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The Women’s prize winner reflects on the life‑threatening virus that shaped her writing, the superstitions that held her back, and why her prize-winning novel Hamnet speaks to our times
Maggie O’Farrell found the prospect of writing the central scenes of her prize-winning novel Hamnet, in which a mother sits helplessly by the bedside of her dying son, so traumatic that she couldn’t write them in the house. Instead, she had to escape to the shed, and “not a smart writing shed like Philip Pullman’s”, she says, “but a really disgusting, spidery, manky potting shed, which has since blown down in a gale”. And she could only do it in short bursts of 15 or 20 minutes before she would have to take a walk around the garden, and then go back in again.
The novel, a fictionalised account of the death of Shakespeare’s only son from the bubonic plague (his twin sister Judith survived) and an at times almost unbearably tender portrayal of grief, was first published a year ago. An interlude halfway through, which follows the journey of the plague in 1595 from a flea on a monkey in Alexandria to a cabin boy back to London and eventually to Stratford, was referred to by an American journalist as “the contact tracing chapter”. “It certainly wasn’t conceived as that when I wrote it,” the author says of the extraordinary coincidence of her novel, set more than 400 years ago, landing in the middle of the pandemic, not least because she delayed writing it for decades.
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