Maggie O’Farrell and Monica Wood

Maggie O’Farrell and Monica Wood

Event: Rooftop Book Club: Monica Wood and Maggie O’Farrell 

Venue: Carmelite House 

Report by Eleanor Baggley

On Tuesday evening I found myself on the 6th floor of Carmelite House, the offices for the Headline Publishing Group, for a particularly special kind of book club. Last August Headline launched the Rooftop Book Club in a move to make publishing more entertaining. After this experience I’d say they have been pretty successful.

The evening featured authors Monica Wood, whose novel The One in a Million Boy is out in April, and Maggie O’Farrell, whose latest novel This Must Be the Place is due in May, in conversation with journalist Hannah Beckerman. I was initially drawn to the event purely for the opportunity to see Maggie O’Farrell as I have read and adored her previous novels, particularly Instructions for a Heatwave and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, by the end of the evening, I was equally in awe of both authors.

The One in a Million Boy 

Monica Wood

The States rather unfairly held on to such a brilliant writer.

Hannah Beckerman kicked off proceedings with a discussion about The One in a Million Boy with Monica Wood. Although already a popular novelist, playwright and memoirist in the States, this is the first of Wood’s books to be published in the UK. Personally, I feel that the States rather unfairly held on to such a brilliant writer a little too long.

Wood is also a creative writing teacher and much of the discussion was concerned with the process of writing and also her own journey towards becoming a writer. An exploration about grief and loss in the novel led Wood to reveal the loss of her parents at a young age, adding that this loss shaped her as a writer and fueled her creative life.

Wood talked about writing as an ‘act of empathy’ and she certainly chose a subject matter here that requires much empathy. The story revolves around the friendship of a young boy and a 104 year old woman and their attempt to get her into the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest woman to hold a driver’s license. Initially it sounds like a quirky subject, but it is one that allows Wood to explore a huge number of ideas.

Juxtaposition, i.e. between a very old woman and a very young boy, is the key to dramatic tension according to Wood and she has applied that here. Really though, she tells us, she is interested in outsiders, in real friendships, and in assembling families out of broken parts.

As part of the ticket price for this event we all went away with an early copy of The One in a Million Boy – I started it on the way home.

This Must Be the Place 

This Must Be The Place

A structurally complex book with numerous perspectives.

Ripples of bookish excitement went through the audience as Maggie O’Farrell took her place at the front of the room. This event was the first time discussing her new novel which has been taking the internet by storm since it was announced (not a day goes by without at least one mention of This Must Be the Place showing up in my twitter feed).

O’Farrell started with a reading which thoroughly whet our appetites and introduced a number of the key themes and characters.

This is a structurally complex book with numerous perspectives and a lot of movement – O’Farrell joked that the only continent not included is Australia and that was only removed at editing stage. Although multiple perspectives and changes in location are not unusual in O’Farrell’s work, she talked about her ‘urge to rip up the rule book’ when writing this novel which has resulted in a book very different from her previous novels. According to Beckerman it’s her ‘best book yet’.

It’s rare to attend an event that is so full of warmth and shared happiness. It was a joy to be in the room listening to two very eloquent and entertaining writers who are clearly immensely passionate about what they do. Beckerman’s questions were intelligent, well thought-out and raised some interesting subjects. A highlight perhaps was O’Farrell’s response to a question about the gendering of fiction, specifically the genre of ‘domestic fiction’: ‘the idea that a subject area is gendered is bizarre to me. It’s bullshit.’ Brilliantly put, Maggie, just brilliant.

I’ve heard through the grapevine that Headline may be planning to expand the Rooftop Book Club and all I can say about that is: where can I get a ticket?

Report by Eleanor Baggley

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