Jenni Fagan on life in care and her new novel

Jenni Fagan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Jenni Fagan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT’S 1993, and you’re passing through Waverley Station. There’s a girl serving burgers there, 6am to 2pm one week, 2-11pm the next.

She’s 15, she’s just left school without any qualifications, and when she’s finished work, she goes back to a home in Edinburgh city centre that she shares with 11 other teenagers in care. She’s been in care all of her life. She’s been adopted twice, but both times it didn’t work out. By the time she was 12, she’d already been shuffled between more than 20 different placements. She’s never met anyone she’s related to.

Imagine that.

Twenty years on, I’m talking to her. The paperback of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, The Panopticon, has just been published. “‘Stunning debut novel’ doesn’t even begin to cover it,” raves Irvine Welsh on the back cover. “I’m still reeling from reading it,” says Ali Smith. “The most assured and intriguing first novel by a Scottish writer that I have read in a decade,” adds Stuart Kelly. And last night when Granta unveiled its list of the 20 Best Young British Novelists, Fagan was the only Scottish writer on it.

Imagine that, too.

A panopticon is a prison built so that wardens can check on all the prisoners all the time without being seen themselves. In Fagan’s novel, it’s where chronic young offenders are sent – girls like Anais Hendricks, a 15-year-old who bursts with vivacity despite being written off by the system.

You care about Anais like you care about the Jack Nicholson character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and for the same reasons. Even though she arrives at the panopticon under suspicion of having put a policewoman in a coma, her mind sparks with a crazy, defiant, dazzling individualism. You care about her, and what happens to her. And what happens to her breaks your heart like nothing I have read for years.

I’ve interviewed writers for a long while now, but I’ve never met anyone like Fagan. There’s so much about her book that impresses me. And there’s so much about her too.

Most of us have had a lot easier start in life. We have had parents and relatives who love us, our own place to live, and a bit of privacy when we wanted it. We weren’t forever being shunted around new foster parents, not knowing how to explain it to friends at school.

But when Jenni Fagan was growing up in and around Edinburgh, that’s how it felt. She didn’t have a brother or sister she could ask: “Remember when…?” She didn’t have a single place that she stayed in long enough to call home. She didn’t have any photos of any of her relatives.

She did, though, have some things that we didn’t have. Social workers forever checking up on her and writing reports (yes, for all the right reasons, but sometimes you presumably do feel as though you’re under observation the whole time, like those prisoners in the panopticon). Friends in the children’s care home with the kind of weighty emotional baggage that must take some getting used to. Strangers with their own assumptions (paragraph one: test yourself) about what kind of person you must be just because you’re in a care home in the first place.

So let’s get back to that 15-year-old flipping burgers in Waverley Station. There are 1400 children in care in Edinburgh – three times as many in Glasgow – but only 86 of them live in children’s residential homes like she did then.

“I was a minority of a minority,” she explains. “Most kids might just be in care for a year or so. We’re all only two or three serious illnesses or redundancies from anyone’s kids being in care, especially if, like me, you didn’t have family. A lot of the kids I met in care were there because their mum had cancer and their dad couldn’t cope and something else had happened, maybe their parents were in prison – there were lots of different reasons.”

Even though that 15-year-old girl didn’t have any qualifications, she had always been bright. From five to 12, when she lived in the caravan park next to the old Bilston Glen pit, she read practically everything in the library van that stopped, once a week, outside her front door – which is why today she is enraged by the prospect of library cuts. She could read before she went to school, would tell her best friend stories on demand, and loved writing from the start.

At secondary school, she wasn’t particularly disruptive. “I wouldn’t have sworn at the teachers or thrown a chair at someone or anything like that, I wasn’t that kind of kid at all. But I was living in some pretty extreme circumstances, I had quite a big attitude and I didn’t turn up a lot of the time. I was getting into a bit of trouble outside school, and at school I was just different – short skirts, my nose pierced, soldier’s boots – and I think they just got fed up with me. Plus, I didn’t turn up for the exams. But secretly, I was quietly embarrassed, because at the same time I knew I could have got grade As in nearly every subject. The teachers knew that too.”

It’s largely because her fictional teenage heroine Anais is so vivacious and so assuredly drawn that I find myself concentrating on what kind of girl Fagan was back then. That, and the fact that I’ve never met anyone who’s been in care for all their formative years.

She’s warm and funny and friendly, and she can probably sense that I don’t want to embarrass her by asking questions she has told me in advance she won’t answer (anything about her birth mother or adoptive parents or anything else that is “someone else’s story too”).

She has been similarly scrupulous about excising all mention of the fact that she has spent her teenage years in care from all the publicity for The Panopticon – indeed this is one of the few times she has talked openly about it. Yet I’m fascinated by that 15-year-old writer-in-waiting, by all the things I would never have guessed if I’d have bought a burger from her in Waverley Station two decades ago.

And that’s practically everything. The course she went on to study film and video when she was 18. The novel she wrote – and which remains unpublished – when she was 21. The competition she won to write a short play for the Traverse in Edinburgh (with a £200 cheque that really did change a life). The interview for a playwriting job in London at Paines Plough theatre company where they told her that they couldn’t work out whether she was a natural playwright or a novelist. And then, at 25, when she didn’t get it, the start of the long haul back into higher education.

But just look at her go. First time back in the classroom for ten years, and she’s doing night classes at Edinburgh to get her Open Learning Certificate. Then a Donald Dewar award that takes her to Norwich to a creative writing course in which, when she finishes it at Greenwich University, she graduates top of her year, before winning a scholarship to Royal Holloway, University of London, for her Masters.

At this stage, she is writing the book that will become The Panopticon. Two years ago, it is picked by Waterstone’s as one of the best debut novels to be published in 2012.

She tells me now that I mustn’t exaggerate the full extent of her journey from that 15-year-old girl to the woman she is now, 20 years on, a doting mother of a two-year-old son, living in Burntisland with her partner Joe (another writer) in their first house, the first draft of her next novel already finished.

She says I mustn’t exaggerate her early years. “I never was a Dickensian character,” she says. “And I don’t want to be a poster girl for care homes. There’ll be someone else who could do it better. I spent 16 years of my life in the system and that’s enough.

“I have my next six books outlined. None of my other books are about care, none of my other characters are in care, none of my other characters are ever going to be in care. There are so many things in the world that I am interested in and want to write about. I don’t know whether I’m talented enough to do it, but I know what I want to do.”

Me, I’d bet on her. Heavily.