Maggie O'Farrell: Writing I Am, I Am, I Am was just something that crept up on me
Why commit the moments when you've almost died to print? Co Derry native Maggie O'Farrell tells Ella Walker how her daughter propelled her to write new memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am
FOR someone who has written about all the times she has almost died, and now has to talk about it, Maggie O'Farrell is surprisingly cheerful.
The author laughs loudly and frequently, and when asked whether writing a memoir is a bit like writing your own obituary, she jokes, "18 brushes with death!?"
But O'Farrell (45) doesn't actually like being centre of attention ("I was never one of those kids who wanted to be in the school play – quite the opposite,") and you get the sense she'd much rather be at home in Edinburgh, swimming in the sea, or writing novels in the cracks of time that appear between looking after her three young children, than focusing on her darkest moments. And yet, the Coleraine-born novelist has gone and written a memoir.
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death began in private as an extension of the diaries O'Farrell has kept since she was young ("There must be hundreds by now,") and was never written with the intention that it would one day be published.
"It was something that crept up on me," says the author, writer of After You'd Gone, This Must Be The Place and Costa Novel Awards 2010 winner The Hand That First Held Mine. She muses: "Books are filters for all sorts of things..."
It's a leap when a well-loved fiction writer turns to memoir, a genre that can be sluggish with indulgent autobiographical notes and mushy sentiment, but I Am, I Am, I Am doesn't slide into those traps. Instead, it's deftly written, emotionally bruising and blazes with honesty.
Riven into 17 near-fatal experiences, all scrambled out of chronological order and marked by antique anatomical drawings – a delicate skeleton inside a marble sculpture; a spine suspended, free of its ribs and pelvic anchor; a blackened lung frothing with itty-bitty alveoli – it recalls the terrifying moments O'Farrell tussled with the possibility she may not take another breath.
There are instances that are almost universal – that stomach-tumbling fear that comes when you realise you've swum out of your depth; feeling the whoosh of a lorry as it hurtles by too close and perilously fast; sprinting across a road as your parents yell at you to slow down, to look where you're going – and others that are unimaginably scary – a knife-point mugging; a debilitating childhood illness; a labour gone horribly awry.
While slivers of herself undoubtedly appear in her previous books, memoir, O'Farrell says, is close to the bone.
"It does feel much more exposing, because even if you put something in a novel that did come from real life, you've always got the mask of fiction to hide behind."
She decided to step out from behind that mask for her eight-year-old daughter, who was born with a severe immunology disorder that means, if she collides with one of her triggers ("If she eats something with a trace of a nut. Or if she sits at a table where someone has recently consumed sesame seeds. Or if in an egg is cracked nearby," O'Farrell writes. "I could go on,") it can plunge her into critical anaphylactic shock.
"So, she has quite a few brushes with death herself," she explains. "I began writing something about it in private for myself, to come to terms with that, to try and understand what she was going through – and also how best to help her – but it got larger and larger."
She ended up mentioning the growing manuscript to her agent, who gradually persuaded her to share it.
"The structure allows me to reveal almost as much as I conceal," says O'Farrell, explaining how she managed to execute a kind of hopscotch between what is and isn't told. "There's an awful lot that isn't in the book. Yes, some of it is years or times when not much happened, but there's also other stuff in there that I don't want to talk about, obviously, and the structure of the book allows me to skip over those bits."
One of those bits she does include – a mountain path encounter with a murderer – is a story she'd only ever previously told her husband, the writer William Sutcliffe.
"I'm not saying I'm not going to talk about it," she explains cautiously, "but writing it wasn't actually too bad, because it felt very private and I could just do it. But I did an event the other day and they wanted to ask about it a lot, and I did find verbalising it quite difficult."
She has pickled the story in ink until her daughter is old enough to understand why, when she asked a couple of years ago whether she and O'Farrell could go hiking together, just the two of them, the answer was no.
"I remember I said, 'I don't think so, we can all go together', and her asking why. Obviously I wasn't going to tell her then, because she was only six. I remember thinking, 'At some point, I will have to tell you that story' – and how on Earth do you have that conversation with your child?"
Writing I Am, I Am, I Am involved not just scouring the nebulous and less-visited sections of her memory, but also required unearthing childhood medical records from when she contracted viral encephalitis. The former deputy literary editor of the Independent On Sunday says writing it was a very different ordeal compared to her usual work.
"A novel feels like creation, and this felt like excavation," she says, adding wryly: "I don't know how cathartic it was."
She had always been wary of the idea of memoir "just because it felt like such a tax on your friends and family, and I wouldn't ever want to expose people". So, she was discreet; family members' names are absent, their roles pared back, their privacy guarded. O'Farrell doesn't subscribe to the view that, as an author, the people in your life are fair game for spinning into fiction.
"I don't think everything around you as a writer belongs to you – your own life does, but your own life is linked with other people's so you have to be very careful at those junctures."
"I mean, I wouldn't want to be written about in a memoir particularly," she adds with a light laugh.
Further non-fiction is not on O'Farrell's to-do list (but "never say never"), however, another novel is. "I usually have something in the back of my mind simmering away, and I have started something, another novel," she teases. "It feels a huge relief to go back to being able to make things up."
I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O'Farrell is published in hardback by Tinder Press, priced £18.99 (ebook £9.49).