Maggie O’Farrell on writing, awards – and the inspiration behind her latest novel

Maggie O'Farrell

Spent today at Emerald Street’s inaugural literary festival, over in glamorous South Kensington. Interesting choice of venue – the Royal Geographical Society – not too sure of the connection between it and literature, but quite enjoyed my mini-tour of South Ken. afterwards. Went to several of the panel sessions, but the stand-out one, for me, was Anna James’ one-to-one interview with Maggie O’Farrell about Maggie’s new novel ‘This Must be the Place’.

I’m an admirer of her writing, although admit to being a little disappointed by Maggie’s last book, ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’, which started so well but fizzled out with a whimper. Nonetheless, I was interested to find out more about the new novel, as well as Maggie’s views in general on literature, her peers and the writing process. She began the interview by reading the book’s opening chapter – and, I was hooked.

Its story centres around Daniel Sullivan, a New Yorker living in Ireland and married to an incredibly famous actress who, a number of years ago, decided she could live with fame no more and faked her own death so that she could start life all over again. According to Maggie, the seed of this novel was sown by an encounter with, you’ve guessed it, an incredibly famous Hollywood actress in a Soho cafe who was being pursued by paparazzi and over-zealous fans. This encounter got Maggie thinking about how she might behave in those circumstances…and eight years later this novel was born.

Maggie describes writing as being, for her, an organic process which begins with a scenario/character/idea which she works on until the book gathers its own momentum. She writes many drafts (no-one in the world is allowed to see the first one), describing the process as like “walking into a blizzard”, because you don’t know what’s in front of you. As regards preferred locations, Maggie writes where & when she can, saying that having three young children makes you much less precious in your approach – she’s even been known to write in her car, while waiting to pick up her children from school.

Maggie first formed an attachment to books as a child, when a serious illness left her bedridden for around two years. She talks affectionately of ‘The Secret Garden’ and the Moomin series, saying that even back then she would analyse scenes and why they did or didn’t work. As an adult, Maggie continues to read “omnivorously”, citing authors such as Margaret Attwood, William Boyd, Ann Patchett and Alice Munro as influences.

Regarding her own books, Maggie never reads reviews and prefers to write “in a bubble” – in other words, she writes what she genuinely wants to write, rather than trying to second-guess her readers and what they might expect. Interestingly, she is wary of over-reaching books, saying that research can become a minefield and that much of her own ends up being discarded – this surprised me, I must say, although I appreciated the honesty.

As regards awards, Maggie is very modest, saying that while it’s always lovely to win or be nominated, she is aware, from her own experiences of being on judging panels, that the judging process can be very random. Maggie has no time, however, for the ongoing criticism of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, stating that there is no doubt that it is much harder for female authors to get published – and to receive recognition.

An engrossing and informative 90 minutes with an author who deserves every bit of her own, hard-earned recognition.

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