Credo: Novelist Maggie O'Farrell talks critical husbands, Scottish independence and forcing kids to learn


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The Independent Online

All writers have to be readers first When I was eight I got encephalitis and was seriously ill; I spent a year-and-a-half in bed recuperating. I ended up reading what was on my bookshelf from one end to the other, and when I finished, I went back and read them all again: I must have read the Pippi Longstocking books, The Secret Garden and the Moomin books more than 30 times, and when I knew them backwards I was able to make judgements on bits that I liked, areas where I thought the dialogue was good and why – and I still use those skills.

I don’t agree that you should write what you know For me, fiction comes from answering a conundrum. One of my books, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, is about a woman incarcerated in a psychiatric asylum – it represents a shameful chapter in our history, during the 1930s when mostly women were locked away for no reason other than not conforming. I couldn’t understand how that could happen, so writing that book was a way of answering that question for me.

My husband is my harshest critic He’s my first reader; writers need someone to tell you what you’ve done wrong. Though we had a few frosty days once when I showed him an early draft of a book and he told me I should rewrite half of it. It goes both ways, though: he [the novelist William Sutfliffe] once showed me two alternative opening chapters of a novel and said, “Which should I choose?” And I said, “Neither; you’ve got to rewrite it!”

‘Change is the only evidence of life’ It’s a quote from one of my favourite books, Brideshead Revisited. For me, it’s the only indication that we’re still living and breathing. [Since having children] I now travel less, so I have sublimated my restlessness into an urge to change things all the time at home. My husband will go out and by the time he comes back, I’ll have moved around all the furniture.

Extreme weather has a profound effect on our behaviour And that fascinates me; it’s why I based my last book, Instructions for a Heatwave, during the 1976 heatwave [the extreme drought saw temperatures peaking at 35.9C and made it the hottest summer average temperature in the UK since records began]. Heat wears us down and exhausts us in this country. It brings down your guard and forces you to act not so much out of character, but deep within it. There is this amazing statistic about divorce rates rising sharply during heatwaves.

Anyone can belong in London Whoever you are, you can find a niche to belong to. I grew up in Wales and Scotland, but it’s where I’ve spent the longest period of my life. Having said that, I didn’t want my kids to grow up in London as all the great things about the city suddenly felt inaccessible to me: London with a buggy is very difficult to get around and art galleries, theatres, cinemas suddenly seem like a closed shop. So I moved back to Edinburgh.

The idea of an independent Scotland is a great idea But will I vote for it? That’s tricky: I feel anxious it wouldn’t be economically viable, though I’ve not decided yes or no yet.

Full-time education for four-year-olds is outrageous Why do we do it? I can’t see what it achieves; getting them to sit down and listen at that age is impossible and probably gives them a fear of authority and puts them off learning. In Scotland, it starts at five, though I’ve sent my kids to a progressive school which doesn’t start till six. 1

Maggie O’Farrell, 41, is an award-winning author of six novels. Her latest, ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ (Tinder Press , £18.99), has been shortlisted for this year’s Costa Book Awards (