Leading lights of British fiction set to entertain St Boswells audiences

Maggie O'Farrell book cover
Maggie O'Farrell book cover

THIS week the Borders can boast visits from two of the top British women’s fiction writers.

First up is Maggie O’Farrell at Mainstreet Trading bookshop in St Boswells tonight, where she will be in conversation with literary agent, Jenny Brown, and talking about her new novel, Instructions for a Heatwave.

Portrait of Maggie O Farrell

Portrait of Maggie O Farrell

Born in Northern Ireland in 1972, O’Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland, and now lives in Edinburgh with her family.

Her debut novel, After You’d Gone, won a Betty Trask Award, while her third, The Distance Between Us, won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award and she also won the 2010 Costa novel award for The Hand That First Held Mine.

Instructions for a Heatwave tells the story of an Irish family in crisis in the legendary heatwave of 1976.

By the July of that year, it had not rained for months. Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back.

The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children – two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce – back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.

The intriguing tale of a family in emotional meltdown is O’Farrell’s sixth book and the reader can usually identify several themes common in her novels – the relationship between sisters for one, and the psychological impact of loss on the lives of her characters.

A former journalist who served as deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday, she is married to novelist William Sutcliffe, with whom she has two children. Speaking to TheSouthern this week ahead of her visit to the Borders, O’Farrell says the 1976 drought is one of her earliest memories.

“When you are four, you’re at the age when you start to remember things and, living in south Wales at the time, I was certainly aware of how hot it was that summer,” she told us.

“It’s one of my earliest memories.”

O’Farrell says she did not store the subject of the heatwave away as a possible basis for a future novel, but admits it had always struck her as an interesting period in British modern social history.

She said:“I always thought it was a very interesting period because it came in the middle of a decade of social and political upheaval in Britain.

“As such it has a central place in Britain’s collective consciousness.

“I have always thought it fascinating how odd weather events, such as the heatwave in 1976 or the recent eruption of the volcano in Iceland which caused so much travel disruption, sees people starting to behave strangely, differently.

“When that volcano erupted, you had people stockpiling food because they were worried about the shops running out and you heard about people taking taxis across Europe because their flights were cancelled.

“In 1976 people were very frightened about what was going to happen. I read some government papers when doing research and people were really worried, even the government at the time was wondering what to do. People do peculiar things at such times. In my book, a man goes out to get a newspaper and never comes back.

“When I was researching incidences of such disappearances, I was astonished at the number of people who actually do that.

“It was always a bit of a slight fantasy of mine – just upping sticks and leaving somewhere – although obviously not since having children.”

Asked if she thought Instructions for a Heatwave had turned out as she had expected, O’Farrell, who never regards herself as a writer specifically of women’s fiction, says none of her books ever finished up as she thought they would.

“I start a book and it always metamorphoses into something else once it takes on a life of its own. I quite like that about books.”

O’Farrell is followed on Sunday at Mainstreet Trading by Kate Atkinson talking about her latest work, Life After Life.

Spanning the most major events of the 20th century, the novel follows lead character Ursula Todd through the turbulent events of the last century, giving Atkinson the chance to ask her readers what it would be like to have the chance to live life again and again, until you finally got it right.

York-born, Atkinson, like O’Farrell, also now lives in Edinburgh. It was her novel, Case Histories, which introduced readers to ex-copper turned private eye, Jackson Brodie, and which became a television series.

Atkinson received an MBE in the Queen’s 2011 birthday honours, for services to literature.