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

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.


A Waterproof Swan Staring Into The Wombs of Horses

I have been uber absent this year, finishing my novel, working on a new one, taking my baby to see the moon and explaining to him why the sky is blue. His repertoire of lullabies includes mostly just songs I like, so he bops along to the Cramps, or old sixties stuff, and Nina Simone, Tim Buckley, Sigur Ros, Glasvegas, Nirvana, early Blondie. Of course The Wheels on The Bus Go Round — is always popular too. My debut novel The Panopticon is now in its final edit stages and has changed so much throughout this whole process, and through writing it, I’ve changed as well. I am beyond excited that The Panopticon will be published by Heinemann, on May 3rd, 2012. I have lots more news to blog about it, but I will leave that until January. So much happened this year, having the baby of course, moving country, working on my Masters, reading at Edinburgh Festival, and more recently at Neu Reekie! Neu Reekie is a monthly event on in Edinburgh, check it out if you can. Other than that I am thinking of my dissertation on works from the periphery, and what does it mean to defy convention and is it even possible to create solely on your own terms? The problem is that the unconventional often become conventional as soon as expectation is placed upon it. Who knows. Not the Ninky Nonk. I am ending this year without one of my oldest, and closest friends as well, and all I can do is have gratitude for the times we shared. So I raise my cup of tea to all those loved, and vow to walk along all the beaches of ever, most especially at dawn. Here’s a poem for all you kitchen sink bohemians, I wrote it recently after listening to Neruda. Also, the lovely Daniel Johnstone to serenade all Santa’s gnomes J xx


Poem After Listening to Neruda


What we want, it so happens, we are.

I am sick,

a waterproof swan staring into the wombs of horses.


I am the still wool,

I am the elevator’s spectacles.


You — are how nature is separated,

and it so happens I am sick, and you are fingernails, hair and shadow.


A giant hand — so marvellous.

On the stair (where he killed a man with a balloon in his ear) my green knife.


A stretched out sleep,





a wounded wheel.




in my windows. Hideous.


Come on chicken, hang over the houses I hate, be a coffee pot!


Venom is umbilical,

bye bye grandma — under the house,

buzzing gas again.


Send out a kite, a kite to catch,

it will fly by your window, go on — look out now, it won’t destroy you.


Forget everything.


The park-light (is gold) and the people are beginning to point,

the sky  — is opening.

Look out now, it won’t destroy you.

Dwang 3, An Artisan Anthology from Tangerine Press

tangerine press tangerine press: outsider poetry : prose : graphics in handbound limited editions.Dear people’s of the little planet, the next anthology from Tangerine Press is due out soon, I have some poems in there and the company is truly divine. If you have not encountered Tangerine Press before, then you are missing out on some of the most immaculate artisan publishing around. There are many books worth buying from TP – I keep mine in a vault, guarded by a gin soaked gun-toting troglodyte. So, don’t be square all you Daddy O’s, go take a peek through the hole in the wall.

Previously unpublished poetry, prose and graphics. Published May 2011. Poetry from: Billy Childish, Ntozake Shange, Kevin Williamson, Charles Plymell, Salena Godden, Geoff Hattersley, Ronald Baatz, K.M. Dersley, Adrian Manning, Gerald Nicosia, Douglas Blazek, Jenni Fagan, K.V. Skene, David Barker, Steve Ely, Joseph Ridgwell, Hosho McCreesh, Ian Seed, Tim Wells, Richard Krech, Paul Harrison. Also, a chapter from an erotic novel by Johnny Goldcunt, translated by Sabine D’Estree.

Prose: News From Nowhere: six original pieces by Will Self.

Graphics: dark, disturbing b&w images by artist Jase Daniels. Also, a rare image from R. Crumb.

Special section: As Close As It Gets by US poet Fred Voss. Includes new poems, a critical essay by Alan Dent (editor of The Penniless Press) and an in-depth, exclusive interview with Mr. Voss by Jules Smith, author of Art, Survival and So Forth: The Poetry of Charles Bukowski (Wrecking Ball Press, 2000). Also ‘comments’ from, amongst others, the likes of Gerald Locklin, Joan Jobe Smith and Martin Bax of the legendary Ambit.

General information: 104 pages. Large format, approx. 7″/175mm wide x 250mm/10″ tall. Handbound at the Tangerine Press workshop, using acid-free papers and boards, conservation glue, hemp cord; distinctive Tangerine logo stamped onto the front cover in orange ink (numbered copies) and black ink (lettered copies); 3-colour title page. There are 74 numbered and 26 lettered copies available for sale. Body text set in Baskerville Old Face–three other classic fonts are used throughout the journal.
ISBN 978-0-9553402-8-4

All 100 copies have been signed by the poet Fred Voss.

Now, let Can serenade you with Mother Sky …

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.


3:AM Awards 2010


Jenni Fagan’s The Dead Queen of Bohemia (Blackheath Books)



Tom McCarthy’s C (Jonathan Cape)


Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso)



Jon Savage’s Black Hole (Domino)



Robinson in Ruins, dir. Patrick Keiller


Cover 17.1.indd




Melville House (interview with Dennis Loy Johnson)


> kill author


A Journey Round My Skull
Dangerous Minds

120 Days of Sodom

I’ll return to Sodom in a minute. I am distracted by obscure pirates. There are a few under-archived female pirates and one in particular is one of the great female outlaws I’m going to research and resurrect. I could handle a pirate ship and a few years whiskey for water. I’m not a bad shot either. Perhaps the most successful documented female pirate is Ching Shih who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century. She commanded 1800 ships and about 80,000 pirates. Not bad for a girl who started out in Canton’s floating brothels.

There was Alvilda in Finland, Charlotte de Berry from England in 1636, Rachel Wall from Pennsylvania in the 1770s, Jane de Belleville a Frenchwoman who assisted the English at the 1345 invasion of Brittany. Anne Bonney and Mary Read were two famous pirates, thought to be lovers. Anne Bonney was Irish and often sailed her black flag in the Caribbean. After they got arrested in the 1720s both women pleaded their bellies so their executions would be delayed. While Read is thought to have died in childbirth, Bonny disappeared. There’s a grave for her many, many years later in 1782 South Carolina, then eighty years old, with eight children, grandchildren and a husband. A happy end for an outlaw.

Pirates aside I saw a production of Noel Cowards Design for Living the other week. The play still stands up and the sets in the Old Vic were stunning. Some of the 1930s stuff dated not so well but most of it seemed fairly contemporary, the acting was a bit theatre but still a great play. I’ve been reading Sole, the hardback collection by David Oprava out on Blackheath. It’s a great one to collect, the hardbacks are limited edition and will sell out quickly.

I also picked up the uncut Salo or 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini which was banned everywhere and promises true filth, degradation and violence in this uncut version. Like many films billed as the most disturbing ever made – it might just be total kitsch bollocks. I don’t know why capturing the essence of filth seems to elude so many? One can but live in hope.

Here’s Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson, singing Relator.

The Scold’s Bridle

I am not perfect, this light does not belong to me * I feel like I am living in a circle * Freedom is  a must, prison is no life for anyone and I always leave homeless too * Prison does not work it just gives me a break so when I get released I can take more drugs * You have no control over anything, it’s out of your hands * I feel like a bird that has had its wings clipped, all I want to do is fly away from here * Will she ever know my name? * I will steady the stars that wish to fall * I want to live and I mean really live again * The simple things in life mean so much when they are taken away * It breaks my heart everyday I’m apart from beautiful baby girl, especially behind bars pom lock and chain F@@K HMP * The soul is an angel to be kept pure, untainted and free * I miss you * A lot of young girls come into isolation and they can’t stand the pressure, so they take the sheets and rip them up, this is what they hang themselves with, they don’t tell people about these but the majority in isolation have seen them cut people down from the sheets, a couple of pregnant girls too * I have always loved you fierce * I miss being able to hug and kiss my son, I miss the loving stare of my cats * The system isn’t built on rehabilitation but on warehousing * It is in prison that a woman despite her spiritual rituals comes to know that she is entirely alone in the Universe * How can we recover our imaginations for dreaming? * The more I learn the freer I feel in silence * The floor I lie upon is just like all the world, a cold hard surface * Where is my mind? * There is nothing at the end of the rainbow * Our sentences tend to be harsher than men convicted for the same crime, it’s because we’re seen as fallen women * I have no voice * The smiles and daydreams have left me and strength is all I know * I have never got used to the invasive touch of hands that assert the right to paw my body * We had to ask to sit down, I guess you would call it institutionalised * Who are you to judge? * Out of this mouth wisdom, into this mouth, fist. Turn away to comfort while we writhe and rise. The secret of resistance is joy.

These words were written by women in prison in the UK and USA. I created an art installation called The Scold’s Bridle as a collaborative project with women in prison or with experience of prison. The Scold’s Bridle is a metal sculpture about two metres tall and around a metre wide, these words are inscribed and painted across it. An article on The Scold’s Bridle is in the next Women in Prison magazine. The Scold’s Bridle was on exhibit in Greenwich Gallery this Spring.