Jenni Fagan: 'Everyone has a right to a voice, every voice has an ability'

Jenni Fagan: 'Everyone has a right to a voice… every voice has an ability'

credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

In the run up to the stage debut of her first novel, The Panopticon, we catch up with author Jenni Fagan

Playwright, novelist, screenwriter; Jenni Fagan can't tell you which she is. What she can tell you is, 'everything comes from poetry.' When you look at her novels (The Panopticon, The Sunlight Pilgrims), short stories and poetry collections (Urchin Belle, The Dead Queen of Bohemia and There's a Witch in the Word Machine), you can see the truth in her words.

This October, Fagan's first novel, The Panopticon – which was received with great critical success and helped clinch her a spot as one of Granta's best young novelists of 2013 – will be performed by The National Theatre of Scotland and has been adapted by the writer herself. Fagan has written for theatre before but at one point was told 'we can't work out whether you are a novelist or playwright.' Lucky for her readers, Fagan thought 'why not both? Writing in a different genre is really is just 'a jazz version of a grunge song. You need to switch gears but it's the same ethos.'

The Panopticon tells the story of 15 fifteen-year-old Anais, a 'whipsmart counter-culture outlaw' who's been in the care system – a system that just doesn't work – since she was born. It's based on Fagan's own experiences in care (she'd moved home 36 times by age 16) and it's self admittedly 'a dark story.' Did she have to change much for the stage version? 'There are always things to let go. But a big challenge was creating space and light between the darkness. Things unravel very quickly for teenagers.'

In the novel, Anais's voice is striking and as clear as day and translating this to stage was both a pleasure and a challenge. 'We have spent a lot of time talking about language in rehearsals.' Fagan is keen they approach the dialogue 'like Shakespeare - language is traded with real joy.'

Rehearsals have consisted of days of being asked questions of her childhood. 'You need to be 'all in' for this. We are bringing a lot of ourselves into it. [The story] is meant to affect people.' She wants to 'create that human link. We [as the audience] end up knowing the people in care really well, but the system never will.' In Anais's world, 'the circles draw tighter and tighter around her. I want to show who she is not where she is.'

What is so striking about the novel is how it resonates so strongly today. 'It represents something bigger,' Fagan says. It was published less than ten years ago but the idea of the Panopticon, the all-seeing machine, constantly watching is truer than ever. 'We are all living in those structures now – in open plan offices, online with social media. We are completely helpless to the machine and part of a system that can't or won't help.'

The bigger picture aside, the play promises to shine a light on a broken system that is more often than not forgotten. Fagan states, 'everyone has a right to a voice. Every action has a consequence, every voice has an ability.'

Playwright, poet, novelist, screenwriter, there is no point in pigeon-holing Fagan. Her fierce intelligence and drive to work will create art which is important at every turn.

The Panopticon runs at Platform in Glasgow from Fri 4 Oct and the Traverse in Edinburgh From Thu 10 Oct.

The Panopticon

A whip-smart counterculture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts. Fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks is smart, funny and fierce. She has also been let down by about every adult she has never met. Sitting in the back of a police car she is taken to the Panopticon, a young offender institution. Inside the circular…