The New York Times Book Review



A New Novel Envisions a Very Cold Environmental Future, Starting Now

By Jenni Fagan
272 pp. Hogarth. $26.

As carbon dioxide levels rise, as humans create more and newer justifications for institutionalized murder and as lethal diseases ravage unsuspecting populations, writers respond. They bring us novels of the post-apocalypse — philosophical explorations of what the world might look like when the fraying center finally shears. Whether the approaches are starkly realistic or fancifully speculative, these visions generally posit an end-time far enough into an unrecognizable future that we can maintain our illusions of safety from the comfort of our reading chairs.

Jenni Fagan, the fierce and cleareyed Scottish writer, will have none of that. In her new novel, “The Sunlight Pilgrims,” she is committed to disrupting our ease by setting her story of impending cataclysm at a moment unnervingly near at hand. Fagan’s novel is set in 2020, and the world is familiar in every way but for one menacing difference: It is very, very cold.

The polar ice caps are melting, and the seas are rising. The mercury, as the story opens, is set at minus 6 degrees — ­colder than most of us regularly experience, but not unimaginable. And it is not so for the three characters who are the novel’s focus: Dylan, an unusually tall man who, at age 38, is grieving the back-to-back deaths of his mother and grandmother; Constance, a self-reliant survivalist; and her daughter, 12-year-old Stella, a transgender girl who is on the cusp of a puberty that, unless she is able to begin a course of hormone treatments, will deny her the external appearance that matches the girl she knows herself to be. Mother and daughter are part of an off-the-grid community of caravan dwellers who live just outside the fictional town of Clachan Fells in northern Scotland. Constance relishes her independence as well as her distance from the townspeople, who judge her harshly for carrying on open affairs with two men simultaneously, one of whom is Stella’s married father. Dylan, a Londoner, is an “incomer,” newly arrived having inherited a caravan from his mother. Cut off from any future he ever imagined and lacking in basic survival skills — he greets the deep freeze in a pair of thin-soled Chelsea boots — Dylan strikes up a friendship with Stella and Constance just as what is predicted to be the worst winter in 200 years descends over much of the planet.

Fagan’s novel balances the oncoming climate disaster with the human-scale stories of these characters, focusing especially on Stella, whose feelings about her sexual identity are refreshingly resolute. Her confidence about her girlhood, and the pleasure she takes in it, as well as the way she stands her ground when dealing with the hurtful rejection of schoolyard bullies, reveal that she possesses a kind of resilience that may serve her well in uncertain times. She is supported by her mother, although not by her birth father, a fact that causes her to hope for the romance between Constance and Dylan she senses brewing.

Stella’s intrepid and sometimes dangerous attempts at self-care, and her ­coming-of-age under the pressure of ­societal disapproval and global threat, are the emotional anchors of the narrative. The interior lives of the adults in the novel are not quite as precisely drawn. We don’t learn much more about Constance than that she is an adept survivor who keeps her emotional entanglements at a safe distance. Dylan is a somewhat unformed man whose lack of direction and self-­knowledge might be ascribed to the fact that his lineage has been kept from him, information that he will uncover during the course of the novel and that he fears will threaten his relationship with Constance and Stella. This conventional narrative ruse — the unearthed secret — is not wholly persuasive in a book that admirably avoids melodrama, especially since the revelation does not have the weight of meaningful consequence. What does matter, and something Fagan handles with deceptively effortless prose, is the way in which ordinary, even banal, life dramas unfold while the existential noose is tightening. The girl’s sense of the dislocation is tender. “Her voice is sending her odd notes. Her body is becoming a strange instrument,” Fagan writes evocatively, and then, easing from the distanced poetry of the writer’s omniscience into the mind of this witty child, “Any day now a tiny man is going to set up a loudspeaker in her throat and his voice will make declarations in a baritone and everyone will think it is her speaking, but it won’t be.”

The mercury plummets, ultimately reaching an unfathomable and unsurvivable minus 56 degrees. As the days grow short and most of life must be spent inside the confines of a trailer, the claustrophobia Stella feels inside a body that might soon betray her is mirrored by what is happening in the world. When she takes an ill-advised bike ride into the freezing weather, we feel not only her physical desire to break out of her trailer home but also her desperation to escape the gender she was born into. Fagan joyfully summons the sheer jubilance of the girl’s physical power as well as her fear when she realizes she’s out of her depth in the freeze. The evocation of that maturational tipping point where wisdom trumps desire is one of the novel’s wrenching explorations. There is so much for this young girl to lose. That she receives news of frozen bodies and devouring sinkholes, of food shortages and economic collapse from the internet makes her isolation that much more devastating. A young Italian transgendered man who is Stella’s online consigliere suddenly disappears from the web, and we, like Stella, can only wonder if he has fallen victim to the freeze.

“The Sunlight Pilgrims” is a stylistically quieter novel than Fagan’s bravura debut, “The Panopticon” — a fiery and voice-­driven effort that landed her on Granta’s 2013 list of the best British novelists under 40 years old — but it is no less critical in its portrayal of marginalized people under the pressure of society’s norms. When Stella and her mother visit a doctor in hopes of getting Stella started on hormone therapy, the unhelpful man suggests antidepressants. At a community meeting, the nuns who run Stella’s school, and who do nothing to support or accommodate the girl’s gender transition, greet the oncoming freeze with educational leaflets and announcements about community preparedness plans including “ideas on how to insulate and heat your homes,” information that will be useless when the temperature drops and resources become scarce. At the meeting’s closing prayer, “Stella gazes around at the bended heads and Mother Superior is looking at her . . . and there is a faint distaste in her eyes.” It is easy to imagine that this young, marginalized girl and her anti-authoritarian mother will get no special help from their local church, insulation or otherwise. The difference in the argument from Fagan’s first novel to her second is that with the world tipping into disaster, intolerance will seem like a petty thing. No one, not even those who hew to ideas of perceived “normalcy,” will be spared. In this way, the satire in this novel is even sharper. A church that largely recoils from embracing difference can do nothing when it comes to protecting the earth from human abuses and vanities.

Fagan is a poet as well as a novelist, and many of her images of this unbidden winter are shot through with lyric beauty. Early on, we are told that in this worst of winters “icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks or the long bony finger of winter herself.” Later, when the threesome venture out of the caravan to witness an iceberg’s arrival, they observe “all those peaked figures of ice, like all of their ancestors have been caught by the elements on the long walk home, their souls captured by ice and snow, and below them the North Sea cracks and groans as ice floes creak and collide.” Strange beauty can be found in destruction, and Fagan is fearless and wise to allow her characters to be as entranced by nature’s awesome power as they are terrified of it. The mythic reach of such imagery mirrors the way Fagan overlays elements of the tribal onto the quotidian. The novel’s three central characters are as much recognizable humans as they are visitations from a folk narrative. Dylan is an orphaned giant whose mother, to obscure his troubling lineage, told him he was the product of a fallen angel and a mortal woman. To ward off the worst of the chill, Constance frequently dons the pelt and preserved head of a wolf, so at times she seems a strange hybrid. Stella is a double, both a boy and a girl. The local lore about the sunlight pilgrims of the novel’s title tells of a race who drink light to live through the darkest times. But Fagan does not use metaphor as poetic immunity for her characters or her readers. The novel leaves them — and us — in a deeply troubling and unresolved moment. The world looks like a place of our darkest imagination, but it is all too real.


The Sunlight Pilgrims



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.




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




Signing first editions at York Hall.




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




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)



Dead Queen of Bohemia, The



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