Maggie O’Farrell Interview
Posted by Michelle on February 14, 2008
Maggie O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972, and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She now lives in Edinburgh with her family.
Her debut novel, After You’d Gone, was published to international acclaim, and won a Betty Trask Award, while her third, The Distance Between Us, won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award.
Q. How long have you been writing for, is something you’ve always loved?
A. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve no idea where the impulse sprang from but I can’t remember life without it. I have a very clear memory of struggling with a story when I was about four or five. I asked my mother if she would write it for me and her reply made a huge impression on me. She said, ‘But if I wrote it it would be my story, not yours.’ It was a very astute answer, I think, as it spurred me to try harder. I’ve kept a diary since I was about nine and wrote stories during my teens. At university and in my early twenties I attended poetry classes, where I was taught by Jo Shapcott and then Michael Donaghy. These had a huge effect on my writing, forcing me to economise, to make each word pull its weight. I was 24 when I started writing what would eventually become my first novel, After You’d Gone.
Q. How would you describe your books to someone who hasn’t read them?
A. Long, with no respect for chronology.
Q. Where do you get the inspiration for your story lines, are they based on real life events, or taken from your imagination?
A. I don’t use my life in my novels, or not directly. I would never write autobiographically as I tend to write as an alternative to my life, not a repetition or imitation of it. Often, at the end of a book, it’s hard to remember the source of your ideas. Even the things you’ve taken from real life are, by the time you finish, unrecognisable after you’ve written and rewritten and redrafted and recast them in fictional form.
Q. After You’d Gone, and The Distance Between Us jumps between the present and the past, with various story strands coming together at the end. How do you make sure this works so well, do you have to have a time line or a plan to refer to?
A. I write them as they appear on the page – I don’t rearrange much in the redrafting process. To me, a story is rarely about one person; many voices and many times collude in any narrative. I do end up with timelines and scribbed diagrams and things on the wall otherwise, near the end, I get terrified of dropping a thread.
Q. Tell us a little about your latest novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, in what ways is it different from your previous books?
A. It is a novel I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I first had the idea – of a woman who is incarcerated in an asylum for a lifetime – fifteen years ago. I tried to write it then, as my first novel, but it didn’t work and I ended up abandoning it. This was in the mid nineties, after Thatcher’s Care in the Community Act, when psychiatric hospitals were being closed down and patients turfed out. There were a lot of stories flying around at that time of people, particularly women, like Esme who had been put away for reasons of immorality and left to rot. A friend told me about his grandmother’s cousin, who had just died in an asylum, having been put there in her early twenties for “eloping with a legal clerk”.
The idea never went away and I gradually amassed more and more stories and examples of girls who had been committed in the early Twentieth century for little more that being disobedient or incalcitrant. When you start to dig a little deeper, into case notes and medical reports, the findings are terrifying.
I’ve always been interested in the idea of what happens to the same type of woman – uncompromising, unconventional, refusing to fit into the domestic role society has set out for her – at different times in history. Centuries ago, she might have been condemned as a witch but as recently as sixty years ago she might have been deemed insane and committed to an asylum.
It feels very different to me, in lots of way. It’s partly historical as most of the book takes place in 1930s Edinburgh and colonial India. I think it’s tighter than the others: there are only three main characters, whereas the others have tended to be more wide-ranging. I did a great deal more research for it, on psychiatric practices and institutions, on life and society in the 1930s.
Q. Are you working on a new novel at the moment? Can you give us any sneak previews?
A. I am but I hate talking about things I haven’t finished! It’s set in 1960s London, that’s about all I can say.
Q. Do you have a favourite out of your novels?
A. It’s always the one I haven’t started yet.
Q. Are your books set in places that you know? If not, how do much do you research them?
A. Usually, yes. I don’t think I would ever write about a place of which I had no experience. I do find it easier to write about places where I’m not. When I was living in London, I wrote about Edinburgh; and now I live in Edinburgh I find myself writing about London. Somehow it’s easier to inhabit a place in your imagination if you are not there.
Q. Have you ever taken a character from someone you know, or are they a mixture of attributes?
A. I would never transpose somone directly. I think all fiction is a patchwork of things you’ve made up, things you’ve borrowed or heard or read somewhere, and things you’ve translated from life. So there are certain bits of certain people who appear in my books, but never a whole person.
Q. Do you get time to read for relaxation? If so, who are your favourite authors?
A. Dead ones: Charlotte Bronte, RL Stevenson, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Burgess, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Molly Keane, James Hogg, Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf.
Alive ones: Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, JM Coetzee, Michele Roberts, Ali Smith, Kate Atkinson, David Mitchell, Colum McCann, Peter Carey, Jeanette Winterson, William Boyd.
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