In our first Inspirations feature of 2021, Caroline Deacon tells us how reading Maggie O'Farrell led her to think seriously about being a writer.   


As a child, it didn’t really occur to me that I could be a writer when I grew up. Books were magical things, so I assumed that you needed to be some sort of magician to create them. Instead I told people I wanted to be a ballet dancer (or sometimes I said I’d like to be a librarian, which really meant being a writer vicariously).  


It wasn’t until I read Maggie O’Farrell that I began to think about writing as a craft. Her first book, After You’d Gone, was my first encounter with this amazing author. I was blown away by the multiple narrators, the non-linear narrative, but above all, by the way it all fitted together so seamlessly to make something that was more than the sum of cleverly constructed parts. “How did she do that?” I asked myself and immediately began to read the whole thing again to find out, but got so caught up in the beautiful story yet again, that I reached the end and realised I’d forgotten why I was reading it.

Eventually I managed to take a step back, to read it and summarise it, page by page, deconstructing what she had done and how. And for anyone who wants to be a writer, I would suggest that this is one of the best ways to learn; choose a book you love and break it down to discover what makes it work. If it’s structure you’re interested in, After You’d Gone is a masterclass in that subject. 


The next book of hers I read, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, also had a profound effect on me for different reasons. As a psychology student at Edinburgh University, I had worked for two summer vacations at the city’s psychiatric hospital where this book is set and met many Esmes; women who had been incarcerated thirty, forty years before, simply for being ‘difficult’. It was a hugely distressing experience for my teenage self, but it did steer me away from a career in clinical psychology, for which I am profoundly grateful. So The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox felt very true to life; I recognised Esme. I remember wondering if Maggie O’Farrell had worked at the same hospital. But the outstanding feature of this book is the voice. In first person POV, she takes you, the reader, inside the head of someone with Alzheimer's. As a writer, if you want to explore voice, this is a good place to start.


Those two books were both set in Edinburgh where Maggie O’Farrell lives. The next two I read took me to rural Ireland: This Must Be the Place, and Instructions for a Heatwave. The former is definitely worth reading if you are considering writing a book with an intriguing, complex male protagonist. The latter grabbed my attention as it is set during the heatwave of 1976, as I am also attempting to set a book during the same summer. In fact, the setting is secondary; the strength of this book is in the characterisations, and if you want to see a masterclass in ‘showing not telling’ character, then this is a must read.


All of Maggie O’Farrell’s books have incredible emotional intelligence, but when she began to write about motherhood, she took this to an even deeper level. I challenge anyone who is a parent to read The Hand That First Held Mine and remain dry-eyed. But I think now that this book was a practice run for her tour de force. Released this year, and winning the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet is her finest achievement to date. It fictionalises the life and death of Hamnet, William Shakespeare’s only son, and I’ve nominated it as my top read of the year in my December blog. If you haven’t yet read it, ask yourself: how would you portray Shakespeare going about his everyday life, eating lunch, teaching Latin to small boys, making love to Anne Hathaway? What would you call him? Will? William? Mr Shakespeare? Would you dare to use first person? “This morning I wrote a new sonnet. It’s not bad?” Seriously, how would you do it? Now read how Maggie O’Farrell does it and shiver. She is good, is she not?


Finally I must talk about I Am, I Am, I Am, an autobiographical account of ‘seventeen brushes with death.’ I believe this book explains how and why Maggie O’Farrell can write with such emotional intensity and heart. It shows what she has mined in herself to create books like Hamnet. If you want to write with emotional intelligence, read I Am, I Am, I Am, then read Hamnet, and ask yourself what experiences have you had which have shaped you and which you can plunder to inform your writing. There is shameless bravery in mining your life story to inform another, and O’Farrell is a brave writer indeed. Ask yourself before you follow her example; do you dare?  



Caroline Deacon is a regular contributor to Words & Pictures. Find her on Twitter @writingdilemmas and at

1 comment:

  1. I think she's an astonishing writer and am constantly inspired by her work. Esme is probably my all time favourite novel which is a BIG statement. I heard her on Fortunately (great podcast if you've not yet discovered it) talking about I Am and her near miss with Jimmy Saville - eeeeekk - was very scary. I kind of hero worship her and sounds like you do too!


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