Today I’ve invited John Eliot to visit Ascroft, eh? to tell us a bit about his new novel, The Good Doctor.
Welcome John. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
JE: My novel, The Good Doctor, is based loosely around the life of my father Thomas Eliot as a GP in Leicester. My father, Dr Thomas Eliot, was born in the 1920’s and died a year or two ago.
My father was a great story teller and these books of mine, are based on the stories he told us. Sometimes in quite a formal way, other times simply chatting over the dinner table. I’m sure he exaggerated in parts and of course I have given them the novelist’s tale.
A brief synopsis of The Good Doctor:
Dr Thomas Eliot, fresh from Europe at the end of the Second World War, arrives for his first post at Leicester in the UK. An enthusiastic young man, he is full of new ideas. He sees the people around him coping with life, a lack of good food, rationing still in force. These people deserve better, The Good Doctor feels, after being the victors of a long hard conflict in Europe. Food poisoning strikes the council estate and the doctor traces it to the cause; tins of poor quality food being sold by the local factory owner, Sir Roger Folville. Events unravel which virtually lead to the downfall of the government and Dr Eliot facing his own nightmare.
What prompted you to write about this historical event or era?
JE: I love history. I read a great deal of non-fiction; usually a non-fiction alongside a piece of fiction. If you are asking why did I choose 1948 as a year to write about, I suppose because it is in my memory, although I wasn’t born until a few years later. But because I heard the stories about the era first hand, it was as if I had lived it. Ideally I would love to write a novel set in Tudor times, but that would take too much research.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
JE: The historical facts were used loosely. I made sure that I had the correct monarch on the throne, the correct prime minister and so on. But the book isn’t based on an historical event. The political corruptness did not happen. I was correct in that in 1948, Britain was almost as starvation level and that the illness clostridium difficile existed. Based around these couple of facts, I built a story.
What research did you do for this book?
JE: None, none was needed in the formal way. As above, I made sure that certain facts were correct. The descriptions of Belsen lifted from the memory of a soldier. But it is factual that my father was one of the first British soldiers that entered Belsen, to help the victims. That is first hand information.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
JE: I did not use historic characters. I would say that to create an historic character would be very difficult. That character would end up as an author’s romanticized interpretation.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
JE: I just wrote and the people who have read the novel seem very happy with it. I think because the story is strong. However when I write, I see my characters as in a film. I rely a great deal on dialogue, so a reader having a feeling of the place and time would come through what the characters say. I’ll give you an example. There is a scene set in an RAF officers mess. I don’t know anyone in the RAF (at least before I wrote the novel) and I certainly haven’t been in an RAF mess. A reader who was in the RAF, told me that I had completely captured what the officers mess was like. How did I do it? I don’t know.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
JE: I disagree with your question. I think there is as much scope for female characters. Anne Boleyn. Margaret D’Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville and plenty more.
I don’t really mind which sex my character is. I think I’m similar to Tony Warren who founded Coronation Street in 1960. His strongest characters were female. My strongest characters are female; Gerry, a doctor, Edna, the housekeeper, Olive, who runs the practice, and Nurse Bullock, to name but a few. Thomas Eliot is a quiet man, perhaps an underlying strength, Reg is a neurotic idiot, Dr McFadden too fond of the whisky. Many of my men are weak, certainly weaker than the females.
Thanks for answering my questions and giving me an insight into The Good Doctor, John. I enjoyed the novel when I read it recently so it’s good to hear a bit more about it.