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Biography and Interview

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972, and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She now lives in London with her family. 

Her debut novel, After You’d Gone, was published to international acclaim, and won a Betty Trask Award, while her third, The Distance Between Us, won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award.
Was your childhood ambition always to be a writer?
If not, what inspired you to start writing?

It was. I’ve no idea where the impulse sprang from but I can’t remember life without it.

How long have you been writing?

I have a very clear memory of struggling with a story when I was about four or five. I asked my mother if she would write it for me and her reply made a huge impression on me. She said, ‘But if I wrote it it would be my story, not yours.’ It was a very astute answer, I think, as it spurred me to try harder. I’ve kept a diary since I was about nine and wrote stories during my teens. At university and in my early twenties I attended poetry classes, where I was taught by Jo Shapcott and then Michael Donaghy. These had a huge effect on my writing, forcing me to economise, to make each word pull its weight. I was 24 when I started writing what would eventually become my first novel, After You’d Gone.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

I love the solitude and the secrecy of it - as well as the escapism.  

Which writers do you admire?

 Dead ones: Charlotte Bronte, RL Stevenson, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Burgess, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Molly Keane, James Hogg, Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf.

Alive ones: Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, JM Coetzee, Michele Roberts, Ali Smith, Kate Atkinson, David Mitchell, Colum McCann, Peter Carey, Jeanette Winterson, William Boyd.

Which authors have influenced your writing the most and why?

That’s a hard question. There are too many of them. The simplest answer would be, initially, Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Albert Camus. I read them in my teens; your skin is at its thinnest then and you are at your most porous. What you read then will affect you for the rest of your life and I fell for Jane Eyre and The Yellow Wallpaper and The Outsider: they changed the way I looked at the world and my concept of what fiction could do.

More recently, I’ve been entranced by Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Angela Carter. If I like a book I might read it several times and with each read you find something different. There are books I will study. I’ve been poring over Mrs Dalloway in the last few months, trying to unpick the prose and the structure, in an attempt to work out how Woolf does it. It’s almost impossible, as it’s so brilliantly and tightly written.