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OR some­one who’s writ­ten about all the times she’s 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 Mag­gie, 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 Mag­gie 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 near­fa­tal 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 Mag­gie tus­sled with the pos­si­bil­ity she may not take an­other breath.

There are in­stances that are al­most uni­ver­sal – that stom­ach­tum­bling 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, Mag­gie 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 an egg is cracked nearby,” Mag­gie 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 Mag­gie, 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 Mag­gie 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. Mag­gie 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 Mag­gie’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). Avail­able now.

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