I've always been interested in people who exit from their lives

Instructions for a Heatwave

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Wales and in Scotland. She won the Costa Book Award for Best Novel in 2010 for her novel The Hand That First Held Mine. Her sixth novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, was nominated for the 2013 Costa Book Award.

The father is the great absent character of the novel, with an unremarkable past as a silent figure—compared to the mother’s constant presence. There are three children, Monica, Michael Francis and Aoife, but one could say it’s almost a story of women. How did you come up with these characters? Did any of them is even loosely based on people you might know or might have known?

No, I don’t tend to write autobiographically, I never have. It doesn’t really interest me. I wouldn’t really write about my own family, probably because they would kill me, rightly so! I much prefer to make things up, it’s more interesting. I see this kind of writing as an alternative to my life. I wouldn’t just want to plug through something that happened to me…
The Riordans don’t bear any relation to actual people. I think that Gretta, the mother, was the one that appeared first. She kind of insisted to be written about, she sort of appeared one day. She just wouldn’t stop talking, I had to just write her down. She will talk and talk, but she’s one of those people who would talk but not actually tell you anything, not the important point. She’s married to Robert, who’s the opposite, he’s very silent. At the beginning of the novel, he walks out, he disappears.
I’ve always been interested in people who exit from their lives, it fascinates me. The reason why somebody would do that, a drastic and brutal thing to do really! How do you pull it off, how do you start your life elsewhere? While I was writing the novel, I met a retired policeman who specialized in missing persons. I said to him that I was writing this novel about someone who walked out on his life, and he said that the number of people who did that rose during a heatwave. As soon as he said that, I had this vision of Gretta and her children in a very hot kitchen, trying to work out the conundrum of where he might have gone. The novel just took off from there.

As the title suggests, the heatwave is a central element in the background. It influences the characters and their behaviour, it shapes their actions. When you first started working on this novel, was it the first element that came to your mind?

The characters first came to mind, and also the idea of someone walking out on their life, opening the front door and disappearing. The heatwave was a kind of secondary thing. I don’t know what it was like in France, but the 1976 heatwave in Britain was a very very big event. I was four at the time, so it forms a kind of bedrock of my earliest memories. I remember it very very clearly, standing on the back step. I was four years old, and the world was this kind of bright light-filled place. I think that it’s one of these things, if you talk about it to anyone who lived through it in Britain or Ireland at the time, it’s like a sort of key that would unlock something. As a novelist, it’s gold dust! Normally, I don’t tell anybody what I’m working on, but in this book I actually did, because I found it was a kind of magic spell or lock. If you say to people: “I’m writing about the 1976 heatwave”, complete strangers would suddenly tell you incredible stuff! One of the things that the policeman mentioned to me is that the number of missing persons increased during the heatwave, but also divorces and domestic meltdowns, and I think you can see why. I was very interested in the idea of what heat does to our behaviour, how it wears us down, emotions run very very high. It seemed irresistible as a kind of catalyst for a novel. People would tell me all kinds of things: for example, I sat next to a woman on the bus, I told her that I was writing about that, and she said: “Oh, that was the summer when I had an affair with my next door neighbour”! This happened all the time, everybody had this sort of amazing recall of it. I think it’s probably because it comes in the middle of a decade, in the 1970’s. In Britain, it was a very difficult decade, we had four different Prime Ministers, there was huge political, economic, and social unrest, lots of riots and strikes. Besides, the relationship between Britain and Ireland was at its lowest point and the troubles in Northern Ireland were horribly violent. It was frightening for everybody, there were a lot of bomb threats, it was a pretty difficult decade. Right in the middle of it, you get this incredibly long beautiful summer that everybody remembers with this sort of passion.

Children all have their minor or major struggles that they have to deal with on a daily basis: there’s Aoife’s illiteracy, Monica feeling out of place in her marriage, Michael Francis’s uncommunicative wife. Is this the portrait of a generation bound to make compromises?

I think so. With Michael Francis and his wife, I was interested in writing about a sort of ripple effect of the feminist movement. Claire is not a hardcore feminist at all, or even on a political level, but I think that the movement was starting to be felt, especially in suburban houses. That’s what Claire is experiencing: she gets pregnant at university, she doesn’t finish her degree, she becomes a mother and a stay at home wife. In this way, some feminists were blazing a trail, enabling people like Claire to say: “actually, I do want to finish my degree, and I’m going to do it, and I’m going to study”. I think Michael Francis is a good man, he’s not at all a patriarch, but I think he finds it very difficult that suddenly his wife wants to study, and she doesn’t really want to make the dinner, and the children are running wild through the house. I think he finds it difficult when he comes home from work and the house is a mess, he doesn’t really like it. I was interested in what was happening in some places, in some houses, in the 1970s. Women were starting to think that they wanted something different. Monica, the second child, is married for a second time after a very traumatic divorce. She’s married very hastily, she’s a stepmother and finding that quite difficult, looking after two girls who hate her. Aoife, the youngest, is an undiagnosed dyslexic. She cannot read, she’s functionally illiterate, but she manages to hide this from everybody around her.
While I was researching the novel, one of my children was diagnosed as dyslexic, so that’s something I was reading about. It’s not something I knew much about, so I read lots of books about it. I suppose that, as a novelist, I kept thinking “what if you had this at the time”? But there was no diagnosis available, there were no books to help, no special teachers or extra lessons. If you just fell through the cracks, nobody helped you. It was just heartbreaking to imagine these children before anyone knew what it was. They were just left here to flounder, to struggle. I met someone who was in her sixties before she told her husband and her grown up children that she couldn’t read. She couldn’t read anything at all and she hid it from them for forty years, she had lots of strategies to hide it. One of the things she used to do is that she’d take her two sons to the library to get storybooks out, and she always made sure her husband read them first. When he read them, she would hide behind the bedroom door and memorize them, because dyslexics often develop an astonishing memory, they recall spoken words. The next night, she would turn the pages as if she was reading it. It’s an amazing story… She did learn to read though! When she told her husband, he was absolutely appalled that she never told him before! She went into a kind of adult literacy group, and she’s 75 now and she can read.

It is not the first time in your work that a story revolves around a family. Would you think that transmission, or lack thereof, is a key element in your work?

I think families are always going to be irresistible to novelists. They’re sort of crucibles or melting pots of these very very different personalities. I think it’s always going to be interesting for a novelist, but I think that Gretta is one of those immigrants for whom it’s a struggle and a grief that her children have grown away from what she sees as Irish culture and also religious traditions.
She tries all the time to recall them to it, but, of course they all think of themselves as different from her. I think it’s hard in any family of second generation immigrants. There is a schism between them.

In the narration, flash backs follow events of the day of the disappearance, and this is a kind of narration you often use. Why do you use this sort of device?

In this novel, I wanted a very tight focus. The novels I wrote previously have a time span of fifty or sixty years, but this one happens on four consecutive days during the heatwave. It was a bit like looking down a sort of telephoto lens. I wanted the novel to have this very close focus. I always see the stories of the characters’ past and present and all was knit together. I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could write on only four days.

The novel sometimes reminded me of Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, in what is left unsaid, unraveling throughout the novel… Are there any authors that you feel had an influence for this novel?

I do read a lot of Irish books… One of them I really enjoyed whilst writing this one was Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. It’s a very beautiful novel about a girl who emigrates from the 1960s’ Ireland to the States. I read widely and a lot of American fiction, and Irish as well. One of the things I really wanted to tackle with this book is polyphony, the idea of multiple voices within a scene, where you switch between characters’ point of view, within the space of a page or so. I did that with something I wanted to study by closely, to see how other writers did it, it was a kind of challenge that I wanted to attempt with this book.
I did sort of study other writers to see how they dealt with multiple viewpoints and also families.
What I found is that I started with novels focusing on families, and then I found that I was casting my net wider and wider. It’s interesting to me that almost all fiction is based on the idea of family or lack of it thereof.
At some point, I was reading Hamlet, and I was thinking “this is a brilliant family drama!”, a guy whose mother shacks up with his uncle, and the uncle kills the dad… This is fantastic! It’s got all the elements of a wonderful family saga.

Editorial reviews (3 reviews)

Instructions for a Heatwave untangles the secrets and deceptions that mark a family’s history with a refreshing adeptness that make it a necessary read for a hot summer’s day.

A beautiful portrait of family life amid an unravelling crisis.

This is an accomplished and addictive story told with real humanity, warmth and infectious love for the characters. Highly recommended.