Life and times
Novelist 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