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

The Costa and Women’s prize winner on the long gestation of her debut novel

The short answer as to how I wrote my first novel would be: haphazardly. I was 22 and travelling back overland from Hong Kong, where I’d been living, when I went to a museum near Irkutsk. I was the only visitor, and wandering down a staircase, I jumped out of my skin when I thought I saw someone walking towards me. It was only my own reflection. I returned to my hostel and in the back of my travel diary wrote several pages about a woman startled by an unexpected image in a mirror.

It would be another two years before I embarked on the novel, but those paragraphs about the mirror survived; they appear, almost untouched, in the final version of the novel, at the beginning of Part Three. (I used to teach creative writing and I always told this story to my students, as proof of the maxim: “Never throw out anything you’ve written”.)

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