O'Farrell: Books Are Written Against Impossible Odds

British author Maggie O’Farrell has garnered critical acclaim since her first novel debuted in 2000. Her sixth novel Instructions for a Heatwave follows an Irish family living in London after husband and father Robert vanishes, forcing his wife and grown children to confront painful family history and their own rocky relationships. She spoke with us about the new novel, the exchange of creative ideas in a literary household, and books being written against impossible odds.

BUSTLE: What can you tell us about the spark behind your ideas for this book?

MAGGIE O'FARRELL: I’ve always been fascinated by people who walk out of their lives, who just open their front doors and leave: what makes people do that? At a party a few years ago, a retired policeman happened to say to me that the number of people who do this takes a marked upswing during heatwaves. That remark stayed with me and formed the germ for the book.

I was interested in the effect extreme weather can have on human behaviour. I wanted, with this novel, to examine how heat can wear us down, lay us bare, force us deep within ourselves.

I was four at the time of the big 1976 heatwave in Britain and it forms some of my earliest memories. I remember standing on our dried-out lawn and the world seemed a huge, light-filled place. This heatwave occupies an interesting place in Britain’s collective consciousness. If you ask anyone who lived through it what they remember of it, their faces will light up and they will start reminiscing about standpipes and water bans and ladybird swarms.

I liked the idea of putting a somewhat dysfunctional family together, in a small house, in the middle of an oppressive heatwave and seeing what happened.

The characters in this novel always seem to have to voices of their family members in their heads, even while living thousands of miles away and not speaking to anyone else in the family. Do you believe that our families stay with us in this way throughout our lives?

I’d never thought of it like that but it’s true: Those voices do stay with us. I find things that my mother said to me as a child can still return to me now. The family you are born into comes in and out of focus at different times in your life. There are stages—your 20s, perhaps—where you parents seem distant and peripheral. Other times—when you have a baby, for example—they seem to hove into view again. Your family’s perception of you, good or bad, true or false, defines you for life.

Where did you get the idea to make Aoife illiterate? Did you set out wanting to write a modern character that couldn’t read, or was that just part of Aoife’s character?

It was always clear to me that that Aoife, as the youngest of the siblings, required some kind of curse. In folktales, it is always the youngest sibling who carries the jinx, who bears the brunt of the family’s flaws, who takes up the call to adventure and achieves redemption. I didn’t want it to be anything supernatural, just a problem that would force her into life of smoke-screens, of constant camouflage. Around the time I was writing the book, my son was diagnosed as a dyslexic. As a parent, my reaction was to do what I had always done when faced with something I didn’t understand: Get myself to a library. I read every book about the condition that I could find, I studied dyslexia much as I had done for my finals at college.

As a novelist, however, your response is more abstract. It’s always: What if? As I crammed for my non-existent dyslexia exam, I was simultaneously wondering: What if you’d had dyslexia in the time before diagnosis? Before any of these studies were conducted, before any of these books were written? Fiction often comes from the desire to confront unanswerable questions and so my youngest sibling character got her curse. I was writing a novel about a family with disastrous communication—they never stopped talking but didn’t actually manage to tell each other anything important—and, in this context, dyslexia seemed too apt to ignore. The character became Aoife, an undiagnosed dyslexic, stranded in a time of ignorance and condemnation, an adult who can’t read and is committed to pretending to all around her that she can.

The family’s Irish identity means different things to different characters. As an Irish woman also living in London, did you draw on your own sense of identity in fleshing out their relationships with their ancestral home?

I was born in Northern Ireland but my family is from Dublin; I left Ireland when I was a toddler but we would return at every available opportunity because my parents couldn’t go for long without a dose of Ireland. We would spend all our summer vacations in the West of Ireland, which is why I set the final section of the book in Connemara. The place forms the bedrock of my childhood memories. So, yes, I certainly drew on my own experience of being Irish in Britain to write the book, especially in the amount of prejudice the family encounters. I’ve always shied away from writing about my Irish background before, partly because Ireland has produced so many superb writers. I was also wary of the phenomenon of “Eiresatz”: That awful, faux Celtic stuff peddled about the globe. I didn’t want to write the literary equivalent of the Irish pub. But Gretta, the mother in the book, who is from Connemara, was one of those characters that just demanded to be heard, demanded to be written. She appeared in my head one day and wouldn’t go away. I had no choice but to write her story.

There’s been a lot of chatter about the “ideal” number of children for a writer to have to allow them to pursue their art. You’re a writer with multiple children; what do you make of all this?

The notion that there is an “ideal” or correct number of children for a writer to have is nonsense. Everyone is different, every book is different. It’s a meaningless equation: writer + one child equals career. Life and writing don’t work like that. All books are written against impossible odds—full-time jobs, study, sleepless babies, relationship breakdowns. The odds just change throughout your life. I find domestic life with my three kids immensely stimulating, not in the sense that it filters into my fiction but that it offers me an alternative world to that of my work. I firmly believe that too much time at your desk is far more damaging to your writing than not enough. Children are wonderful editors, in that their presence prevents you from following every little whim or blind alley. You have so little time that only the good stuff makes it to the page. I don’t believe that being a writer and a mother is any more or less difficult than having any career and also having children. Anyone who’s juggled a job and a family knows it’s tough. It involves a lot of racing about and stress and compromise. But if, at the end of the day, everyone is in bed, asleep, happy, fed, more or less clean, you’re doing okay.

When your children are older, do you hope they’ll read your work?

What a strange thought. It’s entirely up to them, of course; I wouldn’t mind either way. They all show signs of being very interested in stories so I guess the question will come up at some point.

Your husband is also a writer. What's the dynamic like around literature and exchange of literary ideas in your home?

We don’t have a awful lot of time for the exchange of literary ideas at the moment. Since the baby, our third child, was born last year, things have been even more hectic than before. But my husband remains the biggest influence on my work: he’s always my first reader and the most harsh. He doesn’t pull his punches, which can be hard at times but it’s what you need. When he read an early draft of [ The Vanishing Act of] Esme Lennox , he said, ‘Not bad but you need to rewrite half.’ We had a strained few days after that but, annoyingly, he was right.

If you could recommend one book to Bustle's readers that they might never have heard of, what would it be?

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. It’s being reissued by Virago in the UK this summer; I wrote the introduction because I’m such a fan. It’s an obscure but unique novel about a young artist struggling with marriage and motherhood in inter-war London. It’s shocking, hilarious and addictive, all at the same time.