“What are you writing next?”

I recently updated my author interview on Smashwords and one of the questions What are you writing next? made me review my future aims.

I am currently working on a short memoir about the catastrophic series of medical events that affected my family in 2015. There were two reasons for starting this project. First, I hoped that writing about what happened would help me come to terms with it better; as I discussed in an earlier post there is evidence that writing about illness and trauma can be therapeutic. Second, other people who are faced with the challenges  of cardiac surgery, bereavement, and stress-related symptoms in themselves or their families might benefit from reading about what helped me to cope, or otherwise.

Writing this memoir is proving quite hard going. Perhaps I have reached the point of  wanting to move forward in life rather than keep dwelling on what happened. I am also wary of conveying the negative and self-pitying attitudes which can so easily mar this kind of book. I look forward to writing something lighter, though my only recent effort has consisted of some sentimental poetry about cats.

What I would ideally like to write next is a really substantial novel. I have already self-published six short ones, and I think that like the vast majority of the thousands of new books coming out every day they are good enough to provide readers with a few hours of entertainment, but will prove to be ephemeral.

Nobody knows which, if any, modern novels will become classics but it is my personal experience that only the occasional book creates a lasting impression. For example, one that I have just finished reading is A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton, a drama set in wartime Japan. I am never going to write a book of comparable quality, and the ambition of producing my own “magnum opus” seems likely to remain unfulfilled in this lifetime, but I do hope to be inspired towards something new. Meanwhile Blue Moon for Bombers, the middle volume of my Three Novellas trilogy, is free from Smashwords till the end of this month. To download a copy click here.

Medicine in memoir and fiction

I’ve been staying up late to read Do No Harm – a compilation of clinical case histories,  interspersed with personal memoir, by British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh. It gives a riveting, though sometimes gruelling, account of the challenges involved in operating – or deciding not to operate – on patients with life-threatening conditions such as brain tumours, brain injuries, and strokes.

Henry Marsh writes with honesty, thoughtfulness and compassion and his book would seem equally accessible to healthcare professionals and general readers, though it is not for the squeamish. I would strongly recommend it to anyone considering a career in neurosurgery, for it can be difficult to find authentic accounts of what working in this or any other medical specialty is really like. Although my own ambition to become a doctor was partly inspired by the library books I read as an impressionable teenager – The Healing Knife by George Sava was one, and another was about a leper colony in Africa – they were already out of date, and I suspect conveyed a romanticised picture. When I got to medical school and was confronted with the reality it became clear that I had little interest or ability in either surgery or tropical diseases, and chose quite a different career path.

Why don’t more doctors write books along the lines of Do No Harm? One reason must be the risk of breaching confidentiality and causing distress to patients themselves or to their relatives. The books by the late neurologist Oliver Sacks – for example The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – are among the best-known examples of the genre, and won wide acclaim from many sources, but have been criticised in some quarters for exploiting vulnerable people.

Another consideration is that any realistic and balanced account is bound to expose the limitations of medicine, and the vulnerability of its practitioners. Perhaps this is not so important now that doctors and hospitals are no longer regarded with unquestioning trust and respect. Henry Marsh makes no attempt to gloss over the fact that some of his cases had a bad outcome, whether because the prognosis was hopeless to begin with or because he or his colleagues made mistakes. He clearly feels these failures keenly, agonising over them even if they were not his fault, giving parts of the text a confessional quality. He is also remarkably outspoken about his frustration with hospital management and the ways that modern NHS bureaucracy can hamper patient care. His frankness about these negative aspects is refreshing, although if I had the misfortune to be needing neurosurgery I think I might regret having read this book and realising how much can go wrong.

I have no intention of writing a factual account of my own medical career, partly for the reasons given above, partly because I don’t remember the details well enough. But writing is therapeutic and when channeling my work experiences into fiction I often find myself emphasising the darker side of my former profession. Readers may find my books unduly cynical unless they appreciate the role of black humour in defusing the stresses of working in medicine.


Today’s post presents a new book: Geoffrey Guy’s War: Memoirs of a Spitfire Pilot 1941-46 by Geoffrey Guy, edited by Jennifer Barraclough and David Guy, published by Amberley UK this month October 2011 (ISBN 978-1-4456-0022-2); please click here for details. It is the story of a young Englishman’s progress from the joys of student life and first love at Oxford, through the adventures of learning to fly in Canada and the Middle East, on to the horrors of aerial combat over Burma and a remarkable experience of survival.

Geoffrey was my uncle. He never talked with me about his time in the RAF, though I have a childhood memory of a game we played on top of Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire, running in the wind pretending to be Spitfires. Our family was, and still is, fairly scattered geographically but after I grew up I was able to see Geoffrey, his wife Joan (Johnny) and son Ben several times a year, until I moved to New Zealand in 2000.

Before he died on 1 December 2006, Geoffrey had written an account of his wartime experiences, and recorded some further recollections on tape. My cousin David Guy, who wrote Geoffrey’s obituary for The Times (26 February 2007), collated this material to form the basis of a book and I subsequently retyped and edited the manuscript and submitted it for publication. In the process I learned a lot about the Second World War and its aircraft, and enjoyed a trial flight (though not in a Spitfire) at the North Shore Aero Club.

 Geoffrey Guy’s War is available from bookshops, libraries and Amazon.