In three separate interviews, one video, two text, Maggie O'Farrell talks about The Hand That First Held Mine, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, how she became a writer and the major influences on her writing style.
A Conversation with Maggie O'Farrell about
The Hand That First Held Mine
What made you want to write this book?
A few years ago, I attended an exhibition of John Deakin's photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Many of them were portraits of people in Soho in the 1950s: artists, writers, actors, musicians. Soho is an area of London that is famous for many things but I hadn't known that, for a short time after the Second World War, it had been the centre of an artistic movement. The bohemian, underground world which thrived there so briefly and which was captured so vividly by Deakin fascinated me. I began to conceive a story about a girl, Lexie, who arrives there from a very conventional home and makes a life for herself as a journalist.
There are two stories in the novel, aren't there?
The other story is set in the present day and is about Elina, a young Finnish painter, who has just had her first child. With Elina, I was interested in writing about new motherhood, those very first few weeks with a newborn the shock and the rawness and the emotion and the exhaustion of it. It's something that's been done a great deal in non-fiction but I haven't read much about it in fiction. Much of the novel is concerned with people whose lives change in an instant; a decision or a chance meeting or a journey occurs and suddenly your life veers off on a new course. Having your first child is one of those times. As soon as they take their first breath, life as you've known it is gone and a new existence begins.
Why did you decide to divide the novel into two time frames?
I liked the idea of these two women, living in the same city, fifty years apart. Lexie and Elina have no inkling of each other's existence but they hear each other's echoes through time. And, as it turns out, they are linked in other ways in ways neither of them could ever have expected.
As well as motherhood and the unexpectedness of life, there's a great deal about love in the book as well, isn't there?
Love in many forms powers the book: familial, platonic and also romantic. Lexie has many different men in her life. There's Felix, the feckless yet famous TV news reporter and Robert, the rather more serious biographer. But the great love of her life is Innes Kent, the man she follows to London, who takes her under his wing and gives her her first job as a journalist.
Elina's relationship with her boyfriend Ted is challenged by the arrival of their baby. Ted begins to recall things from his own infancy and these things don't seem to fit. I was interested in the way having children makes you remember and reasses your own childhood, in micro detail: things I'd never thought about or remembered before would suddenly rear their head. And this made me wonder what it would be like if the memories that resurfaced were of places and people you didn't recognise, if your own life suddenly seemed strange to you?
Did you have a do a lot of research for this book?
The 1950s and 1960s are not that distant in time and the latter in particular is very well documented in art, film, photography and literature. I read history books but I also made sure to submerge myself in novels of the period. You get wonderful insights into the way people spoke then; it was quite different from the way English is spoken in London now. The cadences and vocabulary have completely changed. So I read Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Forster. Novels also give you tiny details you didn't even know you needed how a telephone worked in a house of bedsits, for example. Where one bought peacock blue stockings in 1957.
You have to be careful with research, though. There's a terrible temptation, once you've done all this collecting of interesting details, to shoehorn in as much of it as you can. You can sometimes find yourself writing a sentence along the lines of She picked up the telephone, which was made of Bakelite, a substance first developed in 1907 by a Belgian chemist At which point you have to stop and try to forget everything you know about early plastic manufacture. Most research you have to throw out. But you still need to do it, to give yourself confidence and scaffolding.
London as a city has a strong presence in the book was this deliberate?
I felt all the way through as though London is the third main character in the novel, along with Lexie and Elina. Most of the novel was written while I was living away from London so I suppose I was recreating a city with which I have had a very long relationship (a rather on-off one, if I'm honest).
To what degree does your own life play into your fiction?
I don't write autobiographically. Fiction is for me an escape, an alternative existence so I wouldn't want to recreate my life on the page. There are elements of my life that filter into my books but they are usually recast and redrawn and reimagined to such a degree as to be unrecognisable to me or anyone else. Lexie and Elina both arrive in London as adults, as I did, and Lexie becomes a journalist, as I did. The scenes about motherhood I couldn't, of course, have written without having been a mother myself. The rest is made up.
An Interview with Maggie O'Farrell
Was your childhood ambition always to be a writer? If not, what inspired you to start writing?
It was. Ive no idea where the impulse sprang from but I cant remember life without it.
How long have you been writing?
I have a very clear memory of struggling with a story when I was about four or five. I asked my mother if she would write it for me and her reply made a huge impression on me. She said, But if I wrote it it would be my story, not yours. It was a very astute answer, I think, as it spurred me to try harder. Ive kept a diary since I was about nine and wrote stories during my teens. At university and in my early twenties I attended poetry classes, where I was taught by Jo Shapcott and then Michael Donaghy. These had a huge effect on my writing, forcing me to economise, to make each word pull its weight. I was 24 when I started writing what would eventually become my first novel, After Youd Gone.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I love the solitude and the secrecy of it - as well as the escapism.
Which writers do you admire?
Dead ones: Charlotte Bronte, RL Stevenson, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Burgess, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Molly Keane, James Hogg, Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf.
Alive ones: Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, JM Coetzee, Michele Roberts, Ali Smith, Kate Atkinson, David Mitchell, Colum McCann, Peter Carey, Jeanette Winterson, William Boyd.
Which authors have influenced your writing the most and why?
Thats a hard question. There are too many of them. The simplest answer would be, initially, Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Albert Camus. I read them in my teens; your skin is at its thinnest then and you are at your most porous. What you read then will affect you for the rest of your life and I fell for Jane Eyre and The Yellow Wallpaper and The Outsider: they changed the way I looked at the world and my concept of what fiction could do.
More recently, Ive been entranced by Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Angela Carter. If I like a book I might read it several times and with each read you find something different. There are books I will study. Ive been poring over Mrs Dalloway in the last few months, trying to unpick the prose and the structure, in an attempt to work out how Woolf does it. Its almost impossible, as its so brilliantly and tightly written.
What was the last good book you read?
Ive just finished Margaret Atwoods The Penelopiad, her interpretation of the Odysseus myth. I loved it as it always bothered me that Penelope seemed so uncomplaining and patient in the face of her husbands extended absence and persistant infidelity.
To what extent has your life experience influenced your writing?
I dont use my life in my novels, or not directly. I would never write autobiographically as I tend to write as an alternative to my life, not a repetition or imitation of it. But inevitably there are elements of it that come into my books, in different forms. I think all fiction is a patchwork of things youve made up, things youve borrowed or heard or read somewhere, and things youve translated from life.
Do you always know how your books will end before you start writing?
No, not at all and thats part of the pleasure. I have a quote by Picasso beside my desk: If you know exactly what you are going to do, what is the point of doing it? I couldnt imagine anything worse than planning every last detail of a book and then spending the next two or three years working through that plan. I enjoy the way your ideas for a book mutate and alter as you go along. I start sometimes at the beginning, sometimes in the middle often without any idea how it will end. And if I do begin with an image for the ending in mind usually by the time I get to the end its all changed.
What inspired your new novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox?
It is a novel Ive wanted to write for a long time. I first had the idea of a woman who is incarcerated in an asylum for a lifetime fifteen years ago. I tried to write it then, as my first novel, but it didnt work and I ended up abandoning it to write After Youd Gone instead. This was in the mid nineties, after Thatchers Care in the Community Act, when psychiatric hospitals were being closed down and patients turfed out. There were a lot of stories flying around at that time of people, particularly women, like Esme who had been put away for reasons of immorality and left to rot. A friend told me about his grandmothers cousin, who had just died in an asylum, having been put there in her early twenties for eloping with a legal clerk.
The idea never went away and I gradually amassed more and more stories and examples of girls who had been committed in the early Twentieth century for little more that being disobedient or incalcitrant. When you start to dig a little deeper, into case notes and medical reports, the findings are terrifying.
Ive always been interested in the idea of what happens to the same type of woman uncompromising, unconventional, refusing to fit into the domestic role society has set out for her at different times in history. Centuries ago, she might have been condemned as a witch but as recently as sixty years ago she might have been deemed insane and committed to an asylum.
How is your new novel different from the previous ones?
It feels very different to me, in lots of way. Its partly historical as most of the book takes place in 1930s Edinburgh and colonial India. I think its tighter than the others: there are only three main characters, whereas the others have tended to be more wide-ranging. I did a great deal more research for it, on psychiatric practices and institutions, on life and society in the 1930s.
Video and text interview about The Hand That First Held Mine 2010; Interview about The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox 2007.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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