This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Interview by Claire Coughlan
Here at Novelicious, we’re big Maggie O’Farrell fans. So we were thrilled when it was recently announced that her sixth novel, Instructions for a Heatwave – just released in paperback – has been included on Richard and Judy’s autumn book club list. Set during the infamous heatwave of 1976, it unravels a family secret belonging to the Riordans, an Irish family living in London. But that doesn’t even do it justice, so you’ll just have to trust us and read it.
Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, in Northern Ireland, in 1972, and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She now lives in Edinburgh with her husband, fellow author William Sutcliffe, and their three children. Maggie worked as a journalist before she went on to become a Costa Prize winning author, and was previously deputy literary editor for the Independent on Sunday. When her first novel, After You’d Gone, was published in 2000, she left full time journalism to go freelance and focus on her fiction. She credits an Arvon course with helping her find an agent, Alexandra Pringle (now a publisher), who was then an agent with Toby Eady Associates. Maggie is now represented by Victoria Hobbs of AM Heath (who was Alexandra Pringle’s assistant at Toby Eady) and her publishers are the newly launched imprint of Headline, Tinder Press.
Maggie, what was it about the heatwave of 1976 that inspired you?
Well, it was a couple of things, actually. I started writing the book about a family in crisis and it was the summer of 2010. It was around the time that volcano in Iceland – I’m not even going to pretend to pronounce it – erupted. I was living in London at the time and it was astonishing the way everybody reacted to it. Normally very sane neighbours of mine were ranting and panicking in the street about the holidays that had been cancelled or meetings they’d missed, or visitors who hadn’t arrived. People were panic buying all these supplies and I think people were terrified because no-one knew what was going to happen, whether it was going to erupt again. The whole of Northern Europe came to a standstill and it was very strange because there were no planes above London, which is a very peculiar phenomenon – we’d look up and there was nothing. I kept thinking, this reminds me of something, this atmosphere of fear and panic. And then it hit me, it’s the heatwave of ’76. I was four at the time and we’d just moved from Ireland to South Wales, which was one of the areas worst hit. I think in many ways as a child it was wonderful because we could be outside all day long but I think for adults and certainly for the government – it turns out from my research – they were really panicking, the reservoirs were totally empty and they put all these measures in place in case there were riots and civil disobedience and fights for water. And it just brought it back to me and it reminded me of how interested I am on the effects of extreme weather on human behaviour.
What is it about families that draws you to write about them?
Well, I think families are always going to be fascinating to novelists because we’ve all got one, whether we like it or not. We all come from somebody, from two people at least. And I think it’s a very interesting melting pot, a family. My maths is shocking, but within a family of five, I think there are something like 25 different relationships. Freud said that every sibling has a different mother and I like that idea that different siblings have a different relationship with their parent, it’s fascinating.
What were you like as a child?
I think before you’re a writer, you’re a reader. I was very ill as a child (with encephalitis). I was basically in bed for two years, incapacitated, and all I did was read. Those were the days before audio books and I discovered the Moomin books by Tove Jansson and I read all of them again and again because there’s a series of them. And The Secret Garden. I just used to reread and reread because I didn’t really get to the library much so I just had the books on my shelf and it was opposite where I lay in bed. I think in a way that was an amazing training ground, actually, because I think rereading something again and again is very good practice for a novelist. You get to know the text inside out and pick up on all the echoes.
I read an interview with you, where you said that you’d originally written The Hand that First Held Mine from the point of view of Lexie from beyond the grave but you ended up scrapping that idea. Does that happen often, where you might put a lot of work into a character, theme or idea, only to decide it’s not working?
Oh yeah, very often. I often think you conceive a book and it usually takes a right angle and ends up somewhere you don’t expect. I embrace that, I quite like it. I think in a way it’d be very limiting if you set out with one idea and plodded faithfully through it – I really like it when I’m a third or halfway into a novel and suddenly everything changes. I take it as a sign that something’s working and I’m doing something right. When a book acquires its own momentum it’s always a good thing. And you have to go with it and trust your instincts. It can be painful, when you realise you’ve got to sacrifice a whole section you really like. I went to a workshop years ago, taught by the poet Michael Donaghy, and he was talking about poetry but it applies to novels as well, that you have to put up scaffolding and within the building, you build your poem or your novel, but you have to remember to take the scaffolding down afterwards. And I think that’s a very helpful metaphor – you do invest in that scaffolding but the house looks ugly with it on and you have to get rid of it at the end!
Will I take it that you don’t plan novels?
Well, I do a little bit, I have a plan but I don’t always necessarily stick to it and it ends up where the ending is completely different from how I conceived it. When I was writing Instructions, the part about Aoife’s illiteracy and dyslexia was a very very small part and it was only two, three or four drafts in where I thought, I need to unpack that more.
I love the character of Aoife. It must’ve been fun writing her character, in New York in the ‘70s?
It was slight wish fulfilment because I was at home with my two kids and halfway through the book I got pregnant with my third so I wasn’t really going anywhere, I was very landlocked! Paris in the ‘20s, New York in the ‘70s – if I could time travel that’s where I’d go.
Is your next novel set in the past as well or is it contemporary?
Well, it spans a lot of time actually, it starts in the present day and spans several decades. I’m not a superstitious person but I am superstitious talking about things I haven’t finished! I always feel that talking about it will drain me of the urge to actually do it. I’m a bit wary of that.
How disciplined are you when it comes to writing?
It’s funny, discipline doesn’t really come into it for me, it’s just whenever I can. I have to be disciplined to do the laundry or file my tax return but I don’t have to be disciplined to write. Obviously with three kids life’s very busy and there’s a huge amount of time pressure, so the time when I get to write is usually when they’re napping, or at nursery or school or at night when they’re asleep. But I actually like working that way, I find that I work best when I’ve got a huge amount of pressure and there’s no faffing about and you just get down to it. I think if you want to do it, you’ll find the time one way or the other, by hook or by crook.
What advice would you have for aspiring authors?
I think I would say just keep going and don’t look down too much. It’s like walking a tightrope, you just have to fix your eye on your destination and don’t worry too much. One of the things I find hardest is beginnings so I never begin at the beginning. I think beginnings can give you a lot of vertigo actually, nerves, and it’s really hard sometimes to know at which point you enter the story. So I wouldn’t worry too much about that, I just think launch off and don’t read back too much. Because I think there’s a great deal of confidence to be found in word count. Even if you end up chucking half of it out, have 20,000 words under your belt, it makes you feel like you’re flying.
You’re not on actually on Twitter yourself. How important is social media for authors, do you think?
I’m not against it, per se, but I simply haven’t got the time at the moment. And I think you only have a certain amount of words in you, like petrol in a tank, and I need to save it at the moment, for my work. I can see that a lot of people like it, it’s just not for me, really.
Do you write longhand or straight on to a screen?
I do both actually, I take a lot of notes longhand in notebooks and usually when I write the book, I type it on a laptop.
Does the amount of research vary from book to book?
Yeah, all books have hugely varying requirements, some need a lot more research than others. I think the research you do is a huge amount more than you really need to. It’s a ballast, you need it to give you confidence, as a springboard. I think that you should always throw out 90% of your research anyway because the worst kind of novel is one where you can see it weighted down with research. So you have to use research wisely. And the main enemy to good art at the moment is a good broadband connection. Actually, with the laptop I write on, I asked the guys in the Apple shop to disable the internet and they thought I was bonkers!
Generally how long does it take you to write a book from first draft to delivering it to your editor?
Books are like babies in a way, they’re all completely different and they all have different personalities and require different methods of care. But usually it takes me between three and four years, something like that.
How many drafts?
Oh God, loads, twenty, twenty-five – many, many, many. I’m a big redrafter. There are some writers who plan really meticulously before they put pen to paper, I heard William Boyd speak about this and he plans it all out, absolutely chapter by chapter and I would guess if you do that method you don’t redraft much but mine’s a bit more… I suppose organic is a polite word for it – maybe chaotic is a more realistic word! The first draft you write blind, you just start wherever, and you piece it together as you go along and it feels more like excavation than creation, in a way. And then when you have the first draft I look at it the way a sculptor looks at a ball of clay, or a block of marble. And an awful lot will be chucked, it’s just a different part of the process once you’ve got to the end.
At what stage would you give it to someone to read and do you have first readers, apart from your agent and editor?
I do, well my husband is my first reader always and he would see probably the fifth or sixth draft. And then I’ll rewrite half of that and show it to my agent and rewrite again and show it to my editor. I would never show the same draft to two people – I have a couple of friends who’ll read it for me as well – because someone’s initial reading of a manuscript is so important. I don’t tell anyone, not even my husband, anything about what I’m working on because you want someone’s initial reading to be as it would someone picking it up in a bookshop. And unless you’ve read the review, you know nothing about the book, really.
Do you pay attention to reviews?
I don’t read my reviews at all, actually. Not so much because I’m frightened of what they’ll say. My husband reads them and he’ll tell me it’s a good one or a medium one, or a bad one and if it’s a bad one he tells me who wrote it! I did read them for my first novel, actually, and I regretted it afterwards, even though it’s nice to read the nice ones, it feels like a huge validation. But I think the last thing you need is to have you explained to yourself; you don’t need to read that. I think it goes back to what I was saying about the tightrope, it’s distracting. You’ve got to write the story that you want to write, you’ve got to concern yourself with the things that interest you and I think the minute you hear someone saying ‘she’s very this,’ or ‘her images are this’, you can’t delete that in your head, you’ll hear it in your head when you sit down to write. What you need to do is write unconsciously for yourself, you’ve got to make the story the way you want it, not the way you think someone else might, or second guessing what someone else expects of you. So that’s why I don’t read them.