Jenni Fagan’s first novel, The Panopticon, was an immediate hit, not only in Scotland, but worldwide – it was even chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club. Perhaps this latter fact isn’t so surprising, since the tough-childhood subject-matter is right up Oprah’s street, so to speak. The novel is set in a secure children’s unit in Edinburgh; Fagan was herself brought up in the Edinburgh care system and she has never met any of her blood relatives. In other words, she knows whereof she speaks, from the street-talk of the inmates to the socio-babble of the care workers.
But, far from being a novice writer who happened to swim by accident into the warm waters of success with her first book, Fagan has undertaken the statutory fifteen- year quiet apprenticeship required of all decent writers, starting out as a poet (there are many unexpected poetic undertones in this hard-hitting novel) and playwright. Writing is in her blood. She agreed to be interviewed for DURA, prior to her reading at the Dundee Literary Festival.
Susan Haigh: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer, that storytelling was your ‘thing’?
Jenni Fagan: I started writing poems when I was seven, followed by short stories. I wrote journals from as far back as I can remember and writing has always been a daily practise. I wanted to be a writer from a very young age but I had no idea how that happened to ordinary people.
SH: Tell me about your journey to becoming a published (and successful) young novelist.
JF: It’s such a long journey really. I wrote constantly throughout my upbringing. I won a few writing competitions when I was a kid and that encouraged me; English teachers were often very taken with my work and believed I would go onto be a writer. In my late teens I studied script-writing for a while. I wrote stories but my dialogue was poor so I began to write plays to improve this area of my work. One of those plays won a competition on the radio and was performed by the Traverse theatre. I was a young writer at the Traverse Theatre in Edinbugh for a few years and represented Scotland as a young playwright. All the while I was playing in bands and writing lyrics, but ultimately I knew I wanted to be a novelist. I kept writing and sending work out and little things got published online then in print. I won an arts award to go away and study when I was 27 and I moved to London to do a BA in Creative Writing. I then got a scholarship to do an MA at Royal Holloway. I was shortlisted for some large prizes and had a lot of interest from agents. That’s where it took off really.
SH: How old were you when The Panopticon was published?
JF: I was 33 .
SH: Jenni, I read your book when it first came out and I was stunned by the sheer power of it. You take your reader into a parallel and dangerous universe, from which there seems to be no way out. Tell me a little about the story of Anais, the main character.
JF: Anais Hendricks is a fifteen-year old girl who has been brought up in local authority care; she has two failed adoptions behind her and has moved through countless placements. When we meet her at the beginning of the novel she is in the back of a police car, handcuffed with blood on her school skirt. She has been accused of putting a policewoman in a coma. Anais is tough but also vulnerable, she’s smart, at times violent yet she’s also very moral. She’s extraordinarily funny and loyal and uncomfortably perceptive. She is a character that it is sometimes challenging to be around and as the novel progresses the reader gets to experience her imagination and courage, things that the authorities are not often privy to.
SH: Explain to me exactly what a ‘panopticon’ is.
JF: A panopticon is a building in a semi-circle or full-circle with a watchtower in the middle. From the watchtower each cell in the semi-circle can be observed twenty-four seven. However the ‘inmates’ or ‘patients’ cannot tell if there is anyone in the watchtower or not so they feel they are perpetually observed. The buildings were originally going to be used as an experiment in mental health facilities, or prisons. There are some still operating today. When I read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment this idea of being observed in a panopticon and not knowing who is watching you, not having any ability to respond, it really reminded me of the care system.
SH: Had the idea for the book been in your head for a long time or did the plot come to you fully-formed, as it were?
JF: It was a book I was avoiding writing really. I grew up in the social care system and I wanted to write a literary novel that was not autobiographical or about such a topical subject. I was studying structuralism as a theoretical methodology and approach at the time and I realised I had an insight into what it is like to be part of a peripheral demographic, to experience long-term dislocation in childhood and to deal with the often ill-informed projections of society. I hadn’t seen a character like Anais written in the way I wanted to, so the book grew from that.
SH: Did you intend it to be a Young Adult book, or is it primarily adult literature?
JF: I see it as adult literature, although I know older teenagers do read it.
SH: Anais spends her formative years in a very violent environment, even though she is supposed to be in protective care; yet she manages to remain, outwardly at least, optimistic and indomitable. What, in your mind, gives her the strength of will to go on?
JF: Youth, courage, having nothing to lose. If she does not have this attitude she will not survive, she knows this.
SH: Some or the other characters, fellow inmates in The Panopticon – Tash, Isla –and Teresa, Anais’s mother, are wonderfully well drawn. Tell us something about them.
JF: Teresa is her adopted mother, who managed to adopt Anais while she was married to an accountant. The marriage broke down and Teresa returned to her first job of prostitution. She was educated in private schooling then dropped out into counter culture and drug use in the seventies; she has passed a lot of her life philosophies down to Anais. When Teresa is murdered Anais falls completely off the rails. Tash and Isla are both in the Panopticon and dealing with overwhelming realities as well. They’re really nice girls, funny, loyal; they are a couple and have hopes of getting their own place one day and of bringing Isla’s twins to live with them. They’re both compelling because they are so identifiable and normal, it is the circumstances around them that are extreme and create situations that they should not be having to face.
SH: Social workers and police are, not surprisingly in this context, seen from the point of view of Anais and her pals, that is, with a jaundiced eye. Do you think this is a picture of the way young people in general view the social services today?
JF: I wouldn’t like to speak for young people in care today; they are able to do that for themselves. When I was in care there was a very ‘us and them’ mentality. It’s a difficult system to grow up in, especially when you are in it long-term.
SH: There’s a wonderfully ironic passage where the social workers are told that the youngsters in the Pantopticon are to be referred to as ‘clients’, rather than ‘inmates’. Some of the youngsters refer to themselves as ‘lifers’. Can you explain the subtext of these different labels?
JF: I often found the terminology used to describe individuals and children in care, quite dehumanising and inept in an almost comical way. At different times in care I remember being referred to as ‘a cared for young person’ or a ‘client’ and I also remember in some children’s units kids being aware of the expectation that they might go onto a life in prison. That is why terms like ‘inmates’ or ‘lifers’ were used. I guess they seemed more powerful terms than ‘clients’ or ‘cared for young people.’
SH: The theme of the Panopticon as an institution has occurred in literature and social history on a number of occasions since Classical times. What were your own literary influences?
JF: I was reading Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Journey To The End of Night by Céline, a lot of structuralist texts. I was also thinking of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Color Purple. There were so many influences including art, music, poetry. Elizabeth Bishop is an influence in there, so is Sylvia Plath, William Burroughs, Gertrude Stein, even Bukowski. I could go on.
SH: I don’t want to give the ending away, but I can say that things might possibly take a turn for the better in Anais’s life. What do you see ahead for her; and do you plan to write another book about her?
JF: I don’t plan to write another book for Anais. Kids in care disappear from the system every year and it felt important to not provide a sugar-coated ending, while it may appear upbeat and certainly it is a bid for autonomy, the reality of the situation, if you really think about it, is quite different. The Panopticon started with one question: is it possible to achieve autonomy? If the system you are raised in continuously tells you that you are bad or worthless or not valued, let alone loved and cherished what does that do to a child’s development? If it says you will go to prison, you won’t do well at school, you have no future, well, is it possible to reclaim yourself from those belief systems and become the person you want to be? If I had a hope for Anais it would be that she does not spend her life as a by-product of circumstance. That she is successful in realising she is not the system that raised her and all those projections and problems do not become something she is imprisoned by for the rest of her life.
SH: Finally, Jenni how has your life changed since The Panopticon, which has had enormous success world-wide, was published?
JF: My life on a day to day basis doesn’t feel that different. Success seems to happen ‘out there’ somewhere. I get a lot more requests for things, which is great. Sometimes people view you differently, which can be weird. It is a slow arc for the novelist when a book comes out and the nicest thing has been the opportunity to be published in different countries and get genuine responses to my work. I couldn’t have asked for more in that respect. I think it is hard to see how things change when you are in them, I will probably be able to understand it more when I look back on it someday.