Maggie O’Farrell’s extraordinary memoir I Am, I Am, I Am is truly one of a kind. Told through seventeen near-death experiences, it’s a beautifully written and deeply personal account of one woman facing her fears and overcoming hardship. O’Farrell is the author of seven incredible novels, including Instructions for a Heatwave and This Must Be the Place. She brings the same exquisite writing and keen observation to this, her first work of nonfiction.
In I Am, I Am, I Am O’Farrell manages to turn truly terrible experiences into a fascinating and revealing account of her life, raising as many questions as it answers. We feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to get some answers from the author herself. Keep reading to learn more!
Reading Group Center: Each section in I Am, I Am, I Am details a near-death experience that you have had over the years. How have these brushes with death ultimately affected how you live your day-to-day life? How have they changed you as a mother?
Maggie O’Farrell: I have a perhaps unhealthy interest in the near-death experience and it seemed to me that it would make an interesting lens through which to view a life. There’s a universality to a brush with death. We’ve all had them. We’ve all had moments—some more serious than others—when our lives have been in danger. These experiences change us irrevocably. We come back from the brink altered, sadder and wiser. We might suppress them but we never forget them. We resurface into our everyday lives newly conscious of what we would stand to lose, had things turned out differently. I asked a neurologist recently what effect adrenaline has on our brains and he told me that it hardwires our memories, which is why we remember traumatic events so vividly. It’s an evolutionary survival tool: we remember the details so that, if we ever come across them again, we know to run the other way.
When I became a mother, it was the first time I’d ever really been frightened of death. All the stupid risks I took as a teenager and a twenty-something stopped right away. You realize, as you hold your baby, that no one else will love them like you do, no one else will look after them like you will: you need to stick around. Conversely, my brushes with death have taught me that we all need a healthy and balanced attitude to danger. I try to recognize that my kids need to take a certain amount of risk; it’s how they learn things. Kids need to push their own personal boundaries to find out where they are. I can tell them that climbing too high up a tree will be dangerous until I’m blue in the face but it’s only when they reach that slightly too-vertiginous branch and look down that the message will strike home. It’s important that they develop that autonomy. I always tell them to assess risk before they attempt something; think about what might go wrong and how they would cope, if it did; above all, I say to them, if you find yourself in a tricky situation, keep a cool head.
RGC: Have you had any other near-death experiences that you chose to leave out? If so, why?
MO: There were a few others on the cutting-room floor. Some were too repetitious (there were, I’m pretty embarrassed to admit, other near-drownings) or too exposing or would have involved the lives of other people to an extent I wasn’t comfortable with. I made a list at the start and edited them down to the seventeen that appear in the book. I wanted to find events that would open out, like a paper flower, the story of a person and all the different phases she’s lived through. Although the subtitle contains the word “death,” it’s really a book about life; the life lived around these seventeen moments. The near-death experiences are just a way in.
RGC: Why did you choose to write I Am I Am I Am when you did, making the shift to a memoir after writing so many novels?
MO: I never meant to write it at all. Writing a memoir had always felt like the very last thing I would ever want to do. I used to joke about it sometimes, as in: I’m about as likely to write a memoir as I am to become a mathematician or an acrobat or straighten my hair. I have always, from a very young age, been focused on fiction. I began to read stories, as soon as I could, and have never stopped since.
I’ve long had a suspicion that it’s not always you who gets to choose your next book; sometimes the book chooses you. I had plans to write a novel, a big historical story, set in the sixteenth-century. What began to happen, instead, was that longer pieces of writing were emerging, in the backs of my notebooks. I found I was producing lengthy paragraphs about certain moments in my life when I came close to death. These paragraphs were then mutating into pages and more pages. A foolish moment of teenage madness, a near-accident as a child, a reflection on a close shave I had while traveling.
Now that I’ve finished the book, I believe that the reason people write memoirs is an attempt to grapple with the fickleness and volatility of existence. We cannot control what life throws at us; good and bad things will happen and there is nothing we can do to dodge what Hamlet calls the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Perhaps the purpose of memoir is to impose control on chaos. If you write these things down, if you bend them to your lexical will, if you put them in order, if you smelt them down into words and paragraphs, tidy them up, if you are willing to spend months tinkering and perfecting the placing of each comma, each adverb, you might come away with the idea that you have contained your life, defined it, disciplined it.
This is entirely illusory, of course. You could write fifty memoirs and still be no closer to having sovereignty over your life.
RGC: What has surprised you most about readers’ reactions to the book? Is there one story that they tend to mention more than any other?
MO: I didn’t foresee how it would unlock people’s recollections of their own brushes with death. Usually, the conversations you have with readers after a literary event go no deeper than, “Shall I sign this book for you? How do you spell your name?” With I Am, I’m finding that people are wanting to share or disclose sometimes very personal and often traumatic tales from their own lives. I’m always very honored to be the recipient of these stories.
There’s the small matter of fainting as well. It’s not a graphic book in any way: there’s no gratuitous violence or gory detail. I don’t go in for oversharing about medical procedures. And yet, so far, a total of eight people have fainted during public readings of the book. It is the oddest thing and I certainly never saw that coming. One was an enormous six-foot rugby player; he went down like a felled tree and pulled a whole table of wine glasses with him. It was quite the event. Another woman fainted and fell down a flight of stairs: thump, thump, thump. I don’t know why this happens. Maybe the book makes people confront their own mortality and perhaps that can be overwhelming.
RGC: Were any of these stories a secret before you wrote the book? If so, why did you choose to reveal it/them now?
MO: When I gave my mother a copy of the book, I said to her: “There’s a lot in here you didn’t know about me.” I felt this terrible retrospective, near–teenage anxiety about being found out, which was ridiculous, given that I am a forty-something mother of three. So, yes, there is quite a bit in the book that I’ve spent most of my life concealing. I have a number of neurological issues from my childhood encephalitis, which I’ve developed a number of ways to hide or distract people from, over the years. I think that habit dates back to my adolescence, when I was determined to “pass” as someone who was perhaps just a little bit clumsy and bad at sport; I was so terrified of people at school finding out that I’d been disabled and in a wheelchair. At that age, you are loath to be singled out as anything different. Some of my close friends read the book and were aghast that they’d had no idea about what happened to me as a child. I told them that I’d always taken great pains to hide it.
RGC: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? What about reading advice?
MO: What I wish someone had told me when I was starting out is that you don’t have to begin at the beginning. Beginnings are hard. The most important thing is to plunge in—it doesn’t matter where. You can write the end, or the middle, or a few chapters in. Just write: get words down on paper, form a scene, create a dialogue, set some of your imaginary friends to arguing or singing or dog-walking. What you write at this initial stage will, in all likelihood, not make it to the final draft but there is great comfort in word count, in having something to work with. You can’t redraft and rewrite and recraft an empty page. So set down your words, don’t look back, don’t reread. Just put down what you need to say and worry about fixing it later.
As for reading, I think the best advice I ever had was to approach a book, initially, as a reader. Gallop through it, if you want, for plot, for character, for whatever you want. If you like it, if you’re struck by it, go back and reread it, but this time as a writer. Analyze it, with a pen and paper to hand. If there is something particular about it you admire, work out why and how the writer did it. Take it apart as an engineer might an engine: examine and admire its workings. Then read it again, just because.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing I Am I Am I Am. What is a topic or question you would like to pose to the group and why?
MO: 1. Why do you think she was initially so reluctant to write this book?
2. Why did she use a nonchronological structure?
3. Do you think she will ever be able to get life insurance now?