‘You should publish a selection of your columns,’ said my partner, sounding a bit less irritated than usual.
‘My Collected Works, you mean,’ I said, with brief grandiose visions of gold-leafed volumes and old dusty libraries and old dusty librarians.
‘No, just a selection from all that stuff you send off every week.,’ he said, the irritation returning in spades; a compliment from someone who can barely tolerate you is to be treasured.
I was a family doctor in Crossmaglen on the border for 20 years, for the first years of which the Troubles were still active. Despite it’s reputation I loved working there; the people were kind, generous and stoical. I’ve also been a columnist for various medical journals and magazine and newspapers since since 1994, so had built up thousands of articles; perhaps fortunately, most of them are lost forever. I didn’t keep them, and each time I changed laptop they would disappear into cyberspace, except those in the really Big Beasts, like the British Medical Journal or the Lancet. But from ~2006 on, most other journals were also online, so my columns became more easily retrievable.
There were still far too many, so I contacted an editor, Ruth Devlin, who I knew from twitter; she was gratifyingly enthusiastic, and ferociously edited it down to a malleable 100k words, and also organised them into chapters, which gave them a coherent shape and a sense of narrative, more like a chronicle than a series of disparate column. It was a formidable and highly-skilled exercise, and made submitting to and finding an appropriate agent so much easier.
I’m a morphine addict; there, I’ve said it, it doesn’t get any easier, it always feels like I’m dropping a bomb into an article, all else is muted into irrelevance. But I’m not just an addict, and I won’t let it define me; I’m over 10 years clean now, I’m a husband, a father, an uncle, a friend, I love GAA and I play music at a weekly session.
I’ve only ever written about my addiction once, as I want to forget being frightened all the time, but one night I sat down and wrote 4000 words, in one sitting, about my experience of using and withdrawing from morphine.
It was a kind of catharsis; at the time I didn’t intend to submit that particular article anywhere, and it hadn’t been commissioned. But I did publish it later, as a warning to others about what a squalid, venal, solitary vice addiction is.
In contrast, my columns have always been carefully crafted over a period of weeks. I write the first draft quickly, then chop and change and fiddle and think about it while doing nothing or eating or driving and run it though in my head and read it out loud to myself (to ensure the flow is suitably liquid and logical) till the little gem is polished. The multinational corporations who own these journals and magazine only pay for quality, and maintaining standards and hitting deadlines on time, with the desired word-counts, was crucial. The world of the medical columnist pays well, but is correspondingly competitive and cut-throat; there’s always some young punk riding into town who think’s he’s a faster gun than you.
So the piece on my experience of addiction was quite out of character with the rest of my writing and Ruth wanted to use it right at the start of the book; it informs the rest of the the book, she said, gives it context, perspective. She observed how my writing had changed after I became an addict; beforehand more straight and scholarly, and afterward, satirical, but curiously gentler, like a cry for help, or a search for escape. This change was entirely subconscious on my behalf; I was just writing whatever came into my head, perhaps something I’d seen during my surgeries, or something I’d read, and whatever kept my readers entertained and interested and my editors happy and the cheques coming in. But just as the tragic muse embraces misfortune, the comic muse deflects it. We can’t be afraid of that which we have made ridiculous.
We had a cordial dispute over the title; originally it was ‘The flagon with the dragon” based on one of the columns; which describes how I realised that patient is too small a word for patients, that they have other roles, lovers, husbands, wives, brothers, hobbies, passions.
But then I reckoned it was too obscure and self-indulgent, so changed it to, ‘Are you the f**king doctor?’ based on a true story. On a house call a gentleman asked me, ‘Are you the f**king doctor?’ I had to explain carefully, not wanting any misunderstanding, that I was just the ordinary doctor.
We wondered about using the full expletive in the title; I polled on twitter and facebook (a sneaky marketing ploy) and the vote favoured using the whole word. But common sense prevailed, and we went with ‘f**king;’ sufficient shock value without being vulgar. In the era in which a vulgarian has somehow become the President of the United States, vulgarity is to be eschewed at all costs.
So, now, at the end of all things, I’m throwing myself on the mercy of the public. I don’t have a big publisher, and the advertising budget is zero, but I’m active on twitter; I curate the #Irishmed tweetchat, and co-curate the #WritersWise tweetchat with novelist Sharon Thompson, and I’m promoting the book as much as I can through social media.
I do have faith in this book. It’s something different; the contrasts are extreme, the pain is palpable, the humour rarely slapstick or obscene. Most of the columns are 400-600 words, bite-sized and ideal for commuters. I hope they will make my readers smile, and I hope they will understand, most of all, that addicts aren’t just addicts, and addicts can get better.
(c) Liam Farrell
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Dr-Liam-Farrell-111683498914098/
About Are You the F***king Doctor?
The book contains a selection of Liam’s best work, from his columns, blogs and short stories.
Brilliantly funny, glittering with literary allusion and darkly wicked humour, this book is much more than a collection of stand-alone anecdotes and whimsical reflections, rather a compelling chronicle of the daily struggles – and personal costs – of a doctor at the coalface.
‘General practice is the great unknown. We stand on the cusp of the beyond. Science takes us only so far, then the maps stop in the grey areas of intuition, imagination and feelings: here be dragons. Lurching from heart-breaking tragedy to high farce, we are the Renaissance men and women of medicine; our art is intangible. Anything can walk through our door…’
Family doctor, Irishman, musician, award-winning author, anarchist and recovering morphine addict, Liam became a columnist for the BMJ in 1994. He went on to write for many major publications, winning a series of prestigious awards; in 2005, he was the first doctor to win Columnist of the Year in the Periodical Publishers Association awards.
‘A unique voice that combines insight, humour, and an often surreal style.’ Richard Smith, BMJ editor-in-chief 1991-2004.
‘Razor sharp wit and allure. His personal account of his addiction is one of the most compelling I have ever read.’ Chris Smith, The Naked Scientist.
Order your copy online here.