Life and times

Nov­el­ist Mag­gie O’far­rell

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS - Mag­gie O’far­rell

LIKE MOST WRIT­ERS, I spend the ma­jor­ity of my time at home, dressed in mul­ti­ple lay­ers of cloth­ing, one of which is more than likely to be py­ja­mas. I leave the house, oc­ca­sion­ally, for food or more prin­ter ink or the re­trieval of small chil­dren from school. For the most part, how­ever, I am usu­ally to be found in some pa­per-strewn al­cove en­gaged in en­gross­ing de­bates with imag­i­nary friends. And then pub­li­ca­tion ar­rives and, with it, the star­tling re­al­i­sa­tion that I will be re­quired to leave the house, to in­ter­act with peo­ple other than my fam­ily, to at­tire my­self like a func­tion­ing mem­ber of so­ci­ety.

To this end, just be­fore pub­li­ca­tion of my lat­est book – a mem­oir about near-death ex­pe­ri­ences – I buy my­self a dress. It is the colour of ev­er­green forests, with but­tons along the shoul­der. The fab­ric is tex­tured, moss-like. I am de­lighted. I try it on; it fits; the colour makes me look a shade or two less pale than nor­mal. In it, I de­cide, I could def­i­nitely pass my­self off as some­one who has not spent the bet­ter part of two years sit­ting in an al­cove, writ­ing about death.

My teenage son wan­ders in, just as I am con­sid­er­ing footwear. He is in the mid­dle of say­ing some­thing about bas­ket­ball but when he sees me, he stops.

It could be said that he al­most re­coils. ‘Oh my God,’ he says, col­laps­ing into laugh­ter. ‘You look… you look… like a hedge,’ he gets out. Then he dashes off, call­ing for his sib­lings to come and see. Crest­fallen, I re­move the dress. I try on the sec­ond op­tion. This one is ar­te­rial red with kimono-es­que sleeves. I give it a cur­sory five-sec­ond glance in the mir­ror and all seems well. I pack it quickly into my suit­case be­fore any­one else makes un­so­licited slurs, and leave for Lon­don.

PUB­LI­CA­TION WEEK IN­VOLVES two of my favourite pas­times: travel and vis­it­ing book­shops. I spend one day go­ing to all the in­de­pen­dent book shops from Ox­ford to Hen­ley. Can there be a more per­fect day? I col­lect in­ter­est­ing snip­pets of in­for­ma­tion (that WB Yeats once lived in Thame; that cus­tomers of­ten cry in the mem­oir sec­tion of a shop), ex­cel­lent read­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, a num­ber of books, and, un­ex­pect­edly, a vel­vet pea­cock.

A good book seller is equal parts reader, pros­e­ly­tiser, ther­a­pist and teacher. I am struck by their pas­sion, ex­per­tise and ded­i­ca­tion. I will be sit­ting at a ta­ble in the cor­ner, sign­ing books, and see a cus­tomer ap­proach the desk, en­quir­ing about a book on cranes, or a novel that fea­tures an an­gry den­tist. Within min­utes, the book­seller will have put their hand on the pre­cise book and the cus­tomer will walk out, sat­is­fied, a par­cel un­der their arm.

MIN­UTES BE­FORE my launch party starts, I zip my­self into my new frock and am just about to leave when I make a hor­ri­ble di s cov­ery. The dress i s slit, down the front, from clav­i­cle to waist. How can this have es­caped my no­tice? I stare at the mir­ror, aghast . A wild­haired, in­ap­pro­pri­ately dressed woman stares back. I lo ok as if I ’m prepped for heart surgery. The whole tableau feels like a ter­ri­ble metaphor for launch­ing a mem­oir: a woman ex­pos­ing more of her­self than she in­tended. If I wrote it in a novel, my ed­i­tor would frown and say, ‘Too ob­vi­ous.’

I sprint to the near­est dry cleaner. ‘Do you,’ I say, as I stum­ble through the door, ‘have any red thread?’ The man takes a wary step back. He passes me the thread and a nee­dle and watches as I stitch my­self to­gether. I thank him and then leave, mut­ter­ing that hedge or no hedge, I should have stuck with the green one. Or, fail­ing that, stayed in my al­cove. Mag­gie O’far­rell will be talk­ing about her new mem­oir, I Am, I Am, I Am, at the Chel­tenham Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val on 8 Oc­to­ber

My son wan­ders in. When he sees me he al­most re­coils

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