Jenni Fagan: ‘I understand crisis. I grew up in a very, very extreme way’

For all that she was laid low early in the pandemic, and then spent months as a single parent trying to home-school her nine-year-old son, the last year has been far from a write-off for Jenni Fagan. Her third novel is about to be published, she completed her PhD. And on the day she speaks to me from her Edinburgh home, she is hours away from finishing a memoir of her life up until the age of 16.

For most people, that would amount to a very thin book, but not for Fagan. As a child growing up in the Scottish care system, those first 16 years involved 29 different placements, under four different names. The only thing she knows about her birth was that it took place in a Victorian psychiatric hospital in 1977. Perhaps, she muses, it has helped her to cope better than most with the events of the last months. “You know, I kind of understand crisis. I grew up in a very, very extreme way, and the idea that bad things happen to other people was never my reality. I always knew they happen to you. And sometimes they happen over and over.”

But being able to cope does not mean she is not angry. “Everybody’s so fearful, the news is so fearful. And you have science, the media, government, big business, all clashing, and all trying to get their gain out of it, while ordinary people, by and large, are trying to do the decent thing – to look after their neighbours and their family – and are they being adequately cared for in return?”

Her new novel, Luckenbooth, is driven by a slower-burning rage that set in four years ago, when Donald Trump was elected to the White House, and she spent three weeks driving across the US, gathering material for a long poem, Truth. Published in a limited edition in 2019, it was her version of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl, she says. “New York was like Gotham City, and the Joker had just been given the keys to the planet. I was disturbed by watching the very public appreciation of men in positions of power who are very openly narcissistic, sometimes even sociopathic.”

Her response was to build all her rage into an ancient Edinburgh tenement building, where the ghosts of murdered women wander up and down the stairs, waiting to avenge the sins of their fathers, while a century of tenants live out their lives from 1910 to the turn of the millennium. But if Number 10 Luckenbooth is intimate with hell, it has also known gaiety. On the second floor, in 1928, there is a glamorous drag ball, which involves “select men and women across the city leaving their professional worlds. Dresses and suits in bags. Sparkly headbands. Strapon belts. Nipple tassels. Stockings and fishnets and hats and eye masks and whips.” On the sixth floor, in 1963, William Burroughs expounds his theory of language as a virus, while shooting up with his handsome young undertaker lover.

Burroughs, who arrived in the city as part of a celebrated 1962 writers conference at the Edinburgh book festival, is among a colourful array of characters plucked from history, including a well-known mid-century brothel-keeper. Dora Noyce – the “queen of Danube Street” – who always served tea and sandwiches before sex, and who turns up for a seance on the fifth floor, in 1956, hoping for news of a missing cousin.

With its mixture of the physical and the spectral, of historical characters and fictitious ones, the novel is a psychogeographical portrait of Edinburgh itself, as perceived by a writer who has loved it since she first arrived there as a little girl of around three years old. “I would look up at the tenements and see the big fancy ceilings and the fancy lights and think, wow!” Fagan says. “It’s a very dark city. And it’s a very light city. It’s a very wealthy city. And it’s a very poor city. It’s a very beautiful city, but it’s a place of extremes.”

In common with her two previous novels, Luckenbooth holds close to its heart characters who are socially and sexually marginalised. Her debut, The Panopticon (2012) told of a girl growing up in a care system which, for all its monumental pretentions, abandons its young wards to appalling abuse and exploitation; her second, The Sunlight Pilgrims (2016), plunged a young transgender teenager into a global catastrophe in what was then a futuristic 2020.

The Sunlight Pilgrims didn’t envisage a pandemic but huge icebergs breaking free of continental shelves. Days before we talk, just such an iceberg was reported to be heading for the Antarctic nature reserve of South Georgia, where it is expected to wreak environmental havoc. Was this a surprise to her? “Not really,” she says. She’s a devotee of New Scientist magazine. “I love science. I study the planet, and I study people. That’s what I do. And … and then I create work out of it.”

This sets her off, with the glee of the true autodidact, into the history of ice ages over billions of years, ending with our current parlous state. “Basically, the ice that is melting right now in the Arctic is causing massive, massive floods of freshwater to go into the seas, which reduces the salinity in the ocean. The salinity in the ocean is what regulates the Gulf Stream, which regulates temperature. And if we can’t regulate that, then we’re going to go up, or we’re going to go down. And we are both going up and down at the moment.”

Fagan traces her love of learning back to the age of seven, when she was “a very voiceless child” in the care system, constantly being told who she was by social workers. “I was living in a caravan park at the time. And this library van used to come around once a week. I would read all of their books. And I was saved completely in return, because I was able to see that there were other worlds, and then I could come back to my own world and look at it slightly differently,” she says.

At the same time she began to write poetry. “And I realised that words have incredible power. They are how we build our legal systems. They’re how we sell everything. They’re how we marry each other. They’re how we bury each other, every single thing in society is built upon words. And so when I wrote poems, and saw my own words written down, I could look back at them and see that my voice was still there. And it was such a powerful, extraordinary thing to me.”

Though there were always teachers who recognised her talent, she quit school at 15 with no qualifications, and the following year left the care system for homeless accommodation, where she spent the next two years. At 18 she enrolled for a course on film and television. At 21, she borrowed a typewriter from a friend and, in a three-week torrent, wrote the story of her first 16 years. “I felt as if I had to do it, and I still have the manuscript. I carried it around all the time, and 21 years after that, I decided to write it again.”

For a while Fagan thought she might be heading for a career as a playwright. She was mentored at Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre and was shortlisted for a project run jointly by Film4 and the touring company Paines Plough, who called her down to London for an interview. “And when I arrived, they said: ‘We had 1,000 entries and yours was unlike any other. We’ve been arguing all day about whether you’re a playwright or a novelist.’” On the train home, she received a call saying they’d decided she wasn’t a playwright. “I cried the rest of the way, and then I looked out the window and thought, well, I was always going to be a novelist. That’s the only place that I can do anything I want.”

But she had no confidence and suffered badly from anxiety, so she enrolled for evening classes to see if she could drag herself up to the standard she thought was required for a writing degree. As she turned 30 it all started to pay off. A bursary for exceptionally talented but impecunious students enabled her to move to London for a degree at the University of Greenwich. A scholarship followed for an MA at Royal Holloway, by which time she was pregnant with her son, so she decided to move back to Edinburgh and “go all the way”, signing up for a PhD at Edinburgh University.

While she was in London, living in a small flat in Peckham, she began to make a bit of a name for herself performing poetry in little venues around Soho. Two collections were published in limited editions by a small artisan press. Then the novelist Ali Smith got in touch to say she’d heard Fagan was writing a novel and could she read it, “and she gave me the most amazing feedback”. Around the same time she won a couple of competitions, and suddenly found herself besieged by agents. “I’d just had my baby six weeks before, and I’m running down to Denmark Hill station to meet an agent, because I’m breast-feeding and I’ve got two hours between feeds,” she recalls.

The Panopticon won her a place on Granta’s 2013 list of best young British novelists, and Fagan went on to adapt it herself for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2019, all the while “walking around with Luckenbooth in my head and nobody seeing a word of it”. During the time she was writing it, she says, she and her son moved house four times, and in each new home she had the entire building in the novel planned out from floor to ceiling on her bedroom wall. “I had to know what was going on in each decade culturally, musically, in fashion, but also who the characters were and how they interacted with each other, and I lived next to it and had nightmares every night. And my little boy said: ‘Mama, how come you get to write on the walls?’”

At the same time, she was poet in residence at the Bone Library in Edinburgh – an old veterinary college which features in the novel – where she spent a year engraving poetry on animal bones and writing poems for her fifth collection, due to be published next year. For all the difficulties of the last few months, she is now becoming comfortable with who she is – not least after confronting the big absence at the centre of her identity by taking a DNA test. It revealed a heritage that straddled Europe: “Dashes of French, Scandinavian, Iberian, a little bit of Ashkenazi Jewish, a little bit of eastern European, 40% Irish and only 7% British. I’ve never never even seen a photograph of my biological family, so it was quite nice to find out a little bit more.”

Now, she believes, it’s ”time to really slow down” both generally and personally. “I think we’re at a pivotal, pivotal moment for women, and for children and for society full stop, and we need to seize that opportunity, because otherwise … Well, otherwise the consequences are unthinkable.” But that doesn’t mean letting up on the writing. Our interview ends at 3.30pm. At a little after midnight, she fires an exhilarated, very Scottish, tweet into hyperspace. “104,953 words. Full stop. A very solid draft one done. OOTLIN.”

Luckenbooth is published by William Heinemann on 14 January (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.