Former GP Jane Shemilt is enjoying spectacular success with her debut novel Daughter.
The book, which takes loss as its theme, is proving Jane’s gain, with strong backing through TV’s Richard and Judy. “We absolutely loved this book,” they said.
When a teenage girl goes missing, her mother discovers she doesn’t know her daughter as well as she thought.
Naomi has vanished, leaving her family broken and her mother Jenny desperately searching for answers. But the traces fifteen-year-old Naomi has left behind reveal a very different girl to the one Jenny thought she’d raised. And the more she looks, the more she learns that everyone she trusted has been keeping secrets.
Only just published, the book is already striking a chord with readers up and down the country.
“It’s an exciting time,” says Jane, whose sister Kate is a photographer for the Chichester Observer.
“I think it is down to a lot of serendipitous things such as doing a creative writing course at Bath, an MA about three years ago. I think first of all it gave me – this may sound rather pretentious – the permission to write. It is easy to lose sight of something like writing in the hurly-burly of work, but I had stopped being a GP.
“I had just done a diploma in creative writing at Bristol University. I did that alongside general practice, but when I got home my (doctor’s) bag would go into the corner of the room. The writing was pulling me more and more. You can carry on being a safe doctor. That never leaves you, but I was not spending the time reading up on the latest treatments.”
Time spent on her appraisal portfolio for work seemed increasingly like time spent away from writing.
And eventually it was the writing which won: “I don’t miss being a GP. I was a GP all my life one way or another. When I had the children, I went part time, and when I had my fourth child, I stopped for ten years completely. I was just about to begin again and then got pregnant with my fifth.”
The MA in creative writing at Bath Spa, in which she gained a distinction, enabled her to change direction completely. Looking back, it does now seem the turning point. For the course, she had to produce a 40,000-word chunk of what became Daughter, a good third of the eventual novel.
Like Jane, who lives in Bristol, the mother in the book is a doctor; and there are a number of other similarities between Jane’s own circumstances and her imagined world in the book.
“I wanted to bring an authentic voice into it. General practice is a place of huge drama. Patients come to you with stories all the time. That’s your job. You are a listener, and you get to hear these extraordinary stories. You are in an extraordinary position, and people trust you.
“And so many of these stories are to do with loss, whether it is physical loss such as a mastectomy or a loss of physical abilities with old age or the awful loss of a partner or a child. There was always the big thread of people losing something or someone.
“But what I heard, that was so inspirational, was that people simply go forward with their losses. There are decisions that people have to make. They can change and go forward or they can be crushed by their loss. With most people, they choose to find a way to carry on. From their depths of despair, they choose to continue to do the ordinary things in their lives and to continue – and that’s what I found so extraordinary.
“And that’s what I remember thinking about. I had a diploma in creative writing, I was with a patient, and I was thinking how on earth did this patient cope.”
Such thoughts underlie the novel: “The protagonist in the book does carry on. She suffers this loss, and her life changes, but she does not stop.
“And I think that’s the lovely thing about writing. You use your experience, but you also use your imagination. I think what you do is use a kind of ‘what if?’ question to dig deeper. You ask yourself ‘how would I feel if this were to happen?’ rather than ‘how did I feel when this did actually happen?’ That’s the process that is happening. You are continually trying to find the unknown...”