When Maggie O’Farrell was working as a Front of House Assistant at Edinburgh International Book Festival some years ago she never dreamed that she would one day be up there on the stage herself. She was in awe of authors. “They were a bit like Greek gods; they existed somewhere in the ether.”
She wrote from a young age and kept diaries from the age of six or seven. After graduating with a degree in English Literature – “study of literature essential for people who want to be writers” – she worked in London for a while, secretly writing poetry by hand. Back then she thought she was going to be a poet but once she got a computer she moved on to writing fiction. “Having a computer and typing released prose.” She’s never gone back to writing poetry.
Her most recent book, Costa Novel Award winner The Hand That First Held Mine, features two main characters separated by half a century: Elina in the present day who is suffering from post-natal amnesia and Lexie in the 1950s who, we learn from the beginning of the story, will die young. “In an early draft I had Lexie narrating from the grave,” O’Farrell reveals. When she showed it to her husband he said, “‘It’s not bad but you’ve got to get rid of all that supernatural shit.’” O’Farrell went back to the manuscript and realised he was right.
One of the challenges O’Farrell faced when writing the novel was getting the dialogue right. “What I found difficult was the way people spoke in the fifties. I watched a lot of films of the period. I had to immerse myself in the fiction of the time: Iris Murdoch, Jean Rhys, Muriel spark. I learned all kinds of things I didn’t know I needed to know.”
She recommends research as a way of getting over writing blocks. “With any novel you hit a number of brick walls with the fiction side of things and with a contemporary novel if you’re tearing your hair out with the plot you can do some research…to give yourself confidence or a platform to create your fictional world.”
O’Farrell is currently working on her next novel about a London Irish family who reunite for a family event during the heat wave of 1976. “I’m two thirds of the way through, which is one of my least favourite points. There’s too much to go back and still quite a long way to go.” She nearly didn’t have to worry about “going back” at all when, only a day earlier, her young daughter accidentally turned off the power to O’Farrell’s computer while she was writing. She lost all the work she had done that day. On the whole, however, O’Farrell is positive about the impact having children has had on her writing.
“One of the biggest dangers to a writer is time. Having children you do lose time – and your marbles! – but anything that’s good will make it onto the page.”