Maggie O'Farrell | 'I wasn't sure whether it was suitable for public consumption'

Maggie O'Farrell | 'I wasn't sure whether it was suitable for public consumption'

With its life-affirming title, I Am, I Am, I Am (Tinder Press, August) - a heartbeat of a quote from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar - is the memoir Maggie O’Farrell never thought she would write.

“The thing that’s always bothered me about memoir is the way it exposes your friends and family,” she tells me down the line from her home in Edinburgh. Despite this reservation, however, she found herself contemplating writing about significant events in her own life after completing her most recent novel, This Must Be The Place. The solution was to try and write a memoir that would reveal only what she wanted to reveal, both about herself, and others - a quest which led O’Farrell to settle on an episodic, non-chronological format for her first non-fiction work, subtitled Seventeen Brushes With Death. “I realised that if I wrote it in a fragmentary way, I would have more control,” she says.

Remarkably, this self-censoring structure makes a blistering impact on the reader, especially if, as I did, you read the title compulsively in one sitting. O’Farrell tells the story of her life in short, punchy accounts of the near-death experiences that have punctuated it with striking regularity - from several near-miss drownings, being mugged at gunpoint in South America, to almost dying, both as a child and later in childbirth. Though visceral, disturbing and occasionally heart-in-the- mouth horrifying, its cumulative effect is far from bleak. Rather it emphasises the miracle of our individual survival in a world fraught with perils.

Strange lands

Writing the book placed O’Farrell in strange and unfamiliar territory. “I’m very naturally a fiction writer, and I feel very wedded to the form. I was a journalist for years, but writing non-fiction is really not the same as that,” she says. “I would find myself in the middle of a paragraph thinking, it would be so much better if I set this in France. Then I’d realise, I can’t do that! It was really peculiar having to bring myself back to earth and think, actually I’ve got these guy ropes of reality.”

Even when completed, O’Farrell was not convinced the emotionally revealing memoir was a book she actually wanted to publish. “I needed to write it for myself, but I wasn’t sure whether it was suitable for public consumption,” she says. Consequently, when given her contract to write it, she asked not to be given any money. “But my agent and editor said I had to have something to make it legal. So, I said okay, I’ll have £1. Later, I texted them both a photograph of a Sainsbury’s shopping trolley and said, look, this is what I’ve done with my £1, hired a celebratory trolley!”

Eventually, O’Farrell’s confidence in her long-time editor, Mary-Anne Harrington, convinced her that the project was in safe hands. “I’ve worked with Mary-Anne right from my first book. She’s brilliant, and she and I know each other very, very well, both in a real-life sense, but also in a writing sense,” she says. In her turn, Harrington tells me that in her 20 years in publishing, she has “never been so excited about a book”. “It etches itself instantly on the heart,” she says. “Also Maggie has always been quite private, so I feel incredibly lucky that she has trusted Tinder Press with this book which, while deeply personal, also feels genuinely important with its insights into the fragility of what it means to be human.”

Horror story

In a book that includes the bloodbath of a caesarean and a childhood hospital bedside visit from Jimmy Savile, it’s hard to single out any particular moment but perhaps the most heart-stopping scene of all in I Am, I Am, I Am comes early on when O’Farrell, at the age of 19, finds herself alone up a mountain with a man who shortly afterwards went on to murder a young woman of similar age. It’s a terrifying incident that for years afterwards, O’Farrell spoke of to no one, only later telling her husband (the writer, William Sutcliffe) after they were almost gunned-down in South America. “It became a very private thing that I kept inside myself. I think I felt that the real horror of that story wasn’t mine to tell,” she says.

O’Farrell draws a vivid portrait of herself in the book as a restless child, an “escapologist” constantly bolting from her parents’ grasp. Then she vividly describes being struck down with encephalitis (brain inflammation) at the age of eight, an illness from which she almost died. She spent four months confined to bed and her doctors thought she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. “Hearing that as a child is horrifying,” she says. She did eventually recover, but still suffers some neurological problems, which partly explain some of her brushes with death. But her resurrection from grave childhood illness only heightened her appetite for experience. “I just thought, I’m going to try everything I possibly can because I know I’m on borrowed time.”

As soon as she was old enough, O’Farrell gave vent to what she calls her “compulsion for freedom”, becoming an inveterate traveller. This thirst for adventure and “crazed attitude to risk” also lies behind some of the perilous situations in which she has found herself.

Interestingly, this hinging period of childhood illness also helped make O’Farrell a writer. “There are lots of reasons I became a writer. But I think spending so much time unable to move, with my mind and imagination the only active part of me, really fed into it,” she says. “Once I was physically capable of holding a book, all I did for four months was read. I read every book on my shelf, and when I came to the end, I started again. I must have read the Moomins and Pippi Longstocking nine or 10 times. That not only turned me into a reader, but also a critical reader, too. I remember early on thinking things like, why is this so good? Why does this chapter work? Why does Tove Jansson change tense here?”

The fragility of young lives is a recurring theme in the book, for parts of it, albeit anonymously, also tell of O’Farrell’s elder daughter, who has severe allergies, and at a still tender age has already had a number of near-death experiences of her own. “Essentially, I’ve written the book for her, because I want her - and others - to feel less alone. When you’re going through a difficult experience in life, one thing that helps is reading what other people have written about it.” O’Farrell speaks from extensive personal experience when she tells me that having a child who is suffering “is one of the loneliest, most isolating experiences you can have”. In the book, she becomes a kindred spirit for those who have had the care of a desperately sick child, as well as those who have been through the pain of miscarriage, or a traumatic childbirth. A donation from book sales will be made to two charities, the Anaphylaxis Campaign and Medical Alert Dogs.

I say to O’Farrell that while I was reading the book, I kept thinking of the phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”. Perhaps I Am, I Am, I Am could be thought of as a secular version of that religious invocation? “Yes, absolutely,” comes the reply. “The overwhelming feeling when I was writing the book was a sense of utter good fortune, of how lucky I am. One step in the wrong direction and I wouldn’t have been here to write it.”