A Q&A featuring Maggie O’Farrell about her new book Hamnet and more…
I joined to watch this insightful Q&A with Maggie O’Farrell. Her latest book is Hamnet, available now. For those wondering who she is or what Hamnet is about, here is a quick introduction and blurb, before I get onto the event.
Maggie O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times no. 1 bestselling memoir I AM, I AM, I AM, and eight novels: AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, and HAMNET.
She lives in Edinburgh.
Blurb For Hamnet
Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.
Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.
The Main Event
It was interesting to hear that Maggie O’Farrell gets editorial feedback from her husband. So she doesn’t really tell her husband too much about what book she is working on or indeed chat much about a book until it is finished. She went onto talking about how all writing is personal, but decided harsh feedback can be in the best interest to either cut a character or to see if it can be made better.
Why Write Hamnet?
She decided to write Hamnet because she studied Hamlet in Scottish Highers and was intrigued by the symmetry of the play’s name Hamlet and Shakespeare’s son. She was interested in the fact that there is so little known about Shakespeare, but the fact that the play (and in fact one of his most popular and enduring plays), was named after his dead son, so she wanted to bring his son more to the forefront. It sounded like she had an interest in writing this story for quite some time.
In the research, she found most interesting in the gaps as there is a lot of potential to fill them. Research was library based and she discovered that he probably would have walked 4 or 5 days between Stratford and London.
She did some physical research. This included, cultivating her own medicinal garden and making bread as in Tudor time to really get a feel for and experience what that was like for research purposes for her book.
She talked about, with research, you need to know more than you actually put down on the page on the book, so it doesn’t feel like any essay or clunky.
Crafting her voice
How long it took her to craft her voice, she doesn’t feel she has ever completely nailed it, but that keeps her writing.
She found it awhile to pinpoint where in the chronology of Shakespeare where to start to write. It sounds like it took a few attempts, but then she found the pinpoint of where to start the story, the voice came.
Setting and Shakespeare (or not)
The setting is of course Stratford-upon-Avon, which she did travel down to (it really is a very long way from Edinburgh), but it was an effort she made.
For a chapter about an infected flea, Maggie O’Farrell tried to imagine what it was like in Warwickshire and what it was like for the plague to spread through the place and coming into your house. She then researched the trade routes and also how it travelled.
Shakespeare is not mentioned by name in the book because everyone has a sense of him and wanted to ask readers to think about him again and to see another side of him. She reckoned a lot of Shakespeare’s drama happened, not all on stage, but in the time with his son and she didn’t want him to be the focus of the book, when it is about Hamnet.
Routines and Challenges
She tries to do something new with every book and sets herself challenges and creates almost like hurdles to go over.
For writing, she doesn’t really have a routine. She has sometimes a big surge of inspiration that is followed by a bit of a fall, but thinks both is useful to get words on paper and then it can be looked at critically and then writing can be edited.
She wrote a memoir, but not all in chronological order. She wrote diaries, but didn’t look back at them when writing the memoir. There are gaps that she didn’t want to divulge everything or write someone else’s narrative.
What’s Coming Next
Maggie O’Farrel has a children’s book coming out around the autumn. A girl wakes up one night and a snow angel has come into her bedroom. It will be a bit like a modern fairytale.