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Northern Irish author Maggie O'Farrell scoops major prize for novel she wrote in a shed

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Historical fiction: Coleraine-born Maggie O’Farrell’s novel focuses on the short life of William
Shakespeare’s tragic son

Historical fiction: Coleraine-born Maggie O’Farrell’s novel focuses on the short life of William Shakespeare’s tragic son

Chair of Judges Baroness Martha Lane Fox with Hamnet

Chair of Judges Baroness Martha Lane Fox with Hamnet

PA

Historical fiction: Coleraine-born Maggie O’Farrell’s novel focuses on the short life of William Shakespeare’s tragic son

Northern Ireland-born author Maggie O'Farrell has won this year's Women's Prize for Fiction for her latest novel about the death of Shakespeare's young son Hamnet.

Hamnet is the author's eighth novel - and her first historical fiction - which puts the spotlight on William Shakespeare's only son, who died from what some historians believe to have been the plague in 1596, aged 11.

It tells the story of Shakespeare's wife Agnes Hathaway, his lost son, a marriage pushed to the brink by grief, the fragility of life and the power of creativity.

It is believed that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet two years later in memory of his son.

Hamnet was published earlier this year just as the world went on red alert for coronavirus.

O'Farrell (48) beat Hilary Mantel, Bernardine Evaristo and three other authors to claim the £30,000 prize and the "Bessie", a limited-edition bronze figurine, in her home town of Edinburgh.

O'Farrell was announced the winner by chair of judges Martha Lane Fox at a digital awards ceremony in London on Wednesday night, also marking the award's 25th anniversary.

Lane Fox called the novel an "exceptional" winner, adding: "Hamnet, while set long ago, like all truly great novels expresses something profound about the human experience that seems both extraordinarily current and at the same time, enduring."

O'Farrell told the Daily Telegraph: "I'm going to enjoy having won for two days and then I'm going to forget it ever happened.

"Having judged literary prizes myself you know that every year it's down to luck. Every shortlist and longlist is a reflection of people's taste," she added.

"As a writer, you can't approach book prizes with even a smidgen of entitlement."

Born in Coleraine to Irish parents, O'Farrell grew up in Wales and Scotland, where she went to school in the seaside town of North Berwick, about 20 miles from Edinburgh, before reading English at Cambridge.

After that O'Farrell worked first as an arts journalist and began writing her first novel in 1996, the year the Women's Prize was established.

Since publishing her debut novel After You'd Gone the following year, she has carved out a rich and impressively solid career with a succession of popular novels including The Distance Between Us and The Hand that First Held Mine.

O'Farrell, who has three children with the novelist William Sutcliffe, has written her first children's book Where Snow Angels Go, due out in November. It stems from stories she used to send her children in letters when she was off on book tours.

"I don't think I could have written it (Hamnet) if I didn't have children," O'Farrell added.

"I had to wait to write it until my son was safely past the age of 11 because I knew at some point I would have to write about a woman who sits alone beside her son's bed, her husband unable to get back in time, and is forced to watch him die.

"These were the hardest scenes I have ever written and I couldn't write them in the house. I had to decamp to an old potting shed."

Belfast Telegraph