Let’s Do Lunch With Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s NEW MEMOIR, an account of NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES, is an elegy of love for her family, HEATHER ATSBURY meets her to discuss her new book …


Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t helpful,” says Maggie O’Farrell emphatically, with what I quickly learn is her signature no-nonsense attitude to life. Originally from Coleraine in Northern Ireland, O’Farrell has lived in Cambridge, where she went to university, London, Hong Kong, Wales and Scotland. But Edinburgh has been home for the last six years and that’s where we meet to talk about her new book. Casual and friendly, she smiles and laughs a lot.

I Am, I Am, I Am (the title is taken from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) is a brave departure for the Costa Novel Award winner and bestselling author, known for her novels including After You’d Gone, My Lover’s Lover, The Distance Between Us, and This Must Be The Place. Unsentimental but vividly described, hers are usually elegantly wrought tales of love and loss. But her latest book is autobiographical, describing the near-death experiences O’Farrell says have shaped the person she is now, at 45. With a background in journalism – she was deputy literary editor for The Independent on Sunday  – O’Farrell is no stranger to writing non-fiction, but it comes with responsibility. “When you write about real events, you have to be accurate because other people know what really happened. I was very aware that when writing a memoir what I said could have a huge impact on other people. One of the reasons I always said I would never write one. It’s one thing to expose yourself, but it’s quite another to do that to your nearest and dearest.” So why did she write this book and why now?

I Am, I Am, I Am recounts 17 episodes of near-death over O’Farrell’s life, including a terrifying encounter with a murderer in her teens, falling ill with dysentry in rural China, a near-miss with a passing lorry while out walking. She almost drowned twice. She haemorrhaged during labour with her first child. These are O’Farrell’s own near-death experiences. Even more traumatically, she has also had to witness her own eight-year-old-daughter (she has three children, Sam, Juno and Iris) who suffers with severe allergies and has, on average 15 acute allergic reactions a year, come close to death. Vigilance doesn’t begin to describe the care the family must take not to place her life at risk. Medicine at the ready, “We live,” she writes, “in a state of high alert.”

The trauma of watching her daughter go into  anaphylactic shock is described in the book. “My husband [novelist William Sutcliffe] read that chapter and said he couldn’t read it ever again because it brought it all back for him too vividly – which I guess in literary terms is a good thing,” O’Farrell laughs.

Serious childhood illness is every parent’s nightmare, but O’Farrell, in her stoic way, is determined to look on the bright side. “Anger and bitterness aren’t useful,” she says. “I’m always so grateful that I am turning into the paediatric respiratory or allergy ward, not the paediatric oncology ward. However bad things are, they are always worse for someone else. We are so lucky to have our daughter. Not all parents can say that. I get fed up sometimes, fed up for her, mostly, but you have to look on the bright side. I’ve learned patience, compassion, and a huge urge to help other people.”

O’Farrell describes herself as a private, even secretive person, and this unveiling of painful and personal episodes in her past illustrates the desire she has to help her children navigate the complicated waters of life. Normalising near-death was a way to make her daughter feel she is not the only one, that near-death experiences are more common than you think.

“When times are hard, we need to tell ourselves stories to make ourselves feel better and to sort of explain ourselves to ourselves. Narrative is what helps my daughter in times of crisis; often I tell her stories about me. And that’s really why I wanted to write this book; to let her know that she isn’t alone; we all go to the brink and come back again. A friend said recently, ‘You’ve basically revealed all the secrets you’ve spent your whole life hiding’. But I did it for my daughter. I was tired of the silence, I think.”

O’Farrell has a unique perspective on her daughter’s illness, having suffered from encephalitis in childhood, which kept her bedridden in a hospital from the age of eight to ten. It was touch and go whether she would ever walk again, whether she would live. She wryly alludes to receiving a visit in hospital from Jimmy Savile, although she says nothing untoward happened. He gave her a book on how to make Halloween costumes, which she still has.

I ask if she is ready for the public reaction to I Am, I Am, I Am. “Well, of course, your readers must have, and absolutely do have, the right to an opinion on your work. Initially I wasn’t sure if I would want to publish this book, so I told my agent I didn’t want any money for it. She told me there had to be some money involved to make the contract legal, so I said ok, give me a pound. A few days later I sent her a picture of a shopping trolley, saying I’d spent my advance!

“It does feel very different from publishing a novel,” she agrees, “and I am quite nervous about it. In a way, I think this book conceals as much as it reveals,” she says. “I’ve been quite careful, I hope, with other people’s lives. I worry about my children. I mean generally. I know I have to let them make mistakes, but it’s alarming to think they’re probably going to make the same mistakes I did.”

After surviving so many near-disasters, does O’Farrell think she’s had her quota? She throws her head back and laughs, saying: “I don’t think life works like that. You never know what’s coming; you have to seize the day – carpe diem. And if there is one thing I want this book to say to people it is to make every minute you have count, don’t waste your time.” So will there be any more forays into the autobiographical? “I don’t plan to write any more books like this, but then I didn’t plan to write this one,” she laughs. “Never say never.”

Maggie O’Farrell is the author of seven books, including The Distance Between Us, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award, and The Hand That First Held Mine winner of the Costa Novel Award (2010). Born in Northern Ireland, O’Farrell lives in Edinburgh with her husband and three children. I Am, I Am, I Am (Tinder Press) £18.99stg is out now.

In conversation with Heather Atsbury

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