Jenni Fagan on The Sunlight Pilgrims

Article by Dominic Hinde | 24 Mar 2016

The Sunlight Pilgrims deals with those living on "the fringes of the fringes" – of geography, gender and society. Jenni Fagan, among Scotland's most exciting novelists, here tells of its character and place: both warm and human, despite the cold wind.

For a novel five years in the making, Jenni Fagan’s follow-up to her much lauded The Panopticon was almost eerily on point as the first printed copies landed on review desks. As she sits down in an Edinburgh café to chat about the cli-fi tinged The Sunlight Pilgrims, the front pages of the day's newspapers are reporting that February 2016 was the hottest on record; runaway climate change is not so much speculative as reality.

The second thing that marks The Sunlight Pilgrims out as unintentionally current is that Fagan has written a trans novel when debates about non-binary gender and trans people have been highly visible in the media. Just as Fagan has created a world where the seasons are lurching on the point of collapse, so are its gender norms. The novel has a main character who, as Fagan puts it, “happens to be trans.”

“I didn’t set out to write a book about a transsexual character, but Stella became that,” she says. A young teenager who identifies as a girl but is struggling with the onset of male puberty, and with eyes for a male friend, Stella is far from the only one with transgressive sexual mores. Incomer Dylan, a giant of a man child, fleeing the death of his family matriarchs and the repossession of the Soho arthouse cinema he grew up in, is in differing ways a source of attraction for both Stella and her mother. The local boys who are unsure how to deal with Stella and the sisters who run her religious school are made visibly insecure by the breaking down of the gender binary. All the while, runaway climate change has brought a new ice age to Scotland, and nobody is entirely sure what will happen to the tiny group of people living on a caravan site, flirting with the end of days.

The Sunlight Pilgrims and the Scottish landscape

Fagan’s second book is set in a geographically ambiguous location that is at once recognisable. Like Iain Bank’s proto-Scottish town in Stonemouth – liberally mixing bits of Aberdeen, Inverness and Stonehaven – Clachan Fells is a proto-landscape that is at once post-industrial Midlothian, Fife, and Spean Bridge. “Clachan Fells is cut off – they’re on the fringes of the fringes,” she says of the fictional community she has created.

As a child, Fagan herself lived in a caravan in the shadow of the Pentlands, in the ashes of the Scottish coal industry – a place now covered in car dealerships and the blue cube of the IKEA Loanhead furniture warehouse. The Swedish furnishing giant even makes an appearance in The Sunlight Pilgrims, as the pastel-shirted staff are roped into morale-raising singing sessions for the climate refugees whose homes are too cold to live in. Instead, people have taken shelter in the pretend home of the IKEA showroom, queuing for meatballs and daim cake in the café.

“It has that quality of [Michel] Houellebecq and [JG] Ballard and the weird sensation of directing large amounts of confused people through a strange experience. It is a bit like an airport,” she says, fascinated by the sanitisation of the ordeal of dislocation.

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The last few years have meant upheaval for Fagan too, keeping her busy since she broke onto the mainstream literary scene and was hailed as one of the best young writers in Britain by Granta magazine. After the success of The Panopticon, she wrote The Sunlight Pilgrims alongside working on the film adaption of her debut (to be directed by Jim Loach, son of Ken) and a sizeable collection of poems (The Dead Queen of Bohemia, also to published in April).

‘”I started writing about it five years ago, just after The Panopticon was published. I’d just had a baby and a number of close bereavements all at the same time. It was before some of the issues became topical. I wanted to do something different from The Panopticon, I didn’t want to just repeat the same thing again because people liked it."

Whereas The Panopticon was about the psychology of a single building, The Sunlight Pilgrims is soaring in scale: “I liked the idea of being able to create Clachan Fells as a completely independent place, but I used my own experiences as a basis for that reality and I like nodding to certain things that seem normal and regular. To me a place like Clachan Fells is real because I spent five years there when I was writing it. In The Panopticon I created a building that existed in its own right, and I did the same here. I gave myself a very solid framework and then you go and mine that for a story.

“I had really wanted to write a landscape novel for my first novel and didn’t, so this was an opportunity," she says, before adding after some thought: "I wanted to write a novel that felt like a Sigur Rós record."

Jenni Fagan, Amy Liptrot and Kathleen Jamie

It may be set against the backdrop of the Scottish hills, but The Sunlight Pilgrims is a long way from the introspective posh-boy-goes-for a-walk genre that often passes for a literary description of the Scottish landscape. Appearing at the same time as Amy Liptrot’s critically lauded The Outrun, it takes a similar approach to blending wilderness with the often chaotic lives of normal people ,and the friction between the supposedly pristine landscapes of postcard Scotland and the larger global picture.

“I’m friends with Amy. She comes and stays at my house." In relation to the differing approaches to writing on the environment, she adds: "I think really you can say that [Scottish poet] Kathleen Jamie is the foundation for a lot of what is coming now.” Jamie’s anti-masculine critique of the obsession with empty ‘wild places’ is subtly felt in the background, and The Sunlight Pilgrims’ offers gentle nods to the fantasies of highland tourism and the masculinity to be gained from hunting and dismembering animals for show.

The high hills and shifting ice that surround Fagan’s characters situate them in deep time, where they openly speculate about their own transient situation – it is no coincidence that a significant plot element revolves around the disposal of human ashes. Although one of the main characters has suffered two bereavements, there is a striking ambivalence towards both death and the future throughout the book. “I wasn’t thinking about sci-fi or dystopian fiction,” says Fagan. “More just the fact that we live on a planet, and how much of modern life is designed to distract from the fact that we live on a planet and that our interaction with it is very short.”

The inability to grasp the changing state of the world is at the heart of The Sunlight Pilgrims. At one point, as things take a chillier, grimmer turn, a TV channel lines up religious leaders and experts to provide narrative guidance to their dwindling number of viewers as an apparently permanent winter closes in, and an iceberg drifts ominously south towards Scotland from the Arctic. Wilderness and masculinity are dead and anachronistic, and this is the new normal.

The Sunlight Pilgrims is out on 7 April, published by William Heinemann, RRP £12.99