Maggie O’Farrell: Near-death experience made me feel I cheated the universe

Laura Harding, PA Deputy Entertainment Editor
·2-min read

Author Maggie O’Farrell said a near-death experience when she was a child had a profound effect on her, making her feel like she “cheated the universe” and was “living on borrowed time”.

The writer, whose 2020 novel Hamnet, about the short life of Shakespeare’s son, won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and was named Waterstones Book of the Year, almost died from encephalitis when she was eight.

She missed a year of school and only returned to health when she was almost 11.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020
Hamnet won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction (Sam Holden Agency)

Speaking to Lauren Laverne on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, she said: “Anyone who has been through a severe illness will know you were, in a sense, one person before it, and come out the other side as somebody else.

“You are reconfigured and it’s like passing through a fire. You are essentially the same person but you have ben taken apart and put back together again.”

O’Farrell recalled lying in bed in hospital hearing staff talk about the fact she was going to die and thinking they were talking about another little girl.

She said when she realised they were discussing her, she felt foolish.

She added: “Any brush with mortality does change you I think.

“You come back from the brink a different person every time.

“You are always going to be a wiser and sadder person when you come back from that brink because you have stared into the abyss and you can’t ever forget that.

“You might pretend you have forgotten that or you might shake it and think I’m fine and carry on, but it’s always there, it’s still lodged inside you.

“I’ve always felt my life is a sort of bonus, that I was partly living on borrowed time or I had slightly cheated the universe in a way so I was going to live the biggest and best life I possible could, within whatever limitation I had been given.”

Desert Island Discs is on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 on Sunday at 11am.