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Maggie O'Farrell talks about Instructions for a Heatwave


Maggie O'Farrell was our guest author in October 2013 to chat about her novel Instructions for a Heatwave, how she combines her writing with being a mother, her creative process and much more.

This was a return visit for Maggie to MN book club. Her first was in 2011 to discuss The Hand That First Held Mine.


Instructions for a Heatwave

Q. spottybra: I miss summer already. This has to be the best new book I have read in a long time. Am only about half way through though. Aoife not being diagnosed and helped despite being so bright made me cry, although to be fair I have recently gone through a similar experience with a 14-year-old student who has slipped through the net and hid it very well, so it really touched me. Can't wait to finish it and I care enough about the characters to wonder when the hell is Monica going to leave Peter? Why doesn't she want a baby, although I do know, it's there in the text what Aoife 'did' to their mother, but there has to be another reason surely?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I'm very pleased you're enjoying the book. I miss summer for most of the year (and, living in Scotland, sometimes all year). That's interesting about your 14-year-old student. I think dyslexics become adept at concealment and coping strategies. It's heartbreaking to witness. I hope your student is getting the help and reassurance he or she needs now?

As to Monica leaving Peter and her attitude to babies, I really shouldn't say: you'll find it all there in the book if you read to the end.

Q. slev: Finished my copy and if I'm honest, I struggled a bit. I wanted to know what happened (always the benefit of a plot with an unanswered mystery) so kept reading from that perspective, but I just couldn't bring myself to like the characters. I really just wanted to give them all a good shake!

So my question for Maggie: how did you expect people to react to your characters? Did you intend them to be likeable or do you think it's more about having characters who inspire a reaction, positive or otherwise?

"Above all, I wanted to make the Riordans realistic and human and recognisable. To be that they had to be flawed and, at times, difficult, because aren't we all?"

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I'm sorry you were disappointed. I suppose all I can say is that you tend to write the kind of books you would like to read. Or I do. I don't look for likeability in fictional characters; I look for it in life, as we all do, in our friends, but I don't seek it in fiction. I lose interest in novels that paint people as either good or bad.

I want characters in novels to offer me complexity, insight, conundrums, understanding, frustration, shock. Above all, I wanted to make the Riordans realistic and human and recognisable. To be that they had to be flawed and, at times, difficult, because aren't we all?

Q. DuchessofMalfi: First of all I wanted to say how much I enjoyed the novel. I found it an interesting examination of how fragile relationships are and how everything can turn on a lie and its discovery. Do you think Gretta and Robert's relationship would survive, now that everyone knows their secret? I really wanted to know what happened to his first wife, and wanted closure with his brother's story. Trying not to plot-spoil!

Aoife was my favourite character, and I was willing her to tell the truth and not destroy her relationship. Heaved a huge sigh of relief when she did. And what on earth was Monica thinking of marrying Peter? There just didn't seem to be anything going for them at all.

And who did tell Joe about the abortion? Did I miss that? I wondered whether it was Gretta who put two and two together.

A. Maggie O'Farrell: Thanks so much for your lovely words about the book. I'm so pleased you enjoyed it.

Gretta and Robert: I always imagined them just carrying on as before. I think they are of a generation that didn't believe in discussing and dissecting everything. I expect they would have said nothing, swept it all under the carpet and picked up their lives where they left off. What do you think?

There are a lot of unanswered questions in the book (what happened to Robert's first wife, much of the brother's story are all examples of this). I wanted the book to reflect life and I find there are always so many things you never get to the bottom of, so many things you never quite solve.

I didn't want to tie everything up neatly and tick every box. It would have felt disingenuous. I also find that I get more from books that don't give all the answers: they live longer in your head because you are wondering and theorising about this person or that scenario, rather than just closing the books covers and thinking, that's that.

As for who told Joe, I always imagined he worked it out for himself, after seeing Aoife flee from Hughie's birthday party.

Instructions for a Heatwave coverQ. Paloolah: Really enjoyed the book. I'm intrigued by the title - presumably it refers to the snippets of the drought bill that introduce the chapters, and the expectations of people to behave in particular ways, but could Maggie tell us more about this?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: Yes, it refers most directly to the government bill passed in 1976 to cope with the drought. I liked the idea that the Riordans are thrown into chaos because of the heatwave and structures put in place by the government are useless and ineffectual for what they are experiencing. The language of the bill is so formal and stern and reserved, in contrast to what is happening in domestic situations around the country.

If the book shows anything, it shows that there are no instructions. All instructions are useless: you have to find your own way.

Q. dreamygirl: I was interested in Monica and Michael Francis' contrasting views of their mother's character, how Monica was desperate for her to become 'large' again whereas the whole thing was such an embarrassment to Michael Francis.

Contrary to some people's feelings I felt sorry for him and Claire, that they were both living with disappointment, a life they hadn't planned for (obviously of their own making but she seemed to think it was all his fault) and struggling to make the best of it. Some people have been offended by the OU comments, but I think at the time it was held in a lower regard than nowadays, particularly by those from academic backgrounds.

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I'm actually horrified that anyone would ascribe Michael Francis' comments on the OU to me. I think the OU is a wonderful institution and I couldn't be more supportive of its work. It never occurred to me that anyone would be offended by the argument between Michael Francis and Claire, but perhaps I was being naive. Someone bore down on me recently in a signing queue with a very severe expression and demanded to know what I had against the OU. I only ever intended what Michael Francis says about the OU to show what a gulf has opened up between him and Claire.

I'm going to quote someone on this thread because I couldn't have put it better myself: 'Oh yes, the OU comments are out of order but presumably that's because the husband is a twat and they are designed to give us the heads up that he is?"

Q. defineme: I found I was most moved by the character Gretta... the clinging on to her culture and desperate attempts at manipulating her children. The hypocritical living in sin is actually remarkably similar to a situation that was recently uncovered in my extended family. Do your sisters ever wonder if elements of the sisters in your novels are based on them?

Do you remember the heatwave (I can remember people taking about it and I'm 40) and I too want to know why you chose to start on St Swithin's Day, just like the novel One Day?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I'm glad you found Gretta moving. I enjoyed writing about her immensely. I was always happy when I switched on my laptop and realised I had a Gretta scene ahead of me. And how fascinating that you had a similar situation in your extended family. 

My sisters would tear strips off me if I ever wrote about them - and rightly so. I wouldn't ever write about someone close to me. It would be wrong in many ways. I had the odd experience a few years ago of reading a novel by someone who used to work in the same office as me (can't say who) and realising that a very minor character was based on me aged about 24 or 25. It didn't portray anything particularly negative but it was very disconcerting all the same. It made me even more determined to tread with care when creating fiction.

As for the heatwave, yes, I do remember it. I was four years old and we had moved from Ireland to South Wales, which was one of the areas very badly hit. I recall it as a time of great excitement and tension: there was no water coming out of the taps and we had to go to a standpipe in the street to collect our daily allowance.

Q. Clawdy: I loved the book,and became very involved in the lives of the characters, especially Monica. I also enjoyed reliving the incredible heatwave of 1976 - no-one who lived through it will forget it! My question is about the swarms of redbacked aphids - in the North West it was ladybirds which covered gateposts and pavements.

A. Maggie O'Farrell: You're right, of course, there were swarms of ladybirds. I remember picking hundreds of them off our hedge and collecting them in matchboxes.

There were aphid swarms as well in the 1976 heatwave and the reason I chose to write about them instead is based on slightly obsessive compulsive issues over words.

I hate the look of the word 'ladybird'. It's the cluster of 'dyb': can't abide it. Also, it would have been translated in the States as 'ladybug', which is so much worse. I can barely bring myself to type it. Whereas 'aphid': what a beautiful word.

Q. EmmaLove82: Probably a stupid question, but I'm reading a lot about the cat. Is there any significance to the cat or purely a vehicle/scapegoat through which Monica's feelings can be aired?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: The cat is the one character I've lifted from life: when I wrote those scenes, my cat Malachy had just died, and he was a rather unusual rescue cat.

I wrote him in because I wanted to show how Monica is deceiving everyone around her and most of all herself. I was interested in the kind of person who can persuade herself that she feels one way when, in reality, she feels the opposite.

The cat is a symbol of death and also of culpability. Monica is convinced she loathes him but of course she doesn't; she is forced to be there when he is put to sleep. She doesn't want to be responsible for all this but she is. The scene doesn't just cover the cat's death; all her reluctant emotions for the cat are really for the baby. Hope that makes sense.

Q. SunshinePanda: I have been busy reading not just this novel but rereading Maggie's back catalogue over the past few weeks. Maggie, you are good with secrets. My favourite book ever I think is The Hand That First Held Mine. As with Instructions for a Heatwave it is fascinating how a single decision has such repercussions and deeply buried impact on others. When writing did you start with this idea of deception or with a character (thinking really of Aoife)?

"I think secrets are always going to exert a pull over novelists. We all have them, whether we're prepared to admit it or not."

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I think secrets are always going to exert a pull over novelists. We all have them, whether we're prepared to admit it or not.

It's actually pretty hard to identify the starting point of a novel. You often have characters or concerns or scenes or conversations swirling around in your head and just one catalyst can bring them into focus. I'd been wanting to write something about the relationships between grown-up siblings and how they can alter over time (and also stay the same) and someone happened to remark to me that the number of people who disappear rises sharply during heatwaves. I could suddenly see a man walking away from his house and these grown-up siblings being called back to the house where they grew up. It seemed too tempting a situation to ignore.

Q. Feathered: This reminded me, in terms of oppressive heat, of The Go-Between by LP Hartley - I just wondered if you read that as part of your research? Do you think you will write about these characters again? I finished the book wanting to know more.

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I have read The Go-Between, probably twice, but I didn't read it in connection with this book. I should have done, now you mention it. I did re-read Alice in Wonderland, which starts with a very hot day. The heat is the reason Alice falls asleep, which of course leads to the adventure.

I don't know if I will go back to the Riordans. I've never returned to a character before, but you never know.

Q. Theimpossiblegirl: Gretta reminds me of my husband's Irish grandmother, who I believe never married his grandfather when they ran away to England from Ireland in the 1940s, but no one else seemed to realise, so I've kept quiet.

Do you base your characters on real people? They seem incredibly alive to me.

A. Maggie O'Farrell: Fascinating about your DH's grandmother. I wonder why they never tied the knot? There must be some murky reason behind that...

I don't generally use real people. I'm not sure how that would work. I think all fiction is a patchwork of things you borrow, things you lift from real life and others you simply make up. I did meet a woman at a knitting stall in Connemara a few years ago who told me her life story within two minutes of our meeting.

She had been in London in the 1950s and worked at a Lyon's Corner House, just as Gretta does. There is a fair bit of her in Gretta. I bought a hat off her. It's rather itchy so I don't wear it much. But, really, it was the least I could do.

Q. Jenijena: I enjoyed Instructions for a Heatwave and am intrigued. What came first: the ideas for the characters, or the story of the missing father? The latter seemed almost incidental to the (very well written and enjoyable) story of the children and wife.

A. Maggie O'Farrell: When I started the book, I had the choice of writing about the siblings or about the father and his reasons for disappearance. It was a deliberate decision to focus the novel on the relationships between the grown-up siblings.

It seemed to me that Robert/Ronan is the kind of man who wouldn't explain himself even when he returns. I don't even think Gretta would expect him to. They are the kind of people who would just brush it off, never speak of it and carry on as before. Meanwhile, all that remains unsaid still seethes between them. I wanted the book to reflect this.

I think we forget that the urge to get everything out in the open is a relatively modern one: a few generations ago, the done thing was to not mention the unsayable. To keep it hidden. To hope it goes away.


Maggie's other novels

Q. Plus3: I love After You'd Gone, and made everyone I know read it. The end - only one other person agreed with me - I feel that Alice is coming out of her coma, moving towards life. Nearly everybody else thought she died. Please tell me that I am right! It is such a beautiful book.

A. Maggie O'Farrell: Thank you for saying you like After You'd Gone. I'm so pleased you enjoyed it.

The ending: I get a lot of questions about this. I once had a letter from a man who wrote to tell me I had ruined his honeymoon. His wife started it on the plane, spent the next few days crying, so he read it and then they argued for the rest of the holiday over whether she died or not.

I like ambiguous endings (see the post above). I don't enjoy books that tie everything up too definitively so I did make the end of AYG deliberately ambiguous. It's open to interpretation. Nobody's wrong (as I wrote back to the honeymoon man). But to my mind, she absolutely lives. She's rising back to the surface, she's returning to the world.

Q. edukation: I recently finished The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I thought was absolutely brilliant - what happened at the end was so frustrating but totally understandable. Did you see Esme as a mentally ill person or simply someone whose experiences led her to behave in the way she did? And in general, do you find it hard to be upbeat in your day-to-day life when you are writing about distressing events and inhabiting distressed characters' minds?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I never saw Esme as having anything wrong with her at all. She was an uninhibited person who just happened to be born into a family and a time that didn't approve of her. During my research for the book, I met so many women like Esme who had been robbed of their liberty and their lives for no good reason whatsoever. I wanted to represent their plight and the gross injustice dealt to them as accurately as possible, so all the case histories mentioned in the novel are true and drawn from actual documents of the time. There was a girl locked up in Colney Hatch in London at the age of 16 for trying on her mother's clothes.

Am I upbeat? Not sure I am. I'd have to ask my husband but he's disappeared upstairs. I do feel very involved in my characters' lives and dilemmas but it feels very private and internalised, somehow, by necessity. I never tell anyone what I'm working on, not even my husband, so I don't discuss it as I go along.


Combining motherhood and writing

Q. FaddyPeony: I always want to ask successful women writers about their experience. Do you think that there is still a tendency amongst critics to think 'meh, a book about children/families... how domestic'. Or has that landscape changed? And do you care, particularly?

"The family is far from a 'small' subject: think of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, novels vast in ambition, scope and depth. In the right hands, books that have the tightest of focus on one household, one marriage, one person can address the whole spectrum of human experience."

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I think there is undoubtedly a tendency to categorise books about families as 'domestic novels'. But I refute this categorisation as it carries the implication that these are somehow small novels, dealing with minor human concerns.

The family is far from a 'small' subject: think of Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, novels vast in ambition, scope and depth. In the right hands, books that have the tightest of focus on one household, one marriage, one person can address the whole spectrum of human experience. In the bare bones of its plot, Hamlet could be seen as a domestic drama: man kills his brother, shacks up with the wife, son suffers depression at his inability to avenge his dad. Does anyone call it 'meh'? No.

Q. Phaedra11: Whenever I've read Maggie's more recent books, I've remembered an interview I read from when she was pregnant with her first child. She said she was worried about 'the pram in the hall' syndrome and whether having a child would affect the time and commitment she could give to her writing. I would be really interested to hear what Maggie thinks about combining writing and parenthood now.

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I still loathe that Cyril Connolly quote. I think it's something that will always be slung at women writers. But the more books I write and the more children I have, the more I know it to be total rubbish. Having children solidifies your connection with the world and widens your experience and those things can only ever be good for your writing. There is also the sense of children as editors. I don't mean that my kids are made to go through my manuscripts with a red pen but that having increased time pressure ensures that only the good things make it to the page. I firmly believe this.

So much of what you do as a writer takes place away from your desk. I'm not saying that it's easy to write novels while you have three young children. It isn't. But it's no harder than it is for any mother who also has a job; in many ways, it's easier because I get to be at home with them. I don't have to clock in and out, as many women do.

All books are written against impossible odds; the odds just change. If you want to write, you will find the time, even if it means staying up until dawn.

Q. ShowOfBloodyStumps: Can you tell me how and when you find the time to write with a sickly four-year-old and a teething baby? I'm trying to finish my first (possibly last) novel at the moment and the only time I have free is when the sickly six year old (seriously germs, you've had a warm welcome now bugger off) and teething two year old are in bed and somehow after a whole day of child wrangling, the lure of a piece of shortbread and an Earl Grey is much stronger than the typewriter. Really, to write well I need utter solitude.

Please tell me that farming the two year old off to grandparents/preschool for an afternoon or two is perfectly legitimate when I plan to spend my time writing instead of tackling the laundry. If you say it's true I can tell my husband/parents/guilty conscience it's fine because Maggie said so.

You really are one of my favourite writers (I think I was all fangirly earlier in the thread) and I am always so thrilled to see you have a new book out. You do succinct psychologically accurate drawing of women my age very well.

A. Maggie O'Farrell: Finding the time to write is not easy. But you will. Starting is often the hardest part. I think if tiredness and the lure of tea threaten, then you might need to say to yourself that you will just sit at your desk for half an hour. Sometimes ringfencing off some time is all that is required to get going. I often say I'll do half an hour and then suddenly it's 2am. Also, remind yourself that words on the page are not the only sign of 'writing'. Often what you need is to think uninterrupted, to smooth out some knotty problem with the book. Time isn't the only problem, as you'll know. It's often more a question of headspace and quiet.

As for time with grandparents, bring it on. They are happy, the baby's happy, you're happy. It's all good.



Q. TillyBookClub: I'd like to repeat two questions that we asked you before, but would love you to answer again for the benefit of new bookclubbers. Which childhood book most inspired you? What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I loved the Moomin books by Tove Jansson, also The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland. I used to want to be Pippi Longstocking. You couldn't ask for more in a fictional female role model. Forget the whole princess culture: give your daughters Pippi to read and they will grow up independent, questioning and strong

The best advice I ever got was: keep going. I would also say not to worry too much about beginnings. Beginnings are hard. They are still the part I have to rewrite and rework the most. Just launch into your story at whatever point you like. You can go back and fix the rest later. There is great comfort to be had in word count.

Q. Hormonal Housewife: Which authors inspired you and what book are you reading at the moment?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: Authors that inspired me include Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, William Boyd, Michele Roberts, Alice Munro, Amy Bloom, the Brontes, Trollope, James Hogg, Albert Camus, Robert Browning, Anthony Burgess...the list goes on.

I've just finished re-reading Anna Karenina (for about the fourth time, I think - I try to read it at least once a decade) and am about to start Alice Munro's latest collection.

Q. alicethecactus: I read The Hand that First Held Mine (which was lovely but heartbreaking) and I notice that you've set Instructions for a Heatwave in a similar area. What is it about that part of North London for you?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: North London? Well, I lived there for longer than I've lived anywhere. Fifteen years, or thereabouts. I live in Edinburgh now but still spend a lot of time there. Writing about it sometimes feels like a way of being there, even when I'm not. If that makes any sense.

Q. decaffwithcream: You mentioned before the webchat that you had a teething baby and sickly four-year-old - in light of this I should be hesitant to ask this question, but I would love to know if you are working on another book?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: Yes, I have started one. I'm about 35,000 words in (although I don't often use my word count function as it puts me off). I'm not a superstitious person, generally, but I am superstitious about discussing a book I haven't finished. I always feel that talking about it will somehow drain away the urge to write it. Apologies if that sound cagey.

I'm enjoying the writing, so far, and I have my playlist organised, which is always a sign that things are moving along. I went to talk to an auction house the other day as research, which was fascinating.

Q. nevergoogle: I'd like to know which of your novels is your favourite?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I don't have a favourite - I never could. They all mean different things to me and all represent very different stages of my life.

Actually, scratch that: my favourite of my books is always the one I haven't yet started. It's still perfect and flawless in my head.

Q. silverdragonfly: Is writing a pleasure for you or has it become just a job? For me, its a guilty pleasure, an escape from day-to-day life into the world of my characters. Has that changed for you or do you still love it?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: It is and always has been a keen pleasure. I wouldn't do it if it wasn't. It feels so far from a job I never tell people that is what I do for my living (I usually make something up). It feels, as you say, like an escape or an alternative to my other life. I wouldn't have one without the other.

Q. cherrytomato40: Now that you have children, would you ever write a children's book?

A. Maggie O'Farrell: I'm not sure. I think it's a very particular skill that I probably don't have. I did write a story for one of my daughters, but it might be a bit odd and scary for general publication. 


Last updated: over 3 years ago