Richard and Judy ask Maggie O’Farrell

Richard and Judy ask Maggie O’Farrell

We both vividly remember the summer of 1976. Do you? Were you there?

I was four at the time and it forms the backdrop for some of my earliest memories. We had moved from Ireland to South Wales, an area much affected by the drought. No water came out of the taps and we were not allowed to have baths. I remember going to a standpipe in the street with my dad to collect our daily allowance in a big, white water drum. It all seemed terribly exciting; the anxiety and uncertainty of the situation didn’t quite filter through to me at the time. I think the heatwave of 1976 was, to the children of Britain, just an endless, light-filled summer. It was only when I started to research this novel that I realised how serious the heatwave had been, how extensive was the drought. When I came across the Drought Act, which was rushed through parliament in 1976, I couldn’t believe that the government were preparing themselves for civil unrest and riots over water. It was such a fascinating document that I had to put it in the novel: extracts from it appear at the start of each section.

You write most convincingly about a family with deep Irish roots living in the UK. How much is based on personal experience?

It’s not an autobiographical novel in any direct sense. The Riordans bear no resemblance to my own family but the cultural milieu is lifted from my experience. I’ve never written about my Irish background before, partly because Ireland has produced an astonishing number of talented writers, and partly because I was wary of producing something fake and ‘Eiresatz’. There is a strange urge that affects people all over the globe to claim themselves as Irish: I didn’t want to be part of that, didn’t want to write the literary equivalent of the Irish-theme pub. As I mostly grew up in Britain, I decided I would write about the emigrant and second-generation Irish experience: the cultural gaps, the homesickness, the disparity between generations. The prejudice and racism faced by the Irish in Britain, especially in the 1970s, had to be a part of the novel as well. Gretta’s anecdote about being thrown out of a shop by someone brandishing a newspaper with a headline about a terrorist bomb is a true story. What happens to Michael Francis when he meets his girlfriend’s parents also comes from life: a boyfriend’s father once asked me over dinner whether I was in the IRA. He couldn’t understand it when I took exception to the question.

Relationships between siblings can be famously tricky (just look at Lear’s daughters). Is that why you were drawn to this theme so strongly in this story – a rich ocean of emotions to harvest?

I was keen to explore the relationships between adult siblings, between people who have a whole lifetime of shared history behind them. Something I find interesting about getting older is how the dynamics of the family you were born into can shift. In your teens and twenties you’d be forgiven for believing that those relationships are set in stone, that they will never change. But the pressures of adulthood – children, careers, marriages, mortgages, ageing parents – can cause seismic shifts in traditional roles and order. Siblings can try to force each other into discarded versions of their younger selves: Instructions for a Heatwave looks at the consequences of this.

Your descriptions of how Monica must walk on eggshells with her stepchildren rang very true. Is there some autobiographical experience being drawn on here?

I don’t have stepchildren but it is a relationship I’ve witnessed. It can be difficult to define your role as a step-parent: you’re a not-quite parent, a relative who’s not related, a family member who arrives late in the day, someone who is intimately involved in a family’s mechanics yet perhaps unaware of their origins. Monica tries so hard with her stepchildren – perhaps a little too hard.