Maggie O'Farrell and Tracy Chevalier

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This Fine Fiction event brought together two very talented young literary novelists. Maggie O'Farrell received ecstatic critical attention for her first novel, "After You'd Gone," described as " dazzlingly good ... assured and seductive ... a sharp fresh talent to watch".  She went on to win the Somerset Maugham prize for "The Distance Between Us".  

Her new novel, set partly in Edinburgh is a new departure from her usual modern day love stories (with a chilling psychological twist), this time exploring life in pre World War II Britain and the sad and solitary life of Esme Lennox. 

London based American writer, Tracy Chevalier achieved international fame for her novel, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" successfully adapted into a film. Her new historical novel, "Burning Bright" is a factional account of the English poet and artist William Blake.

Both writers described the background and research for their novels. Tracy had studied Blake at University and was keen to find out more about the man behind his art and literature. She explained that she likes to start with something specific (as with the Vermeer painting) and visited Lambeth, touring the streets and Blake's former haunts to get an idea of London life in 1793.

"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" is based on a true story told to Maggie about a friend's relative who had been banished to an asylum for trying to elope. "I couldn't comprehend such a thing .. why?, how?"  The questions surrounding this woman's awful experience made her want to write a novel to explore the social and moral issues.

She read Rosamund Lehmann novels to find out about 1930s fashion, dances and women's lives in order to recreate the period, as well as study real case histories of women who had been sent to an asylum: "One girl was put away for simply trying on her mother's clothes - she was regarded as schizophrenic." 

The two writers also answered questions about how they choose characters names - both agreeing that names just come into their head and seem right, "like completing a jigsaw - the name fits".  Maggie said that names may be lurking in the subconscious. She chose Lennox before realising it was the surname of the girl in "The Secret Garden", her favourite book from childhood. Tracy chose Griet for her Dutch heroine, before being told it actually means Pearl. All in all, an illuminating hour's discussion about novel writing, well chaired by Paul Johnston.

 Maggie O'Farrell: "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox,"  Headline Review

 Tracy Chevalier: "Burning Bright," Harper Collins