Motherhood is a risky business in Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel The Hand that First Held Mine (Headline, April)—a powerful, even seismic event which changes the lives of the two protagonists beyond recognition.
It's the tightly-woven story of two women, separated in time— Lexie, who leaves rural Devon in the mid-1950s for life and love in bohemian London and, in the present day, Elina, an artist, at home with a newborn baby. It transpires that Elina has only just survived the act of giving birth and she is struggling in the fog of new motherhood. Becoming a father for the first time has also deeply affected Elina's partner Ted. Memories of his own childhood start to surface, but, disquietingly, they don't seem to fit with what he thought he knew about his upbringing.
Life as you know it
O'Farrell says she wanted to "write an account of very, very early motherhood, those first few weeks and few months. I've never really read [about] it in fiction before. Especially [with] your first child, there is that sense that as soon as your child takes its first breath, life as you know it is gone, it's over, and this whole other new existence, which is very strange, takes you over. Motherhood is often depicted as this caring, nurturing thing— which it is— but it also has this amazingly tigerish, fierce side."
Although not an autobiographical writer— "I wouldn't want to be an autobiographical writer because you have to live your life, why would you want to write it as well?", she acknowledges her own experience with her son, her first child— particularly his difficult birth—influenced this book. "But Elina isn't me, I think you can use those experiences and transport them." Her second child, a daughter, was born earlier this year, shortly after she finished the final draft.
We meet in the Soho Hotel; fittingly, since much of Lexie's story unfolds against the backdrop of 1950s Soho, a place beautifully evoked and inspired by, as O'Farrell explains, an exhibition of John Deakin's photographs at the National Portrait Gallery: "I was struck by the fact [Soho] was a very recognisable place in the photographs, the late 1950s wasn't very long ago at all, but it seemed so distant and so vanished. That slightly seedy artistic side has all been swept away, it's all gone and Soho is an entirely other place now." She bought lots of postcards, stuck them up in her study and "eventually the whole atmosphere really got under my skin and I was imagining what it would be like to arrive in that Soho from somewhere totally different."
The Hand that First Held Mine is her fifth book. "It wasn't a difficult book to write but it did take me a while to find a voice. I had many, many drafts where it was going to be a ghost story... You'd think with your fifth book you would know how it works but actually you never do. You have to start from scratch every time, reinvent the whole idea. You have these initial ideas, some of which turn out to be solid and some turn out just to be scaffolding which you have to take down."
O'Farrell says she always wanted to be a writer "but I didn't really tell anyone— I never thought it would really happen" but she has certainly put the groundwork in. While at Cambridge, where she read English at New Hall, she attend writing workshops run by Jo Shapcott— "she was a big influence on me" — followed by, when working in London, evening classes at City University, but it was an Arvon course run by Elspeth Barker and Barbara Trapido in late 1996 that really kicked everything off. She had already written about 20,000 words of a novel, which was to become her debut bestseller After You'd Gone, and it was the encouragement from course leaders Elspeth Barker and Barbara Trapido that spurred her on: "It was such an amazing boost. I think if I hadn't gone on that course, I don't know whether I would have given up... I'm a bit of an Arvon evangelist as a result, I tell lots of people to go. I think it's a brilliant institution."
After working on the book "every weekend and every evening" after the day job, at the Independent on Sunday as editorial assistant on the Arts and Books desk, she sent the manuscript to Alexandra Pringle, then an agent at Toby Eady Associates. "She was quite stern with me," O'Farrell recalls, "which was very good. She said 'You've got about five plots, far too many adjectives but if you can sort it out I'll take you on'." When Alexandra Pringle left agenting, her then assistant Victoria Hobbs took over (now at A M Heath) and After You'd Gone was sold to Headline and published in 2000. O'Farrell left the Independent, where she had risen to deputy literary editor, the same year in order to go freelance and have more time for her own writing.
Filling the day
"Having children has a huge effect on your working life, I've always tried to do without childcare as much as I can. It's not so bad when they're babies because they do sleep a lot, so at the moment I work when she has a nap. I literally write, write, write until she wakes up. I can't imagine now what I used to do when I had all day. "Somebody said to me recently 'God, you have to be so disciplined' and I said actually no I don't. I have to be disciplined to do my tax returns or to do the laundry— which I hate— but I don't have to be disciplined to write because that's what I love to do."
- Maggie Shipstead | "I think that as a female writer, if you want to be taken as a serious literary author you do have to be able to write from a man's point of view"
- Sally Gardner | "I don't know what the term ‘young adult' means. I think I write for open minds..."
- Matt Haig | 'I wanted to write a book that captured the spirit of Christmas because one of the saddest things about becoming an adult is that you lose that'
- Samantha Harvey | "I don't wish to write endlessly obscure novels, but I don't want to fashion myself to a market."
- Sean Taylor & Hannah Shaw | "I like my stories to have a bit of fierceness in them, that's down to my taste, but I know it's also something that interests children."