The Impress Prize for new writers was created to discover and publish new writing talent in fiction and non-fiction. The winner of the prize is offered a publishing contract with Impress Books, with the aim of releasing the book in the following year. Entries to the prize are assessed by the Impress team and a shortlist is produced from which a panel chooses the winner. The panel is comprised of representatives from the publishing industry. In the past the winners and shortlisted candidates have gone on to be represented by agents and received subsequent publishing contracts.
James Calum Campbell, author of The Seven Trials of Cameron-Strange, won the Impress Prize in 2014. Today I am delighted to welcome him to my blog to tell us about his transition from doctor to author, and the inspiration behind his protagonist, Dr Alastair Cameron-Strange.
Photography by Whyler Photos of Stirling
Tell us about your career as a doctor
I’m what the American MDs call “double-boarded”; I’m a GP and an emergency physician. I’ve had the best possible time. My career has taken me all over the world. I guess its apogee has been the senior lectureship in emergency medicine at Auckland. Wonderful – but a roller-coaster ride. Medicine is very demanding.
How did you make the jump from doctor to author?
I was always a scribbler. I used to write articles for various medical rags. The profession likes to flaunt its literary credentials – Chekhov and Maugham and Conan Doyle and so on. Actually we’re a bit smug. There’s a style of writing on the back pages of medical journals that I call “medical baroque”, full of pus and sex. I don’t care for it. The worlds of medicine and letters do overlap – after all it’s all history-taking. But most doctors who have seriously wanted to write have realised that they needed to quit practice. Medicine is just too all-consuming. When in Auckland I was asked to prepare the groundwork for the creation of a Chair in Emergency Medicine, I realised I might do that, and medicine would have me for ever. I resigned and moved to a croft in Camustianavaig, Isle of Skye, and wrote a first draft of a book about Dr Alastair Cameron-Strange. I was 47. My colleagues thought I’d gone crazy. Maybe they were right!
But medicine was not done with me. My mother’s cousin was in a car crash on Skye, and I visited her in Broadford Hospital. The Medical Director said, “You’re the doc holed up in Camustianavaig writing a book. Do you want a job?” Sometimes you do something simply because you are importuned.
What made you want to write?
I’ve been devoted to words, and stories, for as long as I can remember. Then with adolescence I hit writer’s block and realised I needed to go out into the world and be something else, if only to acquire copy. Every writer knows this fundamental truth, that you can be interested in anything and everything, but you can only be devoted to one thing. I knew that sooner or later I’d be seduced back, to wrestle the best of three falls with words.
Was it always important to you for your novels to have a medical element?
Not initially, but, with fiction, eventually yes. Medicine changes you. I’ve been a doctor for such a long time now that I cannot but think as a doctor. In emergency medicine, the most potent question you can ask your patient is, “What happened?” Then you go into a trance, listen, don’t interrupt, and nine times out of ten, the patient will hand you the diagnosis on a plate. It seems a passive activity, but it is not. It comes at a cost, because what you are actually doing is stepping into the patient’s shoes. For a moment, you become the patient. Writing a book is a similar experience. It requires a receptivity and a willingness to allow the book to proceed as it will. It’s a diagnostic process. It takes its toll.
Where did the inspiration for Cameron-Strange come from?
I wanted to write about a doctor who, though he doesn’t know it, has the full house of “knowledge, skills, and attitudes”. There’s an old cliché that if you have knowledge, become a physician, if you have skill, become a surgeon, if you have tender loving kindness, become a GP. (It’s nonsense.) Most of us strive for competency on one level. You sometimes meet doctors who combine such virtues. For example you might meet an intensivist who combines encyclopaedic knowledge of pathophysiology with extraordinary motor abilities and nerves of steel. But he’s also liable to lack people skills, he will have a monstrous ego, and he might even be psychopathic. A doctor who excels in not one or two, but all three of these fields, is a very rare bird indeed. I think Alastair Cameron-Strange might become such a doctor, but he still needs to work on his attitude. If he survives, and isn’t struck off, I suspect when he’s a little older he might become very eminent in his field.
So believe me, ACS definitely isn’t me! But I once received a backhanded compliment from an Edinburgh Professor of Medicine that would have befitted ACS: “You’ll go far, Campbell, so long as you don’t go too far.”
Are you an unpublished writer? The ImpressPrize is now open for submissions. Deadline 30 June 2017. Follow @ImpressPrize on Twitter for updates.