Within the Word Machine:  

Jenni Fagan, interviewed by Kirsten Anderson  







Interview conducted in August 2020.







KA:
Most people I know appeared to become less productive during the course of lockdown, but you passed your VIVA, becoming Dr Fagan. You also wrote a screenplay, an opera, and created some beautiful artwork from bones. How did the lockdown period affect both your creative process and the projects you were drawn to?

JF:
I had a lot of projects already underway before lockdown and so it seems like I was doing a lot (and I was) but I also had a lot of time where I couldn’t get any time to write.

It made me more determined to create uncompromising work when I was able to do so.

KA:
I’m struck by the fact that all of your books seem to be subtly woven together by recurring symbols, images and archetypes. The monk, the moon, bones, witches and trees are a few that immediately spring to mind. The Witch’s Tree appears briefly in The Sunlight Pilgrims. I already ‘knew’ this tree from your poem “The Bones of The Witch’s Tree”, and it was simultaneously both a jarring and comforting experience to return to it. This sense of returning by way of recurring images and characters has an uncanny, dream-like effect on me as a reader, and I wondered if this has always been your intention, to connect the different worlds within your work this way?

JF:
I like filmmakers who return to certain themes and tropes, also poets or artists. Frida Kahlo’s colours, monkeys, flowers in her hair. Gertrude Stein’s repetitions, Carl Karni-Bain's big black eyes, Raqib Shaw’s dogs and vibrant colours, themes of capitalism, greed and lust, David Lynch’s red curtains or ‘card’ style shots from above. Sylvia Plath’s moon precedes mine. My moon belongs to Anais Hendricks, it recurs from other angles, in a poem I shoot a bazooka at it, there is a pull back toward certain images and characters. There is an invisible line going through many of my novels where certain characters can be loosely linked to each other. I write in a quite altered state really, a kind of hyper wakefulness. It’s an exceptionally focused and disciplined kind of dreaming. It’s hard to explain it. I edit things very thoroughly afterwards with a totally clear mind. Then I go back in, in the same automatic writing type way I use for everything creative. It’s something I’ve been training myself in for as long as I can remember although I only began to understand it more recently. The Witch’s Tree can be seen in so many places but there is one particular tree, next to a loch in Scotland that I used to see at a particular time of personal despair, yet also a crossroads where I knew I would change my life. There was another Witch’s Tree in a film I watched in a tent, on a video player, in a garden with a whole bunch of kids in the caravan park I lived in when I was little. They were watching a horror film and that tree stood out as an image for me. It was a bald tree. Jagged. Spiritually inhabited.

KA:
Bones appear a lot in your poetry and fiction. They seem to be potent symbols of that deep self-knowing we all have inside us, if we pay attention. They’re also linked to the dead and buried, and our ancestors, which fits with the themes of characters searching for and returning to their pasts in your novels. Dylan (The Sunlight Pilgrims) and Anais (The Panopticon) are looking for answers about themselves by trying to know their dead parents. Anais states at one point: “I feel like I slept in a grave.” Why do you think bones have become an important and recurring feature of your art?

JF:
This continues through Luckenbooth actually. I need to strip things back to the bones. Emotionally, artistically, intellectually. I can’t even explain it but it’s something I do in houses I live in too. I have certain beliefs around the ancestors and our links to the dead. I’ve lost a lot of people and I was always around loss. Working directly with bones to engrave poetry onto them was such a visceral experience. They kept moving me around Summerhall, where I was doing that work, as they smelled so bad when you go down through the top few levels. Seeing how bones work themselves is fascinating. As I say, they recur in several ways in Luckenbooth and I am also writing a poetry collection called The Bone Library. I once knew a guy who wanted made into a bone china tea set after he died. I thought that was taking it a bit far but I love bone art and I think there is a lot to learn from it.

KA:
You once said that you never lie in poetry, but you lie in fiction. Is this a rule you decided upon or is it something that has happened organically?

JF:
I tell the truth in fiction far more than I lie but the imagination has its own truth and I know better than to question it. I think I meant that I am far more directly biographical in poetry. Poetry is my first and oldest form. I have done it as long as I can remember. For me writing poetry was always founded on the confessional need to put pen to paper or just go mad. I had to write poetry. It contained a force of truth that fiction doesn’t always have to hold. Fiction can walk off down any alley it chooses and that is its beauty.

KA:
In a recent interview with The Common Breath, Alan Warner spoke about writing from real life, and the perils of being “handcuffed to experience” as a writer. It made me think about something I heard you say years ago; that you actually wrote out your own life story before starting work on your first novel, The Panopticon. Would you recommend this to other writers as a method of “uncuffing” themselves from the fidelity of actual life events?

JF:
When I was twenty-one I had a dream that was hugely prophetic and dark, I get very lucid dreams like this and they always precede something. I won’t go into it but I went upstairs and borrowed a typewriter off my neighbour. Over the next three weeks I wrote for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. At the end of it I had the first draft of my life story down. I still have it. I've carried the manuscript around for all those years and through countless moves, up and down the country. Now, twenty-one years later, I am writing that book again.

As to your question, yes — put your own story down. It will free up the ability to ignore it and go much further out when seeking the muse.

KA:
Anais Nin was asked why she wrote, and her answer was:

“one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me – the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign and recreate myself when destroyed by living.”

This sentiment makes me think of your poem, ‘Spell Written in a Square’:

This
world
is
enough
to make your heart
hurt
all
the time

Can you relate to Nin’s reasons for writing? Does writing fiction and creating new worlds stop your heart hurting over the state of this one, or do you write for very different reasons?

JF:
My heart rarely stops hurting and I write to stay alive, same reason I always had for doing it. I’d be doing this even if I had never had a word published. I was writing for decades before I got anything out there and I had no idea if I ever would. It’s how I am and I’ve often wished it wasn’t, I could have had a far easier life doing other things.

KA:
That quotation from Nin also made me think of The Sunlight Pilgrims. It’s one of the few books I’ve ever read where the elements, places and landscapes were so vivid that they now exist in my imagination. Constance is the character I think of most, but mainly I just miss being within that world you created. Do you also miss your characters and the worlds they inhabit once you stop writing? Do you find yourself returning to them often?

JF:
I don’t miss them but they stay with me. For better or worse. They are part of my landscape. I spend so much time with the characters and worlds that they are as real to me in many ways, as prior relationships, or places where I have lived. They are places where I have lived. They are a relationship I had, with that world, for years at a time. I don’t find the books easy to write though. It is hard won, I riff over and over, I need to leave them at some point, so I do.

KA:
John Cheever famously said “the idea of authors running around behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible”. However, many great writers have said they don’t always have complete control over their characters; Flannery O’Connor being a notable example. I believe you're in the Flannery camp, as I heard you state in an interview that Anais didn’t want to do what you had set out for her in The Panopticon. What was it you wanted her to do that she was trying to resist? How do you deal with this as a writer? And how “well behaved” have your other characters been in comparison?

JF:
I am not the puppet master. I don’t move them around on the page for my own amusement. These worlds are not my playthings. I don’t like a lot of writing that does that. I find it can carry the author’s presence too much and I prefer the work (to the writers) most of the time. I have tried to be as absent from the process as I can. By that I mean I’ve trained myself to write in a particular mind state that is a kind of channelling but it’s doing so with every bit of intellect you can access, every emotion, each sorrow, all palettes must be used and it is a challenging and disconcerting way to work as there is absolutely no sense of security and you keep putting yourself into that state for years with no idea of what will come of it and in fact, feeling certain you’ll never achieve what you set out to do. I’ve no idea why I’m digressing into second person. I don’t want well behaved characters. I want living, pulsing, erratic, flawed, furious, stupid, ungainly, brilliant, awkward, unpleasant, exciting, thoughtful, rage or lust-filled beings with a pulse. That’s who I’m looking for when I sit down to a blank page. I've had other writers claim on stage with me that it’s only possible to write if the writer is in control of every single thing.

I don’t write to be in control.

I write to get out of control, especially novels.

I hate it when writers think the way they do things is the only way it can be done. Do what works and don’t question it. If it doesn’t work, change it. Just because someone else does it completely differently doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

KA:
One school of thought in psychoanalytic dream analysis is that every character who appears in our dreams reflects an aspect of ourselves. What do you think of this theory applied to the characters that writers create? And could this go some way to explain those characters who don’t do what the artist wants them to do?

JF:
I work with the subconscious in a way that links into this but I have no desire whatsoever to understand it.

KA:
I was immediately drawn to the short poem Living with Dharma in your collection, ‘There’s a Witch in the Word Machine’:

She thinks of the preposterousness of the body
with its lines and triangles
its hair
its design flaws
its endless disappointments

Dharma is a key concept in Hinduism and yoga philosophy; it is said that once we know why we are here on this earth – our dharma – then we should act accordingly with actions and choices which support that rather then trying to be something we are not, even if it means incurring ‘endless disappointments’. You strike me as someone who is truly living their dharma by being a writer and artist. Is this the case, and did you always feel it would be so? Or were you facing up to another way of life before your success in writing?

JF:
I think writing is a way of enduring, embracing and documenting the limitations of human endeavour and experience. It is a way of looking at structures in a non-acceptable way. Are we not all endlessly disappointed by the limitation of structures or humanity, or how humanity is limited by those structures?

KA:
In chapter 6 of The Panopticon, Anais notes: “It’s funny how many things you never get asked. Things that are totally obvious.” I know you’ve been asked a lot of the same questions again and again over the course of your writing career. Is there anything totally obvious to you about your art that you’ve been never been asked but would like to talk about?

JF:
Nobody ever asks about the queer nature of a lot of my work, my main protagonists (in novels) are rarely straight or atypically binary.

KA:
I know you are working on a novella and a memoir at the moment. Can you tell me more about those, your upcoming novel, Luckenbooth, and indeed any other projects you’re working on just now?

JF:
I am working on a novella based on historical witches in Scotland. I am writing it as part of a series for Birlinn, they are working with lots of great Scottish writers to produce novella’s based on historically accurate stories. I’ve been obsessed with witch’s in every way since I was a wee girl. I was asked in class what I was going to be when I grew up (I was about six) and I said (without hesitation) a witch. How woman were treated and encouraged to act toward each other, to not be different and the structures and motivations behind trying them as witches, the othering of human beings full stop, all of it feeds back into this.

I am as I said, writing my memoir based on years 0-16. I have avoided it for a long time but if I was to die without having put it down I’d regret it, so, I’m doing it.

My big novel Luckenbooth comes out on January 14th 2021, with William Heinemann, in the UK. The devil’s daughter arrives in Edinburgh in 1910 to take a job with the Minister of Culture. A horrific event occurs and she curses the building for one hundred years. The novel progresses up this old Edinburgh tenement decade by decade, floor by floor until the secrets it contains are finally exposed. It is my most ambitious book so far and it has dominated my life for the last three years. I am glad to see it going out there.

KA:
What are the books and who are the writers that have meant most to you?

JF:
I’m influenced by lots of different artists, musicians or writers. I listen to Nina Simone endlessly, John Coltrane, early grunge, new wave, X-Ray Specs, I loved Raqib Shaw’s recent exhibition in Edinburgh, that blew me away, Dorothy Allison is a stunning writer and I adore her essays on sex and class, Alice Walker, Tom Leonard, Nina Cassian, Sarah Kane, Janice Galloway, Carson McCullers, Gertrude Stein, Shirley Jackson, James Kelman, Warsan Shire, Elizabeth Bishop, Leonora Carrington for her painting as much as her words, Frida Kahlo for her value on the truth of a woman’s inner life, Jessie Kesson, Lydia Lunch, Motown still gets me, then I also read a lot of science, old religious texts at times, the occult, the early energy of Harmony Korine, Reinaldo Arenas, Diane Arbus (her later years) Elizabeth Smart, Anthony Burgess, Knut Hamsun, Bell Hooks, Sylvia Plath, Mikhail Bulgakov, Maya Angelou, Louise Bourgeois and her spiders, Nan Goldin for her colours and portraits, Bukowski, Breece D’J Pancake, Danez Smith, Margaret Atwood, I’m also really into nature, documentaries, galleries, little dive bars, proper old school cafes. A lot of the writers or musicians who mean most to me personally are people who have made my life better by being in it, they know who they are and I’m grateful. I’m inspired mostly by what I see in the real world most of the time. Just the way light catches a window, or something you see from a train, a person who doesn’t know you can see all the emotion on their face in that moment. A feeling that you can’t quite get out any other way except in words. It’s all connected. ●















Jenni Fagan’s critically acclaimed debut novel, The Panopticon, was published in 2012 and named one of the Waterstones Eleven, a selection of the best fiction debuts of the year. It has since been published in eight languages and a film is being made by Sixteen Films, for which Fagan herself wrote the screenplay. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her collection The Dead Queen of Bohemia (2010) was named 3:AM magazine’s Poetry Book of the Year and is being published as a wider collection in 2016. Her second novel The Sunlight Pilgrims was also published in 2016. She holds an MA in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London, and currently lives in a coastal village in Scotland. //// t: @Jenni_Fagan ////