NewnhamWrites … A novel form of speed dating
From speed dating, to painting her Newnham antique fireplace orange, Dr. Carol Cooper – (NC 1969) GP, Sun Columnist and hilarious novel writer, on her writing life.
Dr. Carol Cooper read Medicine at Newnham College, Cambridge. In addition to her work as a GP in London, she writes a health column for The Sun newspaper, teaches at Imperial College and is involved in three charities – Action on Pre-Eclampsia, Lucy Air Ambulance for Children and the Twins and Multiple Births Association. Having authored a string of parenting books as well as an award-winning medical textbook, she turned to writing novels about 30-somethings looking for love. Carol currently lives between London and Cambridge and has three grown-up sons. She is also an Associate of Newnham College. Her first novel, One Night at the Jacaranda came out in 2013. The follow up – Hampstead Fever – was published in June this year.
I’m in awe: you’ve built up a successful career as a doctor and teach at Imperial College as well as publishing several books in your field. (I’m exhausted just thinking about your working life). You also pen a column for The Sun. What made you turn your hand to fiction writing?
I’ve always had a hankering to write a novel. I began one in my second year at Newnham, but I knew nothing of the world at the time, except, perhaps, how to pass exams. Luckily that manuscript never saw the light of day.
Also, being a doctor has brought me into close contact with people and their stories. While none of my patients feature in my novels, they have shown me aspects of their lives and contribute to my take on humanity. I’m pretty sure I write multi-viewpoint fiction because, as a GP, I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes every ten minutes.
What inspired you to write One Night at the Jacaranda and your latest novel – the sequel – Hampstead Fever?
While I was on a plane heading to my father’s funeral with a much needed drink in hand, the idea for a novel about dating came into my head. I made a few jottings on a paper napkin and they turned into One Night at the Jacaranda, which was recently followed by my latest, Hampstead Fever. Neither book has anything to do with my father, but they do say things change when a parent dies …
One Night at the Jacaranda is an hilarious – as well as touching – romp following a group of 30-somethings in the aftermath of a speed dating night at a pub in Marylebone, London. Did you ever go speed dating as part of your research, or for fun?
Yes, I did. I was single at the time and it wasn’t research. However, I soon realised it had comic potential and could form the basis for bringing a diverse group of people together. Of course there are many other devices for doing this, such as having characters living in the same block (The Yacoubian Building), or some who go to college together (The Group), or travel on the same journey (The Canterbury Tales). But speed-dating seemed more appropriate for my story.
I didn’t necessarily set out to write a humorous story. It’s just the way it comes out. Being a medic probably helps, and for several years I wrote for the iconic magazine Punch. Come to think of it, I think one of my first articles for Punch was, The 10 Most Disgusting Diseases in the World – and how to catch them.
Of the characters in One Night at the Jacaranda, what character do you love the most?
Dan is my favourite. At first he comes across as an uneducated Jack the Lad with only sex on his mind, but he has a soft side and is insecure about his place in the world. Traumatised following wrongful imprisonment, he’s now working hard to improve himself.
Did you always set out to write a sequel to One Night at the Jacaranda? And do you feel that with Hampstead Fever, your characters’ stories are now put to bed, or is there a third in the making?
I hadn’t anticipated a sequel while writing One Night at the Jacaranda, but many readers encouraged me to consider one. Some of them were very specific: “Let’s have more of Sanjay’s wonderful family.” And yes, there is a third book in the making.
I used to live in Marylebone and loved it and credit my Better Half for introducing me to the area long before it became cool and upmarket. What is it about Marylebone and Hampstead that made you decide to set your stories there?
Both areas are upmarket and symbolise a certain lifestyle which is useful in commercial fiction. Hamsptead, in particular, means subtly different things to each of my characters. For struggling journalist Harriet, Hampstead rents are almost unaffordable, and she certainly can’t shop at the boutiques on the high street. For chef Dan, the area is aspirational and it’s where he works – at a trendy new bistro in the heart of Hampstead Village. At 40, Laure is an anxious first-time mother without any support from extended family. For her, NW3 is rife with uber-competitive parents who make her feel even more inadequate.
How do you go about writing?
I’m not sure I go about it. It goes about me, I would say. I can’t help writing. This is as true now as it was over 20 years ago when I first started out in journalism.
What writers’ tics do you have?
I always begin with pencil and paper, even though I have yet to find exactly the right grade of pencil.
Bizarrely, after the birth of my third child I suffered from postpartum pre-eclampsia. In addition to your work for other charities (as patron for Lucy Air Ambulance for Children, and honorary consultant in family medicine for Tamba – the Twins and Multiple Births Association) what made you decide to raise awareness of pre-eclampsia?
As a GP I realise that a lot more could be done to detect pre-eclampsia and save lives. Every health professional who looks after pregnant women needs to know how to deal with the condition, but that just isn’t the case.
In 2001, I was invited to participate in drawing up guidelines for assessing women with pre-eclampsia, and more recently I was asked to be a trustee of the charity, APEC (Action on Pre-Eclampsia).
What did you love most about your time at Newnham?
It’s hard to single out just one aspect. Newnham taught me to question things, to get on with people, and to grow up. They were the most formative years of my life as well as some of the most enjoyable. Newnham made me what I am. Trite, but true.
In my first year, I had a large but dingy room in Sidgwick, so I got a pot of bright orange paint from Woolworths and painted the fireplace without seeking anyone’s permission. In my defence, orange was dead trendy at the time.
What springs to mind when you think of the following:
Your time at Newnham: Belonging.
One Night at the Jacaranda and Hampstead Fever: Yearning.
For more information on the charities Carol is involved in, click on the links below:
Action on Pre-Eclampsia – http://action-on-pre-eclampsia.org.uk/
Lucy Air Ambulance for Children – https://www.lucyaac.org.uk/
Twins and Multiple Births Association – https://www.tamba.org.uk/