February 2018

Maggie O’Farrell

A reluctant memoirist finds her voice
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Elements of Maggie O’Farrell’s life have inspired her writing, but it is only now—after publishing seven novels and birthing three children—that she has found the courage to tell the full story.

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Elements of Maggie O’Farrell’s life have inspired her writing, but it is only now—after publishing seven novels and birthing three children—that she has found the courage to tell the full story.

Provocative and profound, O’Farrell’s memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, is a meditation on the many miraculous moments in her life when she stared down death and lived to tell the tale. From almost drowning off the coast of England (and then again in Africa) to escaping the clutches of a serial strangler, the book—and O’Farrell’s life—is chockablock with scenes highlighting the fragility and tenuousness of life. It is her most personal book to date, and yet it is also a book she never intended to write.

“I never, ever thought I would write a memoir,” the Northern Irish author confides during a call to her home in Edinburgh, Scotland. “It felt sort of an impossibility to me. . . . I used to always kind of joke that I was about as likely to write a memoir as I was to become an acrobat. Of course, if you’ve read the book, you realize how impossible it would be for me to be an acrobat!”

O’Farrell is referring to the collateral damage from what is perhaps her most serious near-death experience: As a child, she contracted encephalitis, which confined her to bed for nearly two years. Doctors offered grave predictions, including life confined to a wheelchair and even death.

Instead, O’Farrell defied all odds, not only pulling through but also regaining the ability to walk unassisted and to hold a pen. Decades later, although she still retains physical limitations that place a career in acrobatics well out of reach, she has largely perfected the art of hiding the remnants of her illness.

She began practicing this at the age of 13, when her family moved from Wales to Scotland. She recalls thinking at the time, “I can reinvent myself, I can be somebody else. I don’t have to be the girl who was disabled in a wheelchair. I can just become a girl who’s a bit rubbish at sport, who falls over a bit and drops stuff. A bit of a klutz.”

And so her past became secret, even from close friends. Therefore, a memoir in which she reflects on her most vulnerable moments seems a paradoxical choice. She agrees, admitting that she has “much more ambivalence about the book because of how exposing it is.” However, she says, “I have always felt that you don’t necessarily choose the books; the books choose you.”

With a laugh, she recalls how her unintentional memoir crept into being: “I’ve always kept diaries . . . and in the back I write longer pieces. And this book—the memoir—just sort of rose up out of these notebooks. I had written a third of it before I really admitted to myself that I was actually writing a book!”

She was so stunned by this revelation that when O’Farrell finally told her agent what she was working on and they drew up her contract, she initially refused all monetary advances on the manuscript in case she changed her mind and decided not to publish it. In order for the contract to be made legal, she agreed to accept £1, but says, “Even up until a week before publication, I was waking up at night thinking, ‘Should I just say it’s all off?’ ”

“I was about as likely to write a memoir as I was to become an acrobat.”

Despite her reservations, a force greater than fear kept pushing O’Farrell to write: Her middle child, Astrid, was born with chronic eczema and experiences episodes of anaphylactic crisis that take her to the emergency room with frightening frequency. Though far from the traditional bedtime tales, O’Farrell’s stories have proven helpful to her daughter in coming to terms with her own struggles.

“One of the jobs of being a parent is you have to metabolize what they’re going through and hand it back to them in a form that they can understand,” O’Farrell says. “I found myself very challenged as a mother, trying to explain to a 3- or a 4-year-old why it is they were in so much pain, why it is they were in an ambulance or an ICU. The only thing I found that really helped her in those situations was telling her stories.”

Just like her mother did as a girl, Astrid “lives with a lot of restrictions,” O’Farrell explains. “But it’s really, really important to me to impart the message to her that even though she has parameters which she needs to live within . . . she has to live the biggest and the best life that she possibly can. Always and every day. So I will be the first mum to shout, ‘Yeah, climb that tree! Go higher! Jump in that cold water! Just do it, do it!’ And she is.”

It is for this reason that O’Farrell ultimately views I Am, I Am, I Am as life-affirming. “I think there is something very universal about the near-death experience. I think we’ve all had them, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. And I think those moments change us. I think we come back from them different—altered—and it makes us newly conscious about why we want to come back, why we want to carry on living and also what we stand to lose had we lost that fight. . . . For me the book is about life. The life lived around those moments.”

As we wrap up our conversation, O’Farrell is interrupted by a stampede of footsteps, swiftly followed by a chorus of giggles. Her children have arrived home from school and are clamoring for her attention. We end our call because, after all, there are trees to be climbed and cold water to be jumped into, and no one knows better than O’Farrell and her family how lucky they are to be able to do just that.

“I definitely think of myself as incredibly lucky, not unlucky at all,” O’Farrell says. “What I hope people will take away from the book is just the fact that I nearly died, but actually, I didn’t. We didn’t. We’re all still here.”


This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Murdo Macleod.

Get the Book

I Am, I Am, I Am

I Am, I Am, I Am

By Maggie O'Farrell
ISBN 9780525436058

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