Jenni Fagan has had four different legal names, moved 35 times, has been adopted twice and saw both adoptions break down. “I have lived in all kinds of social care that there is,” Fagan says. And while Fagan shares this background with that of her narrator, 15-year-old Anais, in her debut novel The Panopticon, Anais is not Jenni, and this novel is not a memoir.
“I wrote my own biography when I was 21,” Fagan, now 35, says. “I put it in a drawer and never looked at it. I will publish it when I am old.”
Instead, Fagan says, The Panopticon started as the marriage of two desires. First, she wanted to write a literary novel. “I wanted to be a fiction writer. I wanted to write a work of art—to be pretentious—that would exist in its own right.” Second, other writers kept encouraging her to use the material of her own life, from her 16-year experience in social care in Scotland. “Initially,” she says, “I could not equate the two.”
At the time, she was studying at the Royal Hollaway MFA creative writing course, deep into literary theory. “I began to realize I had a unique insight into living on a periphery, institutionalization, and how society homogenizes certain social groups,” she says.
Inspired by books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange and even The Color Purple, Fagan set out to tackle writing about something both “provocative and close to home.” The Panopticon follows Anais, a 15-year-old girl in the care of local authorities, who was put in foster care at birth and who has spent her life navigating her way through a complicated, sometimes violent and often neglectful system. She’s moved through 23 placements before the age of seven; she’s been convicted of countless misdemeanors. When the novel opens, Anais, who has just been accused of putting a police officer in a coma, checks into The Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders.
“I liked the exploration of institutionalization,” Fagan says. “I am fascinated by how we are all institutionalized in lots of ways in life. I was very influenced by structuralism, by how meaning is generated—by how we automatically grow up accepting certain beliefs about our roles in society.”
The book, she adds, started with one question: “Is it possible to achieve autonomy? If everything in your life has told you that you will never amount to anything, that you are unable to transcend the circumstances you are born into, is it possible to defy that?”
To answer that question, Fagan spent her summers and holidays at home, writing.
She didn’t write at school because, she says, “It was my secret project and really I wanted to write it in my own space because I did not want anyone else's influence on it. I enjoyed the writing degree but I had been writing for 20 years before I went there; I liked my self-taught style.”
The first draft of the novel was told in third-person, was 160,000 words long and took just a summer to write. And, it was written in English. The final draft, in contrast, is written in a first-person Scottish dialect so close to Anais that you feel like you are sitting inside her skull—and that you’re happy there, and you’d like to stay awhile.
She explains why third-person didn’t work: “The powerful thing about Anais is, this is not a voice that is heard in this way, in literary fiction or elsewhere. It had to come from her —not me as an author.” So she rewrote it, all of it. “It did not come alive until I allowed Anais to speak in her own voice and accent in the first person.”
When a teacher heard that Fagan was writing the book in Scottish, she scoffed, telling Fagan, “’Well, you’ve just lost a few hundred thousand readers.’” But Fagan was insistent, and the book’s publisher supported her too. “It was a risk,” she says. “It felt worth taking. I had to make this real and authentic and know that once it was done, I had written it in a way that I felt was right.”
She also took risks with both the unspeakable violence Anais and her friends endure and the nearly unflappable wit with which Anais faces her life. Fagan says this is because she wanted to accurately portray what it is like to be young and to have hope, even in the face of grave circumstances. “I did not want them to just be victims or miserable. It is not what I recall of life at that age. Even when it was hard as anything ever could be, there was still some kind of hope and belonging with others. Not all the time, but teenagers and kids are so resilient. I admire that.”
Fagan says “writing what she knew” was both harder and easier than creating material from scratch. “I had to disengage from my own life but also be inspired by it too.” But, she adds, she won’t visit this subject matter again—at least not until that biography is published.
“It was a one-off,” she says. “I have seven novels outlined and they’re totally different.” The one she’s at work on now is a dystopian tale centered around four characters, each given a third-person narrative voice. But, she concedes, “I do write a lot about people on the periphery. Whether it is due to sexuality, family conflict, social circumstances or thinking differently, I am drawn to that because really it is where I come from and I find it interesting to approach life left of center.”
Jaime Netzer is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. The 2012-2013 Clark Writer-in-Residence at Texas State University, her fiction has been published in Twelve Stories and Corium Magazine.