Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Editing with Deborah White-Cooper
Today we are talking about 'Call The Doctor' please could you tell me about it?
‘Call the Doctor’ is the story of my grandfather Ronald White-Cooper who practised as a GP/surgeon between 1910 and 1965 – through two worlds wars - against a backdrop of unprecedented social, political and medical change. After he passed away in 1976, my family discovered his recollections, which he called Random Reminiscences of a Country Doctor, in a dusty old trunk in the attic. Many years later my father gave them to me and as I read them, I was immediately captivated by my grandfather’s tales of a vanished time.
'Call The Doctor' is a first-hand account of your grandfather’s life as a GP, how did it feel to edit stories you grew up hearing?
I was familiar with one or two of them but there were many others that were completely new to me. I wanted to bring out the best in them without diluting their authenticity. My grandfather wrote them for family posterity rather than for publication so there was more to do in terms of creating the overall narrative including the historical, social and medical context. He loved to write about his patients, life in general and of the events that unfolded around him but there was far less detail about his own family story and his personal thoughts and feelings and one of the challenges was to create a much fuller picture of the man he was and the extraordinary life he led. Thankfully my family seems to have been prodigious hoarders so there was a vast array of family papers, letters, photographs and official documents to refer to.
Out of the fascinating stories that are shared with the reader, what would you say was your favourite one?
This is a very difficult choice! Probably one he tells from his Dartmouth days, when in the middle of the night he was woken by a man at the door, who told my grandfather he was needed urgently, as his wife was terribly sick. My grandfather quickly got dressed and drove this man to his home in Totnes – about 8 miles away - but as he was getting out of his car and collecting his medical bag, the man quickly ran inside the house and then appeared at an upstairs window shouting to my grandfather that he hadn’t really needed a doctor and didn’t even have a wife – it was just that he couldn’t find a taxi and needed a lift home! The man had insisted on paying my grandfather’s medical fee in cash during the car journey but I still think my grandfather’s reaction, on discovering he’d been duped, was remarkably good humoured!
I often ask authors about the journey they have seen their book go on, as an editor could you describe that journey from your perspective?
It’s been an exhilarating journey, during which I have learnt so much. I’d always hoped to get my grandfather’s recollections published but with post-natal fug, four house moves and a sojourn in India, let’s just say it took a little longer than anticipated! Firstly, I read and transcribed the stories, which took time because my grandfather’s beautiful handwriting became harder to decipher, as he got older. There was also a vast amount of date and fact checking to be done. At this point, I was by chance introduced to a literary agent (Jennifer Christie, Graham Maw Christie) specializing in non-fiction and fortunately she shared my enthusiasm and saw the potential of Call the Doctor. From this point, it probably took another year of research and writing before the synopsis and first few chapters of Call the Doctor was ready to go to publishers. I was over the moon when Macmillan bought the rights – it was a dream come true! Another year of research and writing/rewriting followed and finally, a publishing date of 24 April 2014 was set - in time for the build up to centenary of World War One.
If you were told that you could live any day without repercussions for your actions, what would you do and why? Being a naturally curious person with a fascination for history, it would have to be time travel. I would try not to meddle too much but I think it would be almost impossible not to, for instance I would have to warn those passengers about to embark on the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, wouldn’t I?
If you could choose one book that you think everyone should read, what would it be and why?
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, the deeply moving story of a doomed love affair set amidst the ruins of war, particularly apt for this year’s First World War centenary.
If there was one saying that could sum up your life to date, what would it be?
Every cloud has a silver lining. I consider myself to be extremely blessed but whenever I’ve faced sadness or disappointment in life, I have also usually found the experience leads me to a better place.
Name one of your favourite places in the world?
My birth country, South Africa. It’s the place I return to every year to reconnect with myself. It’s where I feel most at peace and yet also most alive!
How would you describe your writing process?
Having a writing process sounds terribly organised to me and mine has been anything but. With ‘Call the Doctor’ I have research days, writing days and rewriting/editing days…sometimes I have a day doing it all but it seems to me that having the time doesn’t necessarily guarantee productivity. I’m very good at procrastinating so I have had to be really strict with myself. Deadlines definitely focus the mind and I tend to get much more done if there’s one looming.
What or who in life inspires you?
I don’t think any one person has inspired me. My parents have inspired me to want to be all that I can be and as a mother, my children inspire me to want to be the best role model for them.
What is your all-time favourite book?
I have many but when I recently spent time living in India, I was introduced to the novels of Rohinton Mistry. I particularly loved ‘A Fine Balance’, which reminds me of the value of family and friendship.
Please would you share who your 5 dream dinner party guests would be?
Robin Williams, Jo Brand, Nelson Mandela, Hilary Clinton
and my grandfather.
A big thank you to Deborah for talking to The Love of a Good Book!