2007 awardee Jenni Fagan. Image: Ryan McGoverne.

Jenni Fagan

I am a novelist and poet and screenwriter and I make art sometimes. I think I was born like that. I was born with a brain that was always drawn to storytellers and colours and views and questions and curiosity. I think all artists start from a place of curiosity and questioning things that are around them.

So when I was very small, five, six, seven, I would listen to anybody that could tell me a story. So if it was a neighbour, an old lady at the bus stop -anyone that I met that could tell a story had my attention. And I was quite young when I learnt to read. I loved to form letters on a page and sit on the carpet at school and listen to the storytelling hour.

I grew up in the care system and I lived in an area where there was a library van and the van would come around once a week and I would go and borrow books and when I had borrowed all of their books they got me other books .

I think I wrote my first poem around seven or eight. I think I was reading, probably it was a combination of an influence of Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl. There’s all those songs in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remember being quite struck by those as early examples of poetry. It’s funny, I wrote them in a book as a poetry collection which is just kind of ridiculous really. I’ve no idea what made me think of that.

I was living in a mining town during the recession at that point so there was no money around I always knew that people didn’t have money for things so books were a really amazing escape for me; a way for me to escape my life growing up in the care system and they were a way to discover other worlds.

I would just read endlessly and I used to read in class sometimes at school, and the teachers would always compliment me on the way I would read. I would read quite slowly, I’d inhabit the characters and so the first kind of encouragement was for my reading skills.

There was a teacher in my school called Mrs Kite who read out a story I had written in class once and she said to the whole class that she was completely convinced that she would walk into a bookshop one day and pick up a book with the name Jenni Fagan on the spine which was a pretty big thing to say about a little kid that you don’t know, who was living in a caravan park.

My friends would get me to tell them stories, and I would say give me a subject, a theme, and I would just make up stories on the spot. When I was about 11 I won my first writing competition at Wester Hailes education centre.

And I got second place in this competition, 2nd or 3rd place. I do remember that the person who got 1st place cheated and I realised that they had completely plagiarised their story so that was what I needed to learn about publishing. I won £25 in James Thins tokens and I went and got myself some books.

So I was always writing and certainly wanted to be a writer but as a child growing up in Scotland at the time, you never met writers. I barely met a novelist until I met one when I was on an Arvon course aged 24 or something and then not again until I was around 30 and actually I have loads of great writers who are friends now, and that’s been one of the nicest things about crossing over into the mainstream is to be able to chat to other people who are inhabiting this rather strange life of writing.

Hardly anyone knew that I wrote. It wasn’t something that I particularly discussed with people . I was always writing journals and writing poems in the journals, responding to what I was being told about the world. So those years were probably really, really important, writing wise, and I wrote songs and poems constantly. And there wasn’t anybody saying it was great, or knowing I did it.

I hid my journals because I was moving all of the time and I didn’t want anybody to read them. And I had about 20 years worth of journals, and I burnt about 15 years worth in London, before I left about 6 or 7 years ago. And it was partly because that body of work was just for me. It was just about getting by. Writing was a way to function, a way of life. For me it is a way of life, it’s a way of life as much as it’s anything else. It was kind of a life long thing.

I didn’t really feel I got encouragement at secondary school. I was clever, an A grade student but I was politely asked to leave school. I worked in a burger place but writing was what I did. At nineteen, I submitted a script to Scottish Screen and people liked it, saw something in it which was encouragement, but I had an innate sense that I needed to write and I read and I self-educated. I got on a ECTV, Film and Television screenwriting course but that was very hard for me to attend. I was dealing with the aftermath of my life in care and being in a formal environment was difficult.

2007 awardee Jenni Fagan.
2007 awardee Jenni Fagan.

All this time I’m working in bars and record shops. I was also into music and did longterm stints with bands and then at 21 I sold a piece of writing to a Scottish Theatre Company for £200. I was shocked that a piece of writing could earn me so much. I didn’t see anything else for a long time after that though.

I was always very driven, always had projects, kept writing and in my early 20s I borrowed an electric typewriter and wrote my first book. I felt like I got my story down about growing up in the care system and I got the first 18 and a half years kind of straight in my head and that was really helpful. It’s definitely a turning point and I felt much more able to extend my work outwards and really write fiction at that point. Before that it was mostly poems, short stories, film ideas and stuff very much just dealing with my life.

Then there was a hiatus for a while where I was just working in pubs and doing cleaning jobs, still writing all the time and I heard a competition on the radio for the Traverse Theatre to write a 10 minute play and I didn’t think my dialogues skills were strong enough. I would always be working out which part of my work was weak, which part of my work was not achieving what I wanted it to do so I thought I’m going to use this as an opportunity to write a ten page play, straight dialogue.

Theatre is one of the best mediums for seeing the flaws in writing, you know, it’s really stripped back, it’s bare, its right there. So I wrote this ten page play and went to the library and picked up lots of plays by Harold Pinter and Beckett and Sarah Kane and all those great playwrights. I loved reading them, I really loved reading them. I would read them repeatedly. I preferred reading them to seeing them actually sometimes.

And I won the competition and the play was performed at the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society and it got the biggest cheer of the evening and afterwards one of the producers at the Traverse Theatre came over and said “ We’d love you to come and be one of the Traverse young writers”. So I did that and I was there for a couple of years.

I started winning competitions, I represented Scotland as a young playwright. I was taken to Athens to the European Young Playwrights Forum. I was getting quite a lot of attention for my work because it was just quite different and distinctive. I won quite a few different things and eventually I got an interview with Paines Plough in London who were doing a project with Film4 .

I hadn’t researched the company properly which I now know you have to do. I knew Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill had written for them and that was that. They said basically “your play came through and it was different from every single other play; the problem we’re having is arguing about whether you’re a novelist or whether you’re a playwright, so can you tell us?”

I said I don’t see why the two have to be mutually exclusive and I was writing plays, and Pinter used to say you should make every part of the play as immaculate as every other part, even if it’s a stage direction, and that really made sense to me so that was how I wrote.

So anyway, Mark Ravenhill was really lovely and could tell I was a bit out of my depth and kept trying to encourage me and help me out with various answers. They phoned me when I was on the train on the way home and said “we’ve basically continued to argue since you left and we still can’t decide if you’re a playwright or a novelist, so which are you?” and I just said, I can’t say. And they said “well we won’t be able to take you through but we wish you the very best with your writing.”

So I had to sit and really think about why I hadn’t felt completely comfortable in theatre. Theatre is still quite a middle class environment, upper-middle class environment. I would meet some really cool people and see some really interesting things but I didn’t feel like I could be the complete master of my own work there.

And prose, novel writing, poetry are actually the only space where you can do anything. You are only limited by your imagination, not by budget, politics or anything else. You may or may not get it published but within your own work, within your own art you can do anything that you want to do. And so at that point I committed to being a novelist, continuing as a poet and being a novelist.

So essentially I did a five year apprenticeship in theatre but the skills I learnt at that time were hugely beneficial to my writing. I was always able to write dialogue after that for example, so I spent quite a long time mastering different parts of the form and I got to do it in private, to make my mistakes in private and to develop in private. I think that’s hugely important.

I applied to the Dewar Arts Awards a couple of years after that when I began to think I needed to move away from Edinburgh to just have space to write where I wasn’t doing lots of crappy jobs all at the same time and really struggling to pay the bills and get by and write at the same time.

I began to hear about these creative writing degrees. I wasn’t sure about it because I was in my mind a writer, I had already been published, and I was very much quite happy as a self educated, self developed writer. But I really wanted a window where I could just really spend much more time on words and not be in Scotland and see what would happen if I went out there.

"After I left Greenwich University I got a first class honours degree, graduated top of my year and I was actually pregnant at the time and the Dewar Arts Awards had supported me right up until I graduated."

I heard about a Norwich degree in an art school and I’ve always made art, so this seemed like a really interesting opportunity to merge arts and writing and obviously I had left school at 15 and I had wanted to go back.

The opportunity to go to university wouldn’t have been possible in my late teens or early twenties or even then, so somebody recommended the Dewar Awards. I was able to put things on my CV that had happened that I had been recognised for and just really explained that I would make the absolute most of the opportunity if I got it. And I did! And I thought that was amazing.

So I moved away and went to art school and started doing the degree there in Norwich, first year in Norwich and last two years in London, Greenwich. I loved being able to use the facilities in Norwich but I didn’t completely gel with the art school, and Dewar were flexible enough to support my move.

I think having that time to just focus on and pursue my studies mattered in my confidence that I had a three year window. I think I would have been moving my writing on regardless, I don’t think anything would have stopped me particularly. I was 30 by that point and had already been writing for a long time.

But what did matter was artists have always needed benefactors at different times in their careers and I think when somebody has the faith in your work to put money behind it, there’s a very big difference between that and just being told your work’s good.

It’s the most definitive act of faith in a way. And obviously artists have to be able to pay their bills and they have to be able to eat and they have to be able to imagine potentially forming some kind of income that is related to their art, so it’s was a hugely important stage. That intervention is essential. I mean Bukowski, he had it with his publishers, they paid him a monthly wage until he died so he could stop working for the post office and keep writing.

I don’t like to say if you can’t get support, if you can’t get a benefactor – I mean I had support from the Dewar Awards for three years – if you can’t get those kind of opportunities then you can’t make art. I was making art regardless. The difference is I was able to take the support of the Dewar Awards and when I was applying for jobs or submitting to agents later on I had an organisation that had shown good faith in me for three years and that was a great thing to have on my CV.

I could also say to myself, I’ve got a window here for three years where I can cover the rent and I can do writing residencies and learn how to teach a little bit and I can just keep working.

I did three writers residencies whilst I was studying and I think they were probably the most important things I did and I did them off of my own back and they weren’t assigned by the courses. I just thought I’m going to apply for writers residencies, so I did the first for Norfolk Blind Association, then one with Lewisham Hospital, where I worked in the neo-natal unit and also in the archives and I did poetry there. Towards the end of my degree I did a big project with women in prison, various different women in prison groups and met women who were re-establishing their lives and trying to pick up their lives again.

I built a huge steel Scold’s Bridle with massive sheets of steel and I cut out the ears and the nose and the shape of the face and I drilled out the eyes and my hands were shredded from doing it because I was doing it with steel cutters and teaching myself to do that. And I engraved it with the words sent to me of women in prison all over the UK and South America.

My idea was to show how women who are convicted of crime are silenced by being women not necessarily by the fact that they have been convicted of crime. Women who are treated quite differently from men who are convicted of crime. Most women who are in prison, it’s related to drug offenses, sexual trafficking, all those kinds of things, petty crimes, violence, all that kind of stuff.

So it was very much an environment I understand and something I wanted to do to complete my degree and in a way that pulled in the world I had come from. So that was big kind of moment as I was able to marry structuralism and ideology and artwork and the words of women who were incarcerated and put them together in this one piece and I did a thesis that went alongside it and my whole idea would be that it would be exhibited in London and it would be submitted for my course, and I would document it in photographs and write a thesis to be republished in women in prison magazines.

So all those things meant that when I did leave university I had these great things on my CV. I had achieved these things and I had worked with various groups. It’s important as a writer to contribute practically to the world just as much as it is to write. You get out, you write, you gain confidence and new skills. When I was asked how are you doing this, it was important to be able to say there’s an arts organisation at home that’s supported me to come away and spend three years doing this.

2007 awardee Jenni Fagan. Image: Nadav Kander.
2007 awardee Jenni Fagan. Image: Nadav Kander.

I’ve always been hugely proactive so when my friends at Uni were going to Vietnam for the summer I was at home writing seven to nine hours a day, seven days a week to get the first draft of a book out, so my work ethic was always really strong.

There was an amazing little publishing house in Wales called Blackheath Books who make artisan/handmade books and they offered to publish my first book of poetry. And they made a 100 copies of ‘Urchin Belle’, which are now very collectable . Then they did one called the ‘The Dead Queen of Bohemia’ and a couple of big famous Scottish writers just happened upon me.

I met Alan Warner, and he said I should send work into a magazine in Scotland. So I did that and I emailed Kevin Williamson who founded Rebel Ink and he came down and we just really connected artistically and still do. I work with Kevin a lot and Neu! Reekie! Ali Smith discovered my poetry and kindly asked if I could send up a couple of my books to her.

She said ‘I heard you’re writing a book that you don’t really let anyone see’, which was an early draft of The Panoptican. She asked me to send a little section of that if I wanted to get some feedback and she was hugely, hugely encouraging and sent me this beautiful letter written on a painting.

So all those little contacts that I made in London and those experiences that I had in London were really so important and I really felt like I needed to be away from Edinburgh, I needed to go somewhere else where I didn’t know anybody and where people in a way were open minded in a different way to your work .

After I left Greenwich University I got a first class honours degree, graduated top of my year and I was actually pregnant at the time and the Dewar Arts Awards had supported me right up until I graduated.

I got offered a scholarship to Royal Holloway in London to a years MA and it was when I was there that all these other people started recognising my work.

Just after I left Royal Holloway my son was born and six weeks later a whole bunch of agents just started becoming really interested in me. Again it was writers who would discover my work and they would tell other people about it and they would get really excited about it and they would be really supportive. And it was established writers who I didn’t know.

So my little boy, was 6 weeks old and I went to have meetings with about 6 or 7 different agents and the first agent I met was the agent that I took which they say you should never do but I absolutely knew straight away that she was the right agent for me. Tracy Bohan at the Wylie Agency really understood my work in an international sense.

That was the start of the journey I’ve had in the last 4-5 years as a published novelist and poet in the mainstream. I signed up with Heinemann and when I was editing The Panopticon my son was just a baby. I’d be feeding him and typing over his head on a cushion to finish the edits, so it was tough.

The Panopticon got picked up and within the first year I won a place as one of the Granta Best Young British Novelists and I was the only Scottish writer on the list, previous writers on it have been A.L.Kennedy, Alan Warner. It got the front cover on the New York Times Literary Review which was just huge and went into translation in about 7 languages. A film company expressed interest in it and we’re doing the screenplay with Jim Loach, the director, Ken Loach’s son. it’s not like it’s the end of the journey; sometimes I’m teaching, I’m writing, I’m doing a PHD, and mentoring and teaching at writing residencies and being a full time mother and you don’t have loads of support around . So managing life, and a writing life, is an ongoing challenge but I’m hugely fortunate to be in the position I’m in.

My second novel came out recently and my new collection of poems came out this year which won the Scottish Author of the Year Award at the Sunday Herald’s Culture Awards. I was just so happy to be listed alongside Janice Galloway who I’ve been reading since my late teens. So to me it’s just a compliment to be part of that landscape really and to win it is just a lovely thing.

I had the support from home, from Dewar, to go away and the recognition I got was from other places so it’s nice to come and find that actually there is a space at home that I’m now inhabiting within the Scottish literature community as well.

The Dewar Awards are there to help, to find talent. They’re there to find and nurture, and encourage talent so for any young person who needs support and needs to really take a leap with their work. They’re an amazing organisation who are extending that out to all of the artforms. That’s very unusual and it’s there to be tapped into. My thing was all they can do is say no. All anyone can ever do is say no and actually if you have the talent, what you find is there are lots of people who want to say yes.