MAGGIE O’Farrell wasn’t expecting her new novel to be quite so timely. When you’re writing a story set more than 400 years ago contemporaneity is not something you are necessarily aiming for. And yet, O’Farrell’s book Hamnet is set against a backdrop of an England under the shadow of the plague and here we are in the midst of a new pandemic.

“I don’t think any of us saw this coming,” O’Farrell admits. “I am as blindsided by this as everybody else.”

And yet here we are. The plan had been to meet in a cafe in Edinburgh, near to where she lives with her husband and fellow novelist William Sutcliffe and their three children, but by the time we speak we are already both social distancing (the lockdown is a few days away) and talking on the phone from our respective homes.

“I am in my study, actually, which is a very, very small room next to the bathroom,” O’Farrell says. “But it’s mine. As Virginia Woolf said, ‘I can shut the door.’ It’s very dark. I’ve had to put a lot of lights in.

“It’s actually very messy at the moment. I’ve been looking at exercise books thinking, ‘I need to home-school my children.’”

Presumably writers are good at self-isolating, Maggie? “I think all writers are probably very good at it. We’ve been doing it for years. Part of writing is staying in the house. Sitting in your pyjamas at your desk. But I really like walking and I really hope we don’t go into lockdown, especially when I come up against a problem in a book. The thing that always really unlocks it is a good stride and I am really hoping that’s not going to disappear, but you never know. If it happens, it happens.”

On the walls around her there are pinboards covered with photographs of Stratford-upon-Avon, the principal setting of her new novel, a number of Tudor maps, including a street map of London, circa 1600. “What else can I see?” she asks herself. “There are kestrel feathers …”

In short, she is surrounded by evidence of the world that has been filling her head for the last few years. Hamnet is set in the home of the family of William Shakespeare (although the playwright is never named in the novel). Hamnet is the name of Shakespeare’s son who is believed to have died of the plague aged 11. It’s also the story of Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, or Agnes, as O’Farrell prefers, and the wider family while Shakespeare himself is away working in London or touring the provinces.

O’Farrell already has seven fine novels (including the award-winning Instructions for a Heatwave) and a much-acclaimed memoir I AM, I AM, I AM, to her name, but Hamnet arrives trailing fervent praise from her peers. It is a charged, deeply sad and truly beautiful piece of writing; a novel about family, about grief and, it should be said, about the complexity of late 16th-century life. There’s a bravura chapter (in a book full of bravura chapters) which traces the path of the “pestilence” to Warwickshire in 1596, via a glassmaker in Murano, near Venice, and a cabin boy on a ship setting sail from Alexandria. In this, the novel is a reminder that there’s nothing new about globalisation.

Hamnet is a novel that has been in O’Farrell’s head for more than 30 years, she says. When she was 16, and a pupil at high school in North Berwick sitting in a classroom with a view of the Law, she was studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet for her Highers. “The play really got under my skin as I think it does to teenagers of a slightly gloomy persuasion, which I was.”

Her “brilliant” Glaswegian teacher, Mr Henderson, she recalls, “just mentioned in passing that Shakespeare had had a son who had died who was called Hamnet and, even aged 16, I was really struck by this; the parallel names.

“I have always thought that to call a play and to call an anti-hero after your dead son is not nothing. That’s a huge sign. I don’t know what the sign is. I don’t know what it’s telling us. But it is telling us something.”

As she reminds me, Shakespeare is, for all his centrality to our literary culture, a man of mystery. The paper trail he left behind is thin, almost evanescent.

“There is hardly anything to go on. You read these biographies that are … I don’t know … 500 pages long, some of them. And they are built on such fragile facts, and so few.

“Shakespeare didn’t even bother to preserve his plays and his poetry for us. He died quite happy that they were not in print. We only have them because his two friends collected them and put out the first folio after his death.”

And presumably, that near-invisibility goes double for his wife? “There’s nothing! There are a handful of documents about her. There is no record of her birth. She was born before parish records began. On the marriage licence the name is spelt wrong. The reason why I called her Agnes is one of the few documents is her father’s will. Her mother died the year before she married Shakespeare and he left her a pretty generous dowry and he named her as Agnes.

“When I read that I was so shocked. The strange thing about the woman we know as Anne Hathaway is that she has attracted so much opprobrium and vitriol. You ask a passer-by in the street what do they know about Shakespeare’s wife and they’re probably likely to say she tricked him into marriage. She was much older than him. He hated her. These have become facts. They are so amplified by what people have written about her in popular culture and also in quite scholarly works as well.

“She has been strangely vilified. So much has been extrapolated from so little. Actually, there’s no evidence really at all that he didn’t love her. Yes, she was pregnant when they got married. There were two of them in that act, to be fair.

“So, I have always thought she and Hamnet and their two daughters are very overlooked by biographers and critics and authors and film-makers. You watch something like Shakespeare in Love. Anne Hathaway is dispensed in about a minute of screen time. He says, ‘I didn’t love her.’ And he also basically says she’s a prostitute, which is very harsh. There’s no evidence of that at all.”

She cites Germaine Greer who once suggested we should be asking not what Shakespeare saw in his wife but what his wife saw in the 18-year-old. “I was considering this question and thinking she was 26, she presumably had pretty good marriage prospects. What must he have been like? How much would he have stood out in this rural town? I think maybe she had the idea that there was something deeply extraordinary about him.”

At the novel’s heart is loss, of course. At times it is unimaginably raw. A reminder of the scouring power of grief.

“I wanted to write it about Hamnet because I always felt when I read these biographies that Hamnet gets maybe two mentions in every index. They mention that he’s born, and they mention that he dies, and his death is always followed by a paragraph or two about the statistics about child death in Elizabethan times, which, of course, were very high. But the implication, weirdly, is that it wouldn’t really have affected his parents very much because it was so common.

“And it’s horrifying. He was 11. How could that not affect you? Yes, it was common to lose children. The average life expectancy was 47, for God’s sake. How could anyone even suggest that wouldn’t be agonising and hadn’t an enormous effect on the whole family?

“I wanted to give this lost boy, this overlooked boy, a voice and a presence. But as I was researching it, I felt more and more that Agnes needed the same and for me the most interesting person in the book isn’t Shakespeare. I wanted to write a more unvoiced story.”

This she does.

There is always a temptation to view the art through the biography of the artist. And O’Farrell’s own story lends itself to that glib shortcut. When she was eight, O’Farrell was herself bedbound by encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, which was life-threatening and even now has a continuing neurological impact on her (balance is always an issue). And in I AM, I AM, I AM, she revealed that her middle child suffers from anaphylaxis, which means she can be subject to potentially fatal allergic reactions.

As a result, O’Farrell writes in I AM, I AM, I AM, life is lived in a constant state of high alert. Does it feel like the world is catching up with them then? “No, not at all. I think it’s totally different.

“What I find difficult about these announcements,” she says of our current situation, “is people say, ‘It’s going to be fine; it’s only going to affect people with underlying health conditions.’ And I think, ‘Well, yeah, but what about those people with underlying health conditions?’”

There are links between the then of her novel and the terrible now, of course. “I think at times like this fear of contagion is a very potent thing,” O’Farrell suggests. “We all have it and I think partly it’s an epigenetic memory of the Black Death. You can’t walk anywhere in any cities in the UK and not be skirting mass burial pits. It’s the horrible truth.

“One-third of the population of London died in the 17th century. The city is riddled. We’re walking constantly on bones. It is still very much part of who we are, a consciousness of the horror of that period and I think in times like this we reach for that familiarity. Our relationship to contagion is earmarked by that. We can’t avoid thinking about it.”

O’Farrell’s own story starts in Northern Ireland. She was born in Coleraine, which is coincidentally where I’m from too. “I can hear that! Well, I can hear something,” she says of my accent.

She moved away when she was very young, to Dublin, then Wales and Scotland, meaning she was constantly the new girl.

“One of those questions you’re asked a lot is are writers made or born and I think it’s probably a bit of both. I think moving around and being new at schools you are very aware of different social groups and you are on outside looking in, thinking, ‘Who do I belong with? Who are my tribe?’ You have to see how it all works. So, I think it does give you a perspective on other people that perhaps you wouldn’t get if you felt very rooted in a place.”

Her surname marked her out as Irish, of course. “I remember moving to Scotland and being very aware of that kinship between Scotland and Ireland that I’d never been aware of before. I remember in other areas of the UK in the seventies and the eighties we were regarded with a certain amount of hostility and suspicion. That was not the case when we moved to Scotland and certainly, I was never told an Irish joke in Scotland, which was unfortunately not the case in schools in Wales.”

Her childhood illness must have been inevitably distancing as well. What is her abiding memory of that time?

“Certainly, it’s very hard to forget what it’s like not being able to move. I remember that very, very clearly; that sense of being caged in the body and I think that’s not something I will ever forget even when I’m very old. I think there’s no coincidence now that I’m quite a restless person. I like to be constantly on the move. I think I’m making up for lost time still.”

After school, O’Farrell studied at Cambridge University, which was something of a culture shock for someone from a Scottish comprehensive. It was also where she met her future husband. “He only spoke about one or two words in our first encounter. He later said he found me really terrifying. I don’t know why,” she says laughing.

It took them years to become a couple. After university, O’Farrell lived and worked in Hong Kong and London, where she was a journalist for The Independent. She wanted to be a poet, but it was novels that were to become her platform – 2020 marks her twentieth year as a novelist. How has she changed as a writer?

“Oh Christ. I don’t know if it’s possible to say. When I think about the young girl who wrote After You’ve Gone quite a lot has happened since then. When I wrote that I was, what, 24, 25, living in London working as a journalist. So, yeah, things have changed quite a lot. I’ve acquired three children, a husband and a life in Edinburgh.”

And, it should be said, a reputation that Hamnet is only likely to gild even further. There is a TV adaptation in the planning. There’s also a children’s book coming out later in the year and another in the offing.

This should be the fun part of being a writer, of course. Seeing your book published. What is she going to miss about a normal publication week?

“There was going to be a party. It was going to be in The Swan, which is the pub next to the Globe theatre and I was going to go to AyeWrite! in Glasgow. It is a bit gutting because the life of a writer is so isolated. You spend three years in your house making up a story and then you get to go out and meet readers and I love that. I love meeting people and talking to them and asking them what else they’ve read.

“So, that’s a real shame. But it will happen again. We will come out the other side and then we can have events and book festivals and all those things again. We just have to sit this one out.”

Having spent all this time living in your head in the plague-ridden 16th century, maybe the last question to ask, Maggie, is where is the good news? Does the past have something positive to say about the current crisis?

“Well, I think the really interesting thing is, as any individual who goes through a severe illness knows, you come out the other side a different person. Passing through a severe illness is like passing through a fire. You come out the other side in a slightly different form.

“I think it’s the same for a population that goes through a pandemic. We are going to be tested in many different ways, but we will come through it. And the world will be different. We will be wiser, and we’ll be sadder. A lot of us will have suffered, but we will prevail, we will come through it.”

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell is published by Tinder Press, priced £20, on Tuesday