Maggie O'Farrell: Teachers would say 'Are your family in the IRA?'

The Coleraine born author of This Must Be The Place doesn’t get the ‘tortured writer’ thing


‘When my middle daughter was tiny,” says author Maggie O’Farrell, “I went into a cafe in Soho with her in a sling to have a cup of tea. And I realised that sitting opposite me, as close as you are now, was an incredibly famous actress. So famous that I really don’t know what she was doing there. She wasn’t even British.”

When O’Farrell went to the cafe bathroom, she found herself walking a few steps behind the actress. “It was only then,” she says, “as I walked in her slipstream, that I got an idea of what it must be like to be her, and how horrific it was.”

Everybody in the cafe was pointing at the actress and taking photos. “There were paparazzi outside banging on the windows and shouting at her,” says O’Farrell. “I just thought, ‘What a miserable existence. If that was me I would fake my own death and run away.’ And when I left the cafe and passed the photographers I thought, ‘That’s a good idea for a novel.’”

The eventual result of this close encounter is O’Farrell’s brilliant new novel This Must Be The Place, the story of the relationship between a reclusive actress, Claudette, who has walked away from her celebrity life and made a home in the wilds of Donegal, and Daniel, an Irish-American academic.

But O’Farrell didn’t write that novel straight away. Instead, she wrote her sixth novel Instructions for a Heatwave, a brilliant book about an Irish family in London whose father walks out of the house during the 1976 heatwave and never comes home.

Interview on the radio

And then another chance moment provided the inspiration for Daniel’s half of Claudette’s story. “One morning it was raining and I was driving the kids to school and there was an interview on the radio from the 1980s with a [young] woman talking,” says O’Farrell. “And at the end of it the announcer said – rather bluntly, I thought – that, shortly after the interview, the woman had died.”

Farrell found herself wondering what it would be like to hear that item if the woman had been a friend of yours “and this was how you’d found out [she was dead]. So I dropped the kids at school and by the time you got home I had the first chapter in my head.” She also realised that Daniel and the reclusive actress “were the two halves of a story and it was going to be a novel about their marriage and how it was threatened by the past”.

Despite being born in Coleraine in 1972, having an Irish passport and spending all her childhood summers over here, O’Farrell, whose family moved to Britain in 1974, didn’t write a book with an Irish element until Instructions for a Heatwave.

“I don’t know why I didn’t write about it for [so long],” she says. “For such a small country Ireland has such an enormous literary reputation, and rightly so. So I suppose I felt a bit wary.”

Did she not feel entitled to write about Ireland? “Yes, exactly,” she says. Though she’s a more comfortable now, as This Must Be The Place shows.

“I was on a book tour in Australia once,” she says. “And I noticed on my schedule that I [was meant to be taking] part in a panel of Irish writers. I said, ‘I’m not sure if you really want me on this panel because I was born there but I didn’t really grow up there.’ And they said ‘But you’re the most Irish person we have! The others have, like, one Irish grandparent. We really need you to be on this panel!” So if they can . . .”

When O’Farrell’s parents arrived there in the 1970s, It wasn’t an easy time to be Irish in Britain. “They had a pretty hard time, actually,” says O’Farrell. Things hadn’t improved much when O’Farrell was at school in the 1980s. “We used to get endless Irish jokes, even from teachers. If I had to spell my name at school teachers would say things like, ‘Oh, are your family in the IRA?’ Teachers would say this to a 12-year-old kid in front of the whole class.”

Bomb warning remark

The comments didn’t stop when she grew up. When her father, who is from Dublin, phoned her at the office in London where she was working in the early 1990s, one of her colleagues said, “Oh, I thought he was going to give us a two-minute warning to get out of the building”. “It was gobsmacking,” she says now.

“They thought it was hilarious to say, ‘Ha ha, your dad’s a terrorist’. It wasn’t funny at all.” Such remarks are less common today, though not, she thinks, for a positive reason. “I wish I could say that it’s because people are less racist but I think it’s just that there are new immigrants who are getting it now.”

She was very sick as a child, spending about a year in hospital when she was eight after contracting encephalitis. During her illness, she read and read and read. “When I couldn’t physically hold a book I listened to audio books over and over again. In a way that was when I began to think, ‘I like this scene because of this. This works well’. I was starting to analyse things. I often reread books now and I think that’s when I started doing it.”

Literary editor

O’Farrell went on to read English at Cambridge and subsequently worked as a journalist. She was assistant literary editor of the Independent, and was working there when she began writing her first novel After You’d Gone. It went on to win a Betty Trask Award in 2001. Her fifth novel The Hand That First Held Mine won the 2010 Costa Award for best novel.

Married to fellow novelist William Sutcliffe with whom she has three children (“He’s my first reader of everything. It’s very good to be able to run [my work] by him”), she has always avoided autobiographical elements in her fiction. “But sometimes the thing that you’re living through will percolate through your writing in a way.” One chapter of This Must Be the Place is told from the point of view of Daniel’s son Niall, who has severe eczema. O’Farrell’s daughter also has the painful skin condition.

“I wanted to write a character with eczema who was a fully realised, rounded nuanced human being,” she says. Her daughter read a popular children’s book featuring a character with eczema who was, she says, “always presented as a weakling. He can’t do this or that. My daughter read that and said, ‘Why do they think this is funny? It’s not funny’. And I said, ‘Damn right, it’s not funny’. It’s so frustrating for kids who have those things to be represented like that because [in real life] they’re the essence of stoicism and bravery.”

In the book, a frustrated Daniel takes a pen and draws a rash over the unrealistically peachy skin of the children in posters in the eczema clinic. It was something O’Farrell had fantasised about doing herself. “It was a good way of venting,” she says. She hated the posters. “I thought, ‘They’re saying our children aren’t aesthetically pleasing enough to be in these adverts. If I had a red pen right now I’d draw in all the eczema’. And I would have done it, but my penmanship is so bad it would have looked like random graffiti. But in my novel I could play out my fantasies.”

O’Farrell has always felt the urge to write. “They call it graphomania, don’t they?” she says. She’s kept a diary since she was very young. “I feel peculiar if I haven’t written for a day. I don’t feel right. I’m not really sure who I write the diary for. I don’t read it back very often. It’s more a sense of solidifying or capturing my day and my life.”

Creative urge

She’s currently working on a non-fiction book, though “I never really talk about stuff I haven’t written yet because I think talking about it might take away the creative urge to write it”. That creative urge still drives her and as she says, she “doesn’t get the ‘tortured writer thing’. . . There are some weeks and days that are better than others but I love doing it. I feel enormously privileged to be able to spend my time doing it”.

She once went to a book launch where a man got up and declared, “Writing is one of the hardest jobs in the world but the hardest job of all is done by my wife, who lives with a writer”. O’Farrell wasn’t impressed by what she describes as this “toxic nonsense, so self-aggrandising and repulsive”. She laughs. “I mean, it’s not so bad! You get to sit in your room in your pyjamas making up stories. There’s a lot worse in life.”

Four quick questions for Maggie O’Farrell

What’s the first book you ever loved?
Probably The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read it lots of times. Her books are kind of like the Brontes for kids.
A talent you wish you had?
I’d love to be able to still play the piano. Maybe I should give it a try.
What book or film do you think people should know about?
An Acre of Barren Ground (below) by Jeremy Gavron. It’s about a particular street in London called Brick Lane. It’s a fantastic book.
Is there an item of clothing that means something special to you?
I have an Aran cardigan which my granny knitted for my mum when she was pregnant with me. I work in it and it’s very, very warm. It’s aged really well.

This Must Be The Place is published by Tinder Press (£13.99)

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