Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 winner Maggie O’Farrell talks to Stylist about the life lesson we can all learn from her novel Hamnet, the female writers we should be reading right now, and what it’s been like writing from her children’s Wendy house during lockdown.
When the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 shortlist was announced earlier this year, we knew the judges had yet another difficult job on their hands.
Novels by Bernardine Evaristo, Jenny Offill, Hilary Mantel, Angie Cruz, Maggie O’Farrell, and Natalie Haynes were the six books chosen to compete for the prestige prize in its 25th year. The pressure was on to pick a winner from a selection that many of us have raced through and loved in lockdown.
But Stylist can now share the news that O’Farrell has won with her book, Hamnet.
Set in 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon, O’Farrell’s eighth novel is a beautiful and emotionally heavy story about Hamnet – the 11-year-old son of a certain William Shakespeare – who desperately searches for someone to look after his sick twin sister, Judith. The tale goes on to be a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.
Martha Lane Fox, Chair of Judges, explained the reasons for choosing Hamnet, saying: “The euphoria of being in the same room for the final judging meeting was quickly eclipsed by the excitement we all feel about this exceptional winner. Hamnet, while set long ago, like all truly great novels expresses something profound about the human experience that seems both extraordinarily current and at the same time, enduring.”
Speaking to Stylist over the phone ahead of the announcement on Wednesday 9 September, O’Farrell said it felt “an elaborate prank” and that she couldn’t believe she’d be joining the list of winners she’d excitedly scrolled through the night before. “Am I really going to be one of these?” she laughed, “It’s unbelievable, really”.
As the reality of the fact that she most definitely is the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 winner finally started to settle in, she opened up to discuss exactly what this means.
What do you think this year’s shortlist showed about women writers in 2020?
It was so strong and incredibly diverse: these different stories coming from different geographies and times in history. I think the shortlist shows the huge scope of people’s imaginations and what we can learn from all these narratives and listening to people. It was such a joy just being a part of that whole gang.
We’ve all been experiencing collective grief over the last six months, which is a big theme in the book – how do you think works of art like Hamnet can help us understand grieving better during this time?
We don’t know how Hamnet died (the real boy, not the fictional version in my book). There’s no record for his cause of death, but we do know he died in high summer during the plague year, so it’s possible that he died of the Black Death.
Something that’s really intrigued me is that Shakespeare never mentions the plague in any of his plays and poetry, which is extraorindary when you think of how common it was and how everybody feared it all the time. So we can look at Hamlet as his pandemic play; it’s possible to see it like that if Hamnet did indeed die of the plague.
When I wrote the book I wanted to write about why we create art, why we need to see it and listen to the narratives of others and submerge ourselves in other people’s stories and listen to each other. So, in a sense, I think art will come out of this experience from the last six months – none of us are untouched by it.
Does winning the prize during the pandemic change your relationship with this book?
Usually, when I finish a book, the minute I put the last full stop is when my relationship with it is sort of over and out of the picture. But with this book it has been really different.
Writing it was an exercise in research and imagination, trying to think what it would be like to be at the mercy of an illness that was sweeping across the globe towards you. The Black Death was a terrifying illness: it could kill a person in 24 hours and they had very little defense against it with not much knowledge. It killed a quarter of a million of the population.
So living through this pandemic has brought me closer to my characters. It’s the only time actually that I’ve felt differently about a book after finishing it.
What kinds of conversations do you hope Hamnet sparks among readers when they talk to friends or discuss it in book clubs?
I find book clubs very frightening: the idea of people sitting with a glass of wine and ripping my book apart!
Writing a book, you’ve got to let go of it and release it into the word. People will take from it what they take from it, and that’s part of the joy.
But I hope people will cherish their loved ones more, and think carefully about how frail the membrane between life and death is. We could lose them; so treasure the ones you love is what I’d want people to take from it.
What female writers would you urge people to read right now?
How long have you got? If you want to go back, I’d say George Eliot and the Brontes (Charlotte is my favourite). I also love Molly Keane – she’s a slightly overlooked Irish writer, but she wrote brilliantly about relationships.
These days, I love Elizabeth Strout (Oliver Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton) and Orange Prize winner AM Homes (May We Be Forgiven, The End of Alice).
There’s also a book recommended by American Marriage author Tayari Jones that I read and it’s really stuck with me: The Street by Anne Petry, which is about a single mother trying to survive in Harlem.
And Mary Oliver if you’re in the mood for a bit of poetry. She’s brilliant at writing about connection and our need for the natural world, which I think is something we’ve all been feeling more recently.
How have you found writing in lockdown?
I’ve had three children to homeschool, so it’s been a challenge to find time and a bit of headspace. There was one day when my husband was doing the homeschooling and I was really trying to concentrate on writing but people kept coming in, the dog was sick on the carpet – it drove me bananas. I actually ended up hiding and working in my daughter’s Wendy house with my laptop.
Did lockdown inspire you?
It’s too early to say… But one of the joys is that I’ve written a children’s book that’s coming out at the end of the year. Lockdown became very monotonous so it was a real joy to collaborate with someone else, for the first time, and getting these exquisite watercolour illustrations for the book in my email inbox.
What would you like to see more of or see change in women’s literature?
The thing about it is, it’s just so unpredictable – and I love that. You never quite know what someone’s going to do. But certainly, we all need to respond to and consider the Black Lives Matter movement. We really need to make sure that we’re listening to each other, because we must hear other people’s narratives.
To celebrate the Prize’s 25th anniversary, in November, readers will crown the ‘Winner of Winners’, chosen from the 25 winning novels since the Prize’s inception. You can cast your vote on the website.
Images: Women’s Prize For Fiction