Maggie O’Farrell on the sweltering summer of 1976

Maggie O'Farrell. Picture: Neil Hanna
Maggie O'Farrell. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Sometimes, says Maggie O’Farrell, parts of novels arrive intact, like gifts. Such a moment happened a few years ago when she and her family were on holiday in Galway. She went into a shop to buy a hat and came out “ages later – my husband was wondering what on earth had happened to me”.

But he’s a novelist too, so he’d know not to complain. The woman taking an interminable time to sell his wife a hat there – a hat which she didn’t even particularly like, but bought just because she was fascinated by her life story – wasn’t wasting his time, or his wife’s. The next time O’Farrell was casting around for a character who would gabble away her whole life story, gleefully gossiping to a complete stranger, she would think of that woman in the Galway shop. She, or something like her, could easily be Gretta, the head of the Riordan family in O’Farrell’s latest novel, Instructions for a Heatwave.

This is how Gretta makes it to the page, as seen by her teacher son Michael Francis: “Conversations with his mother can be confusing meanders through a forest of meaning in which nobody has a name and characters drop in and out without warning. You needed to get a toehold, just a slight grasp on your orientation, ascertain the identity of one dramatis personae, and then, with any luck the rest would fall into place.”

Already, by this stage, the woman in the Galway hat shop has faded into the background and become Michael Francis’s self-deceiving, garrulous, embarrassing, loving, mother. It’s London, in that heat-hazed, ladybird-clouded summer of 1976, and in her hopelessly circuitous way, Gretta is trying to tell her son that his father popped out to buy a paper that morning and hasn’t come back since.

O’Farrell’s fictional characters have always been so resolutely three-dimensional that many people might assume that they are all drawn directly from life, that all of her fiction is therefore heavily autobiographical. It’s not, yet the more you admire a novel, the more you want to want to identify which apparently inconsequential tendrils started out in real life before blossoming in the writer’s imagination. And with a novel as pitch-perfect as Instructions for a Heatwave – every bit as enjoyable as O’Farrell’s Costa-winning The Hand That First Held Mine or her 2000 debut After You’d Gone – I’ll take all the tendrils I can find.

She arrives on time at the Edinburgh cafe at which we had arranged to meet, with her six-month old baby daughter Juno, sleeping quietly in her pram. Halfway through the interview, Juno wakes up and eyes me with incredulity. Then again, she eyes everything with incredulity: a spoon, a bottle of warmed milk, some guy who’s asking your mother about the summer of ‘76 …

“This book was a bit of a surprise,” says O’Farrell, “because I’d actually started writing something else – a big, historical novel for which I had already done the research. But it was like radio interference: I started getting images and snatches of conversation from this family in a kitchen, and I realised I had come across a more contemporary novel than the one I was working on.

“It was spring 2010, around the time that Icelandic volcano erupted. I started noticing how people reacted to that, how they were both furious and terrified, what with the airports being shut and people having to take taxis across continents, how it made everyone realise that we’re not supreme beings after all.

“I kept thinking, ‘This reminds me of something. What is it?’ And then I realised, it was the summer of ‘76. I was four at the time. We were living in south Wales (her family moved to North Berwick when she was 13 and her father got a job as an economics lecturer at Heriot-Watt university), which was one of the worst affected areas.”

She talks fast, at a Sandi Toksvig-like speed that must test the outer limits of shorthand, in sentences that somehow manage to be grammatical at the same time. As a naturally slow person, I usually find this slightly intimidating; with her, that seems blocked out by an innate affability.

“That 1976 heatwave occupies an interesting place in the national psyche,” she rattles on, “in the middle of that decade of change, miners’ strikes, three-day weeks and the worst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. You’ve only got to mention it and – at least in England – people start talking about the ladybirds and the Tarmac melting, and the cracks in the earth that started to appear. My brother-in-law in London told me about losing his toy cars in those cracks, so naturally I put that in the book too.”

The heatwave tautens already tense relationships within Gretta Riordan’s family. “As a child you think the relationships within the family you are born into are fixed,” says O’Farrell, “but as you get older relationships change between siblings and parents. That’s something you often only realise in your thirties or whenever you have branched out and made your own family. So here there are three siblings locked into their old roles but finding that they don’t fit any more.”

It isn’t just Gretta who, trying to understand why her husband appears to have walked out on her after decades of a quietly companionable marriage, has to face up to her own secrets. All three of her children do too. There’s Michael Francis’s brief affair with a fellow-teacher, Monica’s inexplicable falling-out with her sister Aoife, and Aoife’s secret inability to read. Overarching everything, though, is a deep secret that binds Gretta and her husband, for which the answers can only be found on a family journey to a remote Irish island.

All of the Riordans are expertly drawn, so individuated that to hear any two of them talk you’d realise which of them it was. O’Farrell’s own Hibernian background helps here, as do family memories of being Irish in the 1970s – long after the “no blacks or Irish need apply” era but still scarred by residual prejudices. At school, a teacher used to make fun of her and tell a lot of Irish jokes; long afterwards, even as late as the 1990s, when she was one of very few pupils from Scottish state schools to win a place at Cambridge, she could still be brought up short by British suspicion of the Irish. “In the book there’s a line in which someone asks Michael Francis if he supported the IRA. That happened to me when I met a friend’s parents in the 1990s. Even at the time, it was a jawdropping thing to ask someone.”

She had “no problem” writing in the voice of Michael Francis, but getting the one for his sister Monica – the stepmother to two resentful daughters of her much older husband – proved harder. “Then our cat died,” she laughs, “and it came easier.” The stepdaughters blame Monica for the cat’s death which, exquisite tragi-comic timing, happens on the very day her father disappears.

All of which leaves Aoife. Gretta’s youngest daughter, whose secret – successfully masked for all her life – is that she is unable to read. “I always wanted Aoife to have some sort of curse,” she grins, “because I always think that – and sorry about this, Juno – the third or last child always in folk tales has to carry the brunt of the curse.”

Even though Juno is at this very moment looking at me as if I am inane, I feel obliged to stick up for her, younger sister as she is to Saul, nine, and three-year-old Iris. “Surely the youngest child is always the one who is the luckiest?” I smarm. And indeed Juno’s birth in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary last year went, O’Farrell tells me, was altogether less traumatic than her two previous ones at London’s Royal Free, in the first of which she came close to losing her life.

“A lot of my fiction starts off with the ‘What if?’ question,” O’Farrell explains. When he was about five, my son was diagnosed with dyslexia, so I was reading quite a bit about it. The parent in me said, ‘We’ve got to solve this, I’ve got to do everything I can.’ But the novelist in me was thinking, ‘What if you had this at a time when dyslexia wasn’t really known about at all? “Because that’s Aoife’s story in the novel. Although in the US dyslexia was known about in the 1970s, I’m not sure if the teachers would have known about it when I was at school. All those children who were stuck at the bottom of the reading table, who were condemned forever to be reading Janet and John books, what help did they have?”

A woman in a Galway shop. An exploding volcano in Iceland. A boy losing his toy cars in the dry earth. A friend’s father being embarrassing over dinner. Parental worries about dyslexia. Yet there’s infinitely more to O’Farrell’s hugely enjoyable novel than this. Creating it isn’t down to accumulating detail but to the craft of storytelling, and the flow of imagination. It’s about confidence, ambition, weaving things together. It’s about her own growth as a writer, right from that moment in 1996 when two eminent novelists told her that not only was what she was working on an excellent novel but that they wanted to send it to their agent when she had finished.

O’Farrell was 24 when Elspeth Barker and Barbara Trapido told her that about the novel that was to become After You’d Gone. Until then, she had looked on writers as impossibly glamorous beings, the way you do when you’re 19 and have a summer job helping out at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

But here she was, in the library of Ted Hughes’s old house at Lumb Bank, near Hebden Bridge, at the Arvon Foundation course tutored by Barker and Trapido. And she was so excited by what they had told her, that she ran out of the house and down the lane.

It was December, night had long since fallen, and there are no streetlights so high up the valley. In any case, the road wasn’t Tarmac. It would be easy to fall at the best of times. O’Farrell clattered off the road and into a ditch, chest-high in icy water.

How do I know about the streetlights, about the unmetalled lane? Because – and here’s the tiniest of all tendrils – I was on an Arvon Foundation course at Lumb Bank myself. And I’ve just worked out when. I remember the heat. I remember that summer. I remember 1976.

• Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell, is published by Tinder Press, price £18.99.