Maggie O’Farrell on her new novel This Must Be the Place


So this is the story of Daniel, an American
professor, living in the wilds of Ireland, and he’s married to a reclusive ex-film star.
And he makes a discovery about a woman he knew twenty years ago and this information
is enough to send him off course, far from home and far from Claudette and his family.
It’s a novel very much about leaving and arriving and about what it means to belong to a place
or a person, but most of all it’s a portrait of a marriage — the forces that hold it together
and the pressures that drive it apart. Well I’d had this idea of writing a novel about
a woman who drops out of life, who has had quite a lot of fame quite quickly and hates
it, and so just becomes a recluse. But I couldn’t — it was a story I couldn’t quite find the
right angle or the right way in — and then one day I just had this idea that what should
happen is that somebody, a man, should come across her in the middle of nowhere and have
no idea who she is. And she’s so surprised by this that they start to form a relationship.
So that’s kind of how Daniel came to be, he suddenly seemed to be the key into the story
that I wanted to write; the idea of a man who’s very sociable but is slightly oblivious,
so he kind of comes across her and doesn’t quite clock what the situation is. I realised
because Claudette walks out on her life that she would leave an awful lot of stuff behind;
she just walked out one day with a tiny backpack and her son, so everything from her life,
every possession, every item of clothing, every letter that makes up the fabric of her
life is left behind. And I was interested in the idea about the story that objects can
tell about you, that they have their own narrative. The things that you live with and live among.
And also I have a friend who’s an auctioneer and he sometimes tells me about the things
he’s auctioning and I never really understood the kind of draw for people to spend huge
amounts of money on things that belonged to famous people; I never really got it, it always
slightly baffled me. And then one day he said, “I’ve got a letter by Charlotte Brontë. Do
you want to see it?” And of course Charlotte Brontë is a huge heroine of mine, and so
he did — he let me hold it, and I could run my finger along the line of the ink that she
had written. And it was only then that I could understand that kind of thrill, and I think
it’s all about fingerprints, it’s all about touch, you get to touch something that these
people touched. It’s that kind of collapsing down of distance and your life and theirs.
So it was only then that I realised the reason — realised the kind of thrill of it. I had
already written Claudette’s disappearance in a different location and the scene wasn’t
quite working, I couldn’t really find out why, it just — it didn’t seem convincing,
it wasn’t quite ‘there’. And anyway, I was staying on this very remote island in Sweden
and my daughter was a baby at the time; she for some reason, I don’t know why, but in
Sweden she woke up every day at 5am, like a Swedish sort of jetlag or something. I was
out with her on this tiny island pushing her round in her pushchair at five o’clock in
the morning trying to get her to go back to sleep — and she finally did, and I parked
her on this little tiny beach and I went for a swim. It wasn’t even dawn, the sun was just
coming up and I was swimming along and — you know, it was the middle of nowhere in this
totally silent archipelago and I was swimming, and I suddenly thought, “This is where. This
is where you disappear.”

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