My guest this week is feature writer and retired doctor, Anne Pettigrew, who after years of having articles published in medical newspapers, had her first book published at 69 years old. Can you tell us how you achieved your writing dream, Anne?
When I was four, I decided I’d be a doctor, though all through school I scribbled stories. I applied for both English and Medicine at Glasgow University, but deciding healing the sick was probably more useful to humanity than anything I might possibly write, I graduated in medicine in 1974. I became a GP to take advantage of maternity leave and part-time working, unavailable in hospital medicine then. But I loved being a GP.
My first publishing ‘break’ came in 1989 when a stroppy letter about Maggie Thatcher’s ’misguided NHS plans’ I’d sent to Glasgow Herald Newspaper was found ‘topical and amusing’ and published as an article. They engaged me to write regular columns. Without looking for any work, columns in medical newspapers followed. I fancied writing a novel, but with work, kids and elderly parents, it was retirement before I could try. And it was soooo much harder than writing 500-word articles ’sounding off’ about something. Drifting aimlessly, I took University Creative Writing classes to discover a whole new world of plotting, characterisation and dialogue. My aim was a ‘literary’ feminist novel about discrimination and sixties women doctors, which might convey ‘the moral complexity of the day’ as George Eliot felt a novel should do. Ha!
To my surprise, characters took a life of their own. Before I knew it, my wry protagonists were having affairs, jumping off bridges, cheating, lying, disposing of incriminating bodies and generally shocking me! The story even continued to evolve in my subconscious: I’d wake up in the morning with an urgent chapter needing typed up. Though other days involved staring at a blank screen offering no inspiration. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and Newman and Mittelmark’s How not to Write a Novel. Concluding my novel had all the faults agents and publishers hate, I tossed it aside.
One of my University tutors, Cathy McSporran, herself a published author, took my novel and helped me knock it into shape. My first three chapters (largely backstory) bit the dust. My husband was smug: he’d already suggested this. Several much-loved characters were discarded or amalgamated, plot lines accentuated, others eliminated. I joined encouraging Greenock Writers Club., won a few prizes, gained confidence. Friends read and loved the novel, offered suggestions, found bloomers: one character featured as alive and well had died two chapters before. (I’d meant it to be his brother).
After digesting Writers & Artists Yearbook 2017, I submitted for a year. Stony silence. Or ‘Not what we are looking for at this time. ‘Our list is full for years.’ So jaundiced had I become, that the final publication offer languished unopened in my inbox for days. Ringwood Publishing took it up. Not The Life Imagined was runner-up in SAW Constable Award 2018, has been submitted for a Saltire Literary Award 2019 and has resulted in me being chosen as a Spotlight (‘up and coming’!) Author at Bloody Scotland Book Festival in Stirling on 22nd September. I’m 69. If you are writing, never give up.
What a fascinating and amusing publication story, Anne. I can certainly identify with some of this – especially the bloomers! I had one of my characters painting a ceiling twice until my eager-eyed husband spotted it! Well done for not giving up. Your book sounds fun.
Available as e-book and paperback
A darkly humorous, thought-provoking story of Scottish medical students in the sixties, a time of changing social and sexual mores
Glasgow born Anne Pettigrew was a GP for 31 years and light-hearted columnist in The Herald and medical press. A graduate of Glasgow (Medicine 1974) and Oxford (Anthropology 2004) she wrote Not the Life Imagined to record the experiences of sixties Scottish medical students (eg discrimination, #MeToo, mental health issues). Book royalties benefit Plan International in their drive to reduce the 130 million girls worldwide denied education. Anne blogs on her website and Literary Globe.
Check in next week to read another ‘path to publication’ story.
And if you want to read about my writing journey, I’m talking about it over on Tom William’s blog here.