Maggie O’Farrell in Oxford
May 25, 2016
A new Maggie O’Farrell novel is always a treat; experiencing her talk about the novel in person is even more rewarding. I recently had the pleasure of attending her event at Blackwell’s Oxford along with fifty or so other bookish fans, where she was in conversation with the equally engaging Sarah Franklin (founder of Oxford’s much-loved Short Stories Aloud).
Maggie started the evening with a reading, having chosen the first chapter of THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (‘as Julie Andrews said, the beginning is always a very good place to start’). After engaging us in the world of Daniel (a linguistics professor) and Claudette (his reclusive, ex-movie-star wife) Maggie then noted that in fact she chose to structure her book in a way that Julie might have disapproved of – namely, in the middle. The structure of the novel spreads out like a ‘spider’s web’ from the centre of the story, taking in multiple narrators and perspectives as it does so. When Maggie finished writing her previous smash hit success, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, the strict structure of that novel meant she wanted to ‘rip off the corset’ as it were for this new endeavour.
Sarah then rightly pointed out that there are many ‘places’ (aptly) in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, and questioned whether Maggie had in fact visited them all – something which she was able to confirm, letting us know that the Bolivian salt desert described near the end of the novel was possibly one of the more amazing locations in her novels.
A question of Sarah’s I found extremely pertinent related to the character of Daniel. Sarah herself was a huge fan of his charming ways, but other readers have been less sympathetic – did Maggie find him as maddening as they do? (My interest was mainly piqued by this as I am in the latter category.) Maggie said she was sympathetic to why people might feel this way, but she herself is too fond of him to see it. Although he may have acted poorly in the past, Daniel is redeemed by his unerring paternal love for his children – a redemptive power that Maggie was interested in exploring.
Anyone who has read the novel will know that unusually, there is a pictorial auction catalogue section within the novel itself. While Maggie isn’t the type of person who understands the fetishisation of a famous person’s belongings, she relayed to us a great anecdote about how her mind was almost changed about this when presented with a letter written by Charlotte Brontë. From the gasps, I think many people in the audience would have felt the same about this particular incident. However, Maggie’s experience of seeing an incredibly famous actress once hounded in a London café put her off that kind of behaviour for life – and coincidentally, originally formed the idea for the recluse who became Claudette.
Questions from the audience included those asking about her writing routine (being a working mum means a non-existent one); the inspiration of her children (incredible – she suggested the famous Cyril Connolly quote is completely wrong – I almost got up and started cheering); what she loves reading herself (Atwood, Munro, Pearlman, Boyd… also Greek myths…).
All in all seeing Maggie in action was a wonderful experience, especially to learn about a novel that has now stormed into the Sunday Times bestseller list. If you ever get the chance to see her speak yourself, I would truly recommend it.