An encounter with a celebrity that showed the misery of fame inspired Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel, she tells Jonathan de Burca Butler.
Maggie O’Farrell’s accent is hard to place. When I meet her at a hotel bar in Dublin I spend the first couple of minutes trying to figure out where she’s from.
As it turns out, she has spent much of her life doing the exact same thing.
“When I showed my Irish passport at the airport, they said ‘welcome home’ to me,” says O’Farrell, sipping a welcome cup of chamomile tea, “and I thought, ‘that’s nice’.”
The writer’s somewhat unique lilt is explained by the fact that since leaving Ireland aged two, she has moved around the UK on numerous occasions.
This was partly down to her Dublin father, an academic who had teaching roles in various locations including Cardiff and Edinburgh; the city that O’Farrell has now settled in.
She admits, jokingly, that when it comes to giving herself a national identity she is “confused”.
As the title might suggest, many of the characters in the 44-year-old’s latest novel This Must Be The Place seem equally unclear about their place in the world and spend much of the story zipping here, there and everywhere looking for answers but ending up in the middle of nowhere.
The novel centres on Claudette Wells, a world famous actress who one day, decides to leave the glitz and glamour of the movie industry behind her.
When we first meet Claudette she is living in a house that is so remote there are 12 gates between it and the main road, “she has the baby on her back … and she is holding a gun” which she will soon fire into the air to frighten off an unsuspecting bird watcher who in her eyes could well be a paparazzo.
Early on her husband, Daniel, lets us know that “the key to life with Claudette, is knowing that her default setting is overreaction and outrage”.
It doesn’t take long before we find this out for ourselves, and at times Claudette’s battle to keep the world out is taken to worrying extremes.
Interestingly, the idea for O’Farrell’s seventh novel came to her in one of the busiest cities in the world.
“The idea came to me when I was in Soho about seven years ago,” says O’Farrell.
“I was carrying my baby in a sling and I stepped into a cafe just to have a cup of tea. And I sort of felt this strange atmosphere in the room.
"I looked across from me and sitting there was a very famous actress, not English, and she looked miserable.
“In fact, if she hadn’t been who she was I probably would have asked her was she ok.
"Anyway, later on, I ended up walking to the ladies right behind her and it was only when I was walking in her slipstream that I actually got an idea of what it must be like to be that famous, because everyone in the cafe was turning around and taking photos of her and there were paparazzi outside banging on the windows and it was awful really.
“She was heavily pregnant and these people were just hounding her.
“So when I got to the bathroom she was already there and she just had her face pressed up against the mirror and I thought ‘God’.”
That encounter with the misery of fame got O’Farrell to thinking about how, if she found herself in the same situation, she would fake her own death.
The result, is a wonderfully realised novel told by a vast array of characters who wander in and out of the narrative adding and subtracting pieces of the jigsaw that is the complex relationship between Claudette and her husband.
Daniel is a somewhat beatdown American linguist who admits to having an “ever present sense the world is against him”.
It soon transpires that he might have a point.
We find out that his first wife “had been having an affair with a colleague for years”.
He no longer sees his children from that marriage and more often than not we find his need to express his anger tempered by his stronger need not to upset anyone; something that comes from his relationship with his father who never fails to point out his son’s “shortcomings and misjudgements”.
“Originally I conceived the book as a murder story,” says O’Farrell.
“But then I realised I couldn’t see Daniel as a murderer.
“I like him. I mean he’s not without his faults but we’ve all made mistakes, especially in our twenties, we can be a little bit two-faced.
“Most of us can stay on the right side of it. I think his dad has a profound effect on him, both physically and emotionally.”
For O’Farrell writing men is not all that difficult.
In her opinion there is “not that much mystery between the sexes”.
Many of her best friends she says are men and she is “of course married to one”; the writer William Sutcliffe.
Together the couple have three children ranging in ages from four to 13.
The author has said elsewhere that the experience of having children has made her “writing tougher and better” than when she had “all day to daydream and faff.”
She also tells me that it has given her another perspective on what was a seminal moment in her life.
At the age of eight, O’Farrell contracted encephalitis, a virus that swells the brain and leads to paralysis and sometimes death.
“I had to deal with it for the guts of two years,” she recalls.
“I do remember life before it but it did snap it in two if you get me. I missed two years of school and when I went back I was way behind physically.
“The funny thing was though, that because I was provided with a private tutor I was way ahead academically.
“Nobody told me that I was near death but I suppose at that age you kind of work it out for yourself but as a child I think you just deal with it.
"It was horrific for my parents though and it’s only now that I see it from their point of view.”
As a result of the illness, O’Farrell spent much of her time alone and admits that she often retreated into her own world.
It is a world that she thankfully still inhabits.
It is probably just as well she can’t place where she’s from.
This Must Be the Place is published by Tinder Press
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved