The prize-winning author talks about 1970s Britain, the compatibility of motherhood with writing, and why stutterers make good novelists.
Image by Ben Gold
Maggie O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday, when thirteen unarmed civil rights protesters and bystanders were shot dead by British soldiers in Derry. Just ten weeks later, a hasty report by the Lord Chief Justice exonerated British troops from blame for the killings. An official Irish Republican Army ceasefire came to an end in July of that year. Horrific violence followed, some perpetrated by republican groups and some by loyalists. That year saw the greatest loss of life in any year during the long history of The Troubles. Nearly five hundred people died, more than half of them civilians.
O’Farrell’s novels have graced bestseller lists across Europe and garnered enormous critical acclaim. They include After You’d Gone (winner of a Betty Trask Award in 2001); The Distance Between Us (winner of a Somerset Maugham Award in 2005); and The Hand That First Held Mine, which won her the career-changing Costa Novel Award in 2010. Until now, though, her books have not often touched upon the political realities of the world she grew up in. Instead, she has become famous for her beautifully-wrought portraits of family relationships and romantic encounters, often exploring the ways in which secrets and lies pollute interactions between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings.
Instructions For A Heatwave, O’Farrell’s new novel, sees a recurrence of her interest in these themes, but chapter by chapter the personal intersects with the political, and national values mingle with family values. The novel is, in the words of a recent New York Times review, “smart and provocative,” and it is at its most compelling when it shows the myriad ways in which individual lives both reflect and are shaped by an unstable 1970s Britain. Plotted as a literary mystery—in the first few pages, retired banker Robert leaves the family home at the height of the heatwave to buy a newspaper, and never returns—the novel turns slyly to the wider mysteries of the decade in which it is set. It’s a book about fear in all its forms: the fear of infidelity, of ridicule, of being unloved by one’s family; the fear of riots, of bombs, of the distancing effects of racism. Some of this O’Farrell has experienced herself.
Ex-colleagues at The Independent newspaper in London used to hear her father’s accent on the phone and make jokes about bomb threats. The father of an ex-boyfriend saw her passport and asked her if she was in the IRA.
One of the most interesting relationships in the novel is the marriage between two likable but unhappy characters, Michael Francis and Claire. Michael Francis is trying to hold on to his wife’s affections and his wife, having given years to raising their children, is trying to broaden her horizons through education. “I was interested,” O’Farrell says in the following interview, “in the ripples of feminism passing through Britain and Ireland in the mid-Seventies—how the reverberations of the feminist political movement were being felt in suburban households. So many novels end with a marriage. I wanted to address, with Michael Francis and Claire, what happens after that.”
The “what happens after that” sections of the novel also feel relevant to the modern literary world, and O’Farrell’s place in it as a wife and mother. “For a while,” she says, “I used to listen to those whispers about babies costing you books, and Cyril Connolly’s loathsome quote that ‘There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ But it’s rubbish. Absolute rubbish.” She explained to me in a bar in Midtown Manhattan why she thinks she’s a better writer now that she’s a mother, and how, “with a lot of juggling and compromise—a lot of ignoring the piles of laundry—you can still find the time to write the book you want to write.”
—Jonathan Lee for Guernica
Guernica: The plot of Instructions For A Heatwave moves towards Ireland, and there’s a line in the book where you write that “Gretta is talking to Ireland: Aoife can tell by the extra lean in her voice, the slightly more sibillant s, the softer t.” Is there a sense in which you were talking to Ireland, or Northern Ireland, in this book?
Maggie O’Farrell: Yes. Despite being from Ireland, I’ve always avoided writing about it, for two reasons. For a very small country, Ireland has produced an astonishing number of literary geniuses, and at some level I probably never felt, having left as a toddler, that I had the right to try and add my voice. That’s part of it. But I also didn’t want to write something that was the equivalent of the Irish theme pub. You find them all over the world. The idea of producing a novel that might replicate that type of ersatz really set my teeth on edge.
One of the things that interested me and got me writing this book was remembering how, when my family moved from Ireland in the 70s, Britain was such a difficult place to be Irish. It was a decade of real social and economic upheaval in Britain. There were strikes, the three-day week, the oil crises, huge inflation, the winter of discontent and, what was it, four Prime Ministers? And relations between Britain and Ireland at that time were at an all-time low. I was born in the year of Bloody Sunday and of course the pub bombings happened in the mid-1970s. Then this freakish weather in the middle of the decade, this heatwave, this summer that never seemed to end. It was wonderful, in one way, for the people of Britain and Ireland—this golden, warm time—but it did cause real anxiety as well.
Guernica: Anxiety at the government level?
Maggie O’Farrell: Yes. I found a British government document when I was researching. The Drought Act of 1976. [Excerpts from the Act are printed at the beginning of chapters in the novel.] The government was putting in place back-up plans for riots and civil unrest. They feared that people might take to the streets because of the heat and the drought. They were making provisions to enlist the assistance of the army to quell possible riots over water. ’75 had been really dry too; the reservoirs were seriously depleted. And there had already been a huge amount of social unrest in that decade—this was before Thatcher dismantled all the unions—so that was the backdrop against which this nervousness was set. They rushed the act through Parliament.
Guernica: I grew up near London in the 80s and 90s, and I remember my parents being nervous when I went into the city as a teenager, because there were so many IRA bombs or threats of bombs. It seems some of that carnage was already forgotten by the time the July 7th bombings happened and the Al-Qaeda threat became more pronounced in Britain. You reclaim that early context a bit, and there’s a memorable scene in your book in which a shopkeeper hears an Irish accent and looks up from a newspaper report of a bombing. He tells the woman to get out.
Maggie O’Farrell: That actually happened to a cousin of mine. And the story about Michael Francis being asked if he was in the IRA was lifted from my life in the early 90s, when I met a boyfriend’s father for the first time. We were booking ferry tickets and I had my passport out. He picked it up and said, “You’re not in the IRA, are you?” Amazing. He didn’t see that there was anything wrong in the assumption behind that comment. And there was so much anti-Irish sentiment not just from other kids at the school I went to in Britain, but also the teachers themselves. I remember very clearly a lot of the things people said to me and my sisters. And of course those sentiments go back a long way. When my dad visited London in the 50s and was looking for somewhere to stay, there were signs outside boarding houses that said “No blacks, no Irish.”
When I worked at The Independent newspaper, I had colleagues who would laugh and say that whenever they picked up the phone to my dad and heard his accent, they thought they were about to hear a five-minute warning to get out the building. People in Britain have always thought it acceptable to make racist remarks about the Irish. The prejudice underlying that supposed joke was everywhere.
Guernica: Your family moved from Ireland to Wales when you were young. Was that due to the political unrest?
Maggie O’Farrell: It was, at least in part. We always planned to move back to the Republic but it never happened, I’m not sure why. My dad is one of those immigrants who never leaves the place he came from. He talks about Ireland all the time. If any Irishman wins at any sort of sport, he sees it as a personal achievement.
Guernica: I read in a piece in the Times that says that as a child you went through a period of quite serious illness. Are you willing to talk a bit about that?
Maggie O’Farrell: Yes. One day when I was eight I got a severe headache. Two weeks later, I was completely immobilized; I lost all of my motor skills. I had contracted encephalitis. I was in and out of the hospital for about a year. I couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t move, raise my arm, write, hold a book. I was effectively paralyzed. During a year or so of rehab I had to learn to do everything again, from scratch: to walk again, to write again, to feed myself. I missed about two years of school.
Guernica: Do you remember much about that time?
Maggie O’Farrell: I remember reading a lot. Something like that obviously changes you, but it’s hard to say how much it might have shaped who I am now. I was very young, so I can’t really remember who I was before, compared to who I became afterwards. Spending a lot of time away from home was strange. My parents visited me, obviously, but I was in hospital a lot, alone. And then when my health had improved a bit and I was in a sick-bed in the house, with the life of the house going on around me, that was very vivid for me. I always think that’s a bit like the position of a novelist in a novel, going through drafts: there but not there, one remove from reality.
Guernica: I like that idea of novel-writing as being a kind of state of convalescence, or a half-life, with these characters living around you. Maybe you could talk a little about your interest in sibling relationships, which seems to be at the center of the novel. It strikes me as a book about sisters and the dynamic between them.
Maggie O’Farrell: I have two sisters, and I think siblings are always going to be irresistible for novelists. They have been throughout time and they’ll continue to be. We all have a family, whether we like it or not; we all come from somewhere, and there’s something strange in the way you have, with siblings, two or three personalities yoked together for life. You grow up thinking those family relationships are set in stone and then you get older and realize they’re not. They’re always shifting.
The pressures and changes of adulthood—work, partners, children, and multiple other things—can exert pressure on you, and long-standing family relationships start to alter. The role you’ve been ascribed in childhood can twist or break apart or seem outgrown, especially when you have your own family and begin to see your own childhood from a different angle. You remember. You reassess. I think that was the kernel of the novel for me. This idea that you change but that your family, the people you were born into, might find that change hard to accept. You no longer fit the mold you’ve always been ascribed. When the adult children in the book converge back on their small family home there’s a sense that they don’t fit there anymore.
Guernica: There’s also a real sense of deferral in the book, of people tucking the truth away and telling themselves they’ll deal with it later. Aoife is hiding the fact she’s made it into adulthood without properly being able to read, and there’s a bulging file of documents that weighs heavy on her mind, the contents of which she’s not equipped to address. The center of the novel is a secret held by the father, Robert. Each of the siblings seems to expend a lot of energy on the art of pretending.
Maggie O’Farrell: I think all families have these secrets, and it’s sometimes the strangest things that bring them out. That was part of my interest in the heatwave, in heat as a catalyst for uncovering truths. I was reading Alice in Wonderland to one of my kids recently, and I remembered that it starts on a really hot day. Alice falls asleep because of the heat; the whole story is predicated on falling into a heat-fueled dream. I asked my mother when it was that she first read Alice to me—I thought I had a memory of her reading it to me when I was very young—and she told me she read it to me in Connemara, Ireland, when I was four years old.
Guernica: The year of the heatwave, 1976?
Maggie O’Farrell: That’s right, the year in which my novel is set. It was such a weird moment. It was like one of those Möbius strips coming round, everything linking up.
As other authors have realized, heat can have a strange effect on us, can cause odd chemical reactions in the brain. Heat can bring out secrets; it can change people’s personalities. When I was writing this book, I went to a party. Around that time, I was telling quite a few people I met that I was working on something set in a heatwave, because it turned out to be an amazing way of unlocking people’s stories. They’d tell me the most personal things. People I’d never met before would say thing like “Oh, that was the summer I had an affair with my neighbor.” The 1976 heatwave occupies a peculiar place in people’s psyches.
At the party I met a retired police detective. And he said to me that the interesting thing about heatwaves, from a police perspective, is that the number of people who just walk out of their lives when the weather gets unbearable is astronomic. He said the police prepare themselves for it—for a huge rise in the instances of missing persons. People choose to disappear when it’s hot. It was fascinating. As you’ll know yourself, there are these moments when you’re writing a book when one remark or moment will pull everything together and you’ll think, “That’s it. I’ve got what I need.” The moment the police officer told me that was magnetic. All these elements of the story I was thinking about started to pull together.
Guernica: You decided that your book would begin with the father of a family wandering off in the heat, disappearing.
Maggie O’Farrell: That’s where I got to, yes.
Guernica: It’s also interesting that it’s the father who goes and that the women around him, his wife and daughters, are largely the ones who have to sort out the mess. There’s also Claire’s desire to get an Open University degree, which is interpreted by her husband as something hurtful, a possible retaliation for his affair. Were you interested in looking at feminism in the 70s?
Maggie O’Farrell: I was interested in the ripples of feminism passing through Britain and Ireland in the mid-Seventies—how the reverberations of the feminist political movement were being felt in suburban households. So many novels end with a marriage. I wanted to address, with Michael Francis and Claire, what happens after that. They’re both good people, doing the best they can, but what happens when there’s a stalemate in a marriage, when the kids have grown up, when she wants a little bit more than the domestic life she’s had? It’s a strange point in time, when your children stop needing you. Motherhood is all-encompassing, and in a way, as the mother, you’re the star of the household. With Claire, I wondered what happens when, as a mother—and one who has given up everything to be one—your audience, the kids, are more or less old enough to look after themselves.
Something that had an enormous influence over my relationship with language was my stammer… Stammerers become skilled at sentence construction and synonyms: we have to be.
Guernica: And the idea of Aoife being an undiagnosed dyslexic, someone who suffers from that condition so badly that she can’t really read at all. Where did that come from?
Maggie O’Farrell: While I was writing the book, one of my children was diagnosed with dyslexia. Nothing like Aoife’s condition, really; dyslexia is a very tiny word for a wide-ranging neurological condition that affects different people in different ways. But I was reading an awful lot about it, to try and find ways of helping my child.
I think a lot of fiction comes from this desire to confront unanswerable questions, and it’s heartbreaking to see your child, a bright child, struggling so much with something that others are finding so easy. It’s such an assault to the child’s self-esteem and, as a mother, it’s hard to watch. All the time I was plowing through these books, I found myself asking: what if, what if? What if you were a kid the 1950s with this condition, when there were no books on it, when there was no understanding of it. I remember kids in my class at school who just didn’t seem to progress in their reading. There was no extra help. People just thought, “Oh, he or she isn’t so bright, or they’re obstinate.”
We’re much better at dealing with dyslexia now, but reading difficulties are still a problem in the U.K. I believe there’s currently something like eleven thousand functionally illiterate adults in the U.K. When I was writing the book, I was talking to a woman in her sixties who had managed to conceal from her husband and her kids that she couldn’t read. She was determined that her kids should learn to read, so she got lots of books from the library, would bring them home, and would get her husband to read them aloud to the children first. She would hide outside the bedroom door, memorizing the story so that the next night she could pretend to read it to her kids. Only in her sixties did she get help, when a doctor spotted her difficulties. Before that she’d been constantly pretending to lose her glasses, and inventing other excuses.
Guernica: How did you start out as a writer? Do you remember key moments?
Maggie O’Farrell: I don’t know what it was like for you, but I always had the urge to write. Not in the sense of wanting to be a writer, but just writing things down, getting words on a page. Graphomania, it’s called. I’ve always had a definite love of stationary products—I used to spend all my pocket-money on pens and notepads. I still do, in a way.
Something that had an enormous influence over my relationship with language was my stammer. I had a really bad stammer in my childhood and adolescence, and that imbues you with two things. First, a hyper-sensitivity to grammar, because a stammerer will have problematic sounds, impossible verbal stumbling blocks. To get around these pronunciation traps, you’re editing and rewriting sentences in your head before you say them. Second, writing is just such a joy when you have a problem with speaking. It’s so astonishing to watch language coming out of your pen without any hesitation or dysfluency. I still have a stammer. I hate it; I loathe and despise it. But it’s always there, and I have lots of ways to conceal it. I can conceal it now but I’m not good on the telephone. I get my husband to make dentist appointments. And I hate live radio. Hate it. I really try to avoid it at all costs. But it’s always there. Stammerers become skilled at sentence construction and synonyms: we have to be. Faced with a problem word, we need to have instant access to eight others we could use instead—ones we could say without stumbling. I think my stammer is a huge part of my being a writer.
Another key thing in my becoming a writer was going on a Arvon Foundation residential writing course. I took with me a really messy twenty thousand words of something that later became After You’d Gone, my first novel. My tutors were Barbara Trapido and Elspeth Barker. They called me in for a tutorial in the library and they both sat there, really grave and serious, and then one turned to the other and said, “Do you want to tell her, or shall I?” I thought, “Oh my god, they’re going to tell me my writing’s so bad I’ve got to leave.” But instead they said that they really liked what I’d done and that when I was finished they’d give it to their agent.
Being given that encouragement when you’re twenty-three was astounding, the most amazing conversation ever. I couldn’t believe it. Even though it was winter, in the middle of nowhere, and pitch black outside, I ran out into the yard. I was so excited I just had to get out. I ran up the road, into the dark, and promptly fell into a ditch full of filthy, icy water.
Guernica: Nearly a premature end to your writing career.
Maggie O’Farrell: Possibly. But I crawled out of the ditch, covered in muck and filth; I had a book to finish, after all.
The manuscript was still a mess when I gave it to Barbara and Elspeth’s agent, who at that time was Alexandra Pringle [now Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury Publishing]. It had about seven plots when it needed one, or a maximum of two. I had to meet Alexandra at her home, which was a flat in Hampstead with vintage silk drapes and windows out onto the Heath, and told me she might take me on, but that I needed to rewrite the manuscript some more. It took me about a year to do that, and only then did she agree to represent me. She sent it out to about five editors. They all said no. And then I think I may have done some more re-writing and it found the right editor.
Guernica: This was your debut, After You’d Gone, which met with a lot of acclaim and won a Betty Trask award. That must have felt good. Did you feel like you’d made it?
Maggie O’Farrell: God no. I will never ever think I’ve made it. To say that out loud would cause something horrible to befall me.
Guernica: You’d end up in a ditch.
Maggie O’Farrell: I’d drown in a ditch.
Guernica: What was your day job at that time?
Maggie O’Farrell: I’d done all sorts of job but at that time I was at the Independent On Sunday. I was a dogsbody admin person for the literary editor. Elspeth and Barbara both wrote for the Independent On Sunday back then, but I didn’t especially want to draw their attention to that fact. Then on the first night of the Arvon Foundation course, Elspeth said something about the newspaper along the lines of—and I’m paraphrasing—“I do these pieces for them and it’s amazing, because I don’t type it out, I just fax it as it is, and the literary editor has a machine that can transform my handwriting into typed text.” At which point I put my hand up and said, “Actually, I’m that machine.”
I used to listen to those whispers about babies costing you books, and Cyril Connolly’s loathsome quote that “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” But it’s rubbish. Absolute rubbish.
Guernica: I heard you also used to write the TV listings…
Maggie O’Farrell: Oh Christ, yeah. A so-called promotion, but it was much worse than being a transcribing machine. It was incredibly boring but a bit too technical to completely switch off. I didn’t have a TV at the time and I didn’t know what the Video Plus codes were, the ones people use to set their recorders to record the right program. So for quite some time I used to cut off a few numbers to fit them onto the line. Who knows what these people recorded as a result. But these dull jobs were good for my writing, I think, because I’d come home screaming with boredom and I’d feel a huge urge to sit down and write.
Guernica: You think it was helpful to have those demands on your time, that frustration at the job, to kind of create a pressure around you—a space within which you could be imaginative?
Maggie O’Farrell: Definitely. I think it’s dangerous to have lots of time on your hands as a writer. Time to pursue every little alleyway, to follow every single whim. I feel I’ve done my best writing when I’m stretched for time, when you’re most pressured.
Guernica: I imagine having kids has helped with that?
Maggie O’Farrell: I think it has. I genuinely do. For a while I used to listen to those whispers about babies costing you books, and Cyril Connolly’s loathsome quote that “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” But it’s rubbish. Absolute rubbish. A huge amount of your work is done when you’re not at your desk. Knotty problems that you need your unconscious to solve. So it can be helpful to walk away and focus on other things and it can be helpful to be a bit harassed in your daily life, to be hungry for time to write.
My baby is a year old, my eldest child is at school, my middle child’s at nursery, and my youngest child is taking a nap. There’s a lot of schedules to account for and it is tough, definitely, just as it is for all working mothers. But with a lot of juggling and compromise—a lot of ignoring the piles of laundry—you can still find the time to write the book you want to write. My house is a mess, but as long as the kids are fed and reasonably clean… [Laughs]. I think it was Rose Macaulay who said, “A house unkept cannot be so distressing as a life unlived.”
Guernica: I’m going to use that next time I’m explaining the fifteen unwashed coffee cups arranged around my apartment.
Maggie O’Farrell: You definitely should.
Guernica: You’re a literary novelist, to the extent that label has any meaning for any of us. Line by line, the musicality and quality of thought is so clearly there. And, of course, you’ve won numerous prizes, including the Costa Book Award. I wonder, though, whether you ever feel—with your book covers, and the marketing language around your novels—that you’re presented as a writer of what people call women’s fiction, something genre-led.
Maggie O’Farrell: It’s difficult to say. I have no control, of course, over how I’m marketed. It’s a sad thing, though, that so many people perceive literature to be gendered. The idea that some subjects are male and some are female is just preposterous to me. It’s reductive and nonsensical, to separate writers and subjects and plots along gender lines. It’s meaningless.
In terms of book covers, there was a great piece in the Huffington Post recently in which people contributed book covers that reversed the gender of the author. The difference between the cover for The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and the cover for The Marriage Plot by Jeanette Eugenides was brilliant. It was an interesting exercise in terms of thinking about how a book by a female author that deals with the certain issues— families, say, and so-called domestic dramas—might be treated differently were it written by a man. And vice versa, of course.
Guernica: Who’s your first reader?
Maggie O’Farrell: My husband, Will [William Sutcliffe, the writer], is my first reader and in many ways my most important. That initial reading of the manuscript is crucial and irreplaceable and you want them to approach it as someone in a bookshop might, not knowing much about it. So I’ve got into this pattern of not telling Will anything about the book I’m working on. He often knows nothing about the book I’m working on at all until I give him the whole manuscript and ask him to read it. The book I’m working on at the moment he knows nothing about. No one does.
That itchy, dissatisfied feeling at the end of a novel is useful. It’s what keeps you writing and gets you writing the next one.
Guernica: Clues must creep through to him, no?
Maggie O’Farrell: It’s true. When I was writing The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox all these memoirs kept arriving in the post from Abebooks.com about disturbed women and people who’d spent time in lunatic asylums. He was a bit concerned.
I just worry that if I tell people too much about what I’m working on—other than saying, for instance, it’s set in a heatwave—then the overwhelming graphomanical urge to keeping going with the novel might be depleted somehow.
You need a lot of energy to get a novel finished. You need an ability to ignore everyone around you. It’s why I don’t read my reviews any more. I know a lot of people say that, but I really don’t read them. Will gives me a general feeling of whether they’re good or bad but that’s it. I don’t want to be influenced as to what I write in the next book, to hear those voices in my head when I’m writing. The idea of second-guessing your reader is dangerous, trying to please some notional reader looking over your shoulder, instead of just yourself.
Always, at the end of every book, there are things you will be unsatisfied with, and still more things that later on you will realize were not right. But mistakes are part of what a book is. That itchy, dissatisfied feeling at the end of a novel is useful. It’s what keeps you writing and gets you writing the next one. It’s what keeps you learning. You learn so much with each book, but it’s what you teach yourself by writing your own books and by reading good books written by other people—that’s the key. You don’t want to worry too much about other people’s responses to your work, not during the writing and not after. You just need to read and write, and keep going.
Guernica: Do you set yourself challenges with each book?
Maggie O’Farrell: I do. With this book I wanted it to be polyphonic and I also wanted it to have a very close-up feel, a very tight focus. My previous book had been very different to that and had unfolded over fifty years. I was interested here in reflecting the classical unities—Heatwave doesn’t unfold over one day but it has a feeling of tightness, of unity—and I was interested in switching in between characters heads within a paragraph or a page because that’s what families are like, there is a flow of thought and they all know each other so well, yet there’s also a distance.
In the course of writing a book I’ll produce loads of pieces of paper to help the novel itself. Diagrams, charts, family trees. And at the end of each book I’ll pack it all away. It takes me a while to do it—it’s like a relationship that way; there’s a period of letting-go, of grief, in a way—but then I box it up, label it, and put it in the attic.
I try not to be too precious about my writing, and I try to be willing to walk away from it for a few hours when something’s not working, to let things percolate a bit. I try not to hide myself away from life too much, because I think that’s a risky thing for a writer to do. The Chilean novelist Isabel Allende says there’s no such thing as writer’s block, you just need to live a bit more. I try to bear that in mind.