Maggie O’Farrell tells Sue Leonard that children have made her writing tougher and better. “Having children gives you a great emotional connection”
Instructions for a Heatwave
Tinder Press, €20.50;Kindle, €13.05
NINE years ago, when I first met Maggie O’Farrell, she’d just given birth to her first child, a son, and was vaguely bothered by baby brain.
Riding high, she’d published three novels, winning substantial awards for two of them. But she was wondering how motherhood might affect her future writing.
In the intervening years, she’s written three books, and in 2010 won the prestigious Costa Novel Award. Add to that, a move to Edinburgh, a spell of secondary infertility, a successful IVF treatment, and the addition of two daughters to her family, and it’s clear she’s not been idle.
So how have children impacted on the creative process?
“Having children affects everything, without exception,” she says. “And they particularly affect your writing. I don’t hold with the Cyril Connolly view that the pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art; I think the opposite is true.
“I think my children have made my writing tougher and better. Having children gives you a great emotional connection, and also connects you to other people who have children.
“Anything that expands your experience can only make you better.”
Being a mum has focused her brain, too.
“There’s less time to brood and think and faff. I think that makes your writing better.”
And, if her new novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, is anything to go by, she’s absolutely right! Because it’s a quite wonderful novel. A mesmerising look at the dynamics within a fractured family, it is at once enthralling, page turning, and atmospheric.
It’s London, in the heatwave of 1976. One morning Robert Riordan tells his wife Greta he’s off for the newspaper, and he doesn’t come back. His children gather, trying to work out what might have happened, and a secret starts to emerge. There’s a wonderful sense of dissonance, and of changing alliances.
Meanwhile, each of the siblings have their own dark issues to deal with. Michael Francis feels stuck in life. A frustrated schoolteacher, he blames his wife for trapping him, yet he now fears he’ll lose her. Monica’s life is blighted by the spiteful resentment of her stepdaughters, and in New York, Aoife is terrified her inadequacies will come to light.
The story moves the family to Connemara, to Mannin Bay, and Omey Island, where the magic ambience works its redemptive power. There are no easy answers, but each of the three finds, at least, a way forwards. It’s the kind of book you just don’t want to finish. Where did Maggie get the idea?
“It was at the time that volcano — Eyjafjallajökull — exploded,” she says. “We were living in London, and people were behaving in a really extraordinary way. Normally sane people were ranting in the streets about how they couldn’t get a flight to somewhere, and people were panic buying. You’d hear stories about people commandeering taxis to drive them across continents. It was extraordinary. And, I thought, so fascinating, the effect a natural disaster can have on human behaviour. It reminded me of the heatwave of 1976.”
Maggie was four back then, and had moved from her birthplace, Northern Ireland, to South Wales.
“It was one of the areas that has been badly hit,” she says. “I remember the stand pipes and whole water bans. That time is deeply embedded in my psyche. There is a cliché about the sun never setting in childhood, and that was the reality for us. I remember sun-filled days that never ended, and that sense of freedom from being outside.
“I never meant to write Instructions for a Heatwave,” she says. “I was working on a historical book at the time, but this arguing family, basically, wouldn’t shut up! And I thought the heatwave would be a perfect setting for them, because people do such peculiar things in the heat. So I concentrated on what the family were arguing about. By that stage, the other book had just gone! I think often, a book chooses you, rather than you choose to write it.”
In the novel, the family are gobsmacked when Robert disappears; he’s always been utterly steady, loyal, and reliable.
“I’ve always been really fascinated by stories of people who just walk out of their lives. It’s such an extraordinary thing to do, and it’s surprisingly common. I’ve always had the vague idea that I could do it.” She laughs. “Though, obviously, when I had children it was no longer something I could ever, feasibly, do.”
Each book has challenged O’Farrell, in a new way. “For this one, I wanted to write a polyphonic novel, because I’d never done that before. I wanted to have lots of voices and viewpoints dipping in and out of the same paragraph and page. Another challenge was to have an Irish family, but not to overwrite the Irishness of it. I find Paddywhackery extremely painful!”
Always aware of her Irish roots, Maggie spent her childhood summers in Connemara, Kerry, and Donegal. The family, with three girls, would drive around in a little red car. Back in Wales, she says, she was aware of being different. Aware too, that there was anti-Irish feeling.
The novel examines this, and also details the difficult dynamic for ’70s women, trying to claim their rights as an intellectual, whilst being pulled in towards the demands of motherhood. The youngest sister, Aoife, has larger demons. She’s never learnt to read, but has kept this defect a secret.
“While I was writing the novel, my son was diagnosed with dyslexia,” she says. “As a parent, it is nothing short of heartbreaking to witness the huge struggle by people affected by the condition. I read as much as I possibly could, in order to understand it, trying to find the best way to help him. And I wondered what would happen to you if you had this condition before it was recognised, and these books written.”
Maggie is married to the novelist William Sutcliffe. They both write from home. How does that work? “We’re used to it now,” she says. “Mostly, being with a writer is good. There’s a huge amount you don’t have to explain. The other person just understands. And it’s very useful having an in-house editor at all times. Mind you, my study is directly above his, and we do have arguments about the level of his music.”
How does she cope, juggling writing with her young children? “It’s a great balance having children and writing as well,” she says. “I always think one is a holiday from the other. But it is a huge juggling act, and things are put on hold.
Cleaning the house is, very much, put on hold. Rose McCauley was right when she said, ‘A house unkempt cannot be so distressing as a life unlived.’ I take comfort in that when the laundry is mounting up.”
Currently at the planning stages for her next novel, Maggie says its hard letting the characters from the last one go.
“It’s like having a group of friends who suddenly don’t want to talk to you anymore.
You need the novel to fade away, and to be alone for a while before you’re ready to being in the new one. There’s a sense of relief, but that relief is tempered with grief.
“And with every book there’s a sense of frustration at the end. You always feel it’s not quite the book you wanted it to be. But that dissatisfaction is useful. You want to put it right in the next book, and put into practice what you learned from the last one. This wanting to push yourself is what keeps you going.”
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