This isn’t true, or is it? I don’t know. I have not been here for some time. That can be said of many areas of my writing, public reading and personal life for quite a wee while. A lot has been going on. Moving four times this year. A big bereavement. Renovating properties to try and ground my life in a way that allows me to work on novels with less pressure. Being a Mama, a friend and human with a heart that beats — in a world that has far too many reasons to create existential dread in even the most positive of people. I didn’t write my novels for about ten months. I just wasn’t sure there was a place for the novels I was working on. The things I was doing to get security — so I can keep writing and provide for my family, were so hard. Each of them was taking me further and further away from getting back to words. I could say I’ve never felt less like a writer than I have done this last year. I wonder if Jessie Kesson felt like this in her crofting years? Most recently I’ve been living in renovations for seven years straight — in the hope of finding a core stability so I can keep working on my books, which can take years to write. Literature is a privileged industry. For those of us with a -+ in such things, there are many reasons at times to lose hope. However, I loved words a long time before anyone read them. I could have picked another career to make a good living from and done well. I am particularly skilled at making houses beautiful. I take old wrecks and restore them from scratch. At the end you’d never guess how derelict or smelly or weird they were when I got them. It is hard work. In the last ten years I’ve moved over ten times and done up every house by myself, some were in extraordinarily bad condition. It was so exhausting. There is a certain art and endurance in taking a house back to the bones and rebuilding it. I am an artist, so my eye to detail is acute. I recently read Tanizaki — In Praise of Shadows. I felt a huge solace in the essay. It’s exploration of aesthetics is so pure. I have gone a long road unseen this last year or so. Now I have come back to this place — where I type and think and begin to create worlds that mean something to me firstly. I know some writers would be appalled by that, those who write for readers, or editors, or reviews, or glory. I write to become. I write to try and make great art. It’s very impractical of me. I write to challenge, to rage, to love, to mourn, to lust, to hope, to pursue mortality in the ways it does me. I write to unfairness, and cruelty — I write to be. I have not been doing the longer pieces. The novels. Life has been taking me out. Despite that I brought out my last poetry collection — There’s a Witch in the Word Machine. It’s a book I really care about and I’ll blog about that separately. I wrote a play. I wrote other things. But, if I am not writing novels then a part of me feels I am just not working at all. So, anyway — I’m back in this space of fiction. I drive up and down the A1 listening to music way too loud and over these ten months of non-faith, non-practise (novels anyway) I have come to some big decisions. I worked out the structure of my 100 year-novel, I reclaimed its ending from the following novel. I am ready to stand by some things which I think are fundamentally vital as an artist. The right to create work that does not always comfort or soothe. The ability to believe in myself even when my content pushes boundaries too hard, or in too real a way? Perhaps keeping the multiplicity of real life in literature is rare. The world has never seemed so culturally conservative. Is it incidental that we are watching the censoring of media, of challenging thought, the use of propaganda, fascist far-right dogma. Is it an incident that clinging to ideals which claim to be middle-class or elitist as the only way to save us, is beginning to seem old fashioned, out of touch and outright dangerous. We live in a world that should know by now — there are no ‘classes’ of people, there are only those who have more money, and those who do not. I am responding to a hundred years of history in one of those novels — to patriarchy and social exclusion in particular. There is much to make a person feel a true and righteous rage when considering these things. I read a blogger whose articles I find hugely challenging at times. When I find them at their most difficult, it is because they are teaching me about my own biases or ignorance in an area I don’t yet understand. I am identified as threatening at times (in my work) because of the edge I bring to the literature I write. I am an edge walker. I am a risk taker. You don’t come from my walk of life and do what I am doing, without that ability to throw down your soul as the most truthful thing you own. My life has been beyond challenging this last forty-one years, and this last twelve months have been off-the-scale. Stick that in your discordant syntax detector. I’m standing by all the gaps. The unusual. The uncomfortable. I am thinking about my novels daily again. This time I may not stop for a decade. I may be glad of my years knocking walls down. May they have prepared me for continuing to do so, and more.
Picture this — a 15 year-old girl is in a tiny bedroom. There are twelve other identical bedrooms outside her door. She angles a standard issue social work bed diagonally across her room to disrupt the aesthetic uniformity of this children’s care home. There is a stack of books in the corner. A lot of those books are on the occult or science. She is smoking. The window is open. The staff can be heard chatting downstairs. The kids in this unit do not use official titles for the ‘care workers’, they are just ‘the staff’ a collective presence that comes and goes. The kids do not go home at the end of each day. Especially not this one. The girl is wearing Doc Marten boots. She is reading A Clockwork Orange.
On the last few pages the girl finds her body colluding with the text. There is a low feeling of electricity coming off the page. Momentum gathers toward the part of A Clockwork Orange that is somehow the most shocking — the protagnist Alex — who has committed heinous violence and been dealt with in the most brutal and futuristic manner — is the exact same age as her.
The girl puts down the book.
She has been altered.
A Clockwork Orange attached itself to my fifteen-year old life and delivered a series of electronic volts.
I am that girl, who later grew up and became a published novelist and poet. It takes a lot to shock me in real life and also in literature. I have lived through so many extreme circumstances that I am extraordinarily hard to impress in that way. A Clockwork Orange attached itself to my fifteen-year old life and delivered a series of electronic volts not dissimilar to those experienced by Alex, when he goes through his rehabilitation process.
The first part of the book sees Alex as leader of a gang of droogs — teenage criminals. His cronies comprised of Dim, Pete and Georgie. They drink drug-laced milk in the Korova Milk bar and another establishment called the Duke of New York.
The droogs speak to each other in a slang language called nadsat. A Clockwork Orange‘s slang dialect steals elements of Russian and Cockney English. I loved the unfamiliarity of nadsat. As I began to read A Clockwork Orange I had the amazing realisation that I could understand everything these boys said in nadsat. It was my first experience of discovering dialogue that was not in straight English but could still be understood by anyone. As a young Scottish girl who was not taught how to write in Scottish dialect, or use the spellings of my own dyadic working-class tongue — this particular experience would prove pivotal when I sat down to write my first fiction novel some years later.
Alex defies convention at every turn. He listens to Classical music, loudly, a lot. He likes to read the Bible. He is an unlikeable protagonist who relishes the disgust he generates. His penchant for violence is underlined by an absolute lack of remorse. He is undaunted by State and society — he merely tolerates what he considers to be the idiocy of adults.
His rehabilitation process in prison is Ludovico’s technique and it is so successful that Alex is released from prison after two years. He can’t see violence anymore without becoming physically sick. He is immobilised by rehabilitive conditioning. He can’t listen to classical music anymore as he associates it with his prior violent history. He has been declawed and sent out into a world as a harmless and defenceless citizen.
Revenge is visited upon Alex by Dim and Billy boy who have become police officers. They beat him brutally. Alex tries to get help and comes across the husband of the woman who had died from injuries the droogs inflicted years earlier. The man is a political dissident. Alex goes through final stages of torment being used as a tool against the State and by them. Finally he wants to have a normal life with a wife and family.
I loathed Alex.
I was utterly compelled to read his story.
I found the black and white nature of Burgess’s approach to the moral nature of violent teenagers claustrophobic and repellent. The unrepentent portrayal of a young psychopath was also extraordinarily powerful.
I was a teenager who had experience of the world Burgess wrote about and I was still living in it when I read this book. I did not feel intimidated by Burgess’s vision. It irritated me. It frustrated me. It got under my skin. I was impressed.
A Clockwork Orange generated a multiplicity of responses in me as a reader. I left this novel expecting a higher standard both in my own writing, which I did every day even then and also in any dystopian books I would read in the future.
A Clockwork Orange marries its futuristic dystopian narrative with identifiable issues from modern society to devastating affect.
It was the first novel of its kind to affect my vision as a reader and more importantly for me, as a writer. When I wrote The Panopticon years later, it was a book that was still vaguely on my mind.
PIECE PUBLISHED in UNBOUND WORLDS – http://www.unboundworlds.com
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
Five Authors Jenni Fagan Would Invite to a Dinner Party
The author of The Sunlight Pilgrims picks her dream dinner dates.
First published by Read It Forward
BY JENNI FAGAN • 4 DAYS AGO
If you could invite five famous authors—dead or living—to dinner, who would you choose, and what would you serve? Today on Read it Forward, novelist Jenni Fagan hosts the dinner party of her dreams. Salut!
I wish I’d spent time at Gertrude Stein’s extraordinary salon in Paris. She is a big influence on me. I would want to hear stories about all the painters she knew, how they arrived at automatism, what were the most banal and ordinary things she can recall of the surrealists, and who was the bravest? Also, I’d ask her if she ever used her wife Alice B. Toklas’s cookbook.
I am a fan of Nick’s prose and I truly adore him as a musician. A dinner party made solely of writers would be dreadful, so we need at least one person who can get on the piano, involve us all in a sing-a-long, and have us waltzing on the patio before dinner. And is it just me, or would he have the best jokes and stories? I’d want to know how he found all those eras and musicians, from no-wave and punk, to garage rock and lo-fi. And if he played The Ship Song at the end of the evening, I could, in all honesty, die happy.
I love Leonora for everything really—her painting, her prose, her politics, her astonishing life. I also love her quotes about writing: “The task of the right eye is to peer through the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope,” or another favorite, “People under seventy and over seven are unreliable if they are not cats.”
Reinaldo Arenas once said, “There’s just one place to live—the impossible.” He also said, “I have always considered it despicable to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.” I would want to know everything; about his years incarcerated for being a gay man in Cuba under Castro’s regime; his move to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and his departure from Cuba on a boat for criminals, disabled or gay citizens; his lovers, his mother, his relationship to landscapes. His uprootedness and dislocation speak to me profoundly.
I happen to know that Helen Oyeyemi is not only one of the best writers of our time but also, the most charming dinner guest. The first time we met she told me about a clock in Prague that can tell the time on the moon, how she had grown obsessed with keys and also what was great and good in Korean horror movies. I’d polish my teapots and serve an array of teas in the early morning before they all went home, which I know she would appreciate.
The Paloma—a Mexican cocktail: ingredients—1/4 mezcal, 1/4 fresh grapefruit juice, wedge of lime & 1/4 soda, kosher salt, crushed ice. Run lime around the rim of the glass, dip in salt, mix your ingredients, add ice.
I am sure it is best to start a dinner party with drinks and dancing so you are more ready to sit, chat, eat later in the evening. Leonora Carrington spent most of her adult life in Mexico City, so I am hoping she might like this spirited start to the evening.
In honor of Reinaldo Arenas, I would make Cassava bread, made from cassava flour (great if you are Paleo), and serve with tapenade on the side and a piri piri sauce for dipping.
Selection of Spanish Tapas (vegetarian for Nick Cave)—black olives, Ajillo mushrooms, Habas ala Catalana (smothered broad beans with sausage), Espinacas Con Garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas), Alubias Verdes con Ajo (green beans with garlic).
These would be small dishes that are easy to pick at—just to take the edge off our Palomas and prepare us for the main course.
I’d also hope Reinaldo might bring a few nice Cuban cigars for later, I’m sure he’d appreciate a smoke on the patio late at night, as would Gertrude for that matter.
I’d like to cook a meal that is easy to serve and enjoy—so we can focus on chatting. I’d make paella, the first would be a vegetarian version and for the second, I’d add seafood and chorizo.
Ingredients: Fresh saffron from the market in Istanbul. Garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper, mushroom, peppers, chorizo, olive oil, scallops, black Irish mussels, free-range chicken, onion, tomatoes, peas, calamari, Calasparra paella rice.
This would not happen until much later. I have a feeling that after the last two courses, we’d all wander down a dark country road, have a look at the Milky Way in a starlit sky, have a few games of pool, or darts at the local pub—then head back to play music and dance. The garden would be lit by fireflies in jars. We’d have a selection of the finest Parisian patisserie cakes and I’d ask Gertrude about her favorite baker along the rue de Fleurus. I bet you she’d say Picasso had a sweet tooth.
And when all the food has been eaten:
Helen Oyeyemi lives in Prague and I’m sure she’d oblige with a bottle of plum brandy (Slivovitz—she knows where to get the good stuff) or perhaps a small absinthe, especially if we were on the cusp of an aurora that night, which I’d hope we would be. She’d be setting up a little outdoor cinema on the lawn, talking Nick Cave through the greatest Korean horror movies of all time, the porch would be wide and the weather mild, perhaps a stream nearby and a swing on a tall tree in the garden. I imagine Gertrude having a snooze on the porch under a blanket. Reinaldo telling me stories about the Cuban revolution and the grit of Hell’s Kitchen, and how his first novel was smuggled out of prison and over to Paris, the only place he could publish it at the time. Leonora would reminisce about founding the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico, her love affair with Max Ernst, running away from an asylum and creating a novel about her psychotic experience. We would discuss the extraordinary way she paints. Psychic freedom. Automatism. Surrealism. Keys. Clarity. Mirrors. We would chat all night in the garden where a rose, is a rose, is a rose.
Featured Image: Rawpixel/Shutterstock.com
BOOK REVIEW | FICTION-FRONT COVER of THE NEW YORK TIMES
A New Novel Envisions a Very Cold Environmental Future, Starting Now
By MARISA SILVER JULY 15, 2016
THE SUNLIGHT PILGRIMS
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.
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!
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.