BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts. Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were cast away to a desert island. For rights reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is the writer Maggie O'Farrill. She's the author of eight bestselling novels and her latest, Hamlet won the Women's Prize for fiction last year.
Hamlet tells the story of William Shakespeare's lost son, who died when he was just 11. It's the story of a life told through a death. And it's not her first Maggie's hit memoir. I Am, I Am. I Am relaid 17 of her own brushes with mortality, including her experience of a childhood illness so severe she was not expected to survive. It was this episode and the protracted period of convalescence that followed it that made her a voracious reader.
Even as an adult with books of her own to write, she can still get through four novels a week. Her career as an author grew out of this love of reading and a desire to subvert the standard advice. Write what you know, she says. You have to write to satisfy some, urging you to answer some question about something that you don't comprehend. I find I have to write in an unconscious vacuum where I pretend it's just for me.
Maggie O'Farrell, welcome to Desert Island Discs. Thank you very much, Lauren. Now, presumably, novelists are usually, even if it's subconsciously sort of collecting and percolating ideas that might eventually turn into a book. How does that process work for you? When do you know that your next book is starting to take shape?
Well, I think all books creep up on you, actually, and I think you don't necessarily choose the book. So I think the book choose you. I think the best book you can possibly write is the one you can't not write, the one that's demanding your attention. It's tugging your sleeve. It's hanging onto your coat. It's the voice that you cannot silence. And you just you can't avoid it. You just have to go with it.
Working from home is the norm for you, but it must have been a big change working from home under lockdown with all the kids at home as well. How is lockdown affected your working life this past year or so?
It has been a challenge, I think not only finding the sort of mental space through it, but actually the physical space to write has been tricky. You know, there were times, particularly over the summer where, you know, it was my husband's turn to be on the home schooling thing. And I was trying to write. And every 10 minutes somebody would come in and in a jam jar, they'd need a pen. They'd lost their pencil case.
Actually, I was so desperate at that point that I thought, OK, I have to find some work and I need to concentrate what I'm doing. And I ended up hiding inside my youngest daughter's Wendy house, which is tiny. You know, I couldn't even stand up, but I, I cracked and I with my laptop on my knee and it was fantastic. Nobody found me for about two hours apart from the cat, and he did not disturb me.
Of course, you're going to share your desks with us today and we're about to hear your first. Do you listen to music while you're writing it all?
I have to write in absolute total silence. I find any kind of tiny noise, even if it's the fridge making a slightly annoying hum, really intrusive. But actually what I do is I use music as a sort of means to get me to the place of writing. So to allow my real everyday life to recede. So I use music as a as a bridge in a sense between my quotidian world and my creative world. What I will do is play a certain track over and over again, maybe for fifteen minutes or even half an hour or so while I'm getting ready to write.
Well, with that in mind, I think we'd better hear your first disc today. What have you chosen?
This is Elephant Gun by Beirut and this is one of my favourite tracks of all time. I absolutely love it. And this was one of those bands that I use again and again when I'm getting ready to write. He has an achingly pure voice and these fascinating counterpoint melodies and the way it builds and the melody passes from one instrument to another. I absolutely love this track. Unfortunately, this town often drains underground, as did I, we tried to die trying to.
Beirut and elephant gun Maggie O'Farrell, Hamlet is your most recent novel, and as I said, it won the Women's Prize for Fiction. It was also Waterstones Book of the Year. But I know that your interest in Shakespeare's first book when you were a teenager, what happened?
So I was studying Hamlet at school for my higher English, and I was lucky enough to have an absolutely brilliant teacher at school called Mr. Henderson. He's one of those teachers that completely changes the way you see the world and you see literature and what it can and can't do. And he just mentioned in passing one day that Shakespeare had had a son called Hamlet who had died four or five years before Shakespeare wrote the play Hamlet. The idea of this lost son just really got under my skin.
And I have a really clear memory of sitting in my very cold classroom in Scotland and looking down at the cover of the school to play and putting my finger over the L and thinking, well, it's the same name. And what does that mean? You know, I think Shakespeare is he's such a mysterious figure to all of us, despite all the amount of work we have of him. But in that brief moment of him calling a play after his dead son, he becomes briefly visible as a human being.
And the names were used interchangeably at the time. Is that right?
Yeah. So they are completely interchangeable and they are used to each other and all the parish records of the time. So it is the same name because obviously spelling in Elizabethan times was a lot less stable than it is now.
It's time for your next desk today. Maggie, what are we going to hear?
This is sit down by the fire by the Pogues. And I knew I had to have some Irish music in my mix with my parents when we were growing up. They had an awful lot of traditional Irish folk music in the house where a lot of the Dubliners and the Chieftains and the Clancy Brothers, I remember my dad taking us to see The Chieftains a couple of times. This track obviously is from my youth. This is from when I was a teenager.
I have a strange memory of being in Donegal, being driven down a very vertiginous cliff road by my grandfather and my cousin and I were standing on the back of the driver's seat with our heads out of the panel in the roof. And for some reason in my head, the chorus of this song is playing on my grandfather's tape meeting that he had on the passenger seat, which cannot be true because I was probably five or six at the time and this wasn't recorded, obviously.
So it just just goes to show the fallacy of memory. But I think obviously something with this rhythm and this beat, I've always loved the way mayhem is counterbalanced with this finely calibrated emotions in Irish music, the way the two can coexist in in one song or in one chorus. So, yeah. So I would love this like as Ireland. Where is the POAGS and sit down by the fire, so Maggie O'Farrell, you were born in Northern Ireland, but I know that you left there when you were two.
You lived in South Wales before moving to Scotland as a teenager. Where I wonder, do you consider home?
Well, it's funny. I'm not really sure would be the answer. I consider myself to be a hyphenated person. So I have dual nationality. So I'm both Irish and British. I feel at home and both, but also neither at the same time. So I think that's a very common feeling for anyone who has lived between different countries in your memoir.
I am. I am. I am. You write powerfully about the time that you contracted viral encephalitis as a young child. It was devastating, struck out of the blue and you missed a year of school and spent a very long time after that convalescing. When you look back to that time, what do you remember most?
Anyone who's been through a severe illness will know that you are, in a sense, one person before it. And you come out the other side as somebody else. You are reconfigured. You know, it's a bit like passing through a fire. You're essentially the same person, but you've been taken apart and put back together again. And so so you will feel completely different. I don't really have much of a sense of the child I was before, actually, because I, I was just eight when I became ill and when I emerged from it really, you know, when I was probably able bodied again, I was probably 10, 11.
You describe in your memoir overhearing a nurse outside the door saying that you were going to die. Were you old enough to reflect on that and process that at the time?
My first thought was that she was meeting somebody else. And I remember thinking, oh, that poor little girl that's dying, how awful. And then, of course, when the nurse was in the room with me, looked at me and I saw the look on her face, I realised that it meant me. And I think my first thought was I felt a bit stupid because I thought, well, of course it's me. What else does all this mean?
What else does this room in isolation mean? I've got all this equipment around me. Of course it's me. Of course I'm dying. I think any kind of brush with mortality does change you. I think you come back from the brink, a different person every single time, whether it's a major event like my encephalitis or whether it's a minor event, you know, just perhaps almost stepping off the curb at the wrong moment, you're always going to be a wiser and sadder person when you come back from that brink because you have stared into the abyss and you can't ever forget that.
You might pretend you've forgotten, though, you might shake out here and think, I'm fine, I'm carrying on, but it's still there. It's still lodged inside you. I've always felt that my life was a kind of bonus, that I was partly living on borrowed time, or that I was sort of slightly cheated the universe in a way. So and I was going to live the biggest and the best life I possibly could within whatever limitations I've been given.
Well, on that note, like your I think we better hear your next track. What's it going to be?
This is a love song by The Cure. I was really fortunate in that I came of age at a time when there was a huge explosion of the indie music scene. This is the sort of late 80s and early 90s. So I used to listen to John Peel Sessions and I saw lots of bands live. And the naughtiest thing I ever did, I think when I was a teenager was that I told my parents that I was spending the night at a friend's house.
But actually I got the train to Manchester and I went and could not go. I couldn't bear the fact that this was all happening in this one nightclub and that I hadn't been. So I did go to the Hacienda. Oh, God, it was fantastic. It was absolutely worth it. My parents still do not know that I went to the hacienda. And in fact, if they are listening, which they probably will at some point, this will be the point at which they find out, unfortunately.
You make me feel like I owe. It made me feel like I'm for the cure and a love song. So, Maggie O'Farrell, I know that your perception of the world around you and your movement through it is still affected by the childhood illness that you went through. What did that mean for you during your teenage years?
I have a slightly inhibited proprioception, which means I have very little sense of where my body is in space, where my limbs are. So, for example, sitting here, I wouldn't be able to pick up my water bottle without looking at it. I have to really look and concentrate and connect. And it was funny because I moved from Wales to Scotland when I was 14 and I suddenly realised when I did that I could be somebody else. People at my new school in a new country didn't need to know that I had been the girl who had been in a wheelchair and in hospital and very severely ill.
And I could reinvent myself as just somebody who was just very clumsy.
It's really bad at sport and often knock things off the desk or had really messy handwriting.
I thought I can leave the behind me and I can be somebody new. And I think as a teenager, I really believe that. But of course you can't, can you? Because it's not something you can leave behind, but it's part of you. I have stamina issues. You know, my muscular system is not very strong and I have sort of musculoskeletal problems, but it's all such small fry. Is that really when you consider what I avoided?
So I, I absolutely have a very, very strong sense. And I always have heard of being incredibly lucky. I feel as though I have I've won a thousand lotteries because I can walk around and I can pick up a pen and I can write and I can live an independent life because it was not always a given for me.
Your experience also left you with a stammer. Now many stammer as describe the fact that it leaves them with an excellent vocabulary facility with words because they're trying to avoid the sounds that trip them up. Was that the case for you? Absolutely.
I think in some ways being a stammerer has been one of the most formative things I think in my life. It's really hard to scratch in how horrible it is not to be able to speak in so many ways. You know, socially, it's awful. It's terrible at school. Even now, you know, I've had speech therapy as an adult because doing things that I'm doing right now alters every single option in life, you know, with your friendships and with your academic work, with the job that you end up doing.
You know, I remember being really shocked when I had written my first novel, and it never occurred to me that writing a novel would involve, you know, public speaking. But I remember them saying, okay, and now you're going to do a public reading.
And I thought, oh, my God, what do that what are you talking about?
You know, I was supposed to be sitting in my room in my pajamas and you're garrets talking to my imaginary friend. But it's the most agonising thing. Well, it does give you is a very, very finely tuned hypersensitivity to words and also to grammar. You know, even as a really young child, Estamira will be able to think of five different ways to say the same thing so that you can avoid your potential minefield letters or sounds or words.
As a young child, you learn to become your own editor and you're doing on the spot in your head all the time.
It's time for your next piece of music. What are we going to hear this number before?
So this is a set. So number two in B Flat Minor by Chopin. And I used to play this on the piano. I played the piano when I was a teenager and this was the piece I always wanted to play and I would sort of borrow at a time because it is hard it's a hard piece to do until I could play it. I remember really loving the labor of it. And when I think back now, it's actually similar. The labour of learning something like this piece is similar to writing a novel.
It's just step by step, note by note, and it's a very long road. And I think to get to the end of the road, you have to be a bit of an obsessive and you have to be a bit of a perfectionist. So I think in a sense, the skills that I learnt from playing the piano and working on pieces like this stood me in good stead for being a novelist. Chopin's skirts number two in B Flat Minor performed by Marta Argerich, so Maggie O'Farrill, you studied English at Cambridge, was being a writer already your ambition when you applied?
It's funny. I don't think I have ever articulated to myself or anyone to me that I wanted to be a writer. I think that there are two separate things I wanted to write, definitely, and I knew that. But the idea of being a writer is something different. I can't remember a time when I didn't have the urge to put something down on paper to transpose experience or ideas or imagination into text on a page that has always fascinated me even as a young child.
You know, I have notebooks from when I was five or six. It was clear that I wanted to write the right stories and write things down.
So what were your plans after leaving university then?
My plan A was to become a journalist, but actually when I graduated, I didn't know what I was doing. I was 21 and I had an English degree and it was the middle of a recession. And let's just say they weren't you know, employers weren't exactly queuing up to read my CV. So I went out to Hong Kong because it seemed like a good option. And I taught English there and did various things. I was a waitress and and I ended up working on a computer magazine.
And I should say that, I mean, terrible. I did actually like my interview. I said, yeah, I know about computers. In fact, I had never actually touched one until I got to the office on the first day when I've been given the job. And then I thought I sat down. I thought, oh, I didn't know how. So who helped you that day?
I don't know. I asked one of my colleagues. I said I never used this model, so I don't know. So it was a bit of a steep learning curve. So that was my vague plan. I thought I need to find a job that is as close to writing as I possibly can find. And then I will. My plan was to write in the evening and on the weekends, which is what I did.
I think of my 20s as this period of quite a lot of chaos and it was certainly very erratic. You know, I remember moving from one dingy room in a flat to another and just, you know, trying to persuade adults that you could do something and could they please pay you for it?
You know, it's hard at your next desk, you found December five. You were.
So this is The Bend's by Radiohead. And this I'm a huge Radiohead fan. I always have been. And eventually I clawed my way in to do The Independent on Sunday. And I was the editorial assistant on the arts and books desk, which meant I got loads of free books and I also was able to get tickets to lots of gigs. So I did go to quite a lot of Radiohead early gigs and a lot of other people, which was fantastic.
The whole album really reminds me of travelling on the tube to work when I was in my 20s and I would listen to this on my Sony Walkman and it just brings back that time to me of what it felt like. And it was incredibly exciting because at last I had a job that felt as though it was going somewhere very, very low down the food chain. But I was still working on a newspaper that came out and occasionally I would have a tiny, tiny byline with just my initials after an album review or something.
And that was that was very thrilling when you're 24.
I'm not on an airplane fall asleep against the window. Radiohead and the band's Magu Pharrell, you've written that all fiction is a bit of a palimpsest of things that you make up or things you borrow, things that you observe in other people and things actually that have happened to you. I wonder where the friends and family are often looking for or finding themselves in your in your work. And if they do, do they tend to get it right?
Well, I don't I don't really think of myself as an autobiographical writer. Obviously, my memoirs autobiographical, I should say. But in terms of fiction, I like to think of fiction as an alternative world, really not the one my sort of writing well is it is an alternative. It's a sort of escape in a sense. It's a parallel world. But I think, you know, inevitably and I think that there are things that will filter in from your real life.
So I don't want to be that kind of carnivorous writer who's cannibalizing a writer, who's eating other people's lives and putting them out on the page. But I think it is I think is odd for people who know you well to read your novels, because in a sense they can spot the Joynes they can see. I know my husband has read books of mine and he says he'll be he'll be sort of floating around maybe thinking this is a novel, and then suddenly turn a page and find himself in a scene or in a house or in a moment that he remembers from his own life.
So I think it is it's inevitable. And I think any writer who says they never, ever use anything from their own life is probably lying.
You're married to a writer, William Sutcliffe. You met at university. And I know that you were just friends for a long time. You keep a cast of William's teeth in your office.
Just sort of pick up on that.
I do, yes. And I don't really have many talismanic objects in my office, but I do have a cast in my house.
Why did he.
Well, he had made one of those what you call gum shields for sport. He's quite sporty, unlike me also. Then he had this to order to have it made. He had these sort of dental plaster cast of his teeth made and he was about to throw it away. And I said, can I have it? And so I have it next to my desk because he my first reader, he was the first person who reads anything I write and vice versa.
But having it there reminds me of is he can be quite harsh critic and it's good because it's what I need. And so there have been times when he has read the first draft of one of my novels and he said, well, it's not bad, but you got to rewrite half of it.
And often one of the things he said to me is tends to kind of anything that he thinks is too supernatural when I'm about to write something. And I think, oh, that sounds good. That sounds good. And then sometimes I glanced over at the teeth. And I think actually, you know what? I think I need to cut. That's going to get us there. It's not going to get those teeth again. I want to edit it now.
It's time for your next desk. Mickey, what's number six and why have you chosen it today?
So the next one is Little Star by Stena Nordstrom. And this song, it really reminds me actually of a particular that I lived in when I was about 25 or 26. It was very small, flat in a kind of in a block. And I said it was one bit and put light over another girl. So I slept in the living room. She slept in the bedroom. But it was a great flat and I loved it. And somehow it reminds me of life becoming a little bit settled after a very unsettled sort of mid 20s time.
And it was around the time I got together with well, so it reminds me of what it was like to fall in love with someone with a close friend, someone you know, you already know really well.
Hey, I had. I had. You isolate and say things like. King traveled from the town. See you later. Stay. Stena, Norton, Stam and Little Star, so Maggie, tell me a little bit more about you describe that idea of life coming together after quite a chaotic period. I did all the dust start to settle and things begin to cohere.
So I started working independent on Sunday when I was about 24. And while I was doing this, I was writing poetry. Actually, I wanted to be a poet, so I was going to even classes given by the Irish American poet Michael Donaghey, who was an absolutely brilliant teacher. So I was writing about poetry. And then what happened was I went to stay with a friend of mine and his mother was throwing out one of those really big sort of brick like Apple Macs, the original ones.
And it was just sitting by the front door. And I'd walk past it several times. And eventually I said to her, Can I borrow it? And she said, sure, you can borrow it. And, you know, for as long as you like. So I took it back to my flat and I just started writing a novel as soon as I had a keyboard and a computer. I don't know what it was. There was something about the rhythm of it that just unleashed this sort of long form prose instead of poetry.
And I never wrote poetry again. And I started writing what became my first book. So I was writing that instantly felt like what I really wanted to do.
What was the process of actually getting your work out there and sharing it with people and, you know, taking their feedback like?
Well, I'd had a few poems published and I was writing a little bit for the newspaper. So there were some things out there. But actually, I the thing that really changed for me, too, was I went on a course on the Avon Foundation and I was probably about 25 at this point. And I had written about 20000 words of what I thought was my first job. I actually realized it was a total dog's dinner now. So I look back at what it was.
So I went on a writing course about novel writing and I hand then this 20000 words of what I consider it was not bad prose. And the two tutors I was taught by Elspeth Barker and Barbara Rápido, they said to me, we'd like to talk to you. And I instantly thought, Oh, God, I think whatever is written is so bad they're going to ask me to leave. So I went into the library of the Foundation Centre in Yorkshire where the course was, and they said to me, we think you need to carry on, we need to finish it.
And when you finished it, we'll show it to our agent.
What are we going to hear next Friday? So this is a song I have played throughout my life, but particularly I associate it with being a new mother. I used to put this on in the early morning when you have those very, very brutally early starts when you've got a very tiny baby.
And so this is feeling good by Nina Simone. And I used to find that Nina and her voice used to turn those awful mornings around for me.
So instead of feeling completely crushed by very little sleep and a dawn awakening, you have this song, which is just about the keen joy of existence, a celebration of being alive against all odds and of new starts. So it always makes me happy and it takes me back to that very raw and beautiful exhaustion of having a tiny baby. Blossom on the tree. I mean, and I'm feeling good. Nina Simone and feeling good. So, Maggie O'Farrill, it's almost time to cast you away to your desert island.
I wonder whether there are any aspect of being marooned that you might be looking forward to.
Certainly I've been getting a bit of solitude lately.
A long time wouldn't be a thing, but I would find hard. I will miss out on the chat I miss on other people. Actually, I love chatting. I love chatting to my friends and I love overhearing chat. The kind of things you have here on a bus or in a cafe, things that people say to each other. I think I love the silence and the solitude for a bit. And then I will start to miss the chat.
What about your survival skills? Talk me through them. You've obviously got a lot of resilience on the practical side.
I'm really unpractical. You know, I have two left hands, really. If that I think building a shelter, I'll be absolutely useless, right? I do. I'm a bit of a pyromaniac. I love lighting fire, so I will definitely be up for that. I love swimming as well. So hopefully it's a warm desert island so I can do some swimming.
OK, so as long as you can swim and then there's a fight to keep you warm afterwards, I'll be sorted. I'll just have to endure the rain. All right. Well, almost time to send you there. But before we do, one more desk, if you would like, what have you chosen for your final selection today?
Well, this is a selection for my children. So my son, who's 17, is a big rap fan and I don't love all of it, but I do love this one. I really love that moment when your child's passions and curiosities will start to rub off on you. This is one of his rap things that it is possible for him to listen to while his younger sisters are and his sisters are quite a bit younger than him. So there's quite a bit of his rap playlist that is not a lot like brother and sisters.
And this reminds me actually most of all of being in the car with all three of my children. So last summer when lockdown was ending, we had a tradition of when homeschooling was over for the day, we would drive to the beach and the three kids and his sisters and I would always ask him to put this on and its profit by the Rizzle Kicks. And when I hear this and I know where on my dad's island, I'm going to miss my children in an absolutely visceral, painful way.
This will remind me of being in the car with all three of my children singing along to the result. And I just know when it happens that I have this very strong sense that I am living in a state of grace.
I'm lurking in your pocket. Watch it. What I'm lost, I have a list because I is the most businesses with offices, businesses, we don't chase them in trouble enough simply because I'm the one forced you to play by play one against America situation. I suppose that's why you have to wait until and unless Rizzle Kicks and profit. So, Maggie O'Farrell, it's time to send you away to the island. I'm going to give you the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare to take with you.
You can also choose one other book to accompany you. What will that be?
I've been agonizing over this question, Lauren, making a long list of all my favorite novels. But actually what I have decided on is Alice Munro selected stories. She has an absolutely extraordinary skill, sentence by sentence. I think what I love most of all is the generosity she shows towards her readers and she gives in 40 pages. Well, novelists would spread out over 400. So I think this collection would sustain me on an island because it gives me such a multitude of voices and lives.
The sheer density. Can I get it? OK, you can also have a luxury item to make life more bearable. What would you choose?
Could I please have the National Museum of Ireland and I want to be greedy. So can I just have the archaeology department on Kildare Street to please?
This is a very handsome building. I happen to have seen it.
It is an amazing building. Yeah, Palladian building with the Zodiac in the forecourt with lots of different marble columns. Absolute and I. I love museums and whenever I am travelling, when I used to travel, I always make sure I go to the museum and wherever I am, whether it's a small town or whether it's a big city. And this one is my favorite museum anywhere in the world. What I love about it most of all probably is the fact that a lot of the artifacts and the treasures are found not by archaeologists, but by farmers who have been digging on their land.
And it gives me an enormous sense of the overlapping stories of history and the long span of human narratives. There are the Iron Age bog bodies here, which are the tribal sacrifices usually of chieftain's or kings because of bad harvests. There's a lot of prehistoric Irish gold as Viking artefacts. And there's the Lurgan canoe, which is this enormous Bronze Age long boat, which I have a really strong memory of seeing as a child and desperately wanting to touch. I think I find it very important when I'm on my desert island to think about how long humans have been alive and also how important it is that we do all we can to ensure that we continue.
Well, he'll be pleased to hear that there is substantial precedent for giving away the Vini. In the past, we've done a couple of times. So this particular wing of that museum can be yours.
Thank you so much. That's going to help enormously. And finally, which one track would you save from the waves if you had to? Oh, that's so hard. But I think it would have to be elephant gun by Beirut. Why? Because that's the one I love the most and that's the one that would help me the most. I think if I'm feeling lonely or if I'm feeling uninspired because I'm going to need to write, I get things to write on, don't I?
And I think that Beirut will help me exit my desert island if I need to mentally and take me to another place.
You have to find things to write on. But as you're not building a shelter, you'll have plenty of time. I write in the sand.
Maggie O'Farrell, thank you very much for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.
That's my pleasure. Thank you for having me. Hi. I really hope you enjoyed that interview with the writer Maggie O'Farrill, and I hope she's happy on the island pottering about in her museum. We've cast many writers away to the desert island. They include Edna O'Brien, Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Marian Keyes and Martin Cole. And you can find their episodes in our Desert Island Discs program archives and through BBC Sands. Next time, my guest will be the psychiatrist, Professor Simon Wessely.
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