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Angel’s advocate

Author Maggie O’Farrell told David Hennessy about how she came up with the character of the Snow Angel from her debut children’s book to reassure her daughter in the back of an ambulance, chronicling her own ‘brushes with death’ and growing up in Britain that had an undertone of anti-Irish sentiment.

“I made up the character of the snow angel in the back of an ambulance to reassure my daughter who really wasn’t well at the time,” author Maggie O’Farrell reveals to the Irish World that the character of her debut children’s book came from a frightening time for both her and her daughter.

The award-winning author of books such as After You’d Gone and The Hand That First Held Mine, O’Farrell’s daughter has an immunological disorder that causes her to sufffer allergic reactions and puts her life constantly at risk.

“She was in anaphylactic shock. One of the lesser known symptoms or signs of anaphylactic shock is feeling very cold. Everybody knows about the the swollen lip and rash you get but what also happens is your blood pressure drops so you’re freezing. You get very cold and pale and your teeth start to chatter. That happened to her and she was very frightened by it.

“To make her feel better, to reassure her, I said, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s just a snow angel wrapping his wings around you and that’s why you’re cold. You’re going to be fine’.

“That’s how he came to be. He just captured her imagination.

“She’s had quite a few health issues in her time. She’s had quite a few brushes with death. I think the important thing about parenting a child that suffers a lot, has a lot of rushes to hospital and medical interventions is that one of the ways you can explain it to them is to tell them a story about it. Children love that and can relate to it instantly. In order to explain to them what is going on and reassure them they’re going to be okay, you tell them a story with a parallel narrative for what’s going on with them.”

Maggie learned this herself as she was hospitalised as a child with encephalitis. Her harrowing battle with the condition that affects the brain was so severe she missed over a year of school.

“When I was in hospital as a child somebody lent me storybooks on tape so I listened to them over and over again. I think children and adults, we all read fiction for two reasons. We need the escapism, we need to make an exit from our everyday lives. We also read fiction because it gives us a road map for life. It teaches us how to react, how to behave in certain situations.

“I remember thinking to myself as a child, ‘What would Moomintroll do in this situation? Or what about Anne of Green Gables? Or Alice in Wonderland?’ I think that’s crucial for children and adults alike actually.”

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Is Maggie still affected by the illness all these years later? “Absolutely, yeah. It’s really minor. I’m very lucky.

“I made a very good recovery but I still have a number of neurological issues that I have to deal with. It’s mainly to do with balance and spatial awareness. I’m always crashing into things, bouncing off doorways and bookshelves and things. I also have to do a lot of physio every day. It’s a minor thing really compared to what could have happened. Again I’m very lucky really.”

Maggie returned to her childhood illnesses as well as her daughter’s condition in her 2017 memoir I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death.

“It was really hard. I was really relieved to return to fiction. It wasn’t something I’d want to do again.

“All the information in that book I knew anyway. It wasn’t as if any of it was new to me but it was an interesting experience writing about the truth, myself, my family.”

Not just concerned with the childhood illnesses of her and her daughter, the writer chronicled the near misses that have punctuated her life. These include a haemorrhage during childbirth, miscarriage, amoebic dysentery and an ill-advised leap off a harbour wall into the sea as a teen.

Maggie says the book evoked some interesting reactions from people, some of which that weren’t even voluntary.

“It was very interesting going on tour with that book as opposed to other ones. One of the weird things that happened a lot actually is that during public events for that book when I was reading from it or talking about it people would faint.

“It was extraordinary. It’s never, ever happened with any of my novels. I don’t know whether it’s because it brought up memories for people that they were uncomfortable with. It wasn’t as if I was reading anything gory either. But it did happen and I think perhaps it made people think back to times in their lives when they got into danger or came under threat.

“The other amazing thing is after the event having a chat a lot of people would tell me very personal, very private things which again had never happened before. That was fascinating and I always felt very honoured to be the recipient of those stories.”

Asked how she feels about these ‘brushes with death’ now, Maggie says simply: “It’s just part of who I am. Our experiences make up who we are. It’s not as if you can come through them and they disappear or you necessarily want them to disappear.

“We all have layers and they all make up who we are.”

Although born in Coleraine, Maggie grew up in Wales and Scotland at a time when there was a definite feeling of anti-Irish sentiment due to the IRA’s bombing campaign.

“We moved to Britain in the 70s and of course we had the name. At the lowest end of it we would get an awful lot of Irish jokes and we learned to take them on the chin. The more sinister end of it I remember teachers saying to me, taking the register and finding my name, ‘Is your dad in the IRA?’

“Which is an astonishing thing. I remember a couple of occasions, a couple of them saying it and at the time we were kind of used to it which is again really sad because we shouldn’t have been used to it. It’s an astonishing thing for a teacher to basically ask a child, ‘Is your father a terrorist?’ That was just part of life.

“I’m pleased that Irish people no longer get that sort of treatment but it’s not as if I think it’s not happening anywhere. I wish I could say I think the UK is less racist now but I’m not sure that’s true. I just think there are other immigrants, other groups that are unfortunately perhaps bearing the brunt of it now instead.

“It’s not long ago. The last I rememeber someone saying something really suspect to me I was working in an office in London probably in the mid 90s.

“I had been away from my desk and my father called and someone took a message. My father has a very strong Dublin accent and they said to me, ‘It’s really funny. Whenever your Dad phones I always think he’s going to give us a five minute warning to get out of the building’.

“And I looked at her and I said, ‘You can’t say that. That’s really not okay. Jesus, I can’t believe this is the mid 90s and here I am aged 25 and people are saying that stuff about my Dad’.

“It’s just ignorant nonsense. I don’t remember people making those kind of comments since then.

“Obviously, there’s been a huge improvement in relations between Britain and Ireland and thank God but I worry about Brexit. I worry about the effect that’s going to have and whether that border is going to be reimposed.

“So many people have worked so very hard to improve relations between Britain and Ireland and I worry about Brexit threatening that.

“The idea that there could be steps taken back is beyond depressing.

“We certainly don’t want to go back to those days. Never again.”

Maggie’s debut novel After You’d Gone won the Betty Trask Award while The Hand That First Held Mine won the 2010 Costa Novel Award. She has twice been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and her novel Hamnet won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020.

It was actually her youngest daughter that gave her the idea of doing a children’s book.

“My youngest daughter who was really little, probably about four at the time, said, ‘I really want to see the pictures. Can you draw pictures?’ And I said, ‘Darling, I’d love to but I can’t’.

“Because I am a shocking drawer. I can’t draw to save my life. That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll see if I can get it made into a book’.

“I’m almost finished another one now. I’m in the middle of writing a book for adults as well. It’s very exciting to be able to do that.”

Maggie is married to novelist William Sutcliffe and they live in Edinburgh with their three children.

Asked how they have coped during the pandemic, she says: “I think we’re very much in the lucky camp because all five of us have been well thank goodness. My parents are well. I’m really aware that I’m very lucky.

“It’s quite hard to keep going, isn’t it? Everyone’s having to dig quite deep and find a little bit of positivity and indeed get through.

“The generations that I’m most worried about are the young generation, teenagers and below and also people aged 70 and up. I think it’s very hard for the elderly because they’re so isolated. My mum’s not even going out to chapel once a week anymore. I haven’t hugged my mum for seven months and that’s terrible.

“The young, I think it’s a massive amount of anxiety and instability for them to cope with and they don’t really understand it. I think the important thing with kids is you have to be as honest as you possibly can but you’ve got to hand it to them in a form that they can understand.”

Where Snow Angels Go written by Maggie O’Farrell and illustrated by Daniela Jaglenka is out now published by Walker Books.

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