Where did you grow up?
I grew up in sunny Langside on the south side of Glasgow between Queen’s Park and the River Cart and enjoyed a very happy childhood with my older brother, younger sister, civil servant mum, ex-Merchant Navy Captain dad and my gran. She was taken out of school at 14 to look after her 6 siblings and invalid mother and was very influential in my life course. Like my mother, she was adamant a girl’s education was just as important as a boy’s. The first time I was aware this was not a universally held view was when my English teacher at Queen’s Park Secondary School advocated teaching as the only sensible career for a woman since it allowed her to be home in time to make the tea and in the holidays to mind the children. Luckily, he was balanced by my classics teacher, Miss JC Muir, a Miss Jean Brodie, who for some years continued to regularly meet ‘her gals’ for encouragement in Wendy’s Tearoom. Her dream that I should go to Oxford was partly responsible for my age 52 sortie to Wolfson College for a Masters’ in Medical Anthropology when my son went down for his PhD. Better late than never!
Have you always wanted to write?
At age eight I wrote a medieval mystery, Bridget’s Key which doubtless still lurks in the attic. It was fully illustrated in pen and ink with a home-made cellophane wrapper to imitate a library book! When my children were small, I tried writing some children’s books but after one rejection, shelved them.
Is reading important to you?
I practically lived in Langside Library as a child in wet summer holidays. Unlike many, I don’t recall my childhood as all long sunny days playing in the park! It wasn’t idyllic all the time in the library either: my umbrella-wielding granny once sallied in to tackle a librarian accusing me of swopping books for the sake of it: of course I’d read six books in one week and was entitled to take out ‘adult’ Compton Mackenzie! My father introduced me to many stirring authors from Ernest Hemingway to Nigel Tranter, and to poetry; John Masefield’s sea poems and Coleridge were favourites. Now I read e-books when travelling, but where possible, much prefer a physical book.
I also loved art, though the school forbade me from selecting it instead of History. By way of compensation, my Dad arranged Saturday classes at Glasgow School of Art, where I studied drawing, painting and History of Dress and Design.
So, loving writing and art, why did you do medicine?
Being asthmatic as a child, I met many fantastic doctors. When I was 4, one dishy doc in a white coat at Sick Kids assured me women could become doctors (though at that point I’d never met one). I did waver, applying for an MA in Eng Litt at Glasgow as well as medicine, and was accepted for both. After a month of soul-searching, I decided on medicine. No one in my family had been to University and it was very scary. My parents were delighted when I won the Women’s Graduate Prize and a handful of medals (including one for surgery though I’ve never stuck a scalpel into anyone!)
What is the story behind Not the Life Imagined?
After I retired from the NHS as a GP, I stopped and started several novels, eventually deciding that ‘writing about what you know’ was probably good advice. My son gave me Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ which was seminal, then I enrolled for Creative Writing Classes at University of Glasgow’s Centre for Life Long Learning and didn’t look back. On looking for novels written about women doctors, I found none except Mills and Boon, a few random pioneers and pathologists, so I decided on a story with lots of female medics, but soon my male characters were hitting hard times and the novel evolved to not deal with just feminist issues, but discrimination generally and medical ethics.
Is NTLI autobiographical?
No! That would have been far too boring. I’m glad to say I never met any colleagues as awful as Conor and Frank, though as in any novel, there are nuggets of truth when you are writing about life in a profession. The book doubtless contains scenarios which will be familiar to all medics and the discrimination described in the novel was as common in the NHS in the sixties as in other walks of life. And it illustrates that, due to their intensive working practices, medics are lucky in forming deep life-long friendships which stand them in good stead when facing personal disasters and mental illness. Doctors are only human. I also wanted readers to realise too that sixties students were unbelievably naïve about life and sex compared to now.
What do you do when not writing?
I paint, dabbling mainly in landscapes and love travelling. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit far flung lands such as Patagonia, the Galapagos, Namibia and the Far East. We’ve been privileged to be able to help several girls from the Darjeeling hills through tertiary education and enjoyed visiting them In India whenever we can.
You are 68 – getting on for a debut author! What are your plans?
A second book is underway featuring Beth and Rosie and I hope I am good for a few more before my neurones pack in. I love writing and am much supported by my first University of Glasgow creative writing tutor, Cathy McSporran, a YA author (Cold City, The Few) who runs Garnethill Writers Support Group. Meeting monthly in Glasgow and having to produce a new chapter each month for criticism, is a great incentive!
Who are your favourite authors?
Tricky to answer- so many. A mix of serious stories for dark nights and frivolous delights for planes. Currently Christopher Brookmyre (who has written several medical noir novels, most recently as Ambrose Parry – aided by his medic wife, Marisa Haetzman- the splendid The Way of All Flesh), Steig Larsson (skilful depiction of the abuse of women embedded in socio-cultural problems), Joanne Harris (evocative descriptions of communities with sensitive portrayals of identity and women’s issues), Philippa Gregory (the best historical novels on women), Stella Rimington (a great spy storyteller), Peter May (a real page turner expert), Sebastian Faulks (again great women) and Andrea Camilleri (Italy, food, wine, sun and idiosyncratic characters) spring to mind. In biographies, the timeless Moon’s a Balloon by David NIven stands out. For non- fiction, Guns, Germs and Steel by US professor Jared Diamond is an eye-opening read.
Two authors I love whom you rarely hear about are Taylor Caldwell (Dear and Glorious Physician about St Luke and The Arm and The Darkness about Cardinal Richelieu) who wrote rich well-researched atmospheric novels spanning many historical eras. And John Verney- kids books well ahead of their time with his own spidery delightful illustrations and environmental themes.