Monday, August 23, 2010

Author Maggie O’Farrell’s Kitchen Table

Are you the type of reader who likes to imagine their favourite author typing away their favourite books? I am. I find that if I really love a book I feel a connection to the person who wrote it. And when you feel a connection to someone you want to know what their house looks like, don’t you?

I have loved British author Maggie O’Farrell’s writing since she published her first book, After You’d Gone, back in 2000. Since then she has written five novels, her latest The Hand that First Held Mine, published earlier this year.

Luckily for me, Maggie O’Farrell has also been a regular contributor to The Guardian and Observer newspapers for many years and has written about aspects of her home several times. I think this one is my favourite though. In the following article taken from The Observer on Sunday August 15 2004, she wrote about a piece of furniture in a house; both of which have played a key role in her writing...

“The three books I've written have all been worked on in very disparate locations: a borrowed desk in an unheated flat, my parents' dining-room, on my lap in a damp bedsit, various trains, a shed in Yorkshire, a bench overlooking an Italian forest, an alarming bus ride in Bolivia. The one place they have in common is a kitchen table in Invernesshire.

It is a squarish, pine table, somewhat rickety and smelling slightly of all the dinners that have been eaten at it. With each book, I've found it easier to concentrate if I've moved the table to a different place in the room. For my first book, it was next to the fire but that corner seemed too crowded with those characters when I came back to work on the second, so I had to move it near the doorway. For the third, I turned it round and sat by the window.

The table is in a small, wooden house on the banks of Loch Insh, in the village of Kincraig. Behind the house, the East Coast line rattles on north to Inverness; in front of it, the Spey begins to pull itself together from the depths of the loch, re-forming as a river. If you swim out from the bank below the house, stepping carefully over the sharp stones into the brackish water, you can feel the drag of the river, its urgency to get back to itself. The water is icy, cold enough to compress your lungs, but you get used to it.

What's overwhelming about this place is the hugeness of the sky and the absolute quiet. I've never found silence like it anywhere else in the world: it's a spellbound, almost animate hush. When a city-bound boyfriend came up north to meet me there once, he found it too much. He couldn't sleep, he said, because of the nothingness of the night. The unbroken dark (no noise, no streetlights and, on a cloudy night, no moon or stars) was too much for him: 'I can't tell if my eyes are open or closed,' he panicked, during one of his sleepless nights.

I've been going there for almost 20 years, initially with my family on summer holidays. In those days, we stayed in a stone villa, a hundred yards or so from the place I rent now. It is, possibly, the most perfect house in the world: on an incline beside a bridge, it overlooks the loch and the valley, with a sweep of garden down to the water.

My parents are of the generation that finds it acceptable, not to say requisite, to talk to whomever they choose. We were staying somewhere else in the area - I forget where - when we drove past this perfect house. My parents turned round and drove past it again, and then again, much to the horror of their embarrassment- sensitive daughters in the backseat. My mother then got out, opened the gate, walked up the path, knocked on the door and asked the rather startled person who answered if we could come and stay there. Amazingly, they said yes.

Its remoteness is part of its attraction. It's a devil of a place to get to without a car. You have to catch the train to Aviemore or Kingussie then track down a taxi-driver willing to take you the extra distance, or hitchhike and hope for the best. There's a tiny post office that will sell you milk, bread and other staples and newspapers, of course, but I never buy them when I'm there as it goes against the grain of a retreat. And once you are there, it's not that easy to leave. Local bus timetables tend to be erratic and indecipherable, so the only way to get yourself anywhere is to walk or cycle. Mobile phone signals flicker and vanish, days pass, night comes, the loch goes on filling and emptying.

I think I always knew I would write about it. It would be impossible to be so enmeshed with a place for it not to make an appearance in your fiction. When I began my third novel, about two people who exit their lives for a place so remote that no one can find them, I knew it would have to be set in Kincraig.

I found, though, that I had to write those scenes while I wasn't there, that those parts of the book were the only things I've been unable to write there. You need to be elsewhere in order to recreate a place, you need distance for imagination. The last thing you want is reality getting in the way.”


Maxabella said...

Writers talking about their writing motivation and style is so interesting to me. I also love Maggie so I'm very glad you shared this! x

Anonymous said...

I love the idea of such isolation but I agree with her 'boyfriend' - if I can't see my hand in front of my face, I have to leave a light on outside my bedroom door!


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