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Q: What made you want to write this book?
A: A few years ago, I attended an exhibition of John Deakin's photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Many of them were portraits of people in Soho in the 1950s: artists, writers, actors, musicians. Soho is an area of London that is famous for many things, but I hadn't known that, for a short time after the Second World War, it had been the center of an artistic movement. The bohemian, underground world that thrived there so briefly and was captured so vividly by Deakin fascinated me. I began to conceive a story about a girl, Lexie, who arrives there from a very conventional home and makes a life for herself as a journalist.
Q: There are two stories in the novel, aren't there?
A: The other story is set in the present and is about Elina, a young Finnish painter who has just had her first child. With Elina, I was interested in writing about new motherhood, those very first few weeks with a newborn--the shock and the rawness and the emotion and the exhaustion of it. It's something that's been done a great deal in nonfiction, but I haven't read much about it in fiction. Much of the novel is concerned with people whose lives change in an instant; a decision or a chance meeting or a journey occurs and suddenly your life veers off on a new course. Having your first child is one of those times. As soon as the newborn takes its first breath, life as you've known it is gone and a new existence begins.
Q: Why did you decide to divide the novel into two time frames?
A: I liked the idea of these two women living in the same city, fifty years apart. Lexie and Elina have no inkling of each other's existence, but they hear each other's echoes through time. And, as it turns out, they are linked in other ways--in ways neither of them could ever have expected.
Q: As well as motherhood and the unexpectedness of life, there's a great deal about love in the book as well, isn’t there?
A: Love in many forms powers the book: familial, platonic, and also romantic. Lexie has many different men in her life. There's Felix, the feckless yet famous TV news reporter, and Robert, the rather more serious biographer. But the great love of her life is Innes Kent, the man she follows to London, who takes her under his wing and gives her her first job as a journalist.
Elina's relationship with her boyfriend Ted is challenged by the arrival of their baby. Ted begins to recall things from his own infancy, and these things don’t seem to fit. I was interested in the way having children makes you remember and reassess your own childhood, in micro-detail: things I'd never thought about or remembered before would suddenly rear their head. And this made me wonder what it would be like if the memories that resurfaced were of places and people you didn't recognize, if your own life suddenly seemed strange to you.
Q: Did you have to do a lot of research for the book?
A: The 1950s and 1960s are not that distant in time, and the sixties in particular are very well documented in art, film, photography, and literature. I read history books but also made sure to submerge myself in novels of the period. You get wonderful insights into the way people spoke then; it was quite different from the way English is spoken in London now. The cadences and vocabulary have completely changed. So I read Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Forster. Novels also give you tiny details you didn't even know you needed--how a telephone worked in a house of bed-sitters, for example. Where one bought peacock-blue stockings in 1957.
You have to be careful with research, though. There's a terrible temptation, once you've done all this collecting of interesting details, to shoehorn in as much of it as you can. You can sometimes find yourself writing a sentence along the lines of "She picked up the telephone, which was made of Bakelite, a substance first developed in 1907 by a Belgian chemist..." At which point you have to stop and try to forget everything you know about early plastic manufacture. Most research you have to throw out. But you still need to do it, to give yourself confidence and scaffolding.
Q: London as a city has a strong presence in the book. Was this deliberate?
A: I felt all the way through as if London were the third main character in the novel, along with Lexie and Elina. Most of the novel was written while I was living away from London, so I suppose I was re-creating a city with which I have had a very long relationship (a rather off-and-on one, to be honest).
Q: To what degree does your own life play into your fiction?
A: I don't write autobiographically. Fiction for me is an escape, an alternative existence, so I wouldn't want to re-create my life on the page. There are elements of my life that filter into my books, but they are usually recast and redrawn and reimagined to such a degree as to be unrecognizable to me or anyone else. Lexie and Elina both arrive in London as adults, as I did, and Lexie becomes a journalist, as I did. The scenes about motherhood I couldn't, of course, have written without having been a mother myself. The rest is made up.
Recommended Reading from Maggie O'Farrell
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark: My favorite Spark, I think. A portrait of a women's boarding house in postwar London, including the spinsters, the young dormitory girls, the elocution teacher, the mercenary but beautiful Selina and the Schiaparelli dress they all take turns to wear.
The Severed Head by Iris Murdoch: A devastating account of love and marriage in 1950s London. Murdoch handles her six characters with poise as their lives become ever more entangled.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns: The book I have given most as a present. It's the mesmerizingly lively story of a young artist who marries against the wishes of her family and her ensuing struggle with poverty, motherhood and her awful, self-centered husband. I make it sound gloomy but it's anything but...
Dear George and Other Stories by Helen Simpson: I particularly love the story "Heavy Weather" in this collection, which documents a couple on holiday with a toddler and a baby. Nobody but Simpson can write with such heartbreaking accuracy about life with small children.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham: I read and re-read this book while writing The Hand that First Held Mine. It is, quite simply, perfect. How did he do it?
Any Human Heart by William Boyd: The whole of the 20th century is laid out in the diaries of Logan Mountstuart. A spectacular, astonishing novel.
(Photo © Ben Gold)
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