The following is an edited version of a blog post written for SPCK, the publisher of my newest book, Midwife of Borneo: The True Story of a Geordie Pioneer.
I probably wouldn’t have written Midwife of Borneo – or any of my books – if, ten years earlier, another former nurse hadn’t typed up the letters she wrote home from her own travels, albeit in a very different place. Readers of this blog know that in 1957, my mother, Gwenda, and her best friend, Pat, left their native Newcastle and flew to America to work at a large hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. On their arrival they bought an old banger, and when their year-long contract was up, set off in it with three new friends to see the rest of North America, taking jobs when they needed to. This led to all sorts of adventures – not all of which were recounted in the letters to parents!
Reading the letters triggered in me the realisation that – if the story was a good one – tales about ordinary people might be of sufficient interest to others to be turned into a book that might be published commercially. This didn’t prevent my proposal from being turned down because it wasn’t about anyone ‘famous’, but eventually my persistence paid off, and Bedpans & Bobby Socks was published in 2011.
Although I had worked in journalism – mainly as a sub-editor – my main love is fiction, and I suppose I had always thought that if I were ever to write a book, it would be a novel. So I was surprised to find this type of writing so satisfying. Despite my copious and entertaining source material, it still required creative skills, for – naturally – the letters had not been written with any thought of future publication. Furthermore, I was turning them into a conventional first-person narrative rather than using an epistolary format. I asked my mother and Pat for stories about their lives before America; I spoke to some of the friends they had kept in touch with, and managed to trace others myself – easier today, with the internet, though still requiring some painstaking detective work! I immersed myself in the 1950s, igniting a passion for this fascinating era!
By the time my editor asked me to help Northumberland shepherdess Emma Gray write about her life running a farm in a remote part of my home county, I had discovered I enjoyed putting myself in someone else’s shoes. One Girl and Her Dogs was the result. And so, it seemed, I had become a writer of memoirs!
What makes a good memoir? One answer would be that it is an unusual perspective on a situation that is itself often unusual. It is probably no coincidence that the protagonists of the aforementioned books and the ones that followed are all outsiders in some way. There is me, growing up in a vicarage in a north-east mining village, as recounted in Is the Vicar in, Pet? Gwenda again, this time as a child evacuee finding herself in a strict Methodist household in When the War Is Over. And – though Eve’s War is not a memoir but a diary – the strong-spirited wife of an Army officer, making a new life for herself at each of her husband’s wartime postings.
Wendy Grey Rogerson was an outsider too: a British nurse giving up a comfortable life to run a clinic in the remote interior of British North Borneo, 300 miles from the nearest town. And somehow, despite difficult living conditions, she kept a diary for every night of her three-year stay.
With the exception of only my first book, I had more source material than ever before. However, a diary is a piece of writing ‘in the now’ – and in her situation, Wendy had little time for reflection or explanation. To turn the diaries into a book, I needed to find themes; to see how incidents developed and craft them into stories; to decide which of the huge number of characters were most important.
I was grateful to be able to speak to Wendy (now aged 88) regularly by phone for help with some of these matters. I think it was quite a testing time for her – how many of us could answer detailed questions about our youthful years, whether they be 20 or 60 years ago!
People often tell Gwenda and Pat they must have been brave to travel to America, which bemuses them. But for Wendy – who left behind all that was familiar, who shared her home with rats and snakes, who performed operations rather than watch her patients die – it is surely a very fitting adjective.
Midwife of Borneo is published by SPCK on 15 November, priced £9.99.