Maggie O’Farrell: Face-to-Face with My Character

Maggie O’Farrell: Face-to-Face with My Character

This book sprang from an urge to experiment, to push back against the conventions of the novel, to find new ways of approaching narrative. The idea of the catalogue is rooted in something Claudette does before the novel even opens: at the height of her fame, she fakes her own death and runs away, to live in seclusion in a remote valley in Ireland.

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I began to think about what she would have discarded when she exited her life, all those things of hers that would be left in her house, and I realised that people would want them. Claudette is famous when she disappears and film fans would pay money to own something she had worn or used. With this chapter, in the form of a memorabilia auction catalogue, I was asking what kind of narrative do our possessions tell about us, what stories can be gleaned from the things we use, carry and live with?

It was a peculiar experience, collating the items to be photographed. I’ve been writing fiction for many years, but this was the first time I had ever had to make manifest a character, to transpose her into the real world, into tangible objects, clothes, handwriting, documents. Before, these people had lived only within the privacy of my head; now, I had to make the leap into the physical, the collective, the visual.

Gathering the objects was the last act of the book. I needed to finish writing it before I could turn my attention to the photographs. I wasn’t, until I’d submitted the final version of the manuscript, even sure if I would include visuals. I remember sitting at my desk, biting my pen, swizzling back and forth in my chair, thinking, could I, should I, can I? Then I picked up the phone, called my editor and said, let’s do it, and she, with her inimitable poise, without a moment’s hesitation, said, OK.

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So instead of the usual textual worries that crowd in when you’ve finished a book – did you place that comma correctly, should you have cut that paragraph, what about that dodgy adverb? – I was asking myself, what postcard would a brother send to a sister whose life was veering out of control? What would a woman hounded by the press have on her desk, keep in her wallet, hang on her wall? What might an unfaithful man give to his increasingly successful girlfriend?

Right at the end of a book, I was challenging myself to know – and display – my characters in a way I had never done before. I had to work out what these items would be. Then I had to find them.

The process turned out to be a strange disinterring and rediscovery of the way we used to live in the 1990s. The clothes, in a sense, were the easiest conundrum to solve: I looked through the dresses that I had saved from that time. I asked my friends who worked in fashion. I tracked down old magazines on eBay and flicked through the pages, marvelling at cigarette adverts, at the ruler-straight and tiger-streaked hair, at the shift dresses and stacked trainers.

Odd to recall a time before mobile phones, the internet, the ubiquity of instant communication, the threat of global terrorism. How benign that pre-millenial world suddenly seemed, as I scoured old boxes for cassette tapes, ticket stubs, reels of 8mm film, photographic negatives, sheets of fax paper.

I assembled my Claudette memorabilia along bookshelves and spent long periods standing in front of them, considering them, adding items, subtracting others. It was a process much like editing a length of text. What did this hospital band say about her? Was there a better way of saying it? A lighter or more concise or less bludgeoning way?

Taping a sheet to the wall in the lightest corner of the bedroom, I constructed a makeshift photography studio. At this point, my children were alerted to something out of the ordinary happening. Usually, my work couldn’t seem duller to them: I sit in front of a screen and my fingers move over a keyboard. This, however, was something new. My six-year-old had a magpie’s interest in the shelves of tickets, hairgrips, pieces of coral: if I found I was missing anything, I could invariably track it down to her room. My youngest child, two at the time, found particular satisfaction in yanking the sheet until it peeled free of its gaffer-tape restraints. My eldest son swooped down on my camera, usually off-limits but now switched on, uncapped and affixed to a tripod.

It’s thanks to him that these in-progress photographs exist. I had no idea he was taking them. While I set up my next shot, he was asking me how the camera worked, and I was explaining it, as I fitted the dress on to the mannequin, as I placed the sunglasses just so, as I shuffled the sheets of my film script. He also asked what I was doing and why and what kind of a novelhad photographs in it? He helped me print coffee rings on to a sheet of paper and proved more than delighted to be asked to kick a postcard around the room so as to make it look worn.

I like these snapshots because they offer an elliptical, fleeting insight into a process I have never tried before and will in all likelihood never try again. That, and a chance to visually eavesdrop on a conversation between a mother and her curiosity-filled boy.

The picture of me smoothing down the navy vintage dress never fails to give me a momentary shiver. There’s me, face to face with my character, just for a split-second. If you turn your head, half-close your eyes, it’s almost possible to see Claudette, properly, and for the first time, standing there with me.