Join Maggie O'Farrell to talk about THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, our May Book of the Month, on Wednesday 25th May, 8-9pm

(99 Posts)

May's Book of the Month is a book about motherhood - but in an unusual way. THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE is a beautifully crafted novel that weaves together two lives that are fifty years apart. Lexie lives in 1950s Soho, and is forging a life as a journalist in the bohemian, artistic neighbourhood. Elina is a modern day painter, also living in London, who has just had her first child. Each of their stories echoes the other, and connections keep appearing, leading to a suspense-driven climax. When declaring the book Winner of the 2010 Costa Novel Award, the judges described it as '"A book of grand themes and intimate moments. This gripping novel is the one we'd unreservedly recommend.'

You can read more about the book here.

We're delighted that Maggie will be joining us on Wednesday 25th May, 8-9pm, so don't forget to join us to ask Maggie about all her books, how she writes, her experiences of motherhood, what inspires her... See you then.

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:05:18

Crumblemum

Amazingly written book, great story and captures so beautifully the awe (both positive and negative) motherhood brings. Really is one of the best books I've read for years.

Am trying to think of a question rather than slavish praise so here goes - Maggie, do you ever have to fight the urge for a happy ending - even for the letters in the loft to have been preserved would have been a comfort - or are you always acutely aware it's a work of fiction and it's your duty to reader (and publisher) to add layers of drama (and often sorrow)?

Hi there – thank you so much. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the book.

Re endings: I never have to fight for endings, happy or sad or somewhere between the two. They tend to come of their own accord. A sign that a book is working is when the plot and characters take on a momentum all of their own and events and resolutions start presenting themselves, rather than me having to work them out. I don’t always know how a book is going to end when I begin but, usually (hopefully?), by the time I get there, an end has appeared.

M

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:06:37

QuickLookBusy

Agree with you ShowofHands have just finished it for the second time. I think it is a wonderful book.

I really identified with both Ted and Elina. I had an e-cs and the vagueness Maggie describes really summed up those early weeks or even months perfectly.

My own mother left when I was 4 so the whole thing Ted goes through with the birth of the baby bringing memories to the surface, was very emotional for me to read.

I am so glad I have read this book.

I do wonder how/where Maggie did her research for this book or indeed if she has experienced any of the themes.

Can I just say that I love your username? For some reason it reminds me of my DP …
Elina’s e-c is loosely based on the delivery I had with my son in 2003. It’s not an exact account of what happened to me, of course, but I used the experience to inform the character of Elina. It can be such a shock when you have a traumatic and mismanaged delivery: it certainly took me a long time to recover, both physically and mentally. I couldn’t really talk about it for a long time afterwards but then, a few years later, found I wanted to write about it – but as if it happened to someone else. I don’t often use events from my own life in my novels but this one just wouldn’t go away.

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:10:51

PogueMahone

I think you're brilliant Maggie. <sycophant>

I loved this book, in fact all of your novels. Great female characters (how fabulous is Lexie?), and an uncanny ability to put into words what motherhood feels like. The beautiful description of a thread unspooling as Lexie walks to work away from her son is just perfect. And this being balanced by this same pull from the child's point of view was heartbreaking in this context.

So... are you a mumsnetter? (Please say you're someone like AF)

Hello Pogue (can I call you Pogue?),

THANK YOU. I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds it hard to walk away from their children to work.

I am a mumsnetter actually. A committed one. I lurk and occasionally I join a thread. I'm not AF, however...

The Moomin books are wonderful. Are you at all Scandinavian? Did you make Elina Finnish for a particular reason? or did it just add another dimension to the character's displacement/otherness in the book?

And I'm intrigued by Elina's mother - she was actually her 'real' mother (as opposed to Ted's 'unreal' one) but she was less present than Ted's, and, well, completely rubbish to her daughter. Did you deliberately choose to contrast her with the other mothers in the book?

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:13:42

bluejeans

Maggie, I read that you have lived in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales and i wondered where feels like home? I love that many of your books (I've read them all!) have a Scottish connection, in an understated sort of way. Too many books are set in London! (I'm Scottish by the way!)

Having lived in lots of different places, I feel that they are all home and yet not. It makes you a little bit of an observer wherever you are, which is of course no bad thing if you happen to be a writer. I think of Scotland as my home these days, partly because it is and partly because my family are here. Also, I moved here when I was a teenager and I think your skin is at its thinnest then - you're at your most porous.

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:19:14

scottishmummy

loved the book,dont want spoil so will discuss my jist
the book really got that vagueness of being new mum,the pull of detachment of old self and sudden attachments to a new baby.clash of old life and new life

i liked how lexie grew and emerged into a confident womann through her art . when lexie dies,-the circumstances and description i was upset but couldn't stop reading.really moving

grew to hate margot for the betrayal and not taking care of items she should have.I wasnt shocked at revelation about Ted, more upset how they had handled it

i like maggie style,not so much whodunnits as whydunnits

as an aside, when i read after you'd gone i was convinced alice dies,but when i discussed this with pal she swears no no i got it wrong.....so maggie?

I really wanted to write a novel about those first few weeks of new motherhood - the exhaustion and shock and elation of it all. I hadn't really seen in done much in fiction before. There's an awful lot of non-fiction on the subject but I couldn't believe novelists hadn't been drawn to it before. To me it was irresistable.
I'm sorry you hated Margot. What she did was wrong, of course, but there were extenuating circumstances, wouldn't you say? She herself was a product of bad parenting.
After You'd Gone: I get that question all the time. I wrote the ending and then, at the last minute, I altered it to make it a bit less obvious. But maybe I was a bit strong with the editing because people are always asking me if she died or not. I once got a letter from a man who said I'd ruined his honeymoon because he and his wife argued about whether Alice dies or not. Wasn't sure how to answer. Anyway, nobody is wrong. It's deliberately ambiguous. But to my mind Alice lives. She couldn't not.

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:21:22

QueenoftheWildThings

Can't make it tomorrow, but so loved this book - loved the evocation of 50's Soho: excitement about art and ideas; Lexie escaping her family and making her way as an independent woman through Fleet Street at a time when women couldn' t progress in journalism easily and just the most compelling description of traumatic birth and the following haze that I have seen. I couldnt put it down, and I gave my copy to someone and feel a bit bereft and might have to get another one!
Maggie I once saw you in Reception at the building I work in and I was too shy to tell you how much i loved it, so I'm telling you now!

I can't believe you didn't come and say hello. Next time, you must.

scottishmummy Wed 25-May-11 20:24:06

aha about alice raikes.i passed after you'd gone on and yes we did have diff thoughts. glad she didnt die. i read that book every few years,get something different each time

margot i found i increasingly i couldnt reconcile what she did the carelessness of thought and actions -maybe i read her harshly?

the painting behind the dresser, what was the inspiration for that?

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:26:31

gailforce1

Maggie, following Tilly's questions what inspired you to start writing and how long was it till you got your first book published?

I've always written, ever since I was a child. I can't remember life without that urge. I've kept a diary since I was quite young and I went to writing workshops for years. I wanted to be a poet for a long time but i wasn't very good. I started writing what became my first novel when I was in my early twenties but it took a long time to finish. I went on an Arvon Foundation Course (a brilliant place - would recommend to anyone who wants to get started on something or wants a bit of help with finishing) and via the tutors there I got in touch with the woman who eventually became my agent. Getting published is a long road and you need to develop the skin of a rhinoceros to deal with all those rejection letters. I redrafted the novel several times before the agent agreed to take me on; she sent it out after a year, it was rejected by six publishers; I rewrote it again over the course of another half-year and then it was picked up.

gailforce1 Wed 25-May-11 20:27:29

Do you find the time to read much yourself and who are your favourite authors?

Just flagging up a lot of discussion amongst Mumsnetters about the twist - did you see it as more of a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit? And do you think Margot was at all redeemed by at least bringing him up, even though she never told him that he wasn't hers?

lorelei88 Wed 25-May-11 20:31:45

Maggie, I just had a baby 2 months ago and just finished the book. It was fab. I particularly enjoyed Lexie's article 'the women we become after children' - its perfect - is this something you wrote beforehand and wove in to the plot? it feels very personal. I love it.

ShowOfHands Wed 25-May-11 20:32:48

Hello Maggie. <shy> I love you a little bit and have ummed and aahed about how to make 'gosh I love your books' into a question but I've got there...

Do you imagine whole lives for your characters after the novel ends? Part of the beauty of your writing is that it's a bit haunting. The characters stay with you. And I sometimes find myself wondering as the books catch my eye on the shelf what happened to Elina and Ted for example. If Ted's 'parents' stayed together etc? Do they cease to exist for you at the close of the book or do you have strands of their lives in your mind?

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:32:53

scottishmummy

aha about alice raikes.i passed after you'd gone on and yes we did have diff thoughts. glad she didnt die. i read that book every few years,get something different each time

margot i found i increasingly i couldnt reconcile what she did the carelessness of thought and actions -maybe i read her harshly?

the painting behind the dresser, what was the inspiration for that?

I couldn't really have killed Alice off after all that. The book would have been littered with corpses...
Margot is a tricky one, I admit. I originally conceived her as someone purely evil, a kind of Grimm's fairytale stepmother. In the writing of the novel, though, I found a kind of sympathy for her. She's been so warped by her mother and the desire for children, if thwarted, can make you do all sorts of strange things.
Painting: I was interested while writing the book in the things that outlive us. Those possessions that pass out of our hands after our deaths and go on to have further lives, with other people.

ShowOfHands Wed 25-May-11 20:35:27

I felt ridiculously sorry for Margot. She was created by her mother. I don't think she chose to be that way did she? Poor blooming woman.

I am aware that I'm talking about these characters as if they're real.

Wheelybug Wed 25-May-11 20:36:48

Trying to join in from my phone whilst waiting for dd2 to go to sleep but in case I don't get the chance to join in properl,just to say I loved the book as I have all your books. After you've gone has stayed with me singce I read it when it first came out. Where did your inspiration come from for AY!G? I hope not personal experience.

And do you have anything in the pipeline?

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:36:58

gailforce1

Do you find the time to read much yourself and who are your favourite authors?

It can be hard, as I'm sure you all know, with young children in the house. But I am both lucky and cursed to be an insomniac, so I get a lot of reading done then. Favourite authors.
Dead: the Brontes, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Tolstoy, JG Farrell, Molly Keane, Edith Wharton, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark.
Alive: Margaret Atwood, Michele Roberts, William Boyd, Alice Munro, Peter Carey, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen, David Mitchell.

scottishmummy Wed 25-May-11 20:37:39

i like rummaging in junk shops,there is a poignancy about items that outlive people.a discarded brooch etc wondering who,what loved and held those items. all the shops down grassmarket and candlemaker row

i think your enduring themes is human condition,how we negotiate flaws and decisions made. so i didn't read hand held mine as a whodunnit, a def whydunnit. but if i wanted systematic unpicking and who was it guessing id read another genre

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:40:11

lorelei88

Maggie, I just had a baby 2 months ago and just finished the book. It was fab. I particularly enjoyed Lexie's article 'the women we become after children' - its perfect - is this something you wrote beforehand and wove in to the plot? it feels very personal. I love it.

That particular bit I had a struggle over. It belonged to a much earlier draft, most of which was narrated in the first-person (long story - a disaster that I had to fix, by going through entire manuscript, changing all the 'I's to 'she's and 'me's to 'her's - what a dull fortnight that was) but I couldn't bear to lose that bit. Spent nights awake thinking, how can I save it? Eventually hit upon idea of putting it into Lexie's writing.

I did long to be Lexie, even with the difficulties of working motherhood. I found her so refreshing and un-tethered. Did you unearth a character in any of your research of the period that inspired her? She made me think of Lee Miller...

And was it difficult to edit your Soho artworld research into the plot - must be so tempting to include more Colony Room characters, etc?

lorelei88 Wed 25-May-11 20:43:02

Aha - it definitely has a different tone - Its the part of the book that resonates with me the most - glad you kept it in!

ShowOfHands Wed 25-May-11 20:43:49

Right, will read the rest of the chat later as I do have to interact with my child. My mil's a social worker and Says Things when I leave dd to forage for scraps.

I'm so pleased you're here for a webchat and that you're actually a MNer anyway. You must know how much you're liked by seeing how often you're recommended on here. I'm always foisting your books on friends/family and insisting they read them. grin

Write lots more books immediately.

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:45:33

ShowOfHands

Hello Maggie. <shy> I love you a little bit and have ummed and aahed about how to make 'gosh I love your books' into a question but I've got there...

Do you imagine whole lives for your characters after the novel ends? Part of the beauty of your writing is that it's a bit haunting. The characters stay with you. And I sometimes find myself wondering as the books catch my eye on the shelf what happened to Elina and Ted for example. If Ted's 'parents' stayed together etc? Do they cease to exist for you at the close of the book or do you have strands of their lives in your mind?

I think authors write the kind of books they themselves would like to read. I know that I hate it when all the ends are neatly tied up in the final pages of a novel: I find the story and the characters immediately fade from my mind. So, yes, I like the idea of characters going on to have a whole metalife outside the book. I'm sure that Ted and Elina are going to be fine; Felix and Margot, not so fine.
As to whether they cease to exist - they tend to still live in my mind for a long time but part of the process of starting a new book is saying goodbye to the people from the previous book. (Does this make me sound bonkers? Perhaps. Me and my imaginary friends.) There are some characters who don't want to leave. Esme Lennox really didn't want me to start on Lexie and Elina, for example. She wasn't happy at all about that.

MaggieOFarrell Wed 25-May-11 20:48:17

TillyBookClub

Just flagging up a lot of discussion amongst Mumsnetters about the twist - did you see it as more of a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit? And do you think Margot was at all redeemed by at least bringing him up, even though she never told him that he wasn't hers?

I never really thought of it as a twist, more of a reveal. I knew some people would see the link between the stories straight away and others not. It's there if you want to see it, I suppose. It was something i asked my advisors and editors, while I was writing it: at what point did you realise? But, yes, absolutely a whydunnit.

champagnesupernova Wed 25-May-11 20:49:32

<rushes in late, clattering and trying not to look flustered>

Hello Maggie, loved the book and I love that you're a MNer. grin

Annoyingly I can't say anything too clever as I had made my notes about THTFHM on my Kindle and then it crashed (are you sensing a theme about disorganisation here?!!)

Do you have a Kindle - what do you think of them?

I am going on holiday - which of your books should I download next when it's unfrozen?

I haven't read any others blush but LOVED this one esp Lexie's article as admired above.

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