You studied medicine in Cambridge and now you’re working as a Doctor in London. How did you come up with writing books?
Ever since I was a child I’ve wanted to write. I just wasn’t sure what. At university I wrote music reviews (it was great going to gigs for free). Later I tried my hand at children’s books. I then authored around 10 non-fiction books, mostly parenting and child health. They were a fusion of my experience as a mother and my medical skills, and they’ve sold very well.
Last year I co-authored a textbook for medical students. I loved writing it, and it won an award from the British Medical Association, but in terms of personal satisfaction there was something missing. That’s when I realised I should be writing the kind of book I’d most like to read for pleasure. One Night at the Jacaranda is that book. It’s fiction and it’s most definitely not for children.
For my readers, who haven't discovered One Night in Jacaranda yet. Can you tell them a little something about the story?
It’s about a motley group of Londoners in their 30s who are each looking for The One. The story kicks off with a speed-dating evening and everyone’s telling lies to make themselves seem more attractive, and to kid themselves.
There’s Sanjay, a young man dying of cancer, who is considering getting back together with his ex Laure. Karen, who has four kids, is dipping a toe back into the dating scene after her husband walked out. Divorced doctor Geoff is stressed and has his own medical problems. Then there’s oddball Michael, the kind of man your mother warned you about.
Journalist Harriet doesn’t want a new boyfriend. She’s only there that night to write a revealing article on dating, though pretty soon she has to make some difficult decisions.
There are a lot of strong characters in the book and the plot unfolds through their eyes. While most of them are good people (they’re nice to animals and children!) they all have a load of baggage. I won’t spoil the story, but lives do change. Ultimately the ending is positive, though along the way there are some darker issues. Add in a heart-rending medical strand, and you can see this isn’t your typical chick-lit.
What was the hardest thing about writing your debut novel?
I had a hard time believing that I could handle a good plot and keep it all together. Luckily, as I wrote, the narrative emerged very naturally out of the characters, with the help of my medical background. Then there was only the little matter of finding time to write! Apart from being a doctor (part-time these days), I teach medical students and I’m a journalist for The Sun newspaper. So it’s a varied life.
Do you think that giving books away free works and why?
I’m still undecided. There are differences of opinion among my author friends on that one too. It may be a good idea to give one or more books away if there are several books out in a series. Books should be affordable, that’s for sure, especially these days. And many classics are now copyright-free. That’s a lot of great writing for a contemporary author to live up to.
Do you have a strategy for finding reviewers?
I try to connect with readers who might enjoy my book: people who like romance, animals, dating, or a bit of a medical angle. Most of them are women, but half the book is from a male point of view and I now know that a number of men have liked reading my novel as well.
Journalists often enjoy One Night at the Jacaranda because they identify with Harriet’s situation, but that doesn’t always mean it gets reviewed. Self-published novels still have a bit of a stigma attached.
What are your current / future projects?
I’ve already started work on a sequel. And I blog on Pills and Pillow-talk (pillsandpillowtalk.com).
There’s also the possibility of a prequel. I might take story back 15 years to the time when some of the characters were students. I loved student life so I’m bubbling with ideas.
Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do about it?
I rarely suffer from writer’s block. For me the biggest stumbling block is shortage of time. But occasionally I catch myself writing complete garbage, which makes me laugh at myself. I press ‘delete’ while thinking of Hemingway: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”
Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?
There are lots. As a teenager I cherished Mary McCarthy’s The Group. And I read and re-read Jean Kerr’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, because it’s the funniest book ever. I loved The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, which underlines how one instant can change a life forever.
Nowadays there are many contemporary writers to admire: Kate Atkinson, Lisa Jewell, Joanna Trollope, Tony Parsons, Harlan Coben, among others.
Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
It’s mostly the product of a fertile imagination. All the characters are entirely fictional and even the Jacaranda bar is made up. Of course, writers have to write what they know, and inspiration comes from real life at some level. Raising children helped me invent the things that happen to Karen and to Geoff. And a lot of the action would have been impossible to dream up without medical knowledge.
Being a doctor is a wonderful privilege because it brings you close to a huge range of human experience. You witness the worst in people, as well as the best. But the bottom line is that you can’t put real patients in a novel, which is obviously good news for sick people.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
The harshest criticism ever was from my ex-husband, who told me I wasn’t a natural writer. Luckily, at around the same time the legendary crime-writer Ruth Rendell told me I was very good at writing dialogue. That was an amazing boost. She also said I wrote well about sex. So I picked myself up and carried on writing.
But in a way the ex was right, because everyone can improve. You have to keep writing until it’s as good as it can be. Nowadays the best compliments come from readers, especially when they say the characters from the book stay with them after they’ve finished reading. It’s great to make people better as a doctor, but it’s also wonderful to give people pleasure.
Grab your copy of One Night at the Jacaranda here
Find Carol Cooper here