For Books’ Sake Talks To: Jenni Fagan

20th Feb 2013

Jenni Fagan

Scottish born and bred, Lothian poetess Jenni Fagan resides within a seaside town on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A top class graduate of Creative Writing at Greenwich University, she has since gone on to see her poetry collections sell-out and win a heap of accolades.

Last year saw Fagan’s début novel, The Panopticon, hitting the shelves. It was an instant hit with literati and laymen alike, and we recently caught up with the renaissance woman herself, to pick her brain.

“I have had the most amazing reception to my début novel,” says Fagan. “I have had so much support from writers that I admire and look up to. People who I have read for years. It’s very humbling and also totally cool.”

I am not inhibited by society's idea of what a 'mother' should write. I was a writer before I became a mother and if anything it has made me more determined that my voice is mine alone.The Panopticon was chosen as one of the 2012 Waterstones 11 top début novels of the year, and nominated for an Anobii award. Numerous reviews have praised her prose style, and although this could be credited to her poetic background, Fagan finds that her writing processes are often in juxtaposition.

“Poetry is a process that I will not lasso, I never ask poetry to turn up, it is the one written form that I will wait for,” she explains. “Fiction I don’t wait for. I turn up everyday and wait for it. Saying that, I’m impatient and like most writers I don’t have the luxury of endless hours to sit about waiting on the muse so I don’t do much waiting as I know every writing minute is precious.”

As a mother, Fagan has found her time has become a commodity. She muses on how it has changed her behaviour towards writing and learning to focus on the task at hand.

“Becoming a mother means I have a lot less time but it has grounded me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Words don’t hold your hand in quite the same way as your toddler does, on the beach, when you’re looking for shells. It’s a different love,” she says.

Although having a child has clearly affected Fagan’s writing time, she is also adamant that motherhood should not impede her voice as an author.

“I am not inhibited by society’s idea of what a ‘mother’ should write. I was a writer before I became a mother and if anything it has made me more determined that my voice is mine alone. I can do anything I choose with it. That freedom is not a possibility for all women. I don’t take it for granted,” she says.

Fagan is no stranger to standing up for injustice and providing a platform for women’s issues. As ever the creative firecracker, Fagan turned her artistic capabilities to constructing a sculpture called The Scold’s Bridle. This large piece was built out of sheets of metal and later engraved with words written by imprisoned women in the UK and US.

“I had been studying the History Of European Witchcraft and felt there was a correlation between the symbolic enforced ‘voicelessness’ of women convicted of the crime of ‘scolding’ and the ‘voicelessness’ surrounding many peripheral groups today,” explains Fagan.

“Society tends to homogenise peripheral groups in a way that is dehumanising. Stigma is a tool used for social control – I think it is important to question what purpose this serves for society and why it is still allowed to continue today,” she adds.

Fagan’s artistic aesthetic also spills in to the outcome of her print publications. She explains, “I have been lucky to work with publishers who make beautiful books. The aesthetic of a book is hugely important – to me a great book is art so why would that not be the case from the outside in?”

So how does someone with so many artistic outlets focus their projects or hone their skills? And how does each creative pursuit affect the other?

“I work mostly on fiction, short stories, poetry, essays, diaries, then if there is a bit of time after that I might get to do something else,” she replies. “To me great writers are master painters. That’s why I study them. It might take a lifetime to get that good but what a great way to spend your life.”

As an all round creative, Fagan finds living near such an artistically driven city a benefit. “Edinburgh is my hometown really and it always will be,” she says. “I love the arts there. I came home from London to find some vibrant things going on in the city and it is great to get to be a part of it and go along and be inspired.

The book festival is so important, you get to hear your idols read and discover new writers and remember exactly why it is you wanted to spend your life writing words in the first place.”

Fagan also keeps a blog, entitled The Dead Queen of Bohemia, which is worth checking out for its heart-warming and personal ramblings and Fagan’s impeccable music taste alone.

“I am a sporadic blogger but I did used to be a daily diarist,” she says. “Eventually I set fire to twenty odd years of diaries which was really satisfying. I only blog when I feel like I have something to say and I don’t utilise the space very well. I like to put up songs, art, books etc that I like. It’s a nice place to archive things.”

So what is in store for Jenni Fagan’s future? “I have just completed a short story collection. This year will be a pretty focused one, writing wise, I have a six-month window where I am going to focus on my current novel,” she explains, adding, “I might begin a PHD towards the end of the year but I will be beginning my third novel around then either way.”

If you can’t wait until then, you can purchase Fagan’s poetry collection, The Dead Queen of Bohemia in a beautiful, letter pressed edition from Blackheath Books, or The Panopticon can be purchased from Foyles or your local indie book shop.

Sorrell Waldie


  • Jenni is a sincere writer. Brave poetic prose. There are many imposter authors within the Scots literati scene. Writer caricatures. Cliche strutter pouters. Know-nowt know-it-alls. But Jenni Fagan sings with the gifted, past and present Scots masters. She is a soprano among whistlers.

    I believe she can be a great.

    Michael Crossan