Maggie O’Farrell: ‘Life is too short to waste time on books you don’t like'

The award-winning author on being inspired by Angela Carter and struggling with Henry James

The book I am currently reading
Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. I picked it not knowing anything about her – that fabulous title was enough – and I was swept away by the energy and immediacy of the stories. She has all the verve and daring of the best of Junot Díaz, with the insight of Edith Pearlman. I’m slowing down because I don’t want the book to end.

The book that changed my life
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. It was one of the first books I read after I finished my degree. Having spent three years immersed in classics, I was dumbfounded by Carter’s irreverence and inventiveness. It made me want to have a stab at prose; up until that point I’d only written poetry. Quite bad poetry.

The book I wish I’d written
I’m not sure I wish I’d written it – because how on earth could I possibly have done so? – but I wholeheartedly admire and adore Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. If I could only save one book from a supernatural conflagration of all books ever written, it would be this one.

The book that influenced my writing
The economy and particularity of Albert Camus’s The Outsider set against the generous scope and unsettling omniscience of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.

The book that is most underrated
Amy Bloom is well known for her novels – and rightly so – but I have been in love with her short stories for years. The economy and pacing she employs while describing the entire lifespan of a character fascinates me, as does her understanding of the tension between our interiors and exteriors. I am always urging people to read them.

The book that changed my mind
Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife is a rigorously researched and deftly argued examination of the life of Anne Hathaway. It made me fully aware of the obloquy that has been inexplicably heaped upon her for centuries, by scholars and popular culture alike. I read it when I was beginning to write Hamnet and it made me want to give Anne Hathaway a voice and narrative of her own.

The last book that made me cry
I cannot get enough of Mary Oliver’s poems but they often make me a bit tearful so I try not to read them in public. My favourite is probably “Green, Green Is My Sister’s House”; the line “It is impossible not / to remember wild and want it back” gets me every time.

The last book that made me laugh
My daughters and I have been reading Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers together, which is a firm favourite in our house. The relationship between Sophie and her ward, the absent-minded but affectionately liberal Charles, always makes us laugh. We particularly love it when he comes up against the dull and tedious child services woman, who believes that girls should wear dresses and always brush their hair. Hilarious notions.

The book that I couldn’t finish
I confess to making heavy weather of Henry James. I have, more times than I care to admit, made an optimistic start on The Bostonians before swerving away to read something else. Maybe this is the year I’ll make it to the end.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
There should be no shame attached to reading, only pleasure. If you’re not enjoying a book, I tell my children, put it down and try a different one. Life is too short and libraries too large to waste time on books you don’t like.

The book I give as a gift
The one I’ve probably wrapped up most often is Life After Birth by the brilliant Kate Figes. It’s a collection of essays about early motherhood, and I give it to friends who have just had a baby. It’s part insight, part research, part memoir: a mix that Figes pulled off like no other. I remember reading it during night feeds in the first few weeks of my son’s life and it instantly made me feel less alone. I am now deep into her book about the other end of parenting, The Terrible Teens, which is mystifyingly out of print. Someone, somewhere, please reissue it.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
The many books I’ve read to my children. There are books encountered at an early age that infiltrate your being, and they return to you throughout your life, along with the voices that read them to you. I suppose I’d like my offspring, in their distant adulthood, to occasionally recall that specific comfort and thrill of a good bedtime story.

My earliest reading memory
I was listening to my parents’ copy of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper with the sleeve lyrics open. The track “Fixing a Hole” began to play and I realised that I could see and comprehend the words in front of me because they matched what Paul McCartney was singing. It was an extraordinary, explosive epiphany for me.

My comfort read
Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour and Loving and Giving. She is devastatingly good at dialogue and setting and plot: these two of hers, in particular, are perfect.

• Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder.


Maggie O’Farrell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell review – an audacious account of marital breakdown
A former film star withdraws from the world in this latest novel from a compelling chronicler of relationships

Alfred Hickling

27, May, 2016 @8:29 AM

Article image
Maggie O'Farrell: ‘Severe illness refigures you – it’s like passing through a fire’
The Women’s prize winner reflects on the life‑threatening virus that shaped her writing, the superstitions that held her back, and why her prize-winning novel Hamnet speaks to our times

Lisa Allardice

27, Mar, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Jojo Moyes: ‘I frequently don’t finish books. I feel it’s mean to name them, though’
The novelist on her love of telling stories, early reading trauma and laughing out loud mid-air

Jojo Moyes

07, Feb, 2020 @9:58 AM

Article image
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell review – 17 brushes with death
An encounter with a murderer, a plummeting plane and severe illness are among the episodes detailed in this elegant, thought-provoking memoir

Fiona Sturges

18, Aug, 2017 @7:59 AM

Article image
David Nicholls: 'Gifting books feels like changing the music at someone else’s party'
The author and screenwriter on being inspired by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, feeling gloomy over Moomins and rereading Franny and Zooey

David Nicholls

10, Aug, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
My writing day: Maggie O’Farrell
‘There is nothing so dangerous to good writing as having too much time, too much liberty. You need the filtration system of being kept from your work.’

Maggie O'Farrell

17, Dec, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Mark Billingham: ‘I don’t finish any book I’m not enjoying. Reading should be a pleasure'
The novelist on the stunning feats of Dashiell Hammett, Daniel Woodrell and Danny Baker

Mark Billingham

05, Jan, 2018 @9:59 AM

Article image
Elizabeth Gilbert: ‘Don’t we all wish we’d written Wolf Hall?’
The bestselling author on her love of Tove Jansson, trying to read Ulysses and why we shouldn’t ‘book-shame’

Elizabeth Gilbert

27, Mar, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Mark Haddon: 'The only books I wish I’d written are better versions of my own'
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time author on discovering Germaine Greer, his dislike of Stieg Larsson and the comforts of reading The Wind in the Willows

Mark Haddon

29, May, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Hisham Matar: International literature is hugely underrated, while English books are often overrated
The British-Libyan writer on an uncensored Arabian Nights, why Proust makes you feel smarter – and the diaries of a pianist that changed his life

Hisham Matar

20, Apr, 2018 @9:00 AM