FORMER Lewisham Hospital writer in residence Jenni Fagan has been named one of Britain’s best young novelists and her new book has been nominated for an award worth £10,000 – all in the last fortnight. Reporter HELOISE WOOD catches up with the author.
JENNI Fagan may be riding high with literary success but she remains full of enthusiasm for the ‘amazing work’ of Lewisham Hospital staff.
She also shares happy memories of walking through New Cross to Greenwich University - where she received the highest possible grade for a creative writing student – and childhood years spent in a caravan reading “every book on the library van”.
The Scottish writer was recognised by literary magazine Granta, in its prestigious Young British Novelists list - a roll call which occurs only every decade – and previous alumnae have included Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan.
Ten days later she was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize which carries a £10,000 award for the best debut novel.
So how does Jenni feel to be hailed as a literary rising star?
She says: “It’s been amazing. It’s all too easy to disappear as a debut novelist so you need all the help you can get.”
“Authors early on in their career need support.”
The Panopticon author was writer in residence at Lewisham Hospital in 2010 after organiser of the scheme Gale Burns noticed something "special" and her poetry will soon by dispayed on the walls of the neonatal ward, a department where young children are treated.
Jenni explains: “It was challenging but really enjoyable. I did writing workshops there and went through the archives in the bottom of the building.
“I went round the neonatal award – the hospital has one of the best around – and saw all the amazing things they do there. I was actually pregnant at the time.
“A lot of my role was demystifying the medical language because when people come in, it’s about their babies, not these technical terms they don’t understand.”
Jenni remains a fan of south London and says: “I lived in Peckham and East Dulwich for a while and I used to love the journey to Greenwich University – it was great walking through New Cross.”
“The place was amazing and just how you imagine a university to be – the buildings are so beautiful.”
The 35-year-old, who has been writing since she was seven, is currently concerned about how library cuts will impact on people.
She says: “I think it is absolutely heartbreaking.
“Between the ages of five and 11 I lived in a caravan park next to a coal mine and once a week a library van would come to visit. I read everything on that bus.
“There was no other way I could have got hold of those books.
“Lots of people travel miles and miles to libraries and won't be able to access books.”
Her advice for aspiring writers is characteristically practical and passionate: “My tip is to read, read, read and read. Chat to other writers if you can about your work.
“Write for the love of it because it is difficult to break into and hard work. It has to be something you love.”
Jenni's debut novel, The Panopticon, came out in paperback on April 4. For more information, visit Windmill Books.
Lewisham writer in residence scheme
Lewisham arts organiser Gale Burns said: “We started the live arts activity in the hospital about five years ago and there have been three writers in residence since then as well as other professionals.
"Studies have proved patients’ outcomes are better when they are in creative surroundings.”
He reveals he spotted potential in Jenni early on: “We had a hunch she was going somewhere and it's great she has.
“I got to know her when we had some students from Greenwich University in and we could see she had something special.
“Jenni was brilliant at talking to patients and staff and did amazing work in the neonatal unit where her poetry will soon be displayed.”