, a misfit family living a Scottish caravan park face an extreme winter in which temperatures drop to minus 50ºC and below.

Straddling the topics of environmental disaster and transgenderism, The Sunlight Pilgrims could not be more topical, although that was not the intention, she said. “It started as a way to write about my own relationship with nature – I spend a lot of time walking. I liked how as the winter progresses and the conditions becomes more and more extreme, it becomes deadly but also more and more beautiful as nature takes the planet back and imposes itself.”

“I didn’t set out how to write about what people should do about the environment,” she continued. “I don’t believe in imposing moral messages through literature; I believe in creating realities, a world that feels real.”

Twelve-year-old Stella, who plays a central role, is a transgender girl who faces hostility in a community struggling to accept her new identity. “It makes sense to me that you can be born female and have a genetically male body,” Fagan said. “I don’t see why anybody doesn’t understand it. Germaine Greer came out with a huge vitriol recently about what it is to be female – that if you don’t have a ‘smelly vagina’ you can’t understand. I thought: that’s a pretty horrific way to pare down the essence of being a woman.”

In the book, Stella and her mother fight to obtain hormone blockers from the local doctor before she hits puberty, a struggle faced by many transgender teens, many of whom are told to wait until they are older for treatment, in case it turns out to be a ‘phase’. “If you can give a girl the pill at twelve years old, if you can prescribe her antidepressants, then it doesn’t make sense to me why you would deny that treatment to somebody… I don’t think that’s something that should be questioned. If you don’t take hormone blockers at a certain age it can be much harder to feminize later on.”

Jenni’s unsettled childhood gave her an unusual level of insight into the setting of her phenomenally successful first book, told through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl, a veteran of the foster system now confined to a home for young offenders. The film options were snapped up by Ken Loach’s production company Sixteen Films, where it is currently “in the last stretches” of development.

But she has been wary of being typecast since its publication – and thought very carefully about the re-release this month of poems which date back to a more disordered time in her life (included among new work in the collection The Dead Queen of Bohemia). It is the result, she says, of a decision to “own her own narrative” after watching her own life being recast in the media into a story she didn’t recognize. “I stopped doing interviews for a long time for this reason,” she said.

“I did grow up in a very odd way,” she allowed. “My poetry is very much about life on the edge. Inhabiting the space of the ‘other’ – of being slightly different,  – as a writer is brilliant. But as a human it can be quite challenging.”

Of the comments made last weekend by the novelist Kirsty Gunn – who claimed that an ‘unofficial politicizing of literature’ was taking place through the allocating of funding towards projects on ‘approved’ Scottish themes – Fagan said: “I think there is a certain swathe of the Scottish cultural community that really hold onto the reins of what it means to be ‘Scottish’…

“A lot of the writers I know who are a bit more avant garde – writers who are Scottish, not ‘Scottish writers’ –are slightly less supported, I’d say, and slightly less encouraged, perhaps because they’re not ticking that box.”

Nevertheless, Fagan’s decision to write The Panopticon in vernacular Scots – something oft-commented upon by critics – was in no way a cynical move. “I don’t ask my friends if they want to go for a cup of tea, or have a chat in the pub at 4 in the morning in Scottish to be political; I do that because that’s the language I’ve been brought up to speak. I write in English, I write in Scottish, I speak in English, I speak in Scottish. Why would that be political?”

With two books out, and having completed the screenplay for the film adaptation of The Panopticon, Fagan might be forgiven for taking some time out, but work has already commenced on novels three and four, she said, while she considers offers of further screenwriting work. A book of her photography will also be published in the autumn.

“I’ve sworn that when I’m 70 I’ll quit writing. I will just make art and drink gin, and that will be that. So I’ve got a thirty-two year writing deadline to get it all done.” She’d better get cracking.

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