About The Author
Born in Northern Ireland, Maggie O'Farrell has lived in all four nations of the United Kingdom and now lives in Edinburgh with her husband, the novelist William Sutcliffe, and their two children. A mystery viral infection during childhood left her bed-ridden for two years, but it was at this time that her love of books was truly kindled.
She worked at the Poetry Society and later became the deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday, before her first novel was published in 2000. She has won a Betty Trask Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Costa Novel Award.
From her very first book, Maggie has made a name for herself writing literary fiction with a popular appeal. She also manages something regrettably quite rare in the British book market of being a female writer with a significant male readership.
The absence of her name in 2003 from Granta magazine's decennial Best Young British Writers was undoubtedly the most controversial omission from the list, but by then she was already an established bestseller, with After You'd Gone, for which she won a Betty Trask Award, and My Lover's Lover.
After winning the Somerset Maugham Award for The Distance Between Us, her next book, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, was cited by many as a favourite in the end-of-year round-ups and cemented her reputation as one of our finest writers on relationships, both family and romantic, and for infusing her books with all the psychological tension of the finest thrillers.
2010 saw the publication of The Hand That First Held Mine, which went on to win the Costa Novel Award. It features the unforgettable Lexie, who leaves behind a sheltered rural upbringing to make her way in the male-dominated world of journalism in 1950s Soho, an era an whose heady atmosphere is evoked with great authenticity. Told alongside this, a present-day couple find themselves struggling after a traumatic birth (much of the detail of which was inspired by Maggie's diaries of giving birth to her daughter), and the two storylines eventually merge in a remarkable way.
Here, Maggie tells us a little about how she went about writing it.
Your book combines two narrative threads, one about Lexie and the 50s arts scene, the other a more domestic present day setting. Did you develop them independently or create the two contemporaneously?
I wrote them pretty much in the order they appear in the book. The book is about two people living in the same city, separated by half a century. It touches on the idea that the recent past is still with us so I couldn't really have written them separately - Lexie and Ted and Elina are, after all, very much entwined by the end. Each section, I found, had its own natural length and if a Lexie-and-Soho part was coming to an end, I began to think about what might be happening with Elina and Ted.
It was the photography of John Deakin that first drew you to the earlier period (and one of his portraits is used on the jacket of your book). How did that start you thinking about writing about the era?
I saw an exhibition of Deakin's street photography years ago at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. They are beautiful works of art, with a mesmerising stillness to them. I returned to the exhibition several times, buying more and more postcards that I pinned up around my study walls. I wasn't sure what - if anything - I would do with them. I just knew I needed them. What struck me was the city behind his subjects was so familiar yet so strange. The bohemian scene of 1950s and 1960s Soho existed for such a short time; all traces of it now have been swept away. I wanted to write somebody into Deakin's portraits, a bit like the process of airbrushing in reverse. I began to wonder what it would have been like to arrive in that Soho from somewhere completely different - a rural, respectable background. And this is how Lexie Sinclair came to be.
How do you go about researching the period detail of 50s Soho?
There is a lot out there about 1950s Soho purely because its artistic output was so significant. Paintings, photographs, journalism, novels, plays. I not only read the historical and social background to Britain in the 1950s, I also immersed myself in 1950s art, design, fashion and, of course, novels. I've always been of the opinion that you can learn anything you want from novels. I needed to pin down the exact cadences of 1950s London speech because people spoke so differently then. So I read and re-read the work of Jean Rhys, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Muriel Spark and they taught me not only how to construct a reasonably convincing 1950s dialogue but also many things I didn't realise I needed to know. Where you kept your plates and pans if you lived in a bedsit, for example, or what colour stockings rebellious girls wore in 1957.
You were a journalist before you became a full-time writer. Do you think you would have preferred to do the job in Lexie's time?
It would have been exciting, certainly, to be on Fleet Street when it was still the epicentre of journalism in Britain. But it would have been hard, to say the least, to be one of the first female journalists in that world. I can't even begin to imagine the glass ceilings those women were up against. For Lexie's Fleet Street career, I spent hours trawling through the newspaper archives, tracing the career trajectories of pioneering journalists such as Mary Stott, Lena Jaeger, Jill Tweedie and Katharine Whitehorn.
Elina and Ted's story opens with Elina recovering from a particularly traumatic birth. Did you draw upon your own experiences in childbirth in writing about that?
To an extent, yes. Elina isn't me and I'm not her, but I did borrow certain medical details from my son's birth for the scenes when Elina remembers what happened to her in hospital. The temporary memory loss she experiences when she's unable to recall the birth is entirely fictional: I could remember it all only too well. But the perfect recall ultimately turned out to be useful, I suppose, as without it I couldn't have written those chapters.
Both Ted and Lexie's lover, Innes, seem to be able to indulge their own feelings more than their partners'. Is the responsibility of motherhood more binding than that of a father?
I'm not sure if I'd agree that Ted and Innes can indulge their feelings more than Elina and Lexie. I think Elina and Lexie both forge their own ways in life and follow their hearts; I don't see either of them as constrained in any way. Innes' marriage is one marred by difficulty, infidelity and unhappiness so I'm not sure it can be compared to his relationship with Lexie or that between Ted and Elina. I don't know about the relative responsibilities of motherhood and fatherhood; all families are so different, after all. In my experience, the father-child relationship has always seemed a slightly looser bond than that between mother and child. But my children are still quite young and that may change in the years to come.
Many of your books feature characters with dark secrets, often relating to the family's past. Do you think it's possible to get under the skin of a character without some exploration of their upbringing?
I don't think of it as upbringing, more as context or bedrock, perhaps. Where you come from and who your family is makes you who you are, whether you like it or not. It's inevitable, for me, that you'd want to give the reader some idea of who your character is and was and why they are the way they are.
Which other writers do you admire most?
Margaret Atwood, William Boyd, Charlotte Bronte, Leo Tolstoy, TS Eliot, Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Molly Keane, Philip Roth, James Hogg.
Can you tell us anything about what you'll be working on next?
I'm rather superstitious about discussing projects I haven't finished. I worry that the act of talking about it will somehow remove the desire to write it so I am insanely secretive about anything I'm working on. I don't even tell my husband. I've found myself in the unusual situation of having started two books and I can't see yet which one will win the race to be next. At the moment, they're both neck and neck and, if I'm honest, it's driving me mad. I wish one would take the lead and then I can put the other one away for a couple of years.
Below is a list of titles by Maggie O'Farrell currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.