Oct 12, 2016
Looking for Light in Darkness: A Q&A with Jenni Fagan
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.
Photo by Urszula Soltys
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