Maggie O’Farrell interviewed by Rose Alana Frith
Maggie O’Farrell visited Shakespeare and Company in February 2014 to present Instructions for a Heatwave, a novel full of complex familial dynamics, personal struggles and the heatwave of her early childhood. As I sat across from her that evening, at a table housing an enormous bouquet of flowers, she spoke openly and perceptively on reading, writing and the creative process. Soon the milling crowds and music were entirely forgotten. I was in her blue-eyed gaze. With the publication of her new novel This Must Be The Place it felt fitting to revisit the interview, which was originally published in Parlons Magazine.
Has your writing enabled you to better understand your life?
God, what a question! I don’t know, I think life is sort of immune to understanding in many ways and that’s what makes it interesting. I think there are always things that happen to you and you don’t know why they’ve happened. I don’t believe in any structure of belief that says that things happen for a reason. I think life is random and can be kind and can be cruel and can be kind.
I don’t know about writing really. I think writing fiction is probably an impulse to wrestle with things that you don’t understand, but I don’t know whether you come to any resolutions. I think you can probably recast it and redraft it, perhaps in a way that’s manageable to you, but it still means that your own life is as messy and unpredictable as everybody else’s.
A sense of place, belonging and not belonging… a sort of otherness, is present in many of your novels. Why do you think this is?
Well, I think probably because I was born in one country and then grew up in two others. I think it does give you a life-long sense of…. Well when people say ‘where are you from?’, instead of giving them a one-word answer I usually give them a paragraph because the truth is I don’t really know. I don’t feel at home in any of them particularly. I think you always feel a slight outsider, but in a way it’s useful as a writer because I think a writer has to be a reader first and they also have to be an observer. You’ve got to be able to see people from the outside and see how others might see them. So it doesn’t bother me, I often think it’s nice. I’m quite drawn to people who have a definite place, a definite tie to a country. I think it must be nice, but I don’t have that and it’s just the way it is, but I think it means that you can fit in anywhere. In somewhere like London, for example, anyone is welcome and you can just be who you want to be. So, it’s easier to be in big, urban city centres.
Do you write poetry? Have any of your books ever started in a shorter form?
I did write poetry actually. I used to want to be a poet and went to workshops in my early twenties, while I was at university, taught by Jo Shapcott and then after university I went to ones by Michael Donaghy the Irish-American poet. So I did (write poetry)… it was incredible, they were both brilliant. I wasn’t very good I don’t think and the weird thing was that as soon as I was given, well actually… one of my boyfriend’s mothers was throwing out an old Mac, one of the really old, solid ones and I said ‘Can I have it?’. As soon as I got that I started writing what became ‘After You’d Gone’ later and I never really wrote poetry again. It was a very good training ground for fiction, not to denigrate poetry obviously as it is a genre in its own right, but it teaches you to really economise… each word has to really pull its weight and what you say is as important as what you don’t say. I miss it in a way; the poetry workshop is a very interesting forum with lots of different personalities and people coming up with different things.
I don’t think any of my novels have ever started as something smaller. The only thing that did happen was that one of the characters in my previous book ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ did appear as a character of a short story that I wrote. I’m not very good at short stories though, I think (they’re) a very specific skill that I don’t have, but I did write a short story and I found that she sort of wouldn’t go away. She kept sort of… her presence was still very much there and it was a little bit like a visitor when you think they’re coming for lunch but actually they stay for a whole year. I think maybe you get that in this shop! So I just felt like her story hadn’t been told and there was a lot more there, so she made another appearance. She appeared again in the novel.
Do you think that it’s possible to create a truly unique character, or will they always be a complete amalgam of people you’ve known or met?
I think fiction is a sort of palimpsest of different things, things that you make up and things that you perhaps use from other people’s lives, things that you read. I don’t know- it’s impossible to tell. I think they’re all unique though. I wouldn’t like to think that somebody is derivative. That’s why I would never write autobiographically because I would find it not only limiting but I think I would find it quite boring because I have to live my life and my fiction feels like an alternative life, or an alternative to life. It’s this other existence, which I enjoy, I like having the two; I like leading a double life! I imagine it would be very confining creating a wholly autobiographical character.
Do you have any advice for an aspiring writer?
What I wish someone had told me when I was starting out is that you mustn’t worry about beginnings. You don’t have to write a story consecutively, as it will appear. I find beginnings really hard and it’s the thing I find myself writing and rewriting the most and you don’t have to start there. You could start one paragraph before the end, you can start in the middle, you can start one third of the way through; it doesn’t matter and you don’t even have to know where it is. You just need to write, you just need to get words down on paper. Even if you end up throwing most of them out, there’s a great comfort to be had in word count. The empty page is very vertigo inducing, everybody gets the chills looking at it. So just write. I also think ring fencing some time everyday to do it is a very good practice to get into, especially turning off any broadband connection. I think that’s the biggest threat to art at the moment- seeing what’s on your Twitter account or your eBay auctions it’s all distracting you. So turn it off and just sit down and see what happens and don’t worry if nothing comes, because there’s always the next day.
Finally, I was wondering if you have any favourite poetry or writers that inspire you creatively?
All kinds of things actually, I read quite widely… I’d say I mainly read fiction and poetry. I try to read as much as I can. I think all writers are readers and you have to read. You can read as a reader and you can read as a writer and there’s lots of different ways. So I think rereading is a huge part of being a writer. Michael Donaghy who taught me said ‘there’s no such thing as writer’s block, you just have to go back to the masters’. So if you ever find yourself stuck and floundering, just turn to somebody who you think writes well and it’s a bit like a well, you can draw water from it and you can carry on.