5 Minute Memoir By Jenni Fagan, The Independent

The bus smells damp, it’s snowing outside and I am going to be late for tutorials if this traffic doesn’t start moving. Trafalgar Square appears and Nelson is scanning the horizon. I used to do that in crowds, unconsciously hoping to find a similar feature to mine. I’ve never met anyone I am related to, well, my father a few times in my twenties, but other than that – nothing.

Now I have two heartbeats inside me, where before there was just one. There is still a faint residue of gel on my tummy, where the nurse coated it earlier. On the screen – your hands covered your ears, you were dreaming, floating in space, unaware of us peering in at you. Your heartbeat sounded so strong, the sound filled the room and the nurse turned to me and said – it’s a boy.

I cried.

You are no longer an abstract it, you are my son. We walked to Tate Modern and I played you Tim Buckley on my headphones. In the Turbine Hall there was a huge cargo container lined with black velvet. Stepping inside – it grew darker, until everything was black. That’s how I imagine dying might be – like walking into darkness. I’ll tell you about death another day. It’s nothing to fear. Hopefully I will pass on a long time before you do and I promise if there is a cargo container on the other side of life, I will be there, waiting for you when you arrive. You will be old and wizened then, a little old man – who once was a boy.

We took a few porcelain sunflower seeds from another exhibit, each one was handmade and is totally unique. I keep touching them in my pocket and wondering what I can tell you about life?

The truth of it is this – we live in a world without explanation, in a galaxy and universe surrounded by galaxies and universes and nobody asks questions too loudly because the answers are sketchy at best. I can’t explain to you why we arrive as seeds and leave as dust, but I can show you the truth in rainbows. I can bake you pancakes, and take you to the park in autumn so we can kick up the leaves.

The bus turns onto Shaftesbury Avenue, the pavements are crowded and I wonder if we’ll raise you here. I want you to spend your childhood by the sea, somewhere with huge skies and open spaces.

I know you already, we are intrinsically linked in a way that I have never felt with a stranger. I was always walking into some new foster home to live in, or a kids’ home, or an adoption – the perpetual new kid. Over the years I began to observe families, how they functioned. I studied them because they never worked out for me.

This is different, we are a part of each other, and I will do everything I possibly can to give you a happy, secure life. I feel like I’m growing up, placing my two flighty feet, firmly on the ground. The bus turns onto Oxford Street, and I ring the bell to get off and realise I won’t be late for class after all.

Here we are. Two heartbeats. You and me. I pull my hat down, tie my scarf and hold the handrail as we go down the steps. I’m wearing wellies, and jeans, and my jacket is zipped up to my chin. I’d never wear wellies before but you make me want to keep my feet dry.

We step onto the pavement and an old man swerves by us, singing loudly in Italian. His coat is covered in shiny badges. He gestures at passers-by as if he is ushering them off a plane, and they try to avoid him.

This is life – in all its smelly glory! I hope you can forgive me for bringing you into it, especially if you think too much like I do. It’s OK really, the ache of being alive, the beat of your own heart, the silence of unanswerable questions. There are shooting stars, and music, and there is magic if you learn how to look – and it is still our world, no matter how many other people might try to convince you, it’s mostly theirs.

It is yours and it is mine.

And all these other people walking by us in the snow, it’s their world too.

I touch my tummy through my coat and I know you are awake again. The sunflower seeds in my pocket feel cool, and smooth to touch. We will wait for a few years, then we will go and plant them – somewhere on a cliff-top, where there is a view of the sea. We’ll let them nestle in the cool soil and water them on weekends. After all, who says – that porcelain seeds can’t grow?

Jenni Fagan’s novel, ‘The Panopticon’, has just been published in hardback by William Heinemann. It has been picked as one of Waterstone’s 11 debut novels of the year

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.

The Random House Group News

The Random House Group


Women dominate Waterstones 11 List of Future Stars

Jennie Fagan

Jenni Fagan

This year’s Waterstones 11, the major initiative created to uncover the best in debut fiction from around the world, is dominated by female talent, including three Random House Group authors.

Announced on Thursday at Waterstones’ flagship store, the list is seen as an indicator of potential prize contenders and those expected to go on to achieve critical and commercial success.  On the list are Heinemann author Jenni Fagan, Transworld author Rachel Joyce and Vintage author Grace McCleen.

The list in full (in alphabetical order):

  • 1. The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (William Heinemann)
  • 2. Absolution by Patrick Flanery (Atlantic)
  • 3. Shelter by Frances Greenslade (Virago)
  • 4. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Fourth Estate)
  • 5. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Headline Review)
  • 6. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)
  • 7. The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen (Chatto & Windus)
  • 8. Signs of Life by Anna Raverat (Picador)
  • 9. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Virago)
  • 10. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Simon & Schuster)
  • 11. Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles (Harper Press)

Waterstones’ Managing Director, James Daunt, said:

“There is a singular excitement to the discovery of a new writer of rare talent. For us booksellers, the process of introducing and guiding readers to the very best new work is one of the most important roles we perform. This year’s 11 are once again a marvellous selection. It is hard to believe these are debut novels, so assured and alive the writing.”

The  Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

“Everything one could hope for in a debut novel; a strong, distinctive heroine, moments that make you laugh and the deft touch of a writer who can leave you with a lump in your throat.” – Mark Burgess, Fiction Team, Waterstones