UK | 2003, 2021
Maggie O’Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972, and grew up in Wales and Scotland. She has worked at the Poetry Society and at the Independent on Sunday, where she was Deputy Literary Editor. She is the author of two novels After You’d Gone (Betty Trask Award, 2001), and My Lover’s Lover (2002). She lives in London.
On a day early in 2003, I got an email asking me if I would be interested in staying in a large house in Tuscany, for six weeks, for free.
There’s really only one answer to that kind of invitation, yes please, but it seemed far too good to be true. I would be given a room to work in, all my meals would be provided, I wouldn’t have to worry about a thing, and I‘d be surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. I couldn¹t help wondering what the catch was. What would be expected of me in return? Would I have to till the soil? Tend the olive groves? Sleep outside? Surely nothing could be that idyllic.
But Santa Maddalena really is. When I arrived, I was jetlagged from a trans-Atlantic flight I’d taken two days earlier, six months pregnant, confused, and stressed about a looming book deadline. I was met at the door by Beatrice and an exuberant pug with a velvetty black face. Inside, a famous Italian chef was discussing plans for a banquet with Beatrice¹s Romanian niece, an Afghani poet was talking French with an Israeli novelist and the half-Australian assistant was chatting to the Albanian cook. I was shown my studio – a vast, airy, white-walled room where Beatrice¹s husband had written his books and given tea and various dolce which I ate while I listened to the incredible linguistic swirl at the table.
I had brought with me the draft of an unfinished novel and multiple anxieties. Could I finish the book before the baby came? Would I be able to work with what people had laughingly told me was called ? pregnancy brain? Would I ever write again? Was the book any good and, if not, would I be able to see my way towards improving it?
The most striking thing about Santa Maddalena is the silence. It’s not just the rural hush of forests, mountain ravines and still, cold air but the switching off of the rest of your life. It’s only when you’ve been there for several days that you realise just how much room all the domestic babble takes up in your head: there are no emails, no phone calls, no distracting visits, no Porlockian persons, no intruding, idle thoughts about what to cook for dinner, no wrangles over whose turn it is to hoover the stairs. The level of concentration you can reach there is extraordinary.
My time at Santa Maddalena was an invaluable gift at a crucial time: I had the imminent and immovable deadline of childbirth and I was at that final, precarious stage with a novel where you are holding the whole, massed structure in your head and where the tiniest interruption can be like a dropped stitch in knitting, unravelling everything from the inside. I finished the novel at Grisha’s huge wooden desk, with the view of the valley in front of me.