Posted September 30, 2013 by in View from the UK

Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions for a Heatwave

One of the best things about living not far from the capital of a small (but wonderful) island nation is the constant profusion of literary events.

A.S. Byatt in 2007 (Photo credit: Seamus Kearney [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

A.S. Byatt in 2007 (Photo credit: Seamus Kearney [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Over the five years I worked in London (and the several years before that when I was a frequent visitor) I had the chance to see many authors in conversation, including John Irving, Jeanette Winterson, Nick Hornby, David Lodge (twice), A.S. Byatt (thrice!), the 2011 Booker Prize shortlisted authors (sans winner Julian Barnes), John Lanchester, Colm Tóibín, Ruth Padel, Hermione Lee, Alain de Botton, Michael Holroyd, Claire Tomalin, Alan Hollinghurst, Lynn Shepherd, Lawrence Norfolk, Ross Raisin, Marina Lewycka, Adam Mars-Jones, Elif Shafak, Rose Tremain, and on and on. (That’s enough name-dropping, considering I’ve already written about my minor celebrity spotting experiences here.) And Greenbelt Festival is another annual occasion where I encounter many under-appreciated writers on their way to eminence in the UK, such as Francis Spufford and Jon McGregor.


Maggie O’Farrell

Even living on the suburban outskirts in Berkshire, we get the occasional taste of literary culture.

Maggie O'Farrell in 2007 (Photo credit: Tim Duncan [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Maggie O’Farrell in 2007 (Photo credit: Tim Duncan [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Last week I went to a local public library of an evening to see Maggie O’Farrell give some readings from her latest novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, currently the best-selling book in independent bookshops across the UK. O’Farrell has published six novels so far: delicate, exquisitely written works about negotiating the complexities of family and romantic relationships over time. Waterstones, the British bookstore chain, named her one of their “25 Authors for the Future” in 2007.

handthatfirstHer previous book, The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), was one of my few favorite novels of that year. It’s a richly intertwining story of a young couple coping with the aftereffects of a traumatic birth while discovering their connection to a feisty young woman in 1950s London. The two great themes of art and motherhood are couched in elegant, precise prose; content that could have turned into the stuff of mawkish romance is, instead, sophisticated and refined. This is “serious literary fiction,” and O’Farrell won a Costa Best Novel award (previously known as a Whitbread award) to prove it. She always uses just the right number of words or images to create a mental picture of a lawn with laundry flapping on a line, or the cracked tiles of the entryway of a row house. Most of this book, and Instructions for a Heatwave, is told in the present tense (known as the historical or dramatic present), which lends it immediacy and reality.


Instructions for a Heatwave

With Instructions for a Heatwave, O’Farrell offers another spot-on tale of family tension and strained love – she always gets the emotional tenor just right. At the height of the UK’s 1976 heatwave, the Riordan family is in crisis: patriarch Robert stepped out to buy a newspaper but didn’t come back (a bit like the title character in Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, he goes on an unexpected journey instead). Mother Gretta gathers her scattered children, Michael Francis, Monica, and Aoife, back to London – and eventually over the sea to Ireland – to look for their missing father.

instructionsforheatwaveAlong the way, we learn much about the family dynamic and the way secrets and bitterness have damaged relationships. Michael Francis is at a turning point in his marriage (for once, O’Farrell said, she wanted to portray the midlife of a marriage, given that so many novels end with a wedding); Monica is unsure whether she can continue in the roles of homemaker for her second husband and reluctant stepmother; and Aoife is desperately trying to hide, from her employer and her lover as well as her family, that due to her severe dyslexia she simply can’t read.

O’Farrell read two passages: one in which Michael Francis meets his in-laws for the first time, and another that shows Aoife first covering up her dyslexia from her employer, a New York photographer, by hiding checks and contracts in a blue folder (which will be like a “ticking time-bomb” through the rest of the novel). O’Farrell noted that the names of her characters often come to her first of all; it is as if the name ties down the character’s identity. And, indeed, names are very important here. For instance, when Michael Francis’s wife suddenly starts calling him “Mike,” it’s a signal of a fundamental change in their relationship.

One of O’Farrell’s children was diagnosed with dyslexia as she was writing. It’s a condition that now affects an estimated 10% of the UK’s population. As she was planning the novel, O’Farrell was conscious of wanting to afflict the youngest Riordan child with a “curse” – nothing too supernatural, but still something that would connect to the Irish folk tales she read as a child. Often the last-born would be the one who had to go out and make a way in the world, cut off from the comforts of family. In Aoife’s case, her disability is symbolic of a fundamental lack of communication within the family. It’s doubly ironic that the one character who can’t spell has such an unpronounceable name.


Ireland and the heatwave

O’Farrell herself is of Irish descent, but only lived in Northern Ireland until the age of two, when her family moved to the mainland UK. Although she has always eschewed autobiographical writing in the past, and refuses the label of “Irish novelist,” she had long been interested in the experience of the Irish in London. Her father could remember being turned away from cafés and bed and breakfasts by signs reading “no blacks, no Irish” in the 1950s. She never experienced such outright prejudice, though one scene from this novel is plucked directly from her life: visiting a boyfriend’s parents’ house for the first time, the father saw her Irish passport and asked “are you in the IRA?” This incident convinced her that there was life in the second-generation Irish story.

Heat waves make people behave strangely (Photo credit: Guian Bolisay / Instant Vantage, via Creative Commons).

Heat waves make people behave strangely (Photo credit: Guian Bolisay / Instant Vantage, via Creative Commons).

I love how O’Farrell opens this latest novel with the heat itself as the most notable character: “It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.” There is a vague echo here of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, where the Wessex heathland is the most prominent force.

O’Farrell was only four years old during the 1976 heatwave, but still it forms a key part of her early childhood memories: she recalls her mother reading her Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland during blazing summer days on holiday at Connemarra – a fitting choice of book given its opening on a “hot day [that] made [Alice] feel very sleepy and stupid.”

In interviewing people who had lived through the heatwave, O’Farrell found that it was a time of national panic. The heat seemed to make people behave differently to normal; divorce rates went up, as did the number of missing persons. The situation was uncannily similar in 2010 while she was composing the novel: the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull had disrupted the patterns of regular life, leaving many people stranded, helpless, and irate.


Time periods and titles

O’Farrell tends to approach the research process carefully. Indeed, one of her bugbears about modern fiction is authors shoving in every period detail they’ve gleaned from their research. So you’ll find no space hoppers or bell-bottom jeans in Instructions for a Heatwave; although O’Farrell uses research to build her confidence about a time period and form a springboard for her story, she then goes back and removes all extraneous traces of the period. It was a joy for her to be able to conduct personal interviews this time – something she was not able to do for previous novels set in the 1930s and 1950s. People often revealed very personal stories, as in “1976? That was the summer I slept with my neighbor.”

Check out those bellbottoms! A United Airlines flight in 1976. (Photo credit: Alan Light [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Check out those bell-bottoms! – on a United Airlines flight in 1976. (Photo credit: Alan Light [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Her novels often switch between time periods and different characters’ perspectives. This time she challenged herself to make a work that was truly “polyphonic,” giving more than one character’s point of view. She also gave this book a very tight focus – it is set over just four days in that summer of 1976 – which makes it closer to the classical unities of time and setting, but also, along with the heat, enhances its sense of claustrophobia. Especially in the first half of the novel, the London family home functions as a kind of pressure cooker, versus the vacation home on Omey Island in Ireland where the Riordans later retreat as they search for Robert; as O’Farrell summarized, metaphorically, “sometimes we’re an island and sometimes we’re not.”

Titles often come late for O’Farrell, and she labored over this one for a long time. It didn’t help that she’d just given birth to her third child, and publishers were pressing her for a title as she nursed her baby through sleepless nights. Finally, she came across a copy of the British government’s rushed-through Drought Act, excerpts from which now head the novel’s sections. She liked the contrast between the Act’s rigid guidelines and the slippery nature of the family’s interactions: these people have no clear instructions for getting through what’s happening to them now.



A graveyard on Omey Island, Ireland (Photo credit: Bert Kaufmann, via Creative Commons).

A graveyard on Omey Island, Ireland (Photo credit: Bert Kaufmann, via Creative Commons).

Because O’Farrell doesn’t like novels that have neat, tied-up endings, she doesn’t write them herself. She says she prefers to always leave a question mark in the reader’s mind, so the work of determining a character’s fate is ongoing. The last pages of Instructions for a Heatwave are, indeed, somewhat ambiguous: it looks as if there will be some reunions, some revelations, and some readjustments, but it’s not entirely clear what these will be. Though O’Farrell might have some idea of what she thinks will happen to all her characters in the end, she would rather leave it up to readers to work out the logistics.


The writing process

O’Farrell doesn’t ever read her reviews; her husband vets them for her, giving her a vague sense of “positive,” “negative,” or “middling.” Only for the bad ones will he tell her the critic’s name, she joked. One reason for avoiding criticism is that she feels she doesn’t need to be explained to herself. She prefers to write in a vacuum, not self-conscious or second-guessing herself, and to do this she needs to effectively forget that her readers exist and just write for herself.

A laptop is great for snatching writing time, but don't let the Internet distract you! (Photo credit: Jeff Geerling [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Laptops: great for snatching writing time, but don’t let the Internet distract you! (Photo credit: Jeff Geerling [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Similarly, she doesn’t run her ideas past other people while she’s writing; perhaps because she grew up with a stammer and doesn’t trust her voice, but also because she values people’s first reading, so asks her husband, then her editor and several keen friends, to read the draft with a fresh eye when it’s finished. She generally goes through 15-25 drafts before she’s happy with a novel; often she will cut half of the text in that process – and although she always saves it in a separate computer file, she’s not sure why, as she’s never once returned to this material once it’s excised.

As a mother of three children, O’Farrell has become expert at snatching every spare moment of time for writing. Often this will be in the evenings after the children have gone to bed, but she has been known to steal time when her son is at school, her daughter at playgroup, and the baby napping. When she bought her Mac laptop, she even asked the technicians at the store to disable every Internet and e-mail function so she could focus entirely on writing.


But is it chick lit?

On this occasion O’Farrell was interviewed by Julie Cohen, an American-born novelist who was O’Farrell’s corridor-mate and fellow literature student at New Hall (now known as Murray Edwards College), Cambridge University. Cohen’s work is firmly in what might be called the “chick lit” camp – she even started out writing Harlequin / Mills & Boon series romances. This raised an uneasy question for me: is O’Farrell’s work chick lit? I’m strongly prejudiced against chick lit (it seems to me it’s all about sex and shopping), yet I enjoy well-written and emotionally honest family stories authored by women. Surely there’s a difference?

Chick lit?

Chick lit?

Yet out of the event’s audience of perhaps 100, there was precisely one man in attendance (and the lady behind me was named Mavis, which gives you an idea of the age demographic as well – plenty of white heads in evidence). As novelist Jodi Picoult has said, “Why is it ‘domestic fiction’ if a woman writes about family/relationships, but if a man does that, it’s Pulitzer-worthy?” This suggests an unfair double standard in the way women’s writing is judged against men’s. Perhaps it’s all in the marketing? If publishers would lay off the pink and other pastel colors on the covers, along with those cursive fonts and dreamy images of waifish women, perhaps authors like O’Farrell and Jojo Moyes would be taken more seriously in competition with male writers? The fact that there is still a need for a Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize) to raise the profile of serious women’s literature makes me think that the specter of stereotypical chick lit can never be far from a woman writer’s mind.

The Independent newspaper proposed that O’Farrell’s writing be classified instead as “literary psychological suspense,” a rather peculiar but still strangely accurate category. I would insist that, as Sabrina Rocco wrote in her review of J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements (another rich study of romantic and familial love) for the Tampa Bay Times, “It’s not chick lit. It’s anthropology.” Just the study of people, really: who they are, how they interact, what goes wrong and what goes right, all that is broken and all that can be mended. This is the stuff of all fiction.


Give us your thoughts on Maggie O’Farrell, the writing process, women’s fiction/chick lit, or anything else in the comments box below!

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.