Granta Best of Young British Novelists: Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan is the sole Scottish writer included in Granta's once-a-decade Best of Young British Novelists list. We catch up with her shortly after the announcement to discuss dancing celebrations, her new novel and the future.

Feature by Ryan Rushton | 29 Apr 2013

On the 15th of last month hordes of writers, journalists, publishers and agents squeezed into the British Council building in anticipation of an announcement. Once a decade, beginning in 1983, Granta have revealed their list of the 20 best British novelists under the age of 40. The list is known for its prescience in identifying writers who will dominate the British literary landscape in years to come. As evidence see the past inclusion of Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Iain Banks, Monica Ali... I could go on.

This year the list was immediately noteworthy for featuring a majority of women writers and for the international breadth of the selection, pushing against any sort of narrow definition of Britishness. From a Scottish perspective one may balk at a list featuring just one writer from north of the border, but probably concede the overall strength of the other 19 featured. Besides, the one Scot they did choose, author of last year's superb The Panopticon, is Jenni Fagan. One of the most exciting and original new voices to have emerged from our shores, we caught up with her mere days after the announcement, although it turns out she has known for ages. “I found out I was part of the Granta Best of Young British in January! I danced around with my toddler (he promised to not tell anyone else). It was a great moment.”

“I just want to push myself to develop as a writer and not keep writing the same novel over and over again” – Jenni Fagan

That is certainly the most appropriate response I could think of to receiving a major literary accolade. I asked Jenni about the level of hysteria that had ensued in the wake of the announcement: “It has been non-stop since the ceremony. It has come at the same time as the release of my paperback as well, so I am doing lots of signings, lots of interviews, press, and planning for events throughout the year. Also, I have been getting lovely messages from all the people who have been supporting my work, they are really pleased to see what’s happened.”

Alongside the once-in-a-decade list Granta also produces an accompanying book. Best of Young British Novelists 4 features a short new piece of writing from all of the authors involved. In Jenni’s case the story entitled Zephyrs is an extract from an earlier draft of the novel she is currently working on. She tells me that “In this part of the story we meet Cael, who is one of four main protagonists. He leaves London, during an evacuation of all the areas surrounding the river Thames. The river itself is rising and is expected to break its banks. I was drawn to what might happen if this event occurred, what impact it might have on individuals and society as a whole. It is set around ten years from now.”

It certainly seems different from the unravelling of the care home system we found in The Panopticon and reminds me of something Fagan has said in the past, about a desire to write diversely with each work, taking on new types of characters and themes. “I hope so,” she says. “The four protagonists are all quite different, as is the wider framework and story. Whether I can achieve it or not, I don’t know. I just want to push myself to develop as a writer and not keep writing the same novel over and over again. Nevertheless – ideas of dislocation, identity, the individual and society, peripheral communities and non-conventional ways, or more autonomous ways of responding to the ‘centre,’ I guess they are things I return to – but in a way that just really underpins a good story, about believable characters.”

Jenni will be appearing at Neu Reekie! in Glasgow around 17 Jul and at Hendricks Carnival of Knowledge on 9 Aug in Edinburgh

Further appearances alongside the other 19 Best of Young British Novelists are detailed at

Read our interview with Fagan's fellow Best of Young British Novelist Ned Beauman