Friday, 20 February 2015
Why I branched out into Fiction by Carol Cooper
My debut novel One Night at the Jacaranda appeared after a string of traditionally published non-fiction books, some two decades of health journalism, and more years on the planet than I usually divulge in public.
People often ask why I branched out into fiction.
The truth is that I've always wanted to write a novel. My first attempt came as a student when I knew nothing except how to pass exams.
Studying medicine took up the next few years and proved to be a great displacement activity. It's easy to see why I didn't write much in the days when junior doctors were on duty 106 hours a week. I did however co-author works such as Simultaneous turnover of normal and dysfunctional CI inhibitor as a probe of in vivo activation of CI and contact-activable proteases', which I am sure you'll agree is a snappy title.
The itch eventually had to be scratched. I began writing droll articles for other doctors, then books on parenting and child health for general readers. The Sun newspaper wanted me as their in-house medic, which means I get to say my piece on the big health topics of the day, whether that's ebola fever or a celeb spraining an ankle falling out of a night club.
Surely by now I knew how to write, I reasoned. I went on a novel-writing course.
The tutor Ruth Rendell complimented me on my dialogue and a couple of sex scenes I'd written. I glowed with pride until she asked the killer question, "Carol, could you handle a strong plot?"
I couldn't at the time, as all my false starts show. There were children's books about railways in East Anglia, stowaway dogs, and missing teddy bears. Then came a story about a 14-year old girl in a wheelchair, followed by half a novel about a female health surgeon.
The storyline for One Night at the Jacaranda came to me out of the blue, on a flight to the USA and my father's funeral. Over a much-needed gin and tonic, I got an idea for a book about dating. Jottings on a paper napkin developed into a novel about a group of Londoners, each of them with a jumbo jet load of baggage.
I've always made people up. Raised as an only child, I had an imaginary family of 14 sisters, all with Spanish names, with whom I did amazing circus acts and had many adventures.
Fiction satisfies my creative side and allows a cast of fantasy characters to have their day. That's why I write - how is another matter. Long-form fiction requires concentration, which is in short supply between seeing patients, teaching medical students, writing non-fiction, broadcasting and coming up with opinion pieces on corset-training. Writing for The Sun gives me the same thrill as working in Accident & Emergency because I never know what's next. The snag is that it can be just as urgent.
I soon discovered that writing fiction isn't just a different branch from non-fiction. It's a whole new tree.
I can let my imagination ramble all over it, but I've had to prune journalese and abbreviations, make my paragraphs behave, and generally obey traditional rules of grammar. Apparently readers expect proper punctuation, a tall order for those allergic to the semi colon. Decide, damn you: are you a comma or a full stop?
But being a doctor, the very thing that slows my writing down, is also what makes my fiction breathe.
It's a great privilege to be allowed into people's homes and lives. I can't put real patients, or colleagues for that matter, into a book, but I'm constantly inspired by their traits, their triumphs, their tragedies. It's no great surprise that One Night at the Jacaranda has a medical thread.
Medicine has also sharpened my observation skills and taught me the value of discipline, hard work, and perseverance. For me, doctoring has been a fantastic apprenticeship. While I'll never be in the same league as Somerset Maugham, AJ Cronin, Michael Crichton, Khaled Hosseini and other celebrated writers, I'm honoured to have had the same professional training.