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Interview: Maggie O’Farrell

Interview: Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell talks about her writing process, imposter syndrome and reading short stories to her seventeen-year-old son. Interview by Sophie Haydock

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. How is it working from home during lockdown?

My husband [William Sutcliffe] and I are both writers, so we’re used to writing from home. It's much less of an adjustment for us.

In September you won the £30,000 Women’s Prize for Fiction for Hamnet, your ninth novel. How did it feel?

I thought it was a prank. The celebrations were pretty lowkey [due to Covid-19]. It was on Zoom rather than the huge summer party that normally happens. In a way, I was relieved, as it meant I had a day or two to work out what I wanted to say in the speech. If it’d happened at the party, it would have been pretty desperate as I wouldn’t have prepared anything.

Have you experienced any unexpected repercussions of winning the Women’s Prize?

People come out of the woodwork, which is amazing. I had a card from my singing teacher from when I was eleven. She taught me when I was a child living in Wales. I just got this card out of the blue. That was really astonishing. It’s amazing the reach of the prize, and how people hear about it. I did write back, saying I remembered her lessons.

How does winning a prize in this way impact your writing?

In order to get on with your work, to get back to it, to get back to writing, you have to put the win to one side, in a way. Almost forget about it. It’s the only way. One thing that’s a nice reminder of [the win] is that I received this amazing bronze sculpture. I’ve placed it by my desk. So if ever I’m feeling glum and I’m writing and I think this is all rubbish, I might look at it and think, maybe I’m not always useless. It’s a very nice encouraging thing to have.

You’re an award-winning, best-selling author. Do you still experience imposter syndrome?

Oh, god, yes, all the time. In a sense, it’s useful, you need that. Writing a book happens in a wave pattern. You have this huge incline, where you think, ‘This is great, I can do this, this is a really good idea, this is exciting.’ And then you have a huge crash, which is always followed by a surge of optimism. That ‘up’ part of the wave is followed by a crash where you think, ‘This is absolute rubbish, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written, none of this makes sense.’ But you need that to edit yourself, because you go back over your work, you look at it critically and you think, ‘I don’t need that, and to make this better I can do this.’ You need to create and edit, create and edit. You need to criticise yourself in order to move forward.

You’re famously not on social media of any kind. Does that help you as a writer?

I fiercely ringfence any time I have to write and I just know if I was on Twitter I’d be chatting to my friends. I worry that it would steal a lot of time away from me. It’s not that I am anti-technology, not at all. I’m just wary of it.

What risks do you still feel like you have to take in your writing?

With every book I write I feel I have to try something new… that’s important, to set yourself a new hurdle that you haven’t yet cleared. Everything you write, whether it’s a children’s story or a full novel, you should be stretching yourself and setting yourself a new challenge. And reading other people’s books, you think, ‘My god, how did they do that?’ You wonder if you could try that. You’ve got to keep learning, that’s what keeps our brains elastic.

Your latest book, Where Snow Angels Go, is your first book for children. It tells the story of Sylvie, who ‘s recovering from an illness, and she befriends a snow angel who saved her life. What inspired you to write it.

The story was one I used to tell my children at bedtime or when I was away on book tours. I’d write them instalments and put it in the post. That idea has turned into a long-form picture book, illustrated exquisitely by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini.

Why would you say Snow Angel is a book important for children?

One of the best things ever as a parent is to share picture books with a child, when you’re both really engaged in an imaginary world. There’s nothing like it. It actually feels like magic. With that in mind, I wanted to create a picture book for slightly older children. It’s really important for children to engage with issues that are complicated and difficult, because all fiction, all the narratives we read, are about preparing us for life, building our resilience, teaching us ways to negotiate certain scenarios or characters – in short, how to survive out in the world. Snow Angel is about life being challenging, but it’s also reassuring, it helps them build resilience. I wanted it to be a book that children could be comforted by.

When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?

I spent a lot of time in bed, just reading, that’s all I did. That’s when I realised, perhaps not on a conscious level, that it was what I wanted to do with my life: books and reading. Reading has always satisfied me.

What books most connected with you?

My favourite picture book from my childhood was definitely Where the Wild Things Are and The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I remember those really standing out. I read from one end of my bookcase to the other. I read them again and again. I must have read some of them 15-20 times. I knew them off by heart.

I saw someone last year at a book event and she said to me, I’m so frustrated because my child will read the same book two or three times, I’ve started taking it off their bedside table. I said, ‘No, please, don’t do that, for whatever reason, they need to do that, and that’s OK.’ Re-reading is a very specific skill. It answers a very particular need in us. There must be something in that book that child needs. Let them do it.

What’s the best way to encourage a love of reading in children?

Reading to them is important, as well. I never stopped reading to my children, even when they started reading to themselves. I still read to my 11 year old, actually. My 17-year-old, not so much. Although he had tonsillitis recently and was very ill, and I did read him short stories, which he liked. It can be a wonderful way of introducing a child to a story they aren’t ready to read on their own – perhaps it’s too hard linguistically or contains darker themes.

I would urge people to carry on reading to your child for as long as you can, even if it’s just half an hour on a Sunday. Say, ‘You know what, let’s just sit down and I’ll read to you.’ You can find really good short stories and share it with them – sharing a narrative together is a really amazing way of igniting that passion or keeping it going.

What are you working on now? Is there a new project you've started?

Yes, I have. I’m writing another children’s book and I’m also writing another novel. I’m about a third of a way through a first draft at the moment. I’m loath to talk about things I haven’t finished, because I’m worried that if I do, I won’t write them. It will empty me of the urge to create the story. So I can’t say much. But I can say it is set in the past, which leaves it quite open. It’s got to be internal for the next while, then I’ll be happy to talk about it.

Where Snow Angels Go, written by Maggie O’Farrell and illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, is out now (Walker Books, £14.99)

The deadline for this year's Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, open to writers with a history of publication, is Friday 4 December at 6pm GMT. Click here for T&Cs and here to enter.

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