The Sunlight Pilgrims

So I was in the garden with some friends talking about the moon. It turns out the earth came first (did everyone know this but me?) and the moon was just a hunk of matter that broke away from the earth — I like to think this bit of matter was so impressed with itself — so taken with its own beauty that it created the most flattering light to illuminate and admire — to hold an adoring mirror up to itself each day.

A writer I met through Granta (Helen Oyeyemi — read her books) recently informed me that time is different on the moon and there is a clock in Prague that tells you what time it is on the moon. I love this! I want a clock that tells me what time it is on the moon. I don’t care if it is absolutely useless to my daily life down here — on the subject of Prague — why didn’t they just keep her as the lovely Bohemia? What happened to Siam? Or Babylon? Rhodesia. Of course, ex-colonial, other such things, just — pretty names you know.

If I had to choose the sun or moon — well, I’d be a creature with glowing eyes and a serious vitamin D deficiency. I don’t know why I think of these things. There is a chapter in my current novel entitled dinosaurs vs robots. The working title of my new novel is The Sunlight Pilgrims. I will walk around with it. Think about it. Is it right? The characters in my novel know the moon is cold as bone — the head of a pin never danced upon by angels and yes, they are moon gazers as all good characters should be but in all truth they’re seeking light. Not a flattering muted light. One that is clear as early morning where you can see every line, every flaw, and you can feel the earth and all its voices and sorrows and insanity and beauty but all you can do is brush your teeth and make a cup of tea and begin your day.

I am beginning to realise that for me the process of characterisation (in novels) involves a series of eradications. Taking the author out of it. Taking me out of it. My characters have absolutely no interest in my wants and what they are focused upon is becoming themselves. This is highly useful.I am grateful for this kind of tidal effect — the editing — a wave that keeps coming in and going out and eventually it leaves the right shells on the shore? Okay that’s a clunky sentence and there is no such thing as a right shell but this process of refining the rough edges makes a grain of sand of unique.

Metaphor much?


Anyway, the characters are in a place where sunlight is going to break away (unreliable novelist confused by rain outside) or it already has. Can you tell I have not been talking about The Sunlight Pilgrims? That’s why I’m being more evasive than a politician with a murky past. I’ve not let anyone see my new novel yet, nobody has heard anything from it, it is just me and the words and that is how I like it. I keep telling my agent — another few weeks — I will send it over and I will and something else will happen then and it will begin to make its way in the world and define itself. That’s what novels do. It is not quite ready for that process yet though and neither am I but I will need to stop this rewriting at some point and you know (wo)man up — grow a pair — click send.

I got my first ‘kill fee’ this week. I felt most grown up. A jobbing writer. I was asked to write an article which a newspaper had entitled ‘girl in care’ and try as I might I just couldn’t seem to deliver what they were looking for. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not been a ‘girl in care’ for nearly twenty years now — JESUS — I must be prehistoric right, or perhaps that part of my life is prehistoric and I’m not too keen on the triggers that trawling back through it brings. A film director (my life is getting strange) recently said — well — you wrote a book about a girl in care, you know, people are going to ask about your life in care. He has a point. So do I. I’m a writer though, not a celebrity, even although an ex of mine texted recently and said he saw my grinning mug at some conference (on a huge poster) he said you’re a celebrity now — nada — I’m a word pilgrim! These two things are different!

I will get better at disclosing my space, time, location though (as Burroughs advised) articulating the old without it impacting so much on now — speaking of film directors — it looks like the film adaptation is imminent for The Panopticon. The offers I really want to consider are in at the same time and I am excited about placing Anais & co with the right people (unlike shells there is such a thing especially in film) to take her to the screen. It’s a lot like sending your kid off to university in some remote country called chance — hoping you’ve done what you can to give them some kind of future.

I am off to London this week for a party at Fortnum & Mason where the winner of The Desmond Elliott prize will be announced, one of the other authors told me he had a dream where I had won and he was furious at me, could not even look me in the eye. He said his dream self is clearly more competitive than he is. It’s anyones chance and I just want to enjoy an evening to remember, champagne, canapies, see friends, I hear there is a hamper for each of the shortlisted authors and I have really liked hearing about Desmond Elliott as a person, he sounds like my kind of care leaver.

Last week it was my first official Granta reading at York Festival of Ideas and I had a great lunch beforehand with some writer friends who showed me around York. I’ve not been there for years but I really liked it, great bookshops, pretty streets — so many drunk people! It was the races that weekend and I arrived on ladies day. My next Granta outings will be at Edinburgh Festival and then it looks like I am going to Bangkok in October with the British Council. The title for that blog will be very easy — Burntisland to Bangkok! I need to get a wee camera and a phrase book and bribe my toddler with tales of elephants and promises and it will be hard to not be with him for more than two days (our longest yet) but I’d like him to be proud of having a working mum and know that despite my lack of high school education I went onto find and pour my life into something that makes me happy.

I’m currently reading Straight White Male by John Niven, which I love, already, he is one of the funniest and most caustic of writers — while still being tangibly, insanely, humane. Also I hear there is a good film out about the life of Elizabeth Bishop, can’t wait for that. What about the lack of great horror films in the last few years! I love a great horror, perhaps I should write one.  Other than that I’m having a Scottish season in literature again, revisiting old works, ordered the few Alan Warner books I’ve not read — trawling to catch up on things I’ve missed.

This month I also ordered Iain Banks last novel The Quarry, and some of the other ones that I’ve not read. I loved his interview in The Scotsman, his last interview where he explained his cancer was the result of a cosmic ray, a bad ray out in the universe whose origins were old as millenia. An extraordinarily gifted human being  — I am inspired by his ethic and his work and I will continue to learn from it and be a fan for a long time to come. He has certainly left enough novels and poetry and music behind to make sure this is possible and every-time I drive across the Forth Road Bridge (I live near there) I will salute him — the powers that be must sort out their cultural compass and name the new bridge, or rename the old one — the Iain (M) Banks Other The Bridge Bridge — it has my vote for sure.

Salut, salut, Jx

For Books Sake

Sometimes people get something, they get it and they give something back. That means something to a writer. We spend endless hours spend putting one word in front of another, it’s a way of life, a way of being, and sometimes — it’s good to be got. For Books Sake made my day with this review, so thank you … Also to everyone else who has been putting their support behind this novel, this last week or two has been amazing. Word on the street is the literati are swapping it, the cool kids are quoting it, and there’s a drag queen in Akron who does a mean Anais. Their is a rumour that there will be a lit tug of war held at Trafalgar Square, the Panopticonites vs the living dead, my bet is they’ll win easy — gin in one hand, vintage shot-gun in the other.

I will be having the book launch at Word Power Book Shop on West Nicholson St. Edinburgh, 16th May 7pm. All are welcome.

Here is the review from For Books Sake — a great online source, picky, discerning and wholly passionate about literature.


The Panopticon is the début novel by Scottish poet and writer Jenni Fagan, and my favourite novel so far this year.

It’s the first-person story of Anais Hendricks, a fierce and irrepressible narrator with a vivid and original voice, like going on a joyride with Irvine Welsh‘s teenage sister while off your face on amphetamines.

Aged fifteen, Anais finds herself in a police car, on her way to the Panopticon, a detention centre for chronic young offenders. Across town, there’s a policewoman in a coma and Anais has been found with blood on her school uniform. And although she’s committed all sorts of other crimes, when it comes to this one, she’s adamant that she’s innocent.

Fucked or fucked over by almost every adult she’s ever met, Anais’ life so far has been a never-ending cycle of care and foster homes. But for the most part, she’s blase and upbeat about the violence and despair she’s witnessed; Anais is a survivor, and she’s smart and funny with it.

Sharp, intuitive and self-assured, she’s upfront about her sporadic escapes into drugs and sex, and honest about her fears of the mysterious and sinister Experiment that track her every move.

Although tentative at first, she soon forms a makeshift family with her fellow inmates at the Panopticon, but the authorities are watching and waiting. And if Anais makes one wrong move, she’s had it.

Her predicament and personality alone are enough to keep you turning the pages, but as you might expect from the subject matter, there’s a dark heart to The Panopticon.

Parts of it are uncomfortable and potentially triggering, with prostitution, rape, self-harm, animal and child abuse all playing their part. But Anais has seen it all before, facing extreme situations with bravado and defiance. And those are at her moments when she’s at her most heartbreaking.

Crude, honest and often hilarious, she is impulsive and unpredictable but always believable, coming out with all sorts of caustic put-downs, wry observations and classic claims:

“[The word] vagina sounds like a venereal disease. Or like the name for some snobby rich German countess’ daughter; her entry into society would be announced in some glossy magazine, and underneath it would read…Vagina Schneider at the débutante ball, wearing an electric blue Vera Wang – a true glory to behold.”

Anais subverts stereotypes and the judgements of those around her. Acknowledging that the authorities expect a uniform of ponytail, gold jewellery, tracksuit and fake tan, Anais is nostalgic for the romance and glamour of bygone eras, inadvertently showing her softer, more sensitive side with her secret fantasies of painting in Paris:

“I adore dragonflies. I adore the sea, the moon, the stars, vintage Dior and old movies in black and white. I adore girls with tits and hips and class and old men in suits who have that dignified look about them.”

Although the system may be broken, Anais is sticking to her story, and The Panopticon is as memorable and exhilarating as its narrator. Published next week by William Heinemann, you can pre-order the hardback for £8.44, or pre-order the Kindle edition for £8.04.

Rating: 5/5

Recommended for: Anyone who loves an underdog, or who has ever had cause to rage against the machine; rebels, delinquents and daredevils of all ages will love Anais’ strength, boldness and bravery.

Other recommended reading: For more rebel girls in over their heads, read Colleen Curran‘s Whores on the Hill, Bella Bathurst‘s Special, or Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth when it comes out later this summer. Or for another stubborn, defiant and memorable narrator, try Nell Leyshon‘s The Colour of Milk.

Jane Bradley

Now, here’s Kurt to play you out.

The Panopticon

I once read a book that said you should be careful what you do when you step out your front door, as you never know where your feet might take you. I wrote my first poems around the same time. I was seven, living in a caravan on the outskirts of a mining village, and the library van came around once a week. I read everything in that library van. A few days ago a friend from that time rang me up, she works on a library van now, and she was really excited — as The Panopticon had just come in on her list of new releases.

It’s funny how things go. I watched my son go into the sea the other day, naked, happy, one-years old and fearless. I drove past places that once were fiction. What is a place that once was fiction? It’s a place in your heart where your mind does not plan to return too. I picked up a pen, and it became a chisel and I hammered on a great ugly hulk of stone — stood back one day to see what it had become.

The Panopticon, is a wisp of a dream that has now become a solid thing. It is a beautifully crafted hardback book, with an exceptional attention to detail. I adore it. The colour on the inside is a perfect, deep blue, the moon on the front would glow a little in the right light, and the front cover is a scene from the novel come to life. Does that happen?  It seems it does. I don’t believe in crocodiles, and by that I mean I don’t believe in being hugged in never-ending circles toward death — and passing that off as life! It’s grim. Pointless. We have to take risks, go for it, quietly repeat to ourselves at regular intervals — fuck it! We can sit at the devils crossroads and refuse to trade our souls for guitars, or gold. I’ve sat at a lot of crossroads, in fact I’ve slept at a few, and many other, stranger places. And, this morning I picked up my novel from the doormat … how unbelievably cool!

I wrote this novel in bed in Peckham (mostly) with a view of a tree and a church spire from the window. The next door neighbour had (among other things) a couple of mattresses outside in their garden. Over a summer I hammered out the first draft. While everyone I knew seemed to be off travelling or at festivals, I was doing twelve hours a day, seven days a week, immersing myself in it. I’d look up at night and the house would be dark and I’d go and pour a drink and wonder why I was doing this, but I couldn’t stop. Whoever tells you it is easy to write a novel … lied. It’s not easy. It changes you, it takes you somewhere and alters your chemical make-up. At least — the good ones do, or it has done for me. At the end of that summer the leaves on the neighbours mattress had turned from green, to brown and gold, then black, sodden with mulch. I had 140’000 words to begin sculpting with, it was — the start. I went back to uni, thinking of the experiment, and cigarillo smoking outcast queens, and wondering if swimming feels like flying if you have fins, and live in the sea.

I sat in my publisher’s office a few months ago, we were going through the final edit and having a whiskey. The sun was going down over London and all the chimneys and rooftops were golden. It felt like a moment I would always remember. I have been extraordinarily lucky to work with some great people on this novel, who created a stunning book to have, and to hold. They are quite old school, my publisher, and agent. By this I mean — they have a genuine and deep abiding love of literature, of well made quality hardback fictions, of allowing a writer to take risks and respecting why it is vital, and necessary. Heinemann is one of the oldest literary imprints still publishing today, and were first founded in 1890. As you might imagine by a house that published Dostoevsky, or Oscar Wilde, they still make books that are built to last.

So here it is, only a few weeks to go and The Panopticon goes out into the world on its own, and like the mad monk — I salute it. I’d stand up for it. I’d arm wrestle for the thing in a bar, and while I am now putting one word in front of another and working on new ways to sculpt worlds from words … The Panopticon is off to France where it is being published by  Metailie (I can’t even speak French) and it is also being published in Czech. In the meantime, I am off to read it to my oldest school friend, she died last year — and I know she would be really proud. Salut, salut. Jx

‘Ferocious and devastating, The Panopticon sounds a battle-cry on behalf of the abandoned, the battered, and the betrayed. To call it a good novel is not good enough: this is an important novel, a book with a conscience, a passionate challenge to the powers-that-be. Jenni Fagan smashes every possible euphemism for adolescent intimacy and adolescent violence, and she does it with tenderness and even humour. Hats off to Jenni Fagan! I will be recommending this book to everyone I know.’ Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal.