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Maggie O'Farrell talk at Edinburgh Book Festival 14th Aug 2010


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Am posting this here as it refers to her new book, The Hand That First Held Mind. There aren't spoilers though.


Maggie O'Farrell is one of those authors who is often unjustly labelled as a 'woman's writer' by those who haven't read her work. Anyone who has, though, will know her novels offer so much more than the dull soup of domestic drudgery served up by lesser talents. O'Farrell's books do explore relationships between men and women but they also examine so much more, whether it's the scandalous incarceration of spirited but sane women in mental asylums in the past (as in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox) or the complexity of sibling love (as in The Distance Between Us.) Her writing is beautiful and made more involving by her frequent use of the present tense; her ability to wind back time and vividly recreate the past lives of her characters immerses the reader in their lives, and her words stimulate every sense as she describes sights, sounds and textures, all the while maintaining a sparsity of prose that creates a haunting, brittle, almost ethereal atmosphere. For those who haven't read her work yet, think Jon McGregor's spare poetic writing with Rose Tremain grasp on complex relationships.


She is at Edinburgh to talk about her new novel, her fifth. The Hand That First Held Mine has been influenced by O'Farrell's experience of motherhood but runs far deeper than a treatise on the rewards and trials of reproduction.


The session is chaired by Ruth Wishart, whose dry wit bounces perfectly off O'Farrell's creativity.


O'Farrell reads two sections from her new novel. She explains that there are two key characters, one woman who lives in London in the late 1950s and another who lives there in the present day. The first reading is centred around Lexie, newly arrived in the capital in the 1950s from a small town in Cornwall. In London Lexie begins a relationship with a louche editor, Innes. As with O'Farrell's previous books, I am immediately sucked in by the headiness of her prose; the intensity. Within a few paragraphs she captures striking visual images: an old lady with her 'back bent into a comma', a post-coital smoker sucking in ' a nimbus of smoke'. But O'Farrell's books are sensual in the non sexual definition of the word, it is not only sights but delicious tactile sensations ('sloping silken curtains' of Lexie's hair), the power of nature ('the sky is heavy, threatening electric clashes'), and the sense of being there in her attention to detail ('the striped shirt is flying behind her like wings.') There is also the warning note of an omniscient narrator telling us that Lexie has no idea that she will die young; that she hasn't as much time as she thinks. This sobering information contrasts with the vivid sensations conjured up of a young woman at her prime, in love for the first time.


O'Farrell then cleverly rewinds the story with a cinematic verve that makes the images spool jerkily backwards in the mind's eye as sharply as images burnt onto the retina. We are carried chronologically in reverse as Lexie and Innes's lovemaking is rewound (similar in reverse as the right way round, O'Farrell notes), as they dress each other, as they retreat from the bed and scuttle speedily back through the previous hours and days, right back to when Lexie with her suitcase clambers backwards onto the train that brought her to London and is sucked back to her hometown and the advice pounded into her by her family: 'Never be in the same room as a man and a bed', 'Don't waste any more time studying as it makes women disagreeable'. This is where the story starts. And having caught glimpses of it further down the line, our hunger has been aroused.


For the next section, the story has moved forward fifty years. Elina, a Finnish artist in London has just had her first baby and is struggling to cope. Again, the images are gorgeously vivid, whether they describe the everyday - clothes of red and green entangled in a bedroom; the red scarf flying into the air as Elina attempts to untangle them with her one free hand; or pictures visualised in the characters' minds - Elina imagines 'jets of blood beautiful in their way, the pure garnet red of them... The way they commanded such a tension, the way they brought everyone running.'


Wishart asks a little about O'Farrell's experience of motherhood, and O'Farrell explains that she had had her first child, a son, and was twelve weeks gone with her second, a daughter before she realised she was pregnant. Her daughter was born after she finished the book for the first time but she quickly realised it wasn't as she wanted it and begged it back from her publisher. She talks with self deprecation of the loss of vocabulary that occurs in late pregnancy; how she realised she wasn't functioning fully when she asked her husband to pass 'the thing that holds tea that's on the flat thing.' When her husband said 'You mean the teapot, on the shelf?' she knew it wasn't a good sign. So she rewrote the book into its current form. Her son is now seven and her daughter eighteen months and she acknowledges that she couldn't have written the novel if she hadn't had children.


She is asked by Wishart whether it's a problem for her to write when she has small children. She says it's certainly possible although as any working woman will know, it's not easy and requires juggling and planning. She admits that insomnia gives her time to write at night. Wishart asks her if being married to an author means there's one author too many at home. O'Farrell says that in many ways it makes things easier because another writer can understand things that someone else may not, such as shouting 'Get out!' when interrupted in her writing mid-sentence, or the house being a tip and the landry not done. She adds that the intense periods of writing alternate with other times when less is done, which, she quips, is just as well or the children would die of malnutrition or the house would be embedded in dust.


Wishart then remarks on the two characters Gloria and her daughter Margo are, saying she wouldn't want to be trapped in a lift with either of them. This leads into O'Farrell saying that the story started as one about revenge, with Margo and Gloria wreaking a terrible revenge on Lexie, and adding that she has some sympathy for Margo as she was brought up by Gloria who warped her by being so embittered and poisonous, and that Margo doesn't have a particularly good marriage. Wishart interjects that this is true but that Margo is a bit of a monster in her own way.


This illustrates one of O'Farrell's strengths - her characters are so real because they have strengths and weaknesses and their flaws run through them like faultlines.


The floor is then opened to questions. The first questioner asks whether O'Farrell starts with many stories in her head which she tangles up and pares down as the writing process continues. O'Farrell answers that the delivery of a novel is always different from how it's initially imagined, just as if one visualises a planned painting it is never quite the way one wants it when executed. She says that she was once asked which of her novels was her favourite and she replied that it would have to be the one she hadn't yet written, as every story ends up with its flaws and frustrations. She then explained that initially she had planned the story narrated in the first person by someone who had died and that the first person had persisted for several drafts but that when she gave it to her husband to read he said he quite liked it but that she should take out the 'supernatural shit', ie the fact that the dead character was able to narrate the story. At that point, she changed it into a third person narrative. She said that in the process of writing a novel she builds a scaffolding of initial ideas and then constructs the book inside it but that she has to then remember to take the scaffolding back down again. As to how much of the plot was planned at the start, she says the dark heart of the book in which two stories collide was always in place. She remembers the moment she had her inspiration for the novel as a time when she was swimming in the sea in Italy and looked back to see her husband and child on the beach. She imagined the story like a puzzle and had to work it out backwards, constructing it carefully.


O'Farrell is then asked by another audience member about her characters; how they are strong even when outside influences try to throw them off course. O'Farrell explains that her characters arrive as they are and she feels she doesn't really create them. She says when she gets their name right that's when she can see them properly. There is an initial agonising planning time before they arrive but after a point, she knows everything about her characters from the way they behave to the clothes they wear. She adds that she's also obsessed with clothes so that she did lots of vicarious dressing of Lexie, looking at many Ozzie Clarke books for inspiration. O'Farrell then talks about how much harder life was for women in Fleet Street in the late '50s and '60s; how they had to fight to get their words into print. She says researching writers like Katherine Whitehorn helped her portray these difficulties.


Another audience member asks whether it is a deliberate aim of O'Farrell's to examine relationships between the generations. O'Farrell says that nothing is intentional and that her writing s much more 'organic' to use a polite word - or 'chaotic' to use a more realistic one. She talks again about the study that goes into her planning of the characters and mentions seeing an author she admires greatly, William Boyd, speak in public once and how she was fascinated, gob-smacked and also envious at how he spends up to two years planning each novel. She says her own planning is much less organised.


Then there is a question about The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, about whether O'Farrell was ever tempted to change the ending. O'Farrell says that a couple of her friends thought the ending was too unsympathetic but that again, she relied on her husband's brutally honest advice and on her own intuition. She said that she thought about the situation Esme Lennox had been through and knew that if she had experienced what Kitty did to Esme, she too, like Esme, would be unforgiving - her whole life had been stolen. She adds that it would have felt too saccharine somehow to paste on an implausibly happy ending with conciliation between the two. She then tells a funny story about a meeting she had with a top Hollywood director who wanted to option the book for film. Towards the end of the meeting he said he wanted to change the ending to effect a big reconciliation. O'Farrell said she went home and contacted her agent saying she didn't want to sell to him and that he could write his own story with a happy ending if that was what he wanted.


O'Farrell is then asked whether she reads her reviews. She replies that she never reads them now, that she is a 'terrible coward'. Saying that she read them for her first book, O'Farrell explains that it was counterproductive to have people analysing her. She adds that her fear is not because of the vitriol that might be shown - after all, she was a reviewer herself - but because if she read a review the words would remain etched in her memory as if carved on stone and that she doesn't need others to remark on what her preoccupations and themes are. She likens the writing process to walking a tightrope and reading reviews to looking down - she would fall off. You have to follow your heart, she says, not write for a specific imaginary reader, which is what reading reviews tends to make her do. With a smile she adds that her husband reads them and tells her about the bad ones, as you have to know your enemies. Talking about the differences in the circumstances they prefer for writing, she explains that her husband writes with freeform jazz playing, which she hates, while she herself needs complete silence: she needs to work without being watched and without knowing what others (apart from her trusted few advisors; her husband and a couple of other close friends) think.


She is asked about the two different worlds inhabited by a writer and whether it's difficult to separate herself from her book and get back to her family. O'Farrell replies that this is not a problem as the two lives are separate, and besides, she has no choice: she'll come out of her study and her son will grip her around her legs and want to talk about, say, kites. There is no option to say no, she's still working. She remembers one time when her son was three and he came into her study and placed an empty cardboard box over her head, 'to stop you thinking'. So she is very aware of her family's need for her. Besides, she says, you can't be a writer without contact with the world - you couldn't keep writing if you didn't have a real life.


One of the few men in the audience draws O'Farrell's attention to the fact that the audience is 99% women and asks if one reason for this might be because women really identify with O'Farrell's characters. He said that he read an O'Farrell book because his female friends had recommended it and that although he'd really enjoyed it, it didn't resonate with him the way it seemed to do with his female friends. O'Farrell replies that she doesn't deliberately set about to write for females. She says she writes books that she would want to read or that entertain her while she's writing them, or, as with Esme Lennox, that explore something she needs to explain to herself. With Esme, she was so shocked by the revelation that young women were carted off to mental asylums when clearly not mentally ill, and imprisoned there for decades, that she had to explore the subject. It wouldn't be possible for her to write specifically for one particular category of people, be it based on gender or age group. Ruth Wishart then refers to the fact that studies have suggested that male readers tend to choose books by male authors, and asks if this is the case for the man posing the question. The man responds that normally it's his female friends or females in his book group that recommend and suggest his reading matter. Wishart asks if he is ever allowed to choose for himself, and the man replies that when he is allowed to choose, his wife chooses for him. The jovial exchange captures the atmosphere in the room: despite the awed admiration from the audience for O'Farrell's work there is no boundary between writer and audience. The audience can identify with O'Farrell's themes, and her humour and refusal to take herself too seriously place her entirely on a level with her audience.


O'Farrell is then asked whether a dichotomy arises with her reliance on her husband's advice yet her predominatly female audience. She rebuts this with good nature, saying that although she values her husband's honesty, the other two people whose advice she values are females. One of these is her agent, and at the time she was writing this novel both of the female friends were, like her, either pregnant or breast-feeding so that there was a huge female input.


One member of the audience asks for O'Farrell's views on reading and writing in the digital age. O'Farrell pleads ignorance of kindles and the like, and says that although she can see the advantage of going on holiday with many books available but without the extra baggage allowance to pay for carrying the paper versions, she herself is a bit of a traditionalist. She adds that anything that encourages reading or makes it easier is probably a good thing, but that she wouldn't choose to curl up in a chair with an iPad.


Then there is a short discussion about motherhood. A young mother in the audience remarks that she found O'Farrell's descriptions of a newborn baby extremely accurate and asks how O'Farrell kept the memories of her son's birth, on which Elina's story is partly based, so vivid. O'Farrell replies that the memory of her first few weeks with her son stayed very much alive in her mind despite the years that had elapsed because the first experience of parenthood is such an extraordinary time. There is this incredible fatigue and physical incapacity from sleep lack and yet this new person belongs to you. Having already touched on the difficulties that she had with breast feeding, O'Farrell now talks about how much of the literature commonly available on motherhood is nauseating, adding that it was a breath of fresh air to come across the few very honest accounts written by Anne Enright, Helen Simpson and others.


O'Farrell touches briefly on her next novel. She explains that she is superstitious about discussing works in progress, likening it to the fish in Lake Baikal that disintegrate and die when dragged up to the surface, but is willing to divulge that the story is set in the 1970s and concerns a family in crisis in the heatwave of 1976.


Finally there is a question about how O'Farrell would advise other writers. She replies that reading is vastly important, mentioning that when she taught creative writing her students would ask her advice and she would ask them what they read. Several replied that they were too busy trying to write to read, and O'Farrell remembers how she would send them away, telling them to come back when they were reading. She also stresses the importance of immersing oneself in one's subjects, saying that when she was writing her new novel there was a period of months where she read only books set in London in the late 1950s so that she developed a real ear for the way people spoke and an eye for what they wore and what the city was like at the time. She adds that although The Hand That First Held Mine is based in London, she herself is looking to escape from the capital and that her family is house-hunting in Edinburgh. Somehow it feels reassuring to know that the master of such mesmerising novels is going to remain on British soil.

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