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27 March 2023

Maggie O’Farrell’s Q&A: “If I wasn’t a writer I would be irritable and thwarted”

The author and Women’s Prize winner on her hero Tove Jansson, Aneurin Bevan and her elderly cat.

By New Statesman

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, in 1972 and began her career working for a computer magazine in Hong Kong. Her books include the 2020 Women’s Prize winner Hamnet and the memoir I Am, I Am, I Am.

What’s your earliest memory?

My newly born sister, Bridget, arriving home from hospital, carried in my mother’s arms up the path. I was watching through the frosted glass of our front door and I remember seeing a white ovoid bundle with red hair float towards me.

Who are your heroes?

In my childhood I revered Tove Jansson, and I still do. I have a photograph of her swimming in the Finnish archipelago on my study door, as an example of how to inhabit the life of an artist with flair and relish. As a child, I was always curious as to why her biographies in my 1970s editions of her books stated that she lived “alone” on an island. Of course, she wasn’t alone at all – she lived with her partner, Tuulikki Pietilä.

What book last changed your thinking?

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk. It’s a fascinating account of how our bone and muscle absorb experience.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Everywhere, anywhere, all at once.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Aneurin Bevan had the integrity and compassion so often absent in many of today’s politicians. Darnella Frazier showed jaw-dropping bravery in filming the murder of George Floyd, which won her a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize special citation.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

The care and joy of houseplants (I have more than a hundred).

[See also: Houseplants can be addictive. I should know]

What TV show could you not live without?

I confess that I very rarely watch television – there are too many other things to do.

Who would paint your portrait?

I don’t think I’d make a very good sitter as I’m terribly restless. But I’d like to meet Artemisia Gentileschi or Agnolo Bronzino, so I might be able to curb my fidgeting if I could chat to them.

What’s your theme tune?

“Train Song” by Vashti Bunyan as it’s a paean to travel and motion.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“An apology will always defuse a problem.” It’s a good creed and not enough people live by it.

What’s currently bugging you?

The ailing battery on my four-year-old iPhone. It lasts approximately an hour so I can’t leave the house without a clanking cargo of charging leads and power banks. I could always go and buy a new phone but that feels like giving in to the inbuilt obsolescence of things.

What single thing would make your life better?

If my beloved and very elderly cat would refrain from peeing on the bedroom rug. Please, Moses, use the litter tray provided.

When were you happiest?

When I’m in the company of my three children and they are all in good health.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

If I wasn’t a writer I would probably be quite irritable and thwarted.

Are we all doomed?

Well, we’re all going to die, but you have to regard that fact with sanguinity, not fatalism.

The stage adaptation of “Hamnet” is at the RSC Swan Theatre in Stratford from 1 April to 17 June and London’s Garrick Theatre from 30 September. Maggie O’Farrell appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 23 April. NS readers get a 20 per cent discount on all events: use the code NSSPRING23 at checkout

[See also: Louis Theroux on becoming a Gen Z icon]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special