Book club webchat with Maggie O'Farrell


Maggie O'Farrell joined MN's book club discussion in May 2011 because our chosen book was her novel The Hand that First Held Mine, a beautifully crafted story which weaves together the lives of two women, 50 years apart. 

You chatted to her about The Hand that First Held Mine, asking questions about her characters, themes and writing processes, as well as convincing her to divulge that she's a "committed" Mumsnetter.

Characters | Themes | Inspiration | Writing process and tips | Favourite authors | Other



Letter QQuickLookBusy: I really identified with both Ted and Elina. I had an emergency cesarean and the vagueness Maggie describes really summed up those early weeks. I do wonder how/where Maggie did her research for this book or indeed if she has experienced any of the themes.

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: Elina's emergency cesarean 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. 

Letter QTillyBookClub: 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? 

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: I'm not Scandinavian, more's the pity. I am a total Scandinavia-phile. Love it. Elina is Finnish because, like you say, she needs to be something other than British to emphasis her otherness and also because I went to Finland while working on the book and loved it so much it had to go in.


Letter QTillyBookClub: 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 completely rubbish to her daughter. Did you deliberately choose to contrast her with the other mothers in the book?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: I can't remember if making Elina's mother a bit rubbish was deliberate or not. It just seemed that she was that way - there had to be a reason why Elina had run away and stayed away.

Letter QScottishmummy: I found I couldn't reconcile what Margot did, the carelessness of thought and actions - maybe I'm judging her too harshly?

"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."

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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.



Letter QScottishmummy: The book really captured the vagueness of being a new mum, the detachment from your old self and sudden attachments to a new baby. The clash of your old and new life. I liked how Lexie grew into a confident woman through her art but I grew to hate Margot for her betrayal.

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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 it 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 irresistible.

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. 

Letter QTillyBookClub: 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?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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.


Maggie Book

Letter QTillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?  

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: A hard one because there are so many. The Moomin books, The Secret Garden, and Where the Wild Things Are.

Letter QGailforce1: What inspired you to start writing?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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 20s 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.

Letter QWheelybug: Where did your inspiration come for After You'd Gone? I hope not personal experience. And do you have anything in the pipeline?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: I think the inspiration for all novels is partly personal experience, partly things you make up and partly things you shamelessly borrow from other people. After You'd Gone no exception.
 I'm just over halfway through a new book. It's set in the heatwave of 1976 and is about a London-Irish family (sorry to the MNer who thinks there are too many books set in London - it's also set in Ireland and New York). Halfway through is my least favourite place, though. Too far to go back and still a long way to go...

Writing process and tips

Letter QTillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: Read, read, read. Then read some more. Think about what works in a book and what doesn't - and why. Keep reading, as much as you possibly can, whenever you can. Try to ring-fence off some time every day (even if it's only 20 mins) when no one will disturb you. Unplug the phone, switch off the router, and use this as your writing time. Don't be intimidated by beginnings; start in the middle of a story, or at the end; you can always go back and fill in the gaps later. 

Letter QCrumblemum: 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)?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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. 

Letter QShowOfHands: Part of the beauty of your writing is that it's a bit haunting. The characters stay with you. I sometimes find myself wondering 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?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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 mental life 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. 

Letter Q

Gailforce1: How long was it till you got your first book published?

"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 my novel several times before my agent agreed to take me on."

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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.

Letter Qlorelei88: I just had a baby and just finished the book. It was fab. I particularly enjoyed Lexie's article, The women we become after children - it's perfect - is this something you wrote beforehand and wove in to the plot? It feels very personal.

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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.


Letter Qgailforce1: Do you find the time to read much yourself and who are your favourite authors?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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.

Letter QPogueMahone: I loved this book. Great female characters, 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. So... are you a mumsnetter?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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. 

Letter QScottishmummy: When I read After You'd Gone I was convinced Alice dies, but when I discussed it with a pal she swore I'd got it wrong. Who's right?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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."

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. 

Letter QChampagnesupernova: 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?

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: I don't have one but not because I don't like them. If I commuted, for example, I'd definitely have one. I'm not much of a gadget person. I can see that we'll probably all have them at some point in the future. But for now I'm still wedded to the feel of a book, to paper and ink, when I'm reading (not when I'm writing). It would be hard to give that up.

A book I loved recently was Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. Anyone else read that? And Kathleen Winter's Annabel & Edward St Aubyn's At Last. 

Letter Qscottishmummy: I like rummaging in junk shops down Grassmarket and Candlemaker Row, there is a poignancy about items that outlive people. I think your enduring theme is the human condition, how we negotiate flaws and make decisions, so I didn't read The Hand that First Held Mine as a whodunnit, but a def whydunnit.

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: Spent a lot of my teenage Saturdays moping about the second-hand clothes shops in the Grassmarket. It's still one of my favourite places in the world.

Letter Q

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 have a Scottish connection, in an understated sort of way.

Letter AMaggieOFarrell: 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 is 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.


Letter QTillyBookClub: Maggie, you have been brilliant - thank you very, very much indeed for all your thoughtful and illuminating answers. And hope you'll be on bookclub again, either as MN'er or with the new book. Good luck with the next one, we can't wait to read it. And hope your two are safely fast asleep by now...

MaggieOFarrell: Thank you all very much for having me. My two are asleep, I think. Either that or concocting some terrible, silent project together in their bedroom...




Last updated: 9 months ago