The follow-up to Jenni Fagan’s critically acclaimed The Panopticon, The Sunlight Pilgrims (Faber & Faber, £12.99) is a novel set in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter in 2020. Men have frozen to death in the Sahara Desert, the Thames is overflowing and a Norwegian iceberg is threatening to arrive off the coast of Scotland. Stella, a transgender child, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Dylan, a giant from panic-stricken London, and the book follows the pair as they attempt to survive a devastating winter that reaches -56 degrees.
What inspired you to portray a transgender child as one of the central characters in The Sunlight Pilgrims?
I started writing this five years ago when the trans community was not getting this recent kind of coverage in the media. I didn’t sit down to write a trans character – she just happened to be one. I did research among trans writers I knew and by reading lots of great books by trans authors like Gender Outlaws, or e-mailing Kate Bornstein. I thought a lot about my own experience as the “other”: growing up in the local authority care system for 16 years and also being part of the LGBT community since I was a teenager. There is no one right way to be trans, to be alive, to be human. I wrote her as an individual rather than a demographic and that’s the foundation for all of my characters. Personally I have had to fight hard for my own identity for a multitude of reasons and that partly drew me to Stella, but I was mostly taken by her one-liners and goth-chic. Her transition is a part of the novel but it isn’t the main focus of it.
How important was it for you to create a balance between the resilience and sexual identity of women in the novel?
A woman can be asexual, monogamous, straight, gay, bi, trans, gender fluid, queer, promiscuous or saintly — or an amalgamation of all those things. None of them guarantee or define resilience. It’s how we deal with every single area of life that combines to create resilience. Relationships, work, politics, religion, social expectations, community, family, financial obligations, ideas of what is or is not accepted or beautiful, ideas that women even have to be beautiful or that being “nice” or “kind” is their most important virtue, love, bereavement — growing into oneself is a lifetime’s journey and every facet of life influences the development of resilience. I have always met resilient women and some were not in touch with their sexual identity at all. Constance happens to be a mother who is very much in touch with her own sexuality and as a survivalist she is exceptionally resilient but she does not represent all women, only herself. I do tend to shy away from wishy-washy depictions of females as they hold little interest for me and rarely accurately portray the multifaceted personalities of most women. Even the shyest and quietest are not one dimensional.
To what extent did your own Scottish upbringing contribute to the setting of the story?
I am drawn to vast landscapes, I spend a lot of time walking in nature and so that informed a lot of the writing. I also used various locations that I knew and merged them with wholly fictional ones as well. Clachan Fells region needed to be directly across from Norway geographically. I lived in a caravan park when I was a kid for about six years so I understood the oddness of being a small community on the fringes of another small community. I also watched the areas of coal mines being made into industrial parks and motorways snaking through countryside, a city dump put into an area of rural beauty – I grew up around all that for a while.
There is a recurring theme of absent fathers in the novel; how much does this absence influence the growth of the characters? Or does it hinder them?
I think the characters come to their own conclusions about what a family should be. The combinations that make up any family life grow more varied and hopefully more accepted all the time. I don’t think the characters grow into themselves as a direct result of absent fathers – they are going to do that regardless of what parental figures they have, although of course it is part of their life story. I was more aware of the trio of unconventional mothers, Gunn MacRae, Vivienne MacRae and Constance Fairbairn. Both Stella and Dylan bond fairly instantly and it is in part due to their shared experience of being brought up by women who are regarded as non-conventional in their lifestyle, career, sexual choices or personality.
Is The Sunlight Pilgrims a dystopia?
The Sunlight Pilgrims is not a dystopia at all. It’s a story about individuals living through extreme circumstances; that sums up life for most people in the world today. Also, climate change is not something that is going to occur in the future – it is happening right now.
What message does the book convey about the threat to the planet as a result of global warming?
The book touches upon the divide between individuals and the bodies that govern them. In some demonstrations there are protesters saying corporatocracy is a crime. The scientists that are consulted publicly during the acceleration into an ice age blame it on a planet rather than humans destroying the environment we have to live in. The public don’t buy that though. They see these government scientists as agents on the payroll of big businesses. Stella is young but she wants to draw up a human-life contract, where each individual is legally bound at birth to commit to being a caretaker of the planet for the short time we live here. It may seem a naive idea in some ways but the way we live on earth clearly has to change, both in how we interact socially and how we treat the planet. The book follows what happens when vast amounts of freshwater from melting polar caps are dumped into the ocean: salinity dilutes, the North Atlantic Drift is put completely out of balance. These things are all scientific and well explored. It mentions freelance environmental scientists being murdered and big business owning the state so it can remain unaccountable. In the novel all of these factors contribute toward the destruction of our environment socially and geographically. I met with meteorologists while researching and I really enjoy that part of novel writing. However my main fascination was with the fact that we live on a planet and people rarely seem to engage with what that means. We don’t own this planet in the slightest and our time here is incredibly brief. What gives us the right to destroy it while we are here? Why not be better caretakers for our short time here and lay the best foundations we can for future generations, regardless of any other social belief system, religion, cultural differences, etc? It should be a fundamental common goal. I think many ordinary people wish they could find more ways to help make that happen but they feel effectively disempowered by the vast systems that govern society and the challenges involved in just keeping afloat. Stella, Dylan and Constance are just trying to survive this. It has got to a point where it seems it might be too late to change things but they do not give up hope of doing so, neither do the swathes of ordinary people who go out onto the streets to say enough is enough.
You were recently selected as one of Granta’s best young British novelists of the last 10 years. What does the future hold for you?
I am writing novel three and four at the same time. Novel three is essentially the last chapter of novel four. I am working with Sixteen Films on the film adaptation of my debut novel The Panopticon. I’m very quietly concluding a PhD so I will be Dr Fagan at some point in the near future. Mostly I am just creating a body of work and if I am not at least a little terrified, or continually growing, or taking risks as a writer, then what would be the point?
Tell me about your former role as Lewisham Hospital’s writer in residence.
I worked as a writer in residence with the neonatal unit at Lewisham for a year. It was a really great challenge to find a way to create work that could practically contribute to such an important unit. I have done residencies and collaborations with blind associations, women in prison, universities, with teenagers from all kinds of backgrounds. I like to get out into the world and take part. It’s just as important as the time I spend working on my own in some ways. Mainly though, I just go back to the words. For me it begins and ends with typing away, hour after hour, day after day. It’s a way of life and I would not change it.