Maggie O’Farrell Looks for Stories Hiding in Plain Sight

When the author Maggie O’Farrell was 6 or 7 years old, she loved writing secret messages in lemon juice and revealing them by toasting the paper over a candle. Then one day, she set the front of her hair on fire.

“It didn’t stop me doing it,” she said of her lemon juice hobby. “It just made me a little bit more careful.”

O’Farrell has always been drawn to hidden stories and overlooked histories, she said. That focus has become especially pronounced in her two most recent novels: “Hamnet,” about Shakespeare’s wife and children, and her latest book, “The Marriage Portrait,” which imagines the life of the 16-year-old who is thought to have inspired Robert Browning’s famous poem “My Last Duchess.” (“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive.”)

“The stories that are written in white,” O’Farrell said of unseen narratives, “are the ones that interest me.”

O’Farrell, who was born in Northern Ireland and has lived most of her life in Britain, has had a long, successful career there. “The Marriage Portrait,” which will be released on Sept. 6 in the United States, is her 11th book. But it was “Hamnet” that was her first hit in the United States, where it has sold 560,000 copies — it has sold about 1.6 million copies worldwide, according to her agent and publisher.

The novel centers on the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who dies at age 11. Notes at the beginning of the novel explain that Hamlet and Hamnet are the same name, interchangeable in records from that place and time, and that about four years after the death of his son, Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet.”

Named one of the 10 best books of 2020 by The New York Times Book Review, “Hamnet” is incredibly engrossing and sometimes playful, even though it is about the death of a child. It reduces many readers to a weepy, snotty mess.

“A lot of people come up to her and say ‘I loved your book’ and then describe this absolutely horrendous experience,” said William Sutcliffe, O’Farrell’s husband, who is also a writer. “‘It was like a nail in my heart!’ In any other walk of life, you might think she’d done something wrong.”

Maggie O’Farrell instantly knew she would write “The Marriage Portrait,” to be released on Tuesday, when she saw a portrait of Lucrezia de’ Medici.Credit…Robert Ormerod for The New York Times

“Hamnet” was a departure for O’Farrell. Until then, she had been a commercially successful contemporary novelist — most of her books have sold between 250,000 and 450,000 copies in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, according to her agent.

“Then she said to her people, OK, what I want to write next is a story about an 11-year-old boy in Elizabethan England who nobody’s heard of who dies of the plague,” her husband said. “A different editor or agent could have said, ‘Forget it, what are you talking about?’ But she got the opposite response. It was, ‘Yeah, go for it.’”

O’Farrell has had the same editor, Mary-Anne Harrington, and the same agent, Victoria Hobbs, since her first book. “The Marriage Portrait” is dedicated to the two of them. “Hamnet” was dedicated “To Will,” her husband, but she said that some readers have insisted to her that no, she must have meant the dedication for Will Shakespeare.

The idea for “Hamnet” had been kicking around in O’Farrell’s head for many years, she said, but she wanted to wait until her own son was past the age Hamnet was when he died. Her son used to joke that he wouldn’t have a birthday party that year, she said, because she’d be shut away writing. (He did; it was a trampoline party.) He is 19 now. She also has two daughters who are 13 and 10.

The idea for “The Marriage Portrait,” by contrast, came like a wave crashing into her. It was February 2020 and she had arrived uncharacteristically early, she said, to pick up her elder daughter from a play date — the last one, as it happened, before the Covid lockdown.

O’Farrell was sitting in her car, writing in her diary about Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. (She is a fast and prodigious reader, aided by the fact that she is also an insomniac. Her husband says he will routinely read four pages, fall asleep and wake up to discover she’s finished an entire book.) O’Farrell began wondering if the most famous of the monologues, “My Last Duchess,” was based on a real person.

O’Farrell describes herself as a late adopter of technology who generally uses her son’s hand-me-down smartphones until they die on her, so when she pulled out her phone to look up the Duchess, the information came in clunky and slow. But piece by piece, a portrait began to load of Lucrezia de’ Medici, who was married to the Duke of Ferrara when she was a teenager in the mid-16th century.

“I could see the head dress, then I could see this brow, and then, gradually, the eyes,” O’Farrell said. The moment she saw the portrait, she thought: This is my next book. “I just wanted to pull back the curtain and say, OK, right. It’s your turn to speak. What story are you going to tell?”

The novel follows Lucrezia, the daughter of a powerful duke. She is a spirited young woman who loves to paint and does not fit comfortably into the expectations imposed on her by her family. She is married off to the Duke of Ferrara, a man she does not know, who is a good deal older than she is.

The book opens just as the young duchess realizes that her husband wants to kill her.

“One of the things that runs through all of her work is that Maggie is on intimate terms with mortal terror,” said Jordan Pavlin, the editor in chief at Knopf, who edits and publishes O’Farrell in the United States. “This gives all her work a sense of urgency, this awareness of how thin the membrane is between life and death.”

Nowhere is this more true than in O’Farrell’s memoir, “I Am, I Am, I Am,” which is about 17 brushes with death. These include a terrible bout of encephalitis when she was 8 that left her partially paralyzed for about a year, and a run-in on an isolated hiking trail when she was 18 with a man who killed a young woman in the same spot a few days later. The final chapter focuses on her elder daughter’s life-threatening allergies and the incredible compendium of risk O’Farrell must analyze whenever her child leaves the house.

O’Farrell at home in Edinburgh, where she writes in a reconstructed greenhouse in the back yard.Credit…Robert Ormerod for The New York Times

O’Farrell and those who know her well say she is an incredibly private person — she jokes that if she tells her husband she’s going out and he asks where to, she’ll say, “I don’t want to tell you!” even if she’s just going to the post office. So she wrote “I Am” under a contract for 1 pound, which meant she wouldn’t have to return a large advance if she decided never to publish. In Britain, you generally have to deposit a 1-pound coin to use a shopping cart at the grocery store, and she said she sent a picture of a rented cart to her editor and her agent with a note that said, “I’ve spent my advance.”

She also doesn’t like to talk about her work as she’s writing it. Even her husband will know, at most, just the vaguest setting of her latest book, a veil of secrecy that ensures he’ll have fresh eyes when he comes to the project as her first reader. Recently, she said, she started writing something new, which her husband intuited. She told him she didn’t want to talk about it.

Her 13-year-old daughter noticed, too.

“I found her lurking outside my writing studio,” O’Farrell said, of the reconstructed greenhouse in the backyard of their Edinburgh home. Pulling her voice into a whisper, her daughter told her: “I know you’ve started — but I’m not going to tell anyone!”

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