Maggie O'Farrell

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Maggie O'Farrell

Born (1972-05-27) 27 May 1972 (age 51)
Coleraine, County Londonderry
Alma materNew Hall, Cambridge
GenreFiction, historical fiction
Notable works
SpouseWilliam Sutcliffe

Maggie O'Farrell, RSL (born 27 May 1972), is a novelist from Northern Ireland. Her acclaimed first novel, After You'd Gone, won the Betty Trask Award,[1] and a later one, The Hand That First Held Mine, the 2010 Costa Novel Award. She has twice been shortlisted since for the Costa Novel Award for Instructions for a Heatwave in 2014 and This Must Be The Place in 2017.[2] She appeared in the Waterstones 25 Authors for the Future.[3] Her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death reached the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list. Her novel Hamnet won the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2020,[4] and the fiction prize at the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Awards.[5] The Marriage Portrait was shortlisted for the 2023 Women's Prize for Fiction.

Early life and career[edit]

O'Farrell was born in Coleraine, County Londonderry, and grew up in Wales and Scotland. At the age of eight she was hospitalised with encephalitis and missed over a year of school.[6] These events are echoed in The Distance Between Us and described in her 2017 memoir I Am, I Am, I Am.[7] She suffered from a pronounced stammer during her childhood and adolescence. She was educated at North Berwick High School and Brynteg Comprehensive School, and then at New Hall, University of Cambridge (now Murray Edwards College), where she read English Literature.[8]

O'Farrell has stated that well into the 1990s, being Irish in Britain could be fraught: "We used to get endless Irish jokes, even from teachers. If I had to spell my name at school, teachers would say things like, 'Oh, are your family in the IRA?’ Teachers would say this to a 12-year-old kid in front of the whole class.... They thought it was hilarious to say, 'Ha ha, your dad's a terrorist'. It wasn't funny at all.... I wish I could say that it's [less common today] because people are less racist, but I think it's just that there are new immigrants who are getting it now." Nevertheless, not until 2013's Instructions for a Heatwave did Irish subjects become part of her work.[9]

O'Farrell worked as a journalist, both in Hong Kong and as deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday in London. She also taught creative writing at the University of Warwick in Coventry and Goldsmiths College in London. She has lived in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Hong Kong, and Italy. She now lives in Edinburgh.


O'Farrell's numerous successful novels, including the Costa Award-winning The Hand that First Held Mine, have received widespread critical acclaim. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages. Her novel Hamnet, based on the life of Shakespeare's family, was published in 2020. The novel makes a link between the death of eleven-year-old Hamnet and the writing of the play Hamlet.[10]

Her 2017 memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, deals with a series of near-death experiences that have occurred to her and her children. It is a memoir told non-chronologically, with each chapter headed by the name of the body part affected.[11]

In 2022, she published The Marriage Portrait, a novel based on the short life of Lucrezia de' Medici, who may or may not have been poisoned by her husband, Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara. O'Farrell has said that she got the idea for the novel after seeing Lucrezia's portrait, attributed to Agnolo Bronzino, and from reading Robert Browning's poem, "My Last Duchess", in which Lucrezia makes a brief, silent and unnamed appearance. The novel was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction.[12]

O'Farrell has also written two pictures books for children, Where Snow Angels Go and The Boy Who Lost His Spark, both illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini.

Personal life[edit]

O'Farrell is married to a fellow writer, William Sutcliffe, whom she met while they were students at Cambridge; they didn't become a couple, however, until ten years or so after they graduated. They live in Edinburgh with their three children.[13][14] She has said of Sutcliffe: "Will's always been my first reader, even before we were a couple, so he's a huge influence. He's brutal but you need that."[15] One of O'Farrell's children suffers with severe allergies, the challenges of which she writes about in her memoir.[16]


O'Farrell was the invited castaway on the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs on Sunday 21 March 2021.

In April 2023, the Royal Shakespeare Company's stage adaptation of Hamnet previewed at the newly opened Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. It transferred to the Garrick Theatre, London, in September 2023.

In January 2024, it was reported that Chloé Zhao was planning to adapt Hamnet for the screen alongside O'Farrell. Paul Mescal and Jessie Buckley were reported as being chosen for the leading roles.[17]

In 2023 O'Farrell won the author award at Harper's Bazaar's Women of the Year awards.[18]

Awards and honours[edit]

Year Title Award/Honour Result Ref.
2001 After You'd Gone Betty Trask Award Won [19]
2005 The Distance Between Us Somerset Maugham Award Won [20]
2010 The Hand That First Held Mine Costa Book Award for Fiction Won [21][2]
2013 Instructions for a Heatwave Costa Book Award for Fiction Shortlist [22]
2016 This Must be the Place Costa Book Award for Fiction Shortlist [23]
2018 I Am, I Am, I Am PEN/Ackerley Prize Shortlist [24]
2020 Hamnet National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction Won [25][26][27]
Women's Prize for Fiction Won [28]
2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction Longlist [29]
Dalkey Literary Awards's Novel of the Year Won [30]
Walter Scott Prize Shortlist [31]
2021 Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature [32]
2023 The Boy Who Lost His Spark KPMG Children's Books Ireland Awards Won [33]



  • After You'd Gone (2000)
  • My Lover's Lover (2002)
  • The Distance Between Us (2004)
  • The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006)
  • The Hand That First Held Mine (2010)
  • Instructions for a Heatwave (2013)
  • This Must Be the Place (2016)
  • Hamnet (2020), Tinder Press ISBN 978-1-4722-2379-1
  • The Marriage Portrait (2022), Tinder Press ISBN 978-1-4722-2384-5


  • I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (2017)

For Children[edit]

  • Where Snow Angels Go,[34] Walker Books, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini (2020)
  • The Boy Who Lost His Spark, Walker Books, illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini (2022)


  1. ^ "Maggie O'Farrell". Fantastic Fiction. Retrieved 6 November 2019.
  2. ^ a b "Derry-born author wins Costa prize". The Irish Times. 4 January 2010.
  3. ^ "Emerging 21st-century UK writers expected to produce the most impressive work over the next quarter-century". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 23 August 2022.
  4. ^ Flood, Aison (9 September 2020). "Maggie O'Farrell wins Women's prize for fiction with 'exceptional' Hamnet". The Guardian.
  5. ^ Beer, Tom (25 March 2021). "National Book Critics Circle Presents Awards". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 29 March 2021.
  6. ^ Sale, Jonathan (17 May 2007). "Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Maggie O'Farrell". The Independent. Archived from the original on 26 May 2007.
  7. ^ Kean, Danuta (24 March 2017). "Maggie O'Farrell memoir to reveal series of close encounters with death". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  8. ^ "O'FARRELL, Margaret Helen, (Maggie)". Who's Who. Vol. 2019 (online ed.). A & C Black. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  9. ^ "Maggie O'Farrell: Teachers would say 'Are your family in the IRA?'". The Irish Times. 23 June 2016.
  10. ^ Merritt, Stephanie (29 March 2020). "Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell review – tragic tale of the Latin tutor's son". The Observer.
  11. ^ Sturges, Fiona (18 August 2017). "I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell review – 17 brushes with death". The Guardian.
  12. ^ Gregory, Elizabeth. "Women's Prize for Fiction: who is who on the 2023 shortlist?". Evening Standard. Retrieved 6 May 2023.
  13. ^ "Meet Maggie". Retrieved 23 August 2017.
  14. ^ Kiverstein, Angela. "William Sutcliffe: Imagining Gaza in London". Retrieved 2 November 2019.
  15. ^ Day, Elizabeth (23 February 2013). "Maggie O'Farrell: 'My writing is tougher and much better since I had children'". The Observer.
  16. ^ Shapiro, Dani (5 April 2018). "A Memoir of Near-Death Experiences". The New York Times.
  17. ^ Shoard, Catherine (30 January 2024). "Paul Mescal and Jessie Buckley to star in Chloé Zhao's Hamnet". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 26 February 2024.
  18. ^ Dillon, Brian (8 November 2023). "Irish author honored at Harper's Bazaar Women of the Year awards". Irish Star. Retrieved 15 March 2024.
  19. ^ "Previous winners of the Betty Trask Prize and Awards". The Society of Authors. 8 May 2020. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  20. ^ "Previous winners of the Somerset Maugham Awards". The Society of Authors. 8 May 2020. Archived from the original on 27 August 2021. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  21. ^ "In pictures: Costa book awards 2010". The Guardian. 5 January 2011. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  22. ^ Brown, Mark (26 November 2013). "Costa book awards 2013: late author on all-female fiction shortlist". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  23. ^ Cain, Sian (22 November 2016). "Costa book award 2016 shortlists dominated by female writers". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  24. ^ "Richard Beard awarded PEN Ackerley Prize 2018 for 'The Day That Went Missing'". English Pen. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  25. ^ Beer, Tom (25 March 2021). "National Book Critics Circle Presents Awards". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 25 January 2022.
  26. ^ "2020". National Book Critics Circle. Retrieved 25 January 2022.
  27. ^ "National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction Winners". Powell's Books. Retrieved 25 January 2022.
  28. ^ "Women's Prize for Fiction: Maggie O'Farrell wins for Hamnet, about Shakespeare's son". BBC News. 9 September 2020. Retrieved 6 February 2022.
  29. ^ "2021 Winners". Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence. 18 October 2020. Retrieved 12 January 2021.
  30. ^ "Winner of the Novel of the Year 2021". Retrieved 22 June 2021.
  31. ^ "Australians comprise majority of Walter Scott Prize shortlist". Books+Publishing. 24 March 2021. Retrieved 25 March 2021.
  32. ^ Bayley, Sian (6 July 2021). "RSL launches three-year school reading project as new fellows announced". The Bookseller. Retrieved 6 July 2021.
  33. ^ Reporter, Staff. "Derry author Maggie O'Farrell wins at KPMG Children's Books Ireland Awards 2023". Retrieved 15 March 2024.
  34. ^ "20 Wintery books (for every type of reader)!". YouTube. CarolynMarieReads. 10 November 2023. (mini-review of Where Snow Angels Go with display of illustrated book from 2:09 to 2:53 in video)

External links[edit]