W&N pay tribute to Deborah Orr, who died on Saturday 19 October from cancer

Deborah Orr
Photo credit: Felicity McCabe

Weidenfeld & Nicolson today pay tribute to Deborah Orr, the writer and journalist who died on Saturday 19 October from cancer.

Deborah’s forthcoming memoir MOTHERWELL: A GIRLHOOD explores with sharp wit, intoxicating candour and profound tenderness her coming of age in the Scottish town she both loved and hated and her complicated familial relationships. W&N are due to publish in January 2020.

W&N’s Publisher Jenny Lord said: ‘To say we are devasted by the loss of this most remarkable of women – an intellectual force, a writer whose life and career has most certainly been cut short far too soon – is the wildest understatement. Deborah was a writer we had all admired long before we became her publisher. With her unrivalled ability to stare at something (sometimes someone) right in the eye, she was an inspiration as well as an exceptional writer. It became clear, very quickly, that MOTHERWELL: A GIRLHOOD was the book Deborah was always supposed to write. It wasn’t always easy to do so – it would be weird if mining for difficult memories was not brutalising at times – but it poured out of her in almost perfect form. My editorial input centred largely around asking her for more; and more and more. It also became clear, very quickly, that MOTHERWELL should be not just Deborah’s debut, but the first book of many. Her voice, so sharp, deliciously spiky, crystalline and true. Her dialogue, so precise yet so easy. If she was born to write this incredible memoir, this reckoning that it turned out was bubbling away under the surface for so long, she was surely also born to write fiction. It is grossly unfair for all of us that those future books will have to remain unwritten, but we hope that MOTHERWELL can be a lasting testament to a life lived in defiance, with ferocity and strength, and always alive to the humour to be found in both absurdity and banality. We will miss Deborah enormously and our thoughts are with her friends and family.’

Orion’s Managing Director Katie Espiner said: ‘We are devastated. Deborah was fabulous, furious, generous, brilliant. From the moment she joined W&N we have all been honoured to be in her orbit. It is cruelly unfair that she died before she could see the publication of MOTHERWELL, but she was thrilled with the ecstatic early responses, and we will do all we can to honour her.’

Deborah’s literary agent Clare Conville said: ‘Beautiful, fierce and funny Deborah was a brilliantly acute journalist and a ground-breaking newspaper editor. When I first suggested she write a book some 12 years ago she roared with laughter and replied, “I have nothing to say”. Unusually for Deborah she proved herself wrong. Her memoir when it finally came was astonishing. Painful and revealing in parts, joyful in others. A tour de force of the form itself. Even when mortally ill we discussed her next book, a novel. “It’s writing itself in my head.” She relished the early quotes and loved making the PR plans for MOTHERWELL. Utterly professional and generous of spirit to work with she was also a beloved friend of many years. Her loss to her children Ivan and Luther, her step-children Alexis and Madeleine and her many friends who adored her is incalculable.’

MOTHERWELL: A GIRLHOOD – published by W&N 23 January 2020

Just shy of 18, Deborah Orr left Motherwell – the town she both loved and hated – to go to university. It was a decision her mother railed against from the moment the idea was raised. Win had very little agency in the world, every choice was determined by the men in her life. And strangely, she wanted the same for her daughter. Attending university wasn’t for the likes of the Orr family. Worse still, it would mean leaving Win behind – and Win wanted Deborah with her at all times, rather like she wanted her arm with her at all times. But while she managed to escape, Deborah’s severing from her family was only superficial. She continued to travel back to Motherwell, fantasizing about the day that Win might come to accept her as good enough. Though of course it was never meant to be.

MOTHERWELL is a sharp, candid and often humorous memoir about the long shadow that can be cast when the core relationship in your life compromises every effort you make to become an individual. It is about what we inherit – the good and the very bad – and how a deeper understanding of the place and people you have come from can bring you towards redemption.


Deborah Orr was an award-winning journalist, whose work regularly appeared in the GUARDIAN, the INDEPENDENT, THE SUNDAY TIMES and in many magazines including VOGUE, GRAZIA and MARIE CLAIRE. She was a contributing editor to ANOTHER MAGAZINE and was the first female editor of the GUARDIAN’s Weekend Magazine at the age of thirty. Deborah was a co-creator of ENQUIRER, a play commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland, performed in London, Glasgow and Belfast, broadcast by Radio 4 and shortlisted for new play of the year in the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland. Her memoir MOTHERWELL: A GIRLHOOD is due to be published in January 2020.


Praise for MOTHERWELL:

‘Utterly candid and staggeringly good, both as the history of a woman and the history of a place’ INDIA KNIGHT

‘A fierce and tender reckoning: personal, political, and blazing with truth’ MELISSA HARRISON

‘This is a poignant, beautiful and all-too-topical memoir. With the skill, delicacy and sharp wit her many fans know and love, Deborah Orr tells her tale of childhood: of class and mobility, of self-love and self-loathing, of dissatisfied mother and clever daughter, and of the dangerous, complex sacrifices which opportunity demands from a girl on the move in the late twentieth century. Are you a mother? Do/did you have a mother? Read it’ LOUISA YOUNG

‘If you have or had a difficult mother this is the book for you. Difficult doesn’t have to mean abusive. You can have a happy childhood with a mother who drives you mad’ LINDA GRANT

‘Honest, at times harsh, but also deeply tender and very funny – this is a beautifully written memoir. It’s my generation so evoked many unwanted memories including the three-day-week, boiled to death veg and masturbating skinheads. A great read for ‘Common People’ like me’ KATHY BURKE

‘MOTHERWELL is a story about a girl, a family, a time, a place. But so much more. Fearlessly Deborah Orr works out how she was formed as she unpicks everyday dysfunction. Full of glinting pain, brilliant one liners and utter clarity, the sliver of ice in her heart melts. Sheer humanity shines out. I was astonished’ SUZANNE MOORE