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Maggie O’Farrell: ‘I wrote at least 17 separate drafts of After You’d Gone’ | How I wrote

T.The short answer to how I wrote my first novel would be: arbitrary. I was 22 and traveling back overland from Hong Kong, where I had lived, when I went to a museum near Irkutsk. I was the only visitor and as I went down a flight of stairs I jumped out of my skin when I thought I saw someone coming towards me. It was just my own reflection. I returned to my hostel and wrote several pages in the back of my travel diary about a woman who was surprised by an unexpected image in a mirror.

It would be two more years before I started the novel, but those paragraphs about the mirror remained; They appear almost untouched in the final version of the novel at the beginning of the third part. (I used to teach creative writing and always tell this story to my students as evidence of the maxim, “Never throw away anything you wrote.”)

When I got back to the UK, I was engrossed in the practicalities of my new adult life: find work, move to London, rent a room, break up with a friend, hang out with another. If I look back in my notebooks, I can see that I have produced rather incompetent poetry.

What changed everything for me was borrowing an old Apple Macintosh: a box-shaped, gray thing the weight of a toddler. A friend’s mother was what we now call an upgrade. I asked if I could possibly borrow it and she said yes. So I pushed it back into my damp room, put it in my pocket, and the cursor flashed up and down in the upper left corner of a snowstorm-white page: waiting, signaling, ready for flight.

I never wrote poetry again. The flow and flexibility of a keyboard unlocked something. I found my feet in the long rhythm of prose, the monogamous engagement of the plot, the innumerable possibilities to solve the riddle of the narrative. I discovered the most satisfying job I’ve ever faced, flown to whenever I had the chance.

Unless, of course, it’s never that easy and the math shows this: I started After You’d Gone in 1996 and it was released in 2000. There is never a straight line between starting and finishing a book. I’ve written 75,000 words; I deleted 40,000. I rounded up a magical realism thread and introduced a new character. When I look at my hard drive, I see evidence of at least 17 separate drafts.

I wrote in the evening, after work, on the weekend, in the middle of the night. The insomnia that had plagued me since childhood was finally taking on a purpose. I’ve moved eleven times, from apartment to bed to shared apartment; I had three jobs at one point. I finished what I proudly considered the first draft. It was, of course, a dog dinner with too many actions, shady supernatural touches, and nervous linguistic flourishes.

An Arvon Foundation novel writing course taught by Elspeth Barker and Barbara Trapido came at just the right time. I handed in the dog’s dinner and on the second night they asked me. Their faces were serious when I walked into the library, and of course I came to the conclusion that they thought what I had written was so bad that I had to leave the class immediately. What they said, however, was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received: go ahead and don’t use too many adverbs.

I was so excited by their encouragement that I ran outside into the Yorkshire wintry darkness and fell straight into a ditch. I fidgeted for a while in the icy, treacherous water, thinking that my hour had come, that my novel would never end. But then the thought spurred me on that no one would ever delete these strange adverbs. I struggled on my hands and knees – wet, smelling, determined.

• After You’d Gone is published by Tinder. To order a copy, go to Shipping costs may apply. Her most recent novel, Hamnet, won the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

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