Jenni Fagan is an award-winning novelist and poet whose latest novel, Luckenbooth, is already being called ‘a major work of Scottish fiction’, drawing comparisons with Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. It’s an arresting read, one full of magick, madness, and imagination, and Jenni Fagan took time to speak to SNACK about it.
I’m going to ask a decidedly unoriginal question to begin with, but how would you describe Luckenbooth?
I would describe Luckenbooth as a novel about the characters of an Edinburgh tenement over one hundred years. The novel is tied together by the first person we meet, the devil’s daughter, who rows here in her coffin. The event that occurs on her arrival curses the building for one-hundred years in a way that makes its impact felt on all the different tenants in each decade.
There are different stories told, and the structure is a huge part of the book. How far into writing it did you decide that this was the way to best tell multiple stories, and did you consider other possibilities? Did you always know that they were going to be collected in one book?
No, I didn’t really know much about how the different characters’ stories would eventually collide in this one book. I was thinking about the building first, how to set a novel in an old Edinburgh tenement and how the residents’ lives sometimes overlap, or pass each other by entirely over hundreds of years in these buildings.
I wanted to be able to take a step to the left, off the old worn stone steps and go into the 1920s, or 1930s, or 1980s and find out what was behind all of those closed doors.
Originally the structure was not like this at all but as it progressed, I realised that telling each story three times, in three parts, meant the reader didn’t have to hold too many different storylines in their head at one time and it allowed me to make each individual story more complete. This structure came a few years into the progress.
The supernatural looms large in Luckenbooth but in a realistic, I would say a celebratory, way. There’s never any doubt that what people are seeing, discussing, and experiencing, is actually happening. What is it about the occult and the mystical that appeals to you as a writer?
I think the occult and mystical are just things that have always travelled alongside my life, they are mired in the act of writing for me in some ways and so I don’t examine it too closely, it’s quite a personal thing.
I was thinking of ways to describe Luckenbooth and I keep coming back to Scottish Gothic writing; the likes of Hogg, Stevenson and Oliphant. Do you see yourself as writing in any tradition?
I never sit down and think I want to write a certain kind of novel as in genre or following on from another literary tradition, however I am aware that other people often feel the need to say that writers are always doing that.
I am more influenced by Kafka, or poetry, or Frida Kahlo, or the surrealists, or Nan Goldin, than I am by the aforementioned writers.
I did look at Hogg, of course, when writing this, I liked some Stevenson stories as a child but really, no, they are not a big influence on me. If I am writing in any tradition it is one that values imagination and complete dedication to the world you are writing, over most other things.
It’s a novel that reads like a love letter to Edinburgh, with walks through the city that people could trace, and places they could visit – it feels as if it couldn’t have been set anywhere else. What influence does place, and this place in particular, have on your writing?
I have lived in or around Edinburgh for most of my life and so I have been gathering stories, locations, moods, weather – buildings, here all my life one way or another. I think that being a poet first and foremost means you teach yourself to see the world in a certain way, to always be looking or listening, or feeling, something in reaction to the things around you.
Perhaps because I have been so itinerant and have never really found an actual home that I have stayed in, perhaps the city itself is as close to the idea of home as I have got to, so far anyway. It is such a dual city, dark and light, wealthy and poor, the weather is so mercurial, often brutal and at other times we have the most stunning skies.
Like most writers or artists I am inspired by the world around me and I have spent so much time here it was bound to manifest in one big novel at some point.