I Am, I Am, I Am is a memoir full of life from the vantage point of Maggie O'Farrell's brushes with death – 17 brushes with death, to be exact.
Born in Northern Ireland in 1972 and now living in London, O'Farrell is the author of seven novels, including After You'd Gone, The Distance Between Us, Instructions for a Heatwave and, most recently, This Must Be the Place.
O'Farrell's memoir, her first work of non-fiction, gives a strong sense of the author in various stages of life: the child "bolter," the impetuous teenager, the traveller in her 20s. Now, as the mother of a child with life-threatening allergies, she reflects on her own childhood illness. I Am, I Am, I Am is a generous read in that it gives readers a window from which to consider their own lives.
On reflection, maybe 17 brushes with death isn't all that many.
What moved you to write your life by talking about your near-misses with death?
It's a book I never thought I'd write. I've always been so wedded to the form of fiction and never planned to write a memoir. But this somehow demanded to be written. I Am, I Am, I Am is a response to living with my daughter's life-threatening medical condition. How does a parent absorb and explain the near-death experiences suffered by a young child? How best to reassure them, make them feel safe? The only way I have found to do this is to tell my daughter stories, to transpose what has happened to her into narrative. Only then can she comprehend the illnesses, the threat, the pain.
I wrote I Am, I Am, I Am to confront the brushes with death that we all have – and to help my daughter feel less alone.
Seventeen might at first seem a surprisingly large number. Was there something that surprised you in writing this book?
That I was writing it at all surprised me a great deal: I never intended to write about myself. I think that any brush with death changes you and becomes part of who you are. You come back from the brink altered and with a new awareness of your own fragility. You continue on with a sense of how permeable is the membrane between life and death. It's inevitable that certain experiences I describe in this book will have filtered into my fiction, in both literal and indirect ways. There are incidents, like the near-drowning in India, that are echoed in my novels. I don't often write autobiographically – I prefer to make things up – but there will be the odd scene that might be recognizable to the very eagle-eyed. I suppose that surprised me, in a way: The realization that I had already skirted around some of these incidents before, in my fiction.
Do people now feel compelled to share their near-death experiences with you?
They do. This has been an unexpected side effect of the book. People come up to me after events and share some very visceral, personal stories. I feel greatly honoured to hear them.
Many of these chapters describe complications around childbirth or threats disproportionately faced by women and girls. How aware were you of this gendered aspect when writing the book?
Not at all. I didn't plan it as a gendered book, in any way. I was writing about my own experiences and inevitably some of those would come across as female, since I am female. It isn't meant to be a book about women, for women, however. Near-death experiences are, of course, universal, and shared by all.
Your three children figure prominently in this book, especially the last chapter, about your second child. Does being a parent change the nature of these stories?
Becoming a parent changes everything so, yes, I think my attitude to death and certainly risk underwent a complete sea change when I had children. You are suddenly so aware of the fragility and dependency of these tiny creatures, and how important it is for you to keep them alive – and for you to stick around in order to do so.
The title of this book is from a line in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar: "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am." Who do you most admire in writing about the brush with death?
That's a hard question. Obviously, the Plath quote takes on an extra poignancy when you take the way her life ended into account. I think James Joyce writes well about death – and our fear and fascination with it. Also, the Brontes, Alice Munro, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emily Dickinson, William Boyd, A.M. Homes and Annie Proulx, to name just a few.