Maggie O'Farrell wrote a brilliant plague novel. She's starting to think about it differently
It feels like every other book these days holds some inadvertent resonance for this anxious, unprecedented global moment in time. Certainly, summer has yielded countless novels of quarantine and viral disease, of national unity and disruption. But Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, which published Stateside on Tuesday after landing in the U.K. just as the COVID-19 pandemic first started hitting Europe hard, feels especially prescient for the deeper emotional experience it offers, beyond its premise of a writer (okay, Shakespeare) and his eccentric wife, who've lost their son to the Black Death and wade through their pain and anxiety while the plague ravages the world around them.
The book, which O'Farrell (I Am I Am I Am) researched exhaustively and attempted to closely mirror the experience of Shakespeare and his wife Agnes' lives in this period, tells a hauntingly familiar story of isolation and fear amid a vicious pandemic. But its luminous portrait of marriage and grief, as well as the roots of artistic inspiration (the book's title offers an immediate clue), amid these conditions offer an added power, an emotionally explosive refraction of our deeper collective, contemporary struggles.
Indeed, even for O'Farrell, she finds herself going back to Hamnet now and revisiting her story with fresh eyes — with what the reality of COVID-19 has taught her, firsthand, about living through that kind of terror. EW caught up with the author on that and more in a wide-ranging conversation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This came out a while ago in the U.K. So you're now in your second round of virtual press, right?
MAGGIE O'FARRELL: Yeah. It was a strange time because it came out in the U.K. right at the beginning of lockdown, in the first week. I was looking back at my diary and about around the beginning of March, it seemed like it was all going to go ahead, and I was going to go on a big book tour. And gradually throughout the month, it became less and less likely until, This is not going to happen. [Laughs] I do remember picking up my dress I was going to wear, thinking, "Oh, fantastic. I'm going to be wearing this in two weeks." And then, of course, I wasn't. Yeah, it has been very opposite. When I first was talking about it to press in the U.K., it was all very new. We've had this weird experience of watching it come closer and closer from China. I think as soon as it reached Italy, we knew that it was only a matter of time until it reached the U.K. and Ireland. So yeah, it's very strange. It's all very strange, isn't it?
Indeed. I imagine that the initial talks around the book were pretty overwhelmed by its resonance to everything that's going on.
It was very odd because, obviously, when I wrote the chapter around the middle of the book where I traced the journey of the Black Death from a monkey and Alexander. It comes out on a boat. So when I wrote those, it was a kind of an intellectual exercise. It was all about research. I remember looking up lots of graphics and lots of maps, and I had these kinds of things all over my study, and this sort of path of the plague and how it came from China and Asia, and it swept through Europe. But it seemed so distant. It was just about imagination. I had to try and imagine what it would be like to sit in a country and know there was this terrifying disease sweeping towards you. I think we've all learned a huge amount about ourselves, and about each other, and about our vulnerabilities. We'll never be able to go back to that time before this pandemic where we thought we were invulnerable. We thought we were invincible. Now when we come through this, which we will, we're all going to have a sense of ourselves as much more fragile than we were before.
Over the past few months, it has been incumbent upon journalists like myself to be looking at books that have parallels to this moment. And a lot of them are these sort of pandemic thrillers that hit a particular nerve.
Crisis thrillers, yeah.
And there's of course nothing wrong with that! But this one it's a story of a marriage and a story of grief, and in a way that really hit me, because it hits us really where we all are, right? We're all in our own personal lives and these very small boxes, with this thing happening outside, or perhaps very close to home.
Since I published it in the U.K., I've been thinking a lot more about how it must felt been Elizabethan. Obviously, it isn't actually known what the real Hamnet Shakespeare died of. There's no cause of death recorded for him, just his burial. But there was no shortage of anything that could kill you, unfortunately, in Elizabethan times. I mean, there are any number of very dangerous diseases. You could even have just cut your finger and then you could have died of sepsis a couple of days later.
Hamnet did die in high summer, and he did die in a plague year. And something that's always intrigued me, the fact that Shakespeare never, ever mentions about what we now think of as the Black Death. And we call the Plague with a capital P. He never mentions it in any of his plays or any of his poetry, which is extraordinary. I've been thinking a lot more since [writing], the perspective of going through the COVID lockdown. This COVID crisis has [made me] think how terrified Elizabethans must've been all the time.
In a way you couldn't have thought before, right?
Right. The plague was probably the biggest and most dangerous contagion there was. But it must've been absolutely ever-present in the footprints of their mind all the time. If you think of the original Globe [Theatre], which had a capacity of about 3,000 people, it's no wonder that the first thing the civic authorities in London were able to [do] was shut down all the playhouses as soon as there was a single outbreak of plague in the city. They were these hugely viral hotspots, [huge] numbers of people gathering in the middle of the day in high summer. It's no wonder the plague would have spread fast.
Our word for quarantine comes from that time, from Venice. They knew how to deal with the pandemic. What they didn't know was how to cure it. They didn't know how to treat it. I feel myself much closer to them in a sense. I think we all do in a way to those populations who put up so much, and who suffered so greatly.
So how does this relate to you telling Hamnet's story, in a sense? Obviously you were drawn to him before all this.
One of the things that spurred me on to writing the novel was because I always felt that Hamnet, the boy, was much too overlooked. He was much too underplayed. He wasn't given a voice, enough of importance. He's lucky if he gets maybe two minutes [in a biography]. They mention he was born and then they mention he dies. And often, his death is wrapped up in this statistical analysis of child mortality in the 16th century. It was almost as if the implication is it didn't really matter that much because everyone lost children or expected to lose children. It's such an outrageous thing to think. He was 11. How could they not have grieved him?
In that sense, I thought a lot of your last book, I Am I Am I Am, which was a memoir, while reading this. Death was obviously so central there. Did the way you thought about death and the way you came to it in that book inform the way you approach this book? I'm just curious about that evolution.
It's funny, I think all books are kind of related to their predecessors. I wanted to write Hamnet for so long. I made several attempts and then I ended up swerving away. I think I've written three books now instead of writing it. [Laughs] Honestly, I was thinking about it. I think I've always felt that, as it says in the Bible, in the midst of life we are in death. It is something that we're all aware of. I mean, either that or we deliberately avoid thinking about it. And I think in a sense I needed to write my memoir before I wrote this. Memoir was the key turning in the lock. I said, "I'm sure." That kind of idea you come close to death. And I suppose that's what I was analyzing or thinking about in my memoir, what it means to come close to death. What does it mean to have avoided it, or to step out of that loophole? Then, of course, in the novel I actually face it and say, "This is what happens. You lose someone. This is how we deal with grief. This is the pain you deal with. And this is where…" Hamnet is about where art comes from, why we need it, why we need to write it, why we need to produce it, and why we need to watch it. It's where it comes from. That's why we do it.
Going from present-day to Elizabethan times: What about that period appealed to you in terms of that particular argument?
I do think fear of loss is a huge part of love, actually. If you love someone, it's not hard for the imagination to picture what your life would be like without them. And I think it makes up quite a lot of our feelings for other people. There are people for whom it would be unbearable for us to think about our lives without them, how we would carry on without them. Particularly a parent's love for children because it goes against the natural order of things. It's every parent's absolute, most visceral fear, that you may have to bury your child. I don't know. It's a bit like turning a sock inside-out on itself. It's the other side of love, in a way?
Certainly. To touch on something you'd mentioned earlier, about viewing the Elizabethan era in a different way post-COVID: Are you looking at your novel in a different way now too? Or maybe this moment?
A friend of mine who's a doctor said to me recently, "Imagine what it would be like for the world if COVID was killing children, that kind of population." I mean, obviously it doesn't just kill people over in the latest seasons of life. I do realize it that it does attack other people and children. But she said, "Imagine if the statistics were inverted, what it would be like?" It's a really horrific moment where I've thought, "Dear God, imagine if all of us were terrified. We were all carrying on in our houses thinking we were going to lose our children?" And that made me think about the Black Death. The Black Death was totally indiscriminate. It killed everybody, and it could kill a completely healthy, say, young, very healthy, young, strong man in his 20s could be felled and could die within 24 hours of coming down with the first signs of it. Compared to the loss and the terror and the horror of those pandemics, and those illnesses, we are in a more fortunate position that does put it in a historical context.
That's very true.
I think about Mary Shakespeare, Shakespeare's mother, a lot. She had two daughters who died in infancy. Her third child was William. He was 3 months old. There was plague all over the town of Stratford. There was a family, a couple of doors down on Henley Street, and all four of them died of plague. These are people she would have known. They were her neighbors. They lived just down the road. I mean, how terrified must you have been that summer? With the plague ranging through the town and through the countryside, she had this tiny son, her third child. The only one who survived. I mean, thank God he grew up and he lived to tell us many stories. But I don't know. I suppose just thinking about that I've been looking out the window during our lockdown and in the middle of homeschooling. I have it okay.