The Chirurgeon’s Library: Kill Grief by Caroline Rance

Recently, I interviewed the novelist, Caroline Rance, about the rewards and challenges of writing historical fiction. Here’s what she had to say about her fascinating novel, Kill Grief.

Can you tell us about your novel, Kill Grief ?

Kill-Grief is set in 1756 and is about addiction and survival in the chaotic world of a general hospital. The main character is a young woman called Mary, who reluctantly becomes a nurse out of necessity. She has secrets to keep about her past and constantly lives on the brink of being found out. She uses gin as an escape from her fears, and gets deeper and deeper into trouble.

While working at the hospital, however, Mary discovers that she has an aptitude for surgery. Although, as a woman, she is excluded from the established path to qualifying as a surgeon, she begins to wonder whether her abilities might give her a future after all.

Where did you get your inspiration to write it?

I had been trying to write a novel for ages, and kept getting to about chapter 3 and then giving up. Then when I was doing my BA dissertation, I researched the origin of Chester Infirmary, and began to read between the lines of the documents I was studying. There were some tiny but interesting hints about what the patients and staff got up to, and I wondered what they were like as people. I started writing fictional scenes about them – none of which ended up in the book.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Nearly always – probably since I was about 12 years old. I went through a phase of wondering whether I was invisible and, although I felt sad that people appeared not to see or hear me, it did mean I could observe them without being noticed. I found I could see through them, and this gave me plenty of ideas for stories.

During my teens, I thought everything I wrote was awful – and I was right! In one way I wish I’d known at the time that this didn’t matter and that every piece of writing was valuable experience. In another way, however, I’m glad I felt that despairing inadequacy, because it made me keep on and on trying.

What is the most challenging part of writing historical fiction?

Staying off the internet long enough to write anything. Apart from that, the main challenge is something that would apply to contemporary fiction too – getting the plot to work so that there is actually a story rather than just a list of events. Real life doesn’t have a plot – to quote Elbert Hubbard, it’s just ‘one damn thing after another’ – so I think a novel has to be more believable than real life. The events need to link back and forth to one another more meaningfully.

And the most rewarding?

The best bit is getting it finished and out the door! The most rewarding part of the writing process, however, is the same as the most challenging one. I love finding ways of connecting aspects of the plot so that there’s a kind of intricacy about everything. I like foreshadowing events and putting in small details that might pass unnoticed by the reader but turn out to be of vital significance.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block and if so, how did you overcome it?

I could dignify it with the term writer’s block but in my case it’s just plain laziness. I get ‘stuck’ sometimes but it’s usually on one particular project rather than on writing in general, so I go and work on something different for a while. I have several pieces of writing on the go at once so if I get bored with any of them there’s always another to get on with. This creates the danger of never actually finishing any of them, of course…

If I’m doing a first draft, the software Write or Die is a great way of getting word count down. I also find the copy-editing stage quite fun – it’s the bit in between, where major revisions are required, that poses the greatest difficulty. I haven’t found a solution other than to keep plugging away.

What is your favourite novel?

I probably answer this question differently every time, but one of my favourites is Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock. It’s hilarious, and I like Scythrop Glowry’s idea of finding the 7 people who have read his book and organising them to change the world. I might do that with my 7 readers one day too.

If you could travel back back into the past, where would you go? Who would you meet? What would you do?

I would like to go back millions of years to see some dinosaurs, because modern popular interpretations of them change so rapidly – the velociraptors of Jurassic Park a mere 20 years ago were big and scaly; nowadays they’re known to be small and feathered, but future discoveries could add even more detail. I’d love to see the truth about their appearance, but I wouldn’t want to stay long enough to get eaten, so I’d set the time machine for London in 1857.

There, I would go to a show by Julia Pastrana, who was promoted as ‘the ape woman’ because of her hypertrichosis and gingival hyperplasia. She performed as a ‘freak’ but I’d like to meet her and find out what she was really like. She has often been romanticised as a beautiful person trapped in an ugly body; someone sweet-natured yet tragic, who just longed to be loved. I suspect she was more complicated than that.

*Caroline Rance is currently studying for an MA in Medicine, Science & Society at Birkbeck, University of London. She runs a website, The Quack Doctor, a collection of panacean powders, pills, potions, procedures and pamphlets, as advertised in historical newspapers. You can purchase Kill Grief here

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