HOW IT FEELS (To be a best seller)

October 22, 2011

“Do you know what you’ve just done?” That’s what my publisher Mister Tom Doherty asked. It was in February 2007, a Wednesday, and we were in a delightful Italian restaurant in Manhattan. His face was bereft of expression and he clutched a cell phone in one hand.

I sat back forcibly, flinched, and swallowed. Please remember I went to a boy’s boarding school where such a remark by a teacher often preceded severe punishment. My hand started to tremble. Some responses are ingrained for life. We had earlier been in cheerful mid-conversation. No mean feat for me. Please understand that for an author who had just been published for the first time in his life by a major New York house such a conversation with the head of the publishing company was on a level with a chat between a novitiate priest and the big fellah in the Vatican. Then Mister Doherty broke off in mid-sentence to take a cell phone call. Right as the main course was being served—veal scallopini as I recall.

“Well do you?” There was an edge in his voice.

I shook my head and sought for the all-exonerating excuse like, “It wasn’t me sir. Honestly.” I looked round for support at the staff of Forge who had all worked assidiously on my An Irish Country Doctor and who had been invited by Mister Doherty to this celebratory post-publication lunch. Damn it all, they were grinning like a herd of mooncalves. Was this some rite of passage? I was beginning to feel like the sacrificial calf, the outsider to some massive in-joke.

“I’ll tell you what you’ve done,” Mister Doherty said.

No question now. It was definitely my fault that the Walls of Jehrico had come tumblin’ down, the Cards had beaten the Tigers in five games in the World Series last year, and the Colts had taken the Superbowl from the Bears. I was for it.

“You, my friend,” he said, and his face cracked into a grin of such massive proportions that the Cheshire Cat would have looked like a whining sniveller beside Tom Doherty, “You, my friend, have just put An Irish Country Doctor on the New York Times best seller list.” He held out a hand.

I think I shook it. Only the applause from everyone else at the table muffled the ‘clunk’ of my jaw hitting the table top. It wasn’t until, what I am sure was an acute attack of atrial fibrillation, had passed that I finally managed to mumble, “Holy Mother of God.” I’m not even sure if I had the decency to say thank you to all the people there who had been in on the joke.

Tom had been waiting for the call giving him the information and everybody round that table, but me, had been waiting and hoping too.

And I was there, on the list, the little lad from Bangor Northern Ireland, who had been a doctor and had no right to be a published novelist, never mind a best seller, and would not have been without the support of very many dedicated people. Thank you all.

I spent that day glowing. I nearly caught fire when my agent Natalia Aponte came with me to my hotel to break the news to my partner, Dorothy, who hadn’t been able to make the lunch. I can only hope that all those who were involved in the publication of Country Doctor could feel the same fierce pride and satisfaction as I did. They’d certainly merited it.

And they deserve to feel proud again today because Alexis Saarela from Forge has just e-mailed me. A Dublin Student Doctor, which was published last week, will debut at number 26 in the week of October 30th. And I feel as I did on that other Wedenesday four years ago. Proud, happy, yet acutely conscious of how much I owe to all the other people who have made this happen—and, oh yes, one other group without whom I’d never had made it. You. My readers. Bless you all and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

On Model Boat Building

October 8, 2011

I am always intrigued by the questions readers ask and one that came in recently caught my eye. “Your short bioprofile describes you as a, ‘model boat builder.’ Can you show us any pictures of your models?”

Well, yes I can. Of the one of which I am most proud. There are two pictures with this blog.

The original vessel in question was built in Bedford Mass. in 1813 and comissioned into the United States Navy that year as USS Rattlesnake. She was a fourteen gun, three masted, ship-rigged brig. At the time there was a modicum of unpleasantness occurring between the recently constituted United States of America and The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The War of 1812.

On the 20th of June 1813 Rattlesnake encountered HMS Leander, a 50 gun cruiser. Despite throwing all guns overboard to lighten ship and give her a chance to outrun her pursuer Rattlesnake fell victim to light airs and was caught. There was no shame in surrendering to a vessel which so heavily outgunned the smaller. Rattlesnake was bought into the Royal Navy, crossed the Atlantic, of which more later, and finally perished in the Mediteranean.

The model, an all wood construction, was built from a kit based upon the original naval architectural plans. The building took one year from 1981 to 82 during which time I had a day job in Calgary, Canada. In part my work involved using microsurgical techniques to repair damaged Fallopian tubes. My model building was greatly facilitated by my being able to use worn out (surgically but not for lay use) fine instruments and indeed some of the model’s rigging is silk suture material. I was also able to persuade myself that working on the model and using fine motor skills was akin to the excercises a concert pianist might perform.

The model sat in my home until 1987 when I had an opportunity to accept a position at Bourn Hall Clinic, the world’s first IVF clinic, in Cambridgeshire, England, and work with the now late Doctor Patrick Steptoe and Professor Bob Edwards. Bob is now Sir Robert and in 2010 became the Nobel Laureate in physiology. I had a wonderful two years there and in my journeying there Rattlesnake had made an uneventful Atlantic crossing.

When in 1989 it was time to return to Canada the model crossed the Atlantic for a second time, once more than the original, and again arrived intact. Because I never could hold a job for long she has since been shipped from Winnipeg to Vancouver to Bowen Island in the mouth of Howe Sound, British Columbia.

Before I decided to return to Ireland for a while I felt that expecting a fragile model ship to survive a third transatlantic crossing was tempting the fates.

Rattlesnake now resides in a glass case in Doc Morgan’s restaurant on Bowen Island where she can be admired or ignored by the patrons. Her bows point to the sea of the marina, but in the words of  A. E. Housman;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

Her far-borne canvas furled…

And I am now in home port on Saltspring Island British Columbia—where if I’m ever going to finish book 7 in the Irish Country series, I’d better get back to work.

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