Maggie O’Farrell

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Local talent

Sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we fail to notice. And then the universe gives us a kick up the backside so we get the message.

A cousin kindly forwarded me a plea for male readers for a radio programme audience (if you go to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, you will notice the male/female ratio for most events, which explains the gender-specific request for the radio show). I had no idea if I could go but I ordered the book anyway. In the end, we were busy that weekend so I never did make it, but I started to read the book…and resurfaced a couple of days later.

Then a few days later, as I was driving home, I passed by The Edinburgh Bookshop. It’s a wonderful shop, tucked away at Holy Corner in Edinburgh (for the non-locals, it’s called that because there is a church on all four of the corners of the intersection of two roads. I know this well because I have to prove it to one member of the family or other each time we are there.) It’s also where the girls used to go to an after hours book club for a few years so we have a particular affection for it. With hindsight, I should have pulled over and stopped to take a picture, but it was late and I was hungry and probably late for picking up from a dance class and there was a car right on my tail, so I kept going despite knowing I should just stop for a minute. The entire window was full of books by one author. The same one whose book I had just read.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell.

Maggie O'Farrell


Maggie O’Farrell was a name I had heard of, I knew she was an author, but that was about it. I couldn’t have named any of her books or told you anything about what type of books she writes. The sad fact is that the same is true of most authors – I haven’t even heard of them, never mind knowing anything about them. And on investigation, it turns out she lives in Edinburgh and she only won the flipping Costa Novel Award (now I was feeling really bad – I didn’t even know that).

I wrote last week about learning from these authors. Let’s look at one of her characters for a minute. Meet Iris.

Iris walks along the street, keys in one hand, coffee in the other.

Right. This is not fair. In one line, I have a picture of Iris. In just one line. I just stopped reading at this point and decided I needed a break. When I had gathered myself again, it got better.

Iris walks along the street, keys in one hand, coffee in the other. The dog is just behind her, claws tick-ticking on the concrete. Ladders of sun drop down through the gaps in the high buildings and the night’s rain is vanishing in patches from the pavement.

So that’s how you do description. I was taking a lot of mental notes by this point. Next page. One scene. Dialogue – so it turns out this is how you do dialogue, and characterisation, and description. All in one page. I think it’s worth including in full. You’ll enjoy this.

Iris sits opposite Alex in a bar in the New Town. She swings a silver shoe off the end of one toe and bites down on an olive. Alex toys with the bracelet on her wrist, rolling it between his fingers. Then he glances at his watch. ‘She’s never usually this late,’ he murmurs. His eyes are hidden behind dark glasses that give Iris back a warped reflection of herself, of the room behind her.

She drops the olive stone, sucked clean, into a dish. She’d forgotten that Alex’s wife, Fran, was joining them. ‘Isn’t she?’ Iris reaches for another olive, presses it between her teeth.

Alex says nothing, shakes a cigarette out of its box, lifts it to his mouth. She licks her fingers, swirls her cocktail around her glass. ‘You know what?’ she says, as he searches for a match. ‘I got an invoice today and next to my name it had “the witch” scribbled on it. In pencil.’


‘Yeah. “The witch” Can you believe that? I can’t remember who it was now.’

He is silent, striking a match against its box raising the flame to his mouth. He takes a long draw on his cigarette before saying, ‘Obviously it was someone who knows you.’

Iris considers her brother for a moment as he sits before her, smoke curling from his mouth. Then she reaches out and drops an olive down the front of his shirt.

I think that scene should be in every ‘how to’ guide to fiction. It tells you more about this brother and sister than you realise until you get to the end of the book and re-read it, and you realise that yes, you did pick it up the first time round. It was all there. The scene stuck in my head all the way through the book so when I got to the end, all I could think was “yup, knew that”. The one thing that really riles me (all right, there is more than one thing) is when something appears at the end of a book in a grand unveiling and I don’t just think, I know that it was not set up properly. It was just dropped in to solve a problem, to get to the ending, to wrap up something that made no sense. There were no clues, no hints, no way that I, the reader, could have worked out how the story was drawn to a close.

In this book, however, I knew what was going to happen because it was the only thing that could happen, because I knew the characters, knew what they were like, knew how they would react. It was an inevitability – as it should be. Twists are great, but you have to be able to say “I should have known that” – because the author laid out the trail – as well as a second trail, the one which you were supposed to follow, thinking you had figured it out, only to find you were deceived all along (cue evil laughter from the author – fooled another one). My batting average for figuring out what the twists are has improved greatly, but (fortunately) there are still enough variations to catch me out. It would be boring otherwise.

Anyway, back to Maggie O’Farrell. In the spirit of obsessiveness, which in my family we know is an inherited trait, I now have two more of her books on my holiday reading list. It reminds me of our holiday ten years ago in Boston (unbelievably, still the era when you couldn’t get any book in the world delivered to you within a few days) when I ordered every book Jodi Picoult had written to be delivered to our hotel. Back then, only one or two of her books were available in the UK and, having read The Pact, I had to read everything else by her. It does mean I have pretty complete collections by my “go to” authors. Maggie O’Farrell has been added to that list.

PS every book I’ve mentioned this week and last comes highly recommended by me. Read any of them, you’ll be glad you did.

PPS you should also have known that this blog was going to be about Maggie O’Farrell because I’ve been telling you it would be for the last two weeks. Just in case you thought I hadn’t laid the trail…

Learning from the masters

Plagiarism is a big deal. Not just if you are the wife of the possible next president of the US. In the last few years, a surprising number of German ministers have been accused of, and in some cases guilty of, plagiarism in their doctoral theses, which turned out not to be quite as much their theses as had been supposed. And students’ papers can be electronically checked for possible plagiarism. You can even check your own papers for possible missing attributions which could be taken for plagiarism. Copying someone else’s work or holding it out to be your own remains a big deal of the negative kind.

But of course we all learn from, and imitate, others all the time. We are even encouraged to do so. At work, we learn the processes that have been found to work. We then apply them and are paid for doing so. We don’t claim, of course, to have invented the process. Perhaps to have improved it, but we never expect to credited with its origination. And we might be encouraged to read books by business leaders where, for the price of the book, they offer to share their insights with us, what made them worthy of a book deal, and often they suggest that we would do well to follow their example.

When it comes to writing fiction, the one thing you hear all the time is how important it is to read – a lot and widely. Osmosis can work. Unlike in a “normal” job, you don’t – at least not in the same way – have other people around you to point you in the right direction, take you to one side when you do something silly, share their experience, and pay you at the end of the month whether you get it right or not.

Instead, we have hundreds (there are thousands, of course, but that’s daunting) of extremely talented writers out there, many of them still writing today. And through their books we can get an idea of how they approach their work.

The masters

Take structure. Anthony Horowitz spend longer working on the structure of Moriarty than on the writing of the book (although that sounds wrong somehow, as both are part of the overall process). Sarah Waters did something ridiculously clever in Fingersmith, so much so that I played with doing something similar. Then the realisation hit me that she is Sarah Waters and I am me and maybe I should try something a little more straightforward for now. As well as the structure of that book, her mastery of detail is always stunning. Gone Girl must also have been meticulously planned out for it to work. And Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller uses an approach which I am finding incredibly helpful at the moment – I have it on the floor beside me, ready to pick up when the thought comes to me “how did she do that bit?” Does it mean I’m copying her? I couldn’t if I wanted to. But learn from her approach? Absolutely.

And how about writing style? Every single time I read something by Stephen King, I think, “that’s how it’s done.” And the same goes for Jodi Picoult, Maggie O’Farrell (next week’s blog), Douglas Kennedy… the list goes on. Each has a style of writing that is very different from the others, and each works – for them and for the reader.

I find it helpful to ask myself sometimes, how would so and so approach this, how would they write this scene? It’s still my words and it’s never going to be how one of them would really write it, but I find just thinking about the question helps me to find an approach which is better than what I might otherwise have done. In this way, I can learn from the masters just as apprentices in other walks of life have learned from their masters over centuries – they just experience it a lot more directly. When I see what some writers can say in a paragraph (sometimes a line) that I need five pages for, I just remember that I can get out the red pen later. But I can see how it can be done (and probably should be done – brevity is not easy). And at least I can sometimes see when what I’ve done is not right (sometimes while I’m writing it!). Without the treasure of existing literature, it would be a nightmare.

So I have my Kindle loaded up with books for the next few weeks. Have Kindle, will travel and read at the same time. The great thing is that I get to read some fantastic books while learning my trade. That has to be worth something.

Starting to say yes – but not to everything

I’m sorry. I did it. I started writing lists of what I “needed” to do during my sabbatical. A few goals, I told myself, just write down a few goals. Then it morphed into all the things that have been in the back of my mind for years that suddenly burst forth and overwhelmed me before I could start to push them back to where they had been lying happily dormant for long enough that another year won’t hurt them.

Because writing a novel is not enough. I also needed to learn a language from scratch, publish a book of photos (that I haven’t even taken yet), run [insert random number] ultramarathons, grow a vegetable garden, deal with my abysmal Dutch because I always quite liked the language, learn to play a new instrument. And that was just one list. Then Camille said she was surprised I didn’t want to learn to fly a plane. Fortunately for everyone when I Googled that, I discovered the Edinburgh flying school recently closed. Which was sad because a school friend learned to fly there many years ago and took me up in a plane a few times. I won’t say any more about what he let me do with the plane when we got up there but I still have a smile on my face when I think about it. The invincibility of youth.

I’ve calmed down a little with my lists now, but my theory is still that I can learn French (enough to get by on) while doing housework – ironing, hoovering – no, wait, not while hoovering – emptying the dishwasher, hanging up clothes, watering the plants. So that stays on the list, because maybe it gets us to Paris next year. And a photography book might or might not happen but I can make sure that I always have a camera on me, even it’s just the one on my phone. So I haven’t scratched everything off the list yet, but the ultramarathons have gone, replaced by doing random running events that I see cropping up that sound fun. So I’m doing a 10k at the end of the month in Berlin because I’m there and they close one of the main roads in the evening at dusk so we can run up and down it. And I’ve never run a 10k race before so thought I might as well.

I am finding that it is becoming easier to say yes to some things that would normally just not have happened.

Like disappearing in October with LoLo to see Carlos Acosta (“the best male dancer of his generation” is how she always describes him – you have to imagine the indignation in her voice when she says it to someone who, unbelievably in her eyes, has never heard of him before). He’s dancing in London at the end of a farewell tour and we had great fun choosing our seats in the Royal Albert Hall (there were only a very few left so we examined the viewing angles of each) and then seeing how much we could shave off the price of a hotel room in London for the night. We got it down to £30 for us both (and no, it’s not a flea-infested dump). The highlight was when we discovered that our railcard expired the week after we go so we don’t have to buy another one to get cheaper tickets.

The big trip we have now planned in did involve a potential if not flea-infested then cockroach-infested apartment. We thought the price seemed quite good and were amazed at the number of people who had stayed there after all the reviews had pointed the problem out. So we aren’t staying there. But we are going to New York, hopefully with a performance of at least the New York City Ballet thrown in, plus whatever other dance is being performed there.

So the list is being culled but the possibilities are starting to feel closer to being real now.


And this is the current state of upstairs, with mind maps, character sketches and plot outlines lying all over the place (I’m quite liking it to be honest). Just don’t ask about the target number of books I plan on reading in the next twelve months. But I think I’d better now get on with the Maggie O’Farrell book I’m in the middle of – more on that in another blog.