Maggie O’Farrell / 'I wrote at least 17 separate drafts of After You’d Gone’

Maggie O’Farrell: ‘I discovered the most satisfying work I’d ever faced.’ Photograph: Dominic Lipinski


Maggie O'Farrell: 'I wrote at least 17 separate drafts of After You'd Gone'

The Costa and Women’s prize winner on the long gestation of her debut novel

Saturday 17 October 2020

The short answer as to how I wrote my first novel would be: haphazardly. I was 22 and travelling back overland from Hong Kong, where I’d been living, when I went to a museum near Irkutsk. I was the only visitor, and wandering down a staircase, I jumped out of my skin when I thought I saw someone walking towards me. It was only my own reflection. I returned to my hostel and in the back of my travel diary wrote several pages about a woman startled by an unexpected image in a mirror.

It would be another two years before I embarked on the novel, but those paragraphs about the mirror survived; they appear, almost untouched, in the final version of the novel, at the beginning of Part Three. (I used to teach creative writing and I always told this story to my students, as proof of the maxim: “Never throw out anything you’ve written”.)

When I got back to the UK, I was absorbed into the practicalities of my newly adult life: finding a job, moving to London, renting a room, breaking up with one boyfriend, getting together with another. If I look back in my notebooks, I can see that I was producing some fairly inept poetry.

What changed everything for me was the loan of an old Apple Macintosh: a boxy, grey thing the weight of a toddler. A friend’s mother was what we now call upgrading; I asked if I could possibly borrow it and she said yes. So I hefted it back to my damp room, plugged it in, and there was the cursor, flashing on and off, at the top lefthand corner of a blizzard-white page: waiting, signalling, poised for flight.

I never wrote poetry again. The flow and flexibility of a keyboard unlocked something; in the longform rhythm of prose, the monogamous commitment of plot, the myriad ways to solve the puzzle of narrative, I found my feet. I discovered the most satisfying work I’d ever faced, work that I flew to whenever I had the chance.

Except, of course, it’s never that simple and the maths shows this: I began After You’d Gone in 1996 and it was published in 2000. There is never a straight line between starting and finishing a book. I wrote 75,000 words; I deleted 40,000; I binned a magic realism thread, I brought in a new character. Looking at my hard drive, I can see evidence of at least 17 separate drafts.

I wrote in the evenings, after work, at weekends, in the middle of the night. The insomnia I’d been plagued with since childhood finally assumed a purpose. I moved 11 times, from flat to bedsit to shared house; I had three jobs, at one point. I finished what I proudly considered a first draft. It was, of course, a dog’s dinner, with too many plots, dodgy supernatural touches, and nervous linguistic flourishes.

A novel-writing course run by the Arvon Foundation, tutored by Elspeth Barker and Barbara Trapido, came at exactly the right time. I handed in the dog’s dinner and on the second night they asked to see me. Their faces were grave as I entered the library and, naturally, I leapt to the conclusion that they thought what I’d written was so bad that I must immediately leave the course. What they said, however, was some of the best advice I’ve ever received: keep going, and don’t use too many adverbs.

So thrilled was I by their encouragement that I ran outside into the wintery Yorkshire dark and fell straight into a ditch. I floundered about in the icy, treacherous water for a while, believing my hour had come, that my novel would never be finished. But then the thought of no one ever deleting those extraneous adverbs spurred me on. I struggled out on my hands and knees – wetly, odiferously, determinedly.

 After You’d Gone is published by Tinder. To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply. Her most recent novel, Hamnet, won the Women’s prize for fiction.