While working as a GP, Jane Shemilt completed a post grad diploma in Creative Writing at Bristol University and went on to study for the M.A in Creative writing at Bath Spa, gaining both with distinction. She was shortlisted for the Janklow and Nesbitt award and the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize for Daughter, which is her first novel. She and her husband, a Professor of Neurosurgery, have five children and live in Bristol.
Can you tell us a little bit about your debut novel Daughter?
Daughter concerns the abduction of Naomi a teenager, and the impact this has on her family. The outcome of the subsequent search is not revealed until the very last page.
The story is told by Jenny, the mother of the missing girl. Jenny’s happy marriage, family life and successful career unravel in the months following her daughter’s disappearance.
As the trail goes cold, Jenny retreats to the family cottage in Dorset, but even as she starts a new relationship her husband reappears, with dark information that reignites the search.
The story is told in a split time frame, so the horror of the abduction alternates with the stillness of Jenny’s life a year on; events glimpsed in the present time line are also embedded in the future where their significance is revealed.
The themes concern grief, loss and survival, the secrets that families keep from each other and the lies that they tell. It’s about the shadows that lurk at the periphery of even the brightest, happiest seeming families. Daughter also looks at what can happen when doctors play God.
Where did the inspiration come from to write about uncovering secrets following the disappearance of a child?
Secrets are powerful .We all have them. They are part of who we are and how we keep ourselves safe but they can also be dangerous.
In my life as a GP, I asked lots of questions, aimed at finding out more about my patients and their illnesses so that I could help them. But however many questions I asked, I was always aware of the essential unknowingness of others; patients don’t tell you everything and nor to those most close to you. .As a teenager I certainly didn’t tell my parents everything though they probably thought they knew me. Even while living at home my children had inner lives I know nothing about. And of course that’s how it should be. Everyone needs to keep secrets.
When I began to write the book I played with this idea but took it further. What if those closest to you had secrets that might harm them or even you? Threatening secrets about which you had no idea? How would that make you feel when you found out? What would you do?
The book was initially inspired by loss .As a doctor I saw that most people carry loss of some kind, for which they grieve. It was their ability to carry that with them and the resilience they develop that provided the seed for the story; then, because I wanted my reader to turn the pages, I wrote about secrets .As I said at the beginning they have a power all of their own.
Are you currently working on book 2? If so, are you able to give us a teaser as to what it’s about?
I have actually finished book two; it is with my editor now. It is about a different family in a different setting, on a gap year together at the edge of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.
It concerns a competitive relationship between the husband and wife and what happens when disaster strikes at the heart of the family. I am very much hoping it will appeal to anyone who enjoyed Daughter as it’s a story about relationships, love and peril. I visited Botswana last year to do some research for the book which also incorporates themes about beliefs and truths which clash across culture.
You started your creative writing course whilst working as a GP, have you always been interested in writing?
Writing was my passion at school; I remember weekends spent writing essays in the attic to escape my noisy family! I clearly recall the thrill of winning the sixth form story writing competition. But I wanted a career in medicine; I came from a medical family. After a gap year in Africa, I felt overwhelmingly that medicine was what I should do and that determination carried me though the long, difficult training; I wasn’t a natural scientist!
Medicine and then our family of five took up all the time until a few years ago. Now writing talks up all my time; it’s so utterly involving, I don’t think I could have managed to be a doctor or good enough mother to my children when they were little; if I had been writing as well. I take my hat off in sheer admiration to all those who do everything so brilliantly.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
It depends on where I am in the book; at the beginning it can be a case of “grinding out the words, making myself sit there for a minimum of three hours and maybe only writing a very few hundred words. As the story progresses and deadlines near, I can be at my desk for ten hours a day or even more. I love that sense of involvement that takes over: I resent the hours as they pass and only stop to run the dog round the block. Lunch is an apple, eaten leaning up against the stove, bed happens at three am.
In between those extremes, I try hard to be sensible and aim for a nine to five day and maybe edit for a couple of hours in the evening.
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
That writing is a job .Don’t wait for inspiration or ideal conditions, roll up your sleeves and grind out those words, also giving yourself permission to write badly, as long as you get the words on the page.You can sculpt later.
Have you got anything exciting planned for publication day?
I haven’t planned anything yet, but perhaps I’ll crack open a bottle of bubbly with the lady who runs the only independent bookshop in Bristol, the Durdham Down Bookshop, she has been a mainstay over the years. Maybe I’ll meet a writing friend for lunch; my husband might take me out to supper. The launch happens in September when the champagne will flow.
Are you going to treat yourself to something nice for publishing your first book?
Publishing my first book is the treat; it’s hard to think of a better one!
However, yesterday I drove down to a beach in Dorset; Jenny, in Daughter, lives nearby and walks along the cliffs above that particular beach. The water had warmed up in the recent sunshine and swimming was delicious. Looking up at the golden cliffs from the water felt like the best treat, and a celebration of the place that had inspired the book’s setting.
If you could go on a writing retreat anywhere in the world, where would you choose?
When I was writing a forty thousand chunk of words for Daughter, a course requirement for the MA, the equivalent of a dissertation, I let my family go to Paxos in Greece, without me. I’d decided I would write better on my own at home. I lasted a day. I followed them and then I worked harder than ever, completing the project. Something about the heat and light, the olive trees and the sea beyond the open glass doors really helped me focus. It was good to hear family voices in the distance, as they leapt off the rocks into the sea or crafted fantastic Mediterranean feasts to eat on the veranda. I remember my husband sitting in the shade reading through a draft and how helpful his comments were. So not isolation but peace, warmth, background voices and the sea within easy reach would be totally ideal.