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After 17 Brushes With Death, A Writer Reflects On Coming 'Back From The Brink'

Writer Maggie O'Farrell has survived some terrifying episodes. She's had a machete pressed to her throat during a robbery, once contracted amoebic dysentery while traveling and nearly bled out while giving birth to her first child.


Other segments from the episode on February 5, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 5, 2018: Interview with Maggie O'Farrell; Review of the books 'This Is What Happened' and 'Babylon Berlin.'


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Was there ever a time when you thought you were going to die because of an accident, an illness, a stupid risk you took, an assault or a stranger who seemed on the verge of attacking you? My guest Maggie O'Farrell writes about her 17 brushes with death in her new memoir "I Am, I Am, I Am." That's a lot of brushes with death.

Among those experiences and illnesses that nearly killed her are childhood encephalitis, being robbed with a machete held to her neck, nearly drowning after jumping off a harbor wall into the water, amoebic dysentery while traveling and nearly bleeding out in labor with her first child. Her memoir ends with a chapter about her daughter, who is born with life-threatening eczema and food allergies and has been hospitalized many times. O'Farrell is a novelist. This is her first memoir. She's worked as a waitress, chambermaid, teacher, arts administrator, a journalist in Hong Kong and London and is deputy literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. She was born in Northern Ireland in 1972 and now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Maggie O'Farrell, welcome to FRESH AIR. The first story in your book is a story I think a lot of women will relate to. It's about that moment when you realize the man you suspect might be following you with bad intentions is actually following you with bad intentions. This happened when you were working at a holistic alternative retreat at the base of a mountain. You were - were you a teenager or in your early 20s?


GROSS: Eighteen - OK - and your job at this retreat was cleaning and serving food. I want you to read the first couple of paragraphs from this autobiographical story that opens your new book.

O'FARRELL: (Reading) On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears. We are, he and I, on the far side of a dark turn that lies hidden in the bowl-curved summit of this mountain. The sky is a milky blue above us. No vegetation grows this far up. So it is just me and him, the stones and distilled black water. He straddles the narrow track with both booted feet. And he smiles. I realize several things - that I passed him earlier further down the glen. We greeted each other in an amiable yet brief manner of those on a country walk - that on this remote stretch of path, there is no one near enough to hear me call, that he has been waiting for me. He has planned this whole thing carefully, meticulously. And I have walked into his trap. I see all this in an instant.

GROSS: You know, so many of us have gone through - there's this moment where you don't know if you're being paranoid or rude about this man who you think has bad intentions. What made you realize that you were in trouble?

O'FARRELL: Well, I think it's an instinct that actually all women have developed or have to develop, unfortunately probably from quite a young age. You know, I think - I mean, I told this to my own kids, you know? If you think something isn't right, there's a good chance it isn't right, you know? And I think in that instance, it's very important to follow your instinct, not to tell yourself it's going to be all right. And if you feel it isn't - something isn't as it should be, then you need to get out of there as fast as you can.

But it's funny - it's amazing the number of people who have come up to me or contacted me after reading that chapter and said, this happened to me, you know? I was on a bus. I was in a cafe. I was on a train late at night. And, you know, it's been eye-opening, actually, having written that and the number of people who have come and said, you know, I had a very similar experience.

GROSS: So this man did not actually attack you. But he did do something that was very creepy and frightening and threatening. Would you describe what that was?

O'FARRELL: Well, I was on this walk, as I said. And I realized that I'd seen him further down the valley. And I still don't know how he got ahead of me to intercept me on the way up. And so I walked past him. And then he came after me. And he said he wanted to show me a bird on the lake. And so he put his binocular strap around my neck. And I knew - I mean, I knew, as everybody does, that it wasn't right, that it wasn't true. It wasn't just about the bird. And I knew he meant to harm me. And I think people do know that. I think there is a kind of - almost a sort of animal instinct that - like dogs sniffing each other. You know that somebody means you harm.

So I talked my way out of it. I just ducked out under the binocular strap. And I talked to him. And I kept him talking. And I asked about the birds. And I knew that the only way I could save myself - because I was - he was a lot bigger than me. And he was a lot stronger than me. And I knew the only way to get out of there was to use my brain instead, I suppose.

GROSS: So you got safely back, and you went to the police. You told them about this man. And you told them that you knew he was going to harm another woman, that you were very afraid about that.

O'FARRELL: Well, I said that - I said that I - something not right about it - that was not right about the situation that I wanted them to know.

GROSS: And they were very dismissive. But then later, two other police officers came.


GROSS: And what did they tell you?

O'FARRELL: Well, they didn't tell me anything. But they asked me about the incident in very close detail. And then they asked me to look at some photographs and to say if I saw the person with the binoculars among these photographs, which I did. And I pointed him out. And I knew what had happened. I could sense it. And I said to them, he has killed someone, hasn't he? And they wouldn't tell me. They wouldn't tell me anything. But then a few days later, I read in the newspaper that a girl had been killed, that she'd been raped and then strangled and then buried not very far from where I had been walking.

GROSS: Was she strangled with the binocular strap that he tried to put around your neck?

O'FARRELL: It's impossible to say because the article didn't say that. And the police wouldn't confirm it. And they never got in touch with me again to testify or - and, actually, I left the area very soon afterwards. And the strangest thing is, I think, you know, all this happened in a time when, you know, it was pre-Internet. And, you know, so I actually never found out what happened. What I know is - all I know is what I've said.

GROSS: You wrote that you think all the time about this woman who was murdered. She was 22. What do you think about when you think about her murder?

O'FARRELL: I know that it could have been me. And I know there's not really any reason why it was her instead of me. It's just chance. And I think also the writing that piece - because it wasn't - it isn't a story I ever told anyone. The only person I ever told about it was the man who I eventually married. And I never told my family. I never told my friends. I didn't want to talk about it at all. It was something I completely buried.

And I think, looking back on it, there was a sense - and obviously, I was - it was a very shocking thing to happen. But I think I felt a certain amount of guilt, perhaps, over the other girl that I never really admitted or explored to myself. But certainly, writing about it was - it made me realize that there's a kind of sense of ownership over stories. You know, I don't really own the story. The real nub of the story - the trauma of the story belongs to the other girl, not to me. You know, I'm just a footnote in this narrative. You know, the story is hers.

And I wrote it in such a way - very carefully. In a kind of technical sense, it was tricky to write because I was determined not to identify where it happened. And - because I - the very, very last thing I wanted to do was to make it identifiable to that girl's family, you know, because there isn't - I cannot think of a worse way to die than she died. There isn't really a worse way to die, you know, in the fear and agony and terror she must have been feeling at that time.

And, you know, I think literally the very last thing I wanted to do was to add to their pain over what happened because, you know, how would it feel to them 30 years on to, perhaps, pick up a book and start reading it and realize that I was describing a situation in which their daughter or sister or friend died? You know, I have a responsibility not to add to their pain and not to make it identifiable and also not to let them realize that it could have been somebody else because how would that help them?

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Maggie O'Farrell. Her new memoir about her 17 brushes with death is called "I Am, I Am, I Am." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Maggie O'Farrell. She's a novelist, but her new book is a memoir about her 17 brushes with death. It's called "I Am, I Am, I Am."

You got pregnant, and you nearly died in childbirth. So you knew when you got pregnant that you should probably have a cesarean because you had childhood encephalitis. So how did the encephalitis relate to your understanding of why you should have a cesarean?

O'FARRELL: Well, I'd been told when I was a child - I mean, all they'd tell - my parents really, I should say - that I would need a cesarean section because the encephalitis that I'd had had damaged the neuromuscular junctions in my spine and pelvis. And so they said that I - when I went into labor, it would start, but it wouldn't progress, and the contractions wouldn't be strong enough. So I didn't have the physical and muscular strength to actually expel the baby naturally.

But the thing is the doctors had said lots of different things to me when I was a child. They said I wouldn't walk again. And they said I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, that I'd never be able to write. And all those things obviously hadn't come true. So I was kind of - you know, I knew about this diagnosis, but I wasn't entirely sure about it. And so I went along to the appointment and said, by the way, this is what I was told. You know, what do you think about it (laughter)? You know, because I wanted an expert's opinion because, you know, I would have preferred a natural childbirth, if possible.

But instead, I was greeted with this very dismissive and quite arrogant response from a consultant who told me there was nothing wrong with me. And he said to me - I mean, the first thing he ever said to me - he grabbed my hand, and he pulled me up out of a chair, and he said, let me see you walk. And he implied that he didn't believe me (laughter), that I was making up this whole story about encephalitis so I could sort of lie my way into the cesarean, which I found absolutely astonishing. I had never been spoken to like that before by anybody - implying that I was lying or, you know, making it up. It was an astonishing thing to say.

GROSS: Well, just to put this in context, judging from what you wrote, there was a limit on the number of cesareans that each hospital or clinic was supposed to provide. Was that for reasons of cost or health or...

O'FARRELL: Yes. So basically, you know, the NHS - the National Health Service - is a free health service. And it's on its knees, you know, unfortunately. You know, I love it, and I wouldn't be here without it. But it's horribly underfunded, and all departments are completely stretched, and the doctors are overworked - and nurses. You know, it's a kind of dying public service, which is very, very sad. It's a huge tragedy in the UK at the moment.

So it has sort of caps on the number of operations it will perform. And obviously, maternity care is something that the money crunches or the number crunchers are trying to make reductions. And so the hospitals have a certain number of - a sort of quota of cesareans they're allowed to perform every month, I guess. I'm not sure exactly.

And so it is a kind of - it's a tricky area of debate for women in Britain - you know, women who perhaps want or need cesareans are told they can't have them unless they are medically necessary. And this consultant decided without A, looking at my notes or B, examining me that mine was medically unnecessary.

GROSS: So why did you nearly bleed out when you were in labor?

O'FARRELL: Well, what the neurologists in the 1980s had predicted came to pass - that I did go into labor. And to me, it (laughter) felt like very, very full-on labor. But it didn't progress, and the contractions weren't strong enough. And so I labored for three days - three very long days and nights, I would like to say (laughter). And yeah - after three days, the baby's heart rate was dipping, and it was showing signs of distress.

And so I said, I really need to talk to a doctor. You know, I need to explain what's happening here because nobody would listen. You know, it's very, very busy. There are lots of people in labor. It's understaffed, as I'd said. You know, everybody was doing their best, but everybody was - the nurses were very, very busy. And so I said, I need to see a doctor because I know what's happening here.

And the doctor who came (laughter) to my bedside was the very same doctor whom I'd seen all those months before who'd been so rude to me. And so I begged for a cesarean. I sat on that - I mean, I crouched on the bed and said, I really - please, can you just give me one? Please? Because I've been at this for three days. Nothing's happening. The baby's distressed. And so he did grant me a cesarean. But he said it would go down in my notes as medically unnecessary. He still thought I was being hysterical and lying.

So basically, what happened in the operation was that because the labor had gone on for so long, my son had got jammed in an immovable position. And so they had to kind of wrestle to get him out. They had to - poor child. And during that, something must have ruptured because I started hemorrhaging and started losing blood. And they couldn't - and I - sorry. This is quite graphic - all my intestines came out. Everything came out of my abdomen. And so they had to try to get it all back in again and stop the bleeding. And it was all going pretty badly wrong.

GROSS: What shape were you in and what shape was the baby in when this was over?

O'FARRELL: My son, miraculously, is absolutely fine. His head was very misshapen because he'd been jammed for so long, and the labor had gone on so long. And he needed some plastic surgery on his ear, which had got completely crushed and mangled during this. But these days, he's absolutely amazingly healthy and wonderful (laughter). And I...

GROSS: Is his head still misshapen?

O'FARRELL: No, not at all.

GROSS: Good.

O'FARRELL: I think it's fine, you know, but I'm a bit biased. I'm his mum. But I was in - I was not in great shape, actually, so they kind of patched me up and sent me home. And so I had lost an awful lot of blood, and I had a very, very large and traumatized scar. The scar was about two or three times the size it should have been because they'd had to put everything back in and seal me up and all things. So my scar was very, very traumatized.

And I was very traumatized, I think, partly because of what had happened and the knowledge that I had nearly died. And I could hear the doctors talking about it, and I could also hear the student doctor. There were two doctors doing the operation. There was one who was obviously qualified and one who was a student. And at one point, I heard the student say, I can't. I can't. I don't know how - which isn't really a sentence you want to hear (laughter)...

GROSS: No - no, no, no, no.

O'FARRELL: ...When somebody is saving your life. But they did save my life, so, actually, I'm incredibly grateful for them because they kept it together, and they did it, and they brought me back around. But yeah, I wasn't in great shape afterwards - I mean, physically or mentally and emotionally. But the thing is, when you have, you know, a tiny baby that you're feeding every hour, every two hours, you've just got to keep it together. You don't have a - you don't have the sort of space to break down. You've just got to carry on.

GROSS: So after that really traumatic experience in childbirth, an experience that nearly killed you, you still wanted to have more children. You tried to get pregnant. You had several miscarriages. You kept trying. You had IVF treatments. I think a lot of women might have been so traumatized by nearly bleeding out in labor that they wouldn't have wanted to go through that a second time. I don't know if you were assured of having caesarean the second time. But how did you feel about becoming pregnant and going through childbirth again?

O'FARRELL: I think I was very determined. I've always wanted to be a mother, and I always ideally wanted lots of children. And so I think my attitude was that I didn't want that consultant to stop me doing it (laughter). I think I was quite bolshie and determined about it. I thought, yes, this really horrible thing happened, but actually I got my son, you know. And he's here. And he's fine. And he's healthy. And that's what I hung onto the whole time. But essentially, I mean, the infertility that I experienced after my son - I mean, I experienced recurrent miscarriages and then what they call unexplained secondary infertility, where, you know, you're unable to conceive or hang onto a second child or a subsequent third child. And it was totally medically unexplained. They couldn't understand why I, first of all, kept losing these babies, and then I was unable to conceive one at all. And at that point, I did - while I was about to start the IVF actually, I did see a counselor, which I think you're supposed to do when you going in for fertility treatment.

And she said to me, is there any reason why your body might not want to conceive another child? Is there any kind of trauma from your first time (laughter)? And it had never occurred to me. And I did say actually, yeah. And she said, how did your first labor go? And I kind of told her very matter-of-factly. Then I looked her face, and I thought, oh, it never occurred to me. I mean, I don't know. I don't know if I really hold with the idea that secondary infertility can be psychological. But she certainly seemed to think there was a link, but I don't know. Who knows? But I think my - I was very, very determined that I wanted to have more kids, and I wanted my son to have brothers and sisters. So I just thought I'm not going to let that guy win. I'm not going to let him do this to me. You know, I want a big family, so I'm going to do whatever I can - whatever it takes to get one.

GROSS: And you have three children now?

O'FARRELL: I do. Yes, I'm very lucky to be able to say that.

GROSS: My guest is novelist Maggie O'Farrell. Her new book is a memoir called "I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death." After a break, we'll talk about her first brush with death when she was eight and had encephalitis, and she'll tell us about her daughter's life-threatening eczema and food allergies. And John Powers will review two thrillers - a novel and a new Netflix series. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with novelist Maggie O'Farrell. Her new book is a memoir about her 17 brushes with death, including being robbed with a machete held to her throat, being rescued from drowning and nearly bleeding out in labor with her first child.

One of your first brushes with death - perhaps the first one - was when you were 8 and were diagnosed with encephalitis, which is a virus that attacks the nervous system. So what did it attack in your body?

O'FARRELL: Well, the first thing I knew about it was waking up one morning when I was 8 years old - it was just at the end of the summer holidays. I was just about to go back to school. And I woke up with an astonishingly bad headache - I mean, so bad. I was sort of almost hallucinating. You know, the room around me was - felt as though it was in Technicolor, and the - it was as if the walls were moving. So I had a very high fever and this terrible headache. And then a few days later, I started to lose motor control in my hands, first of all - so any kind of fine motion like picking up a glass or a toothbrush or a pencil, being able to write. I began to lose control of my hands. And I remember saying to my mom - I was trying to pick up something on the sink, and my hand just kept hitting the wall and then coming back and hitting the wall. And I remember calling my mom and saying, look at this. Look, do you see what's happening? And that - I could tell. I just remember her face as she stood in the bathroom doorway. And I thought, oh, this isn't good news.

And the doc - the GP, the general practitioner - the doctor came to see me later that day. He came to the house. And as I came down the stairs, I realized that my legs were going, as well, and my head was wobbling on my neck. And by the time I reached the bottom of the stairs - the doctor was watching me walk down. He said to my mother, you have to take her to hospital right now. And so I think the virus had attacked my cerebellum, which is the part of the brain tucked in right at the top of the spine. And it governs - well, it mostly is involved in movement, sort of large and small motor control, and balance and I think various other things both psychological and physical. But those are its main functions.

GROSS: You were told that you would never walk again. The doctors who told you that were wrong. But when you were told that, what did you see ahead for yourself?

O'FARRELL: To be honest, I think the thing that I'd heard, which was worse, was that I was going to die. And I did hear a nurse say that outside my room, so I knew that it was true. And I think, also, you know, as a child, nobody tells you things. You know, all the conversation about you, and your illness, and your symptoms and your prospects are all done elsewhere. You know, they're all told your parents when you're not in the room, so you have to become this person who picks up on things. You've got to look at your - the facial expressions of the people looking after you - your parents or the nurses and the doctors. You've got to try and interpret the silences around you and what people are saying and what they're not saying.

And so hearing from this nurse in the corridor who mistakenly let slip that I was expected to die, I think that was the biggest shock to me. I mean, I - I mean, the funny - you know, when I heard it, I knew it, in a sense. It didn't come as a huge shock. But it sort of made everything that was happening around me - suddenly made sense. And I thought, oh, of course. Of course, I'm dying. How did I not realize that? So I think when it was clear that I wasn't going to die and that my fate instead was going to be that I couldn't walk, it was - that felt like an improvement.

So this sort of - the idea that I might not be able to walk felt better than dying, obviously. You know, to an 8-year-old, it made - or a 9-year-old, whatever I was at that point - it made - I don't know. It didn't feel quite as bad, obviously, because it isn't. I mean, it isn't quite as bad as dying. So I did think - I think my main fear was that I would never be alone. I think, even as a young child, I quite liked to be on my own even though I grew up in quite a big, noisy household. And the idea that you're unable to move or walk or be independent - I think that preoccupied my mind quite a lot.

But also, I think I experienced a kind of determination a little bit, like, when I was told that I probably wouldn't be able to have any more children. I think I thought, actually, I don't want to do that. I want to try and see if I can do something else instead. So I was very lucky in that some physiotherapists believed that I could be helped. Without them, I wouldn't be ambulatory today. I wouldn't be able to walk, or pick up a pen, or write or do anything, I think, because the doctors said, she isn't going to walk again; you know, she'll need to go to a school for children with, you know, special needs; she won't be able to write; she won't be able to live independently. But the physios said, well, let's give it a go; let's give her some appointments, see how she gets on. And I am, pretty much every day, almost every breath I take, grateful for that because I did respond to their treatments, and I am able to walk. I am able to pick - hold a pen. I can make my living. I can do the thing that I love most, which is write - all down to them.

GROSS: So instead of this experience with encephalitis making you feel more vulnerable, it made you more of a risk-taker. You did things that were reckless. Why do you think you went in that direction?

O'FARRELL: Well, I think it could've gone the other way. I think it could've made me into a very cautious person quite fearful of, you know, taking risks or doing something that might harm me physically or, you know, maybe picking up some other kind of virus somewhere. But it didn't. It went the opposite way. But I think, in a way, it was because I feel - you know, I know that those two futures had been mapped out for me.

First of all, they said I would die, which is quite something to hear at the age of 8. You know, you couldn't hear that and not be changed by it. And then when I didn't die, they said I wouldn't walk again, that I would lead a life of incapacity. And, you know, so I - for whatever reason, I managed to find a loophole out of both those destinies that were mapped out for me. So I've always felt, really, since then - or I've grown up with the sense that I live this kind of almost charmed existence, that I managed to hoodwink these two paths in life, and that almost that I'm living on borrowed time or extra time. And I've always been really filled with the idea that I must make the most of it.

GROSS: As you feel like this experience of childhood encephalitis led you to try to live the fullest life and to take risks and to travel, one of your children - your middle child - was born with severe eczema and allergies. As a baby, her skin would split open if she flexed her wrists or her arms or legs. She's allergic, not only if she eats certain foods, but if she's near someone who is eating certain foods and can go into anaphylaxis. So you have to be constantly vigilant. You have to be the constant protector. So how does that square with your desire to take risks and have adventures?

O'FARRELL: Well, I think - what I say to my daughter is - and it's very important, I think, when you're bringing up a child with additional needs to stress to them that they are not alone. I mean, this is why I wrote the book. I mean, it's dedicated to all my children, but it's really prompted by the experience of parenting a child who lives with a life-threatening medical condition, you know, because as a mother - as a parent, your job, when your child goes through something really difficult, is to metabolize it for them and to give it back to them in a form that they can understand or comprehend.

I think that's been one of the hardest challenges for me as a mother. You know, how do you make it OK for a child who has these repeated near-death experiences? You know, how do you explain to them why they're in pain, or why they're in an ICU, or on a drip or in an ambulance? You know, it's my job to help her understand what she's going through. And so I suppose in a way, the writing of the memoir was an act of helping me understand what happens to us, what we go through when we have near-death experiences, you know, when we come back from the brink - how it changes us, how we feel about it, you know? And I think these experiences always take up residence inside us. You know, we're always - we're different people afterwards. We're wiser. We're a little bit sadder, I think. But also, we value what we have. You know, I think it makes us think about why we need to stay, what we value.

And so my daughter was diagnosed quite young with an immune disorder. And so she does have chronic eczema. She was born with chronic eczema, which has been so severe it's actually been life-threatening for her because it's turned into sepsis. And she also gets a lot of quite serious respiratory infections. And she also has very, very severe allergies which put her into anaphylactic shock quite repeatedly. So it is something.

But I always say to her, you know, everybody has something. Everybody is challenged by something. It may not be as visible as eczema. It may not be as dramatic as anaphylaxis. But people are struggling with something always. And you have to remember that. And I say to her, you, you live with very strict parameters, but I do as well. You know, there's lots of stuff I can't do because of certain neurological overhangs from my illness as a child. I said, you know, but what we all have to do is to live the biggest and the best life we can within whatever strictures our life sets out for us.

GROSS: So being sick as a child gave you clues about how to comfort your child.

O'FARRELL: Well, I think so. I don't know. I mean, I think there is a comfort in it. I think partly - but for me, it was also a revelation to me about the human need for narrative, how we all need stories. And we need to hear about experiences, and we need to translate them into a story because I found that when, you know, dealing with a child, a very young child who was sick and suffering an awful lot with physical discomfort and fear and these quite terrifying experiences of anaphylaxis - you know, because going through anaphylaxis is, I can imagine - I've never been, but I can imagine having watched somebody. It's terrifying.

You know, your airways close in, and your heart rate dips. And, you know, you can basically - I'm sure you can feel your body turning against you - you know, your life's blood and your breath and your heart. And, you know, that - it's terrifying to live through that, experience that happening to yourself.

And I found that the only way to help her understand it is to tell her a story. So I almost transpose it into a fairy tale. And I say to her, once upon a time, there was a little girl who had dragons, and she loved her dragons so much. But sometimes the dragons hugged her too tightly and she couldn't breathe. And I would just say this stuff to her, and she would listen. And she would absolutely focus. And it was a way, in a sense, that she could comprehend it, she could understand it. And so I realized that trying to comfort her or trying to be her mum revealed to me our need to hear stories about ourselves and about others, which is why I wrote the book.

GROSS: How old is she now?

O'FARRELL: She's 8.

GROSS: Of course, the stories you tell in your book are harrowing. I doubt you'd want your 8-year-old daughter to read the story about how you were nearly raped and strangled. Like, that's not going to be comforting.

O'FARRELL: No, no, no, not yet. She's - yeah, she's not quite old enough for that.

GROSS: Or how you nearly died in labor.

O'FARRELL: Yeah, I think she (laughter) - she needs to be a bit older before she can read it.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Maggie O'Farrell. Her new book is a memoir about her 17 brushes with death. It's called "I Am, I Am, I Am." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie O'Farrell. She's a novelist, but her new book is a memoir. It's about her 17 brushes with death. It's called "I Am, I Am, I Am."

So did being sick as a child yourself lead you to become a reader and a writer?

O'FARRELL: It's difficult for me to dissociate who I would have been without being ill. I don't know whether I would still be a writer if I hadn't been ill. It's hard. You know, I don't really know now where my encephalitis ends and I begin and also what the difference is. You know, I don't have a huge sense of who I was before I became very seriously ill. But I do know that the experience of being a young child in hospital turns you into a very strongly observant person.

In order to glean information and to find out what's happening, you have to learn to interpret and to watch with hawk-like attention how the people around you are behaving, how your parents are feeling, what you can pick up from their facial expressions or their reactions to doctors or nurses. And I think that fed directly into being a writer certainly.

But I think the other thing - I mean, I've always really believed that to be a writer you need to first be a reader. And, you know, I was in hospital. I was unable to move for quite a long time. And while I lay in a hospital bed somebody lent me - of course, this was 1980 - a large tape player with some story tapes. And I'd never seen them before. And so I listened to those tapes over and over and over (laughter) and over again. I mean, I knew them off by heart. So I listened to all the Beatrix Potter stories. And there's a - I think it was a kind of 1950s story about two sisters called "My Naughty Little Sister." There was a whole series of them. I listened to those.

And when I could actually physically hold a book, when my hands were able to do that, that's all I did for over a year because I was off school for all that time. And so I would read from one end of my bookshelf to the other end. And then when I finished, I would start again. And so I read Tove Jansson's Moomin books and I read "The Secret Garden" and "Pippi Longstocking." And I read those books 15, 20, 25 times. I knew them off by heart. And strangely, actually, when I was reading them to my kids, I realized that I still (laughter) know them all by heart. But I think what happens is actually that if you spend that much time alone in bed just reading, what you do is you develop this kind of - obviously it's a very nascent sort of critical sense. But, you know, when you first read a book for maybe the first one or two times, you're reading it for plot. You're reading it to find out what happens, what happens to these people. But I think subsequent readings after that, you start to - or I find myself thinking, you know, why does Tove Jansson start this chapter with dialogue? Why doesn't she start with once upon a time or they were sitting in the kitchen? And what difference does that make?

You know, I think you do start to have the sort of 9-year-old thoughts about that kind of thing, and you start to think about why the writer has chosen to do it this way. Why did she change tense here? And you know - and I think in a sense, that certainly made me a writer as well because I still do that now. You know, I still, like a mechanic, will take apart an engine to see how it works. I will do the same with the book that I really like or admire.

GROSS: I really like your writing a lot, and I want to read one sentence. This is a sentence from the first autobiographical story. At the time, you were working at a holistic alternative retreat at the base of the mountain. And your job was cleaning and serving food. And you write, (reading) all morning, I sift and organize and ease the lives of others. I clear away human traces, erasing all evidence that they have eaten, slept, made love, argued, washed, worn clothes, read newspapers, shed hair and skin and bristle and blood and toenails.

I love that sentence because what you're doing is you're just cleaning people's rooms at this (laughter) holistic health center. But you make it, this sentence, about the daily detritus of life, the daily detritus of our bodies, of our physical selves. And I mean, I think that's part of what a writer does. They look at something kind of ordinary, and they find what's - what the real meaning - they crystallize what the real meaning in that act or in that observation is.

O'FARRELL: Well, I think there's nothing like being a chambermaid to make you realize how much people can leave a stamp of themselves or who they are on a room even if they're only staying there for one night. It's amazing, you know, how much, even if you don't have to meet people - but you can know so much intimate detail about them just by cleaning their room (laughter). And I always - I was always very aware of this whenever I stay at hotels, and I try really hard not to put too big a footprint on the room not because I want to hide stuff - because I feel sorry for the (laughter) chambermaid who comes after me.

But yeah, I think that is very weirdly, strongly influential over being a writer because you realize how unconscious people are about this, you know? And it always amazed me the things that people leave lying around in hotel rooms - I mean, really personal things as if, you know, the chambermaid isn't actually a real person with eyes and notices stuff.

You know, I mean, I've worked in lots of different hotels. And I worked in hotels where I'd be serving breakfast to people, and I would know exactly how many times they had had sex the night before...

GROSS: (Laughter).

O'FARRELL: ...And what contraception they've used. And I also know if they were married and, you know, how many kids they might have or what they're reading, what they're wearing, where they buy their underwear. I mean, a chambermaid knows everything, everything, everything.

GROSS: Well, Maggie O'Farrell, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

O'FARRELL: It's my absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Maggie O'Farrell's new memoir is called "I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death." She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and spoke with us from the BBC in Edinburgh. After a break, John Powers will review two thrillers - a new novel and a new Netflix series. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large, John Powers, has been absorbed in two new thrillers - a novel published by Soho Crime and a big, new Netflix series. He says both will get your heart beating quickly during the cold, long winter evenings.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you're a fan of thrillers, you know that they're defined by two extremes. At one end are the plot-driven worlds that work like clockwork machines - for instance, "Murder On The Orient Express." At the other are the stories that sprawl outward to offer a portrait of the larger society, like James Ellroy's "L.A." or Stieg Larsson's "Sweden." As it turns out, I've recently come across an enjoyable example of each extreme. "This Is What Happened" is the latest book by British writer Mick Herron, whose ongoing Slough House series about a branch of British intelligence stocked with disgraced and incompetent agents, is the sharpest spy fiction since John le Carre.

Herron's new novel stands apart from that series. But like all his work, it sucks you in from the opening page. There, we meet Maggie Barnes, a 26-year-old country lass who's moved to London only to find herself stuck in a drab office job and enduring a crushing loneliness. She's burning for something to give her life some meaning, some pizzazz. It comes when she meets Harvey Wells. This slightly fishy chap recruits her for a secret MI5 mission designed to thwart a Chinese plot against the British economy. Harvey's plan has Maggie sneaking into an office in the building where she works and installing an eavesdropping app on a computer. Of course, if anything goes wrong, there's no guarantee that he can save her.

Naturally, things go wrong. I won't say how, but I will add that Harvey, like any proper spook, is not what he seems. For starters, he gets entangled with a second woman, Sue (ph), who has a hidden agenda of her own. Before we know it, what looks at first like your basic spy thriller morphs into something far different - a tricky game of three-character monty filled with sly twists that Herron reveals with the precision of a high-end Swiss watchmaker. Now, not all of these twists are, strictly speaking, realistic. But who cares? To crib a line from Hitchcock, "This Is What Happened" is less a slice of life than a slice of cake.

In contrast, life comes flooding in from all directions in "Babylon Berlin," the most expensive German TV series ever, which has become an international hit. Based on a series of novels by Volker Kutscher, this overstuffed 16-parter began streaming on Netflix at the end of January. And though not as stirringly great as Fassbinder's "Berlin Alexanderplatz," it's far more fun and bingeable (ph). The scene is 1929 Berlin near the end of the vibrant, violent Weimar era that will soon curdle into the horrors of Naziism (ph). The hero, Gereon Rath, is an upright but tormented vice cop recently transferred to Berlin from Cologne. Rath is trying to track down a pornography ring that has compromising photos of Cologne's mayor. While this sounds straightforward enough, he's soon confronted with political corruption and a freight train filled with mysterious cargo. All this gets him enmeshed with other major characters. There's the lovely Lotta (ph), an intrepid lady of the evening who hopes to become a homicide cop. There's the cross-dressing nightclub singer Svetlana, who's either a Stalinist agent or a Trotskyite spy trying to take Stalin down. And then there's my favorite - Gereon's partner, Bruno, a beefy suspicious old-school cop who's deeper than he seems. I keep hoping that he isn't a closet Hitler fan. These four are just the beginning.

Every episode teams with the many faces of the city - silky Armenian gangsters, anti-Semitic industrialists, right-wing generals, murderous Soviet thugs. And, oh, yes, a lot of ordinary people, too - struggling musicians, shell-shocked World War I veterans, communist workers, love-starved widows and single young women trying to make ends meet without sinking into vice. "Babylon Berlin" tells a very good story. Yet, it's even better at conjuring a rich and fascinating world.

Bursting with period detail, the show captures the tainted glamour of Weimar Germany from the art deco splendors of the lavish Moka Efti nightclub to a glorious recreation of Berlin's fabled Alexanderplatz. It also makes you feel the insomniac desperation of individuals caught in a tumultuous society where, just to survive, everyone winds up being compromised in one way or another, which is why the show spends so much time at divinely decadent nightspots whose patrons drink and dance as if their lives depended on it. For these Berliners, life isn't a cabaret, old chum. It's a runaway train racing toward the darkest madness of the 20th century.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and He reviewed "This Is What Happened" by Mick Herron and the Netflix series "Babylon Berlin." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll, author of the new book "Directorate S: The CIA And America's Secret Wars In Afghanistan And Pakistan." It's a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Ghost Wars." The war in Afghanistan is the longest-running war in America's history. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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