Maggie O’Farrell’s ninth book won her the Women’s Prize for Fiction in September, at the height of the pandemic. Its subject? A 16th century version.
Hamnet is a fictionalised account of the death of Shakespeare’s son, who died aged 11 in 1596 of a mystery illness, thought to be the bubonic plague.
“What we now call the Black Death, but back then was called pestilence, was an absolutely terrifyingly virulent bacterium,” O’Farrell explains. “It could kill a healthy person in their twenties in 24 hours. People were terrified of it all the time. In total, it killed a quarter of the world’s population.”
For research, O’Farrell, 48, immersed herself in a world that was full of disease, doom and death. A section of the book charts how the deadly virus reached Stratford-upon-Avon via a flea on a monkey in Alexandria and a glassmaker in Venice. Little did the writer know that by the time Hamnet was published at the end of March, the world would be thrust into its own 21st century pandemic.
“I didn’t see that coming, that’s for sure,” she says. “I never imagined that a book I wrote about a pandemic would be published during a pandemic.”
O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland and grew up with her two sisters in Wales and Scotland, where her father lectured in economics. She now lives in Edinburgh with her husband, fellow writer William Sutcliffe, and their three children. She studied English at Cambridge, before beginning her career as an arts journalist. She published her first novel, After You’d Gone, in 2000, and became a full-time novelist two years later.
Almost two decades later O’Farrell was feted when she beat five other high-profile authors in an “incredibly strong” shortlist for the £30,000 Women’s Prize – including Hilary Mantel, twice winner of the Booker Prize, and Bernardine Evaristo, who won the Booker last year alongside Margaret Atwood. Judges describe Hamnet as “exceptional”.
“I was totally gobsmacked when they told me I’d won. It was such an amazing Zoom call to get. I didn’t believe them – I thought it was a prank,” she says. “There was no part of me at all that was expecting it.”
She celebrated by making a cake for her children. “That’s about as wild as it got, actually. I did go to a local bookshop and I said they could all choose a book. I thought that would be appropriate.”
Did it feel strange that such a bolt of good fortune should occur at such a dire time?
“It’s been a very strange year in many ways,” she admits. “There have been lots of highs and lots of lows, but [winning the Women’s Prize] has been an amazing thing.”
Of course it’s hard to ignore current realities, she adds. “Many children are living in families who’ve had a difficult time – parents who’ve lost jobs, lost businesses. That’s a huge knock-on effect for them.”
What has O’Farrell learnt from the past about surviving our own pandemic?
“Thinking about Covid-19 – I know it affects certain demographics and age groups and it is terrifying – but we’ve got it a lot better than the Elizabethans,” she says. “It’s important to remember that. It was hundreds of times worse back then than it is for us now.
“There was no shortage of things that could have killed you in the 16th century. Life expectancy back then was 47, so I’d be dead already.
“It’s astonishing when you look at the statistics and the symptoms. They had absolutely no defences against it. They had no idea how it was spread. It took until the end of the 19th century for people to realise that it was down to fleas.”
O’Farrell is no stranger to grappling with death herself. In her 2017 memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am, she recounts 17 incidents of nearly dying over the course of her life. She wrote it partly for her middle daughter, aged 11, who suffers from anaphylaxis, a potentially lethal allergic reaction. She wanted to reassure her that we all have close encounters with death.
Does she feel that the pandemic, and the restrictions we’re living under, have made us more averse to risk taking? “I think so, yes.”
Everyone’s so keen to give each other a wide berth, in most instances, she says. But she does worry about the effect the lockdown is having on our capacity to cope. “There’s possibly a huge mental health crisis in the making. It’s something we’re all going to have to look out for in the next decade.
“There’s a huge amount of anxiety we’re having to metabolise. The idea that touching people or being near other people is dangerous – that seems a worrying trend. Obviously it’s essential at the moment, but what will the repercussions of that mentality be? There’s a huge amount of anxiety being created.”
She feels most for young people, the teenagers who want to spread their wings, and are stuck at home. And the elderly. “Their lives have become so small and they’re so frightened, I think, with good reason. I haven’t hugged my mum for over seven months.”
O’Farrell’s new book is a complete change of pace. Where Snow Angels Go is her first book for children. Was writing it an antidote to all the doom of Hamnet?
“Well, yes,” she admits. “My daughter was reading part of Hamnet over my shoulder when I was sitting at my desk typing it, and she said: ‘I don’t like this book – it’s too sad. You have to write something happier afterwards.’ So I thought, all right then, I will.”
She had made up the character and the concept of the Snow Angel and the little girl, Sylvie, as part of a storytelling ritual with her own children. Then, when she was away on a book tour, she started writing a “proper story” about him, a little more every day, for two weeks – the next instalment of which she’d put in the post, so her children would have something to enjoy while she wasn’t there.
It’s a long-form picture book, illustrated “exquisitely”, O’Farrell says, by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini. “The Snow
Angel story in its final incarnation incorporates things from my childhood and also from their childhoods –
certain things that have happened to them.”
Her children must adore it. “It’s the wrong impression to say that they said: ‘Yes, mummy, it’s wonderful, every time.’ Sometimes, they say: ‘I don’t like this part of the story.’ They’re very good editors – they let you know straight away if it’s working or not.”
One of the best things as a parent, she has found, is sharing picture books with a child – a time when you’re both engaged in this imaginary world. “There’s nothing like it. It actually feels like magic.”
With her children now aged between eight and 17, O’Farrell wanted to create an illustrated book for older children to help them understand the world. “It’s about life being challenging, but it’s also reassuring. It helps them build resilience. I wanted it to be something children could be comforted by.”
O’Farrell herself was very ill as a child – with encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, to the extent that people thought she would die – and was bed-bound between the ages of eight and 10. “I spent a lot of time in bed, just reading – that’s all I did. I read from one end of my bookcase to the other. I read them again and again. I must have read some books 15 or 20 times. That’s when I realised, perhaps not on a conscious level, that that’s what I wanted to do with my life – books and reading. It was something that satisfied me.”
But how to pass that passion on to a new generation of readers, especially in a world of instant technology? “Children learn by imitation. If you’re reading and enjoying it, and they see you enjoying it, they’re going to want to do it too. If they see you looking at your tablet or phone, they’re going to want to do that.”
O’Farrell has never been on social media. She doesn’t have any accounts, and has never tweeted. What does a site like Twitter look like to an outsider? “It gives people a free rein, doesn’t it? To perhaps behave in ways that they wouldn’t in person.
“I fiercely ringfence any time I have to write and I know if I was on Twitter I’d be chatting to my friends. I worry that it would steal a lot of time away from me.
“I have a smartphone, I WhatsApp pictures of my kittens to my friends. I’m just wary of it. We all need to think very carefully about our relationship with and our reliance on these tiny computers that we carry around in our pocket. Do we need them? Do we need to keep looking at it? Do we need to engage with it all the time?”
Apps, she explains, are designed by incredibly clever people to keep pulling you back. “I think we all have to ask the question, what is this doing to me, what is it doing to my concentration? What is it doing to the way my brain works, my memory, my relationship to others, my interpersonal relationships? I’m not telling others not to do it, not at all, but we need to think about it more intelligently than we are at the moment.”
And what of the future? Can O’Farrell pull herself out of the deadly past of Hamnet, and our dangerous present, in order to feel optimistic, however briefly?
“I think we’ve got a long winter ahead of us. And when we come through this, which I’m sure we will, we’re going to have to readjust our lifestyles and certainly the perception of ourselves as inviolate and invulnerable.”
But just as Shakespeare was able to navigate his grief in order to write Hamlet just a few years after the death of his son, we too can see hope and potential in the future. “We’ve got to think about what’s important and we’ve got to think about what to protect. It’s hard, but it can be done.”
Where Snow Angels Go, written by Maggie O’Farrell and illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, is out now (Walker Books, £14.99)
Maggie O’Farrell couldn’t have predicted that her book about the plague would land in a 21st-century pandemic. When it comes to children’s stories though, she has no shortage of imagination
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