British surgeon and memoirist Weston (Direct Red) makes her fiction debut with Dirty Work, a riveting portrait of Nancy Mullion, a young ob-gyn in the grips of a personal and professional crisis.
What compelled you to write this novel?
I wanted to give voice to certain shameful feelings that surgeons might have but feel they can’t talk about, and it got me thinking about certain things that women in particular find difficult to say in public. What would be the most untellable story I could put in the mouth of a female character? I was thinking, maybe she could be a prostitute... but that’s not really an untellable story, not to mention too titillating. Then I thought, what about a young woman who instead of having children was performing abortions? That would be almost untellable. And having found that idea I couldn’t leave it alone.
There are patients who have deeply affected Nancy, and yet she knows little about them. Have you experienced this in your medical career?
This is something I’ve really noticed since I’ve reduced my hours as a doctor. When I was working 100-plus hours a week, I found that really terrible things could happen in front of me and I was quite blunted. I work less now, and I seem to have a much greater ability to respond to how people are and to listen and allow people to better express themselves. I think those moments come out of my being a better doctor now than I was when I was younger. Also in middle age I’ve reinterpreted some of the experiences I had with patients. When you are a doctor, people talk to you in a way that is unusual, a bit like being a priest.
There are some realistic surgery scenes in the book. Did you have any trouble writing about so much blood?
In my life I’ve always sort of been rushing towards blood. I like writing about it. I try to write about it in a way that gets away from artifice and really recalls what blood looks like and feels like. It’s such a heightened experience, as a writer you don’t need to do anything to it. All you need to do is take a photograph of it with words, and that’s almost enough.
The material about abortion in the novel is carefully handled. Were you worried about how it would be received?
It was one of the major challenges of writing the book. I knew I couldn’t steer away from it, because the whole book is about saying things one can’t say. But I tried tons of different versions that didn’t work out at all, and I think I was writing scared. So I went off and sat down and just wrote out what I remembered from one of the abortions I had seen. I thought I would change it a great deal, but it actually stayed in mostly as I drafted it. Sometimes things that seem so difficult resolve simply. And I thought the idea of putting that portion in italics, sort of giving the reader an opt-out, protected me somehow. I could be very honest about what it was like but give someone the option of not reading it.