A portrait of Jenni Fagan with a horned skull
A portrait of Jenni Fagan with a horned skull

If people asked Jenni Fagan what she was working on while she wrote Luckenbooth, she would tell them “and they would look a bit confused”, the author says. The novel sounds sprawling on paper – “I’d say I was writing a novel that was set in Edinburgh based over 100 years and goes through the lives of nine different sets of residents in nine different decades and all of their stories are entwined by this original story that will pull the rest of the narrative,” Fagan says – even if the finished product is an alluringly coiled spring of a book.

It took Fagan 20 years of thinking, and five of writing, to turn Luckenbooth from a grand concept into a gripping literary novel. Here’s how she wrote it:

When did you first think about writing Luckenbooth?

I moved into an old Edinburgh tenement when I was about 18. It was my first flat on my own and it was the smallest flat in Edinburgh. It was like living in a tall cupboard. I had to hammer my bed onto the skirting board to get it into the bedroom because it was so narrow. The flat was so densely dark and haunted that none of my friends would stay there when I was out of town, and I used to have horrific nightmares when I was there. All kinds of very strange things happened when I lived there; I had old televisions given to me by several people and they all blew up on the first day. The basement was so covered in needles from drug users that they couldn’t get any cleaning companies to come and clear it out. When workmen opened up the attic hatch and there was grass growing up, chest-high, and somebody had been squatting up there. I just imagined this person laying on the floor, looking at the city stars through the holey roof. And it was such a striking thing.

A lot of different things happened over the years I was living in that building. I would walk over the worn steps and think, I’m walking over the footsteps of hundreds of years. I knew that one day I wanted to set a novel in an old Edinburgh tenement that would cover a long period in history, but I also knew I needed to be a good enough writer to have a chance of making something that ambitious happen, so it was a long time before I decided to take the risk and go for it. It was my third novel, so I decided it was a sort of do or die situation – either I could make it happen or not.

The structure of Luckenbooth is quite complex. How did you plot it out?

That building, in the novel, has been drawn out onto the walls of three different houses that I renovated around Edinburgh while I was writing it. I went to sleep next to the plans, and woke up and was thinking like, “where’s the baby? Where’s the bone?” It was really creepy. I had nightmares sleeping next to the first wall for about six months.

I really needed those full walls to be able to work out what was happening in each decade – culturally, musically, politically, in fashion. I needed to know who was Prime Minister, if there had been a major world event. Those things began to define the lives of each different character.

There was one draft of the novel that was written in three parts, each three decades, and each decade was revisited three times, and each chapter was 3,333 words long. I had to create a corset that held it all in, so that if you remove it, the shape remains. By that point it was holding the stories back a bit, I was really willing to go where I had to go to make this world.

A photograph of Hafsa Zayyan's novel we are all birds of uganda

Zayyan's novel. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Luckenbooth has a whole tranche of really distinct characters. How did you create those?

The characters come to me. The building came first and then the devil’s daughter turned up to claim it. And everything really came from her, in a way. Each character locks into the next decade, and the next floor of the building. I picked a theme for each floor and that helped a lot: so Flora and the 1920s, her theme was love. Levi, in the 1930s, is the first the philosophers – there’s one on every floor: there’s William Burroughs in part two, and Dot in three. Ivy, in the 1940s, her theme is revenge. Some characters didn’t arrive, some fell by the wayside and some were completely changed altogether because when you’re building a big bubble you need them all to complement, contrast or interact in one way or another.

How did you balance writing your novel with your other commitments?

I’m tired! I’ve worked on the book for five years, alongside my PhD. I’ve been doing three degrees while doing the three novels, I’ve moved 10 times in 10 years renovating old houses, while bringing up my child. There’s been no calm, peaceful space or regular hours to write. My son stays with his dad at weekends so I would work all weekend when he’s away, or I work when he’s in bed.

But I’ve never had a study, so I’ve always written in bed. I’ve moved all my life, and I’ve lived among a lot of people, so I’ve got really good at intensely concentrating and completely go into the world I’m writing about. I’ve trained myself to work with my unconscious a lot when I’m writing; you can put yourself into the sort of mind space to access the very best of what your mind can offer. It’s a form of automatic writing. That allows everything to come in. Then when I edit, I edit in a very conscious way and approach the edits in a completely opposite way to the way I write.

A black-and-white photograph of Jenni Fagan holding a black cat

'I’ve trained myself to work with my unconscious a lot when I’m writing': Jenni Fagan and her cat, photographed over Zoom. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

Do you have a particular space where you write?

I’ve actually got a study now! We’ve moved into a house and I’m hoping to stay put in this one for a while. I can’t sit at a desk because I’m so used to writing in bed, so I built this ridiculous fairytale bed. It’s as high as my window, you have to climb up on a stool to get up to it. It’s really thick wood, and it’s curved at the back, and it’s covered in cushions and a rug. It’s very decadent. And it has an amazing view: when I’m up here I can see over the rooftops, over the sea, over the Firth of Forth and I can see the mountains in the distance.

How does it feel to release the book, after all this time?

Obviously very nerve-wracking. I worked on the book for five years, had it in mind on and off for 20 and then released it at a time when every book shop in the country is closed and every festival is not on in the way they would normally be on. And it’s certainly not a vanilla book, I very much wanted to take risks and follow through on them.

But the reaction has been so extraordinary and people are really passionately connecting with the world. You get a feeling early on with each book as to how it might go and you don’t know for sure but you get a bit of an inkling. The themes in it are really connecting with what people are going through right now. It’s a collection of people who can’t leave the building they’re in, and the building is sick, and the structure is impacting massively on all of these people’s lives, but they feel very far away from everybody else, really.

What did you think of this article? Let us know at editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk for a chance to appear in our reader’s letter page.

Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

  • Luckenbooth

  • Featured in Damian Barr's picks for 2021
    Chosen as one of the Best Books of 2021 in the Telegraph

    'If this addictive slice of Edinburgh Gothic isn't on all prize lists, there is no justice.' iNews

    'Over time, 10 Luckenbooth Close sinks from grand residence to condemned squat with secrets seething in its walls ... Luckenbooth is a place of compacted time, where the past manifests as unquiet ghosts and the future bleeds into the present ... There's a force in Luckenbooth's bizarre assemblage.' The Times

    'Definitely going to be one of my books of 2021, a gloriously transgressive novel of Edinburgh denizens past and present.' IAN RANKIN
    Stories tucked away on every floor. No. 10 Luckenbooth Close is an archetypal Edinburgh tenement.

    The devil's daughter rows to the shores of Leith in a coffin. The year is 1910 and she has been sent to a tenement building in Edinburgh by her recently deceased father to bear a child for a wealthy man and his fiancée. The harrowing events that follow lead to a curse on the building and its residents - a curse that will last for the rest of the century.

    Over nine decades, No. 10 Luckenbooth Close bears witness to emblems of a changing world outside its walls. An infamous madam, a spy, a famous Beat poet, a coal miner who fears daylight, a psychic: these are some of the residents whose lives are plagued by the building's troubled history in disparate, sometimes chilling ways. The curse creeps up the nine floors and an enraged spirit world swells to the surface, desperate for the true horror of the building's longest kept secret to be heard.

    Luckenbooth is a bold, haunting and dazzlingly unique novel about the stories and secrets we leave behind, and the places that hold them long after we are gone.
    'One of the most stunning literary experiences I've had in years. Luckenbooth, sprawling the decades with its themes of repression and revenge, brings back something that has long been lacking in the British novel: ambition. If Alasdair Gray's Lanark was a masterly imagining of Glasgow, then this is the quintessential novel of Edinburgh at its darkest.' IRVINE WELSH

    'A deeply powerful, compellingly vivid novel ... Luckenbooth is a major work of Scottish fiction - possibly one of the most significant novels of the last ten years' ALAN WARNER

    'Luckenbooth is seedy, sexy and strange, a haunted house story soaked in booze and bad weather ... Fagan's prose is fast and impressionistic.' Sunday Telegraph

    'With Luckenbooth, [Jenni Fagan] gives us nine of Edinburgh's wildest and loneliest misfits ... Piles on claustrophobia and menace ... As we move between the characters' perspectives, gritty realism takes over from the gothic. This isn't fancy Edinburgh: at No 10 it's cigarettes, cocaine and Benzedrine for breakfast ... There are memorable creations ... Fagan's prose is poetic, high-octane, built on punchy sentences. Arresting descriptions of the city and its weather abound. This is not a novel that lacks energy.' Sunday Times

    'Jenni Fagan's Luckenbooth reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual. Set in an Edinburgh tenement, it leaps across decades to tell the story of the curse that haunts No 10 Luckenbooth Close and its eccentric inhabitants.' Alex Preston, Observer

    'Structures and structuralism obsess Jenni Fagan. Those obsessions intertwine spectacularly in Luckenbooth, her third novel, about an Edinburgh tenement and the curse that haunts it, infecting the lives of all who live across the building's nine floors over nine decades of mystery and uproarious change ... Melding the poetic, the esoteric and the occult with the grit and grime of a real life lived on the edge, she writes unlike any other author of her generation, in no small part because she has lived a life unlike any other author.' Scotsman

    'A whirlwind of a novel, and I am certain that various labels will be attached to it - Caledonian magic realism, tartan gothic, something nasty in the shortbread tin, Angela Carter in a kilt cross-hatched with safety pins. What it is, is radical and profoundly fabulist. It is about the stories we are told and whether there is the possibility of there being new stories ... There is a great deal of imagination and empathy at work here. The structure of the building acts as a kind of framework to contain the pent-up furies ... Luckenbooth is a daring book, and beautifully written.' Scotland on Sunday

    'Fagan is unflinching in her depictions of derangement and death but Luckenbooth is compelling and often darkly funny ... Her storytelling has an urgency and - to use an overused but apt word - authenticity.' Financial Times

    'Masterly ... A lesser writer would struggle to control this cacophony of voices but what marks out Luckenbooth is the fierce intelligence driving Fagan's tale ... This is a mad god's dream of a book - it deserves to be shortlisted for every prize going this year.' iNews

    'An audacious statement and a terrific read.' TLS

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