The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
My guest today is Rod Griffiths, retired Professor of Public Health at the University of Birmingham, founder of the Black Pear Press and author of three novels and numerous short stories. Rod and I belong to the same writing group in Cheltenham
EJ Do you think of yourself primarily as a writer or a retired Professor?
RG I think of myself as me. I’ve never been particularly interested in titles or roles as a form of self identification. Roles can be important in particular contexts, for example when I was a professor I had no problem embracing the role in an academic context, but I’m not sure it means very much outside the job to which I was appointed. A committee made me a professor— in fact the interview for that job was one of the most intense experiences of my life— a panel of about a dozen senior professors. About half way through I remember thinking “These guys are good.” There was one tough question after another and none of them were the kind of thing where there was an obvious right or wrong answer— everything required balance and compromise, there were no right answers; what they were assessing, I think, was judgement.
Identifying as a writer was more difficult in some ways because there was no appointment committee, no independent authority. I decided that I would call myself a writer when I had written my second book on the simplistic grounds that I’ve often been told that everyone has a book in them, but I’ve never been told that everyone has two books in them.
EJ Tell us about your medical career?
RG It was a long and varied career but I’ll try to summarise it as best I can.
At medical school I gained a first class honours BSc in Anatomy and won the neurology prize in my final year. At the time I thought I wanted to be a brain surgeon, so I did my first junior doctor job in Neurosurgery, followed by General Medicine.
I realised I was more interested in prevention than trying to patch things up after the damage was done, so initially I moved to a research lectureship, working on bones and joints. Among the more interesting pieces of work was a programme with some physicists where we fired neutrons at bones in order to see the structure inside.
In 1974 I was appointed to a Community Health Council— a local body responsible for representing patients within the NHS (abandoned later in one of the NHS reorganisations.) That taught me that research work was a very narrow way of preventing disease. There are many instances where a good deal is known but not well applied. I decided I could make a bigger contribution if I moved into Public Health.
I also worked part time in General Practice— evenings and Saturday mornings and some time on call, which kept my hand in and made up for the poor pay in academic jobs.
Eventually I was elected vice chair of the Community Health Council for two years and later chair for two years of the national association which gave me experience of politics and the senior civil service.
My first job in Public Health was as a lecturer, during which I passed the relevant professional exams, after which I was appointed Director of Public Health in Central Birmingham in 1982. In 1990 I was appointed Professor of Public Health at the University of Birmingham, which carried a part time role as deputy director of Public Health at the Regional Health Authority.
In 1993 there were major changes at the Regional Health Authority through which most of the senior management retired. As a consequence I became Regional Director of Public Health for the West Midlands. The first annual report that I wrote won the national prize for such documents— after that I became a judge, so wasn’t able to compete again.
I did that job until 2004 and for several years was also deputy chief executive of the Regional Health Authority. I am most proud of the work we did to reorganise the way heart attacks were treated. The sooner an attack is treated the greater the chance of survival and the less damage done. The problem is to make sure that GPs, the ambulance service, A&E departments and Cardiology all work together to whizz the patient through. We radically reduced the time between the patient first feeling pain and the point where clot dissolving drugs were given. That was improved again when catheter services became widespread and the clot could be removed by operating inside the artery by wire. We were the first region to manage a comprehensive system and I was honoured to receive a CBE for this work.
At my time at the Regional Health Authority we lived through a number of reorganisations. When I first worked there we had a staff of over 1000, later cut to less than 150 and later still the organisation was dismantled. Public Health within the region was moved into the civil service and as a result in 1996 I became a grade three civil servant.
In 2004 I was elected President of The Faculty of Public Health of the Royal Colleges of Physicians, which meant that I had to retire from the civil service. In my three years in office I was able to reorganise training in Public Health so that anyone who passed the exams could join the profession— previously it had been restricted to medical doctors, ignoring the contribution from the wide range of scientists in the field. The profession had been discussing this for a decade, but I got it done.
During this time and for several years after I retired I chaired a national committee that funded services for patients with very rare diseases (i.e. less than 500 patients across the UK). That was fascinating because there were six other college presidents on the committee as well as other experts and the diseases we dealt with were so rare that most doctors had never heard of them. In many cases there were only one or two specialist centres in the country able to treat these diseases and part of the job of the committee was to sign off these centres as competent. When I started the budget was quite inadequate because the conditions were so rare and the drugs needed were often very expensive. I managed over six years to get the budget increased by almost £20 million.
EJ Do you think this is a good preparation for being a writer?
RG For someone like me who always enjoyed being a generalist I think Public Health was a good background. The specialty involves trying to imagine ways in which the future might be different— whether good or bad— and trying to persuade the public to do the right thing in order for things to turn out well. Writing fiction has a lot of similarities— invent a future and try to convince the reader that it could be real.
EJ Does your inspiration come largely from your professional career?
RG I distrust the term ‘inspiration’. I think it was Chuck Close who said:-
“Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.”
I often write to prompts in the writing groups I belong to; often the best thing to do is simply start writing and as the words come onto the paper things begin to emerge. Five years ago I used to wait for inspiration but then I decided that for every prompt I would work at it for at least half an hour before I gave up.
I ask myself questions like— does this prompt relate to the beginning of the story or the end or the middle. How could it be reinterpreted, or misunderstood. Where might the story be set. Is the protagonist old or young, male of female, rich or poor, timid or adventurous— the possible questions are endless but all I need is the first few words and then things start to flow. Very often I will go back and change the order or delete the beginning. The important thing is to get some words on paper— you can’t edit or improve a blank page.
EJ I believe you have also studied creative writing. Is this something which can be taught or is it more a matter of talent??
RG One of the leading schools of Creative Writing says on their web page that it can’t be taught, but it can be developed— a subtle distinction but probably true. Writing can be frustrating and disheartening if people don’t like what you produce. It is the sort of thing that you have to want to do, almost feel compelled to do.
Technical or non fiction writing can probably can be taught because there are rules to follow. Creative writing means taking risks.
If you look at styles over the last 100 years it is quite clear that there is no “One Right Way,” which suggests that it could be difficult to teach, but if someone has the drive to do it then I have no doubt that their writing can be developed and made better with the help of others.
EJ When did you start to write?
RG I started my first novel when I was at school. I was good at English, despite probably being dyslexic. I had great difficulty with languages. In the fifth form, the year before ‘O’ level, I came top of the class overall while being bottom of the class in French, Latin and German. In the second year at senior school I had an English teacher who encouraged my writing. My recollection was that I got around 90% for all my compositions that year. That kind of encouragement casts a long shadow.
Through university and until around 1982 I wrote mostly poetry and academic papers. That year my first wife left, leaving me with three children aged 3, 6 and 12 to bring up and I gained my first senior job in the NHS. It always felt as though my wife took the poetry with her. A more rational explanation might be that I was simply too busy— being a single parent and doing and doing a board level job working for Edwina Curry filled every spare minute.
It did often occur to me over the next 20 years in Public Health that many of the things I was involved in would make good material for thrillers. My first completed novel— which is still sitting in my computer unseen by the public— was a fictionalised version of a major emergency episode that I had to manage.
I wrote most of the first draft on a skiing holiday. Lois, my second wife, thought I’d been working too hard and needed a break so arranged for me to have a week in the Alps. That week over a metre of snow fell, wet snow accompanied by fog so that for two days it was impossible to go out. Snowed in, with a laptop and not much else and no idea how to go about writing a novel, I wrote the bits that were clearest in my mind, ending up with over 40,000 words by the end of the week. When I got home I got up 45 minutes early for the next three months and filled in the missing parts, averaging about three or four hundred words each morning.
The book ended up being partly a memoire, partly a novel and partly a textbook. I still think there is a place for a narrative textbook as a way of engaging students with real life problems, but literary agents are not ready for that kind of thing as several made clear over the subsequent months.
The important thing for me was that it got me hooked on writing fiction. From there onwards I read widely about writing, went on a few short courses and wrote two more novels. After I retired and moved to Cheltenham I enrolled for the University of Gloucestershire Creative Writing MA, completing that with a merit in 2015. That course allowed me to test what I had learned so far and try out a lot of things that I would never have risked outside a supportive critical environment.
I did have an agent for a short while but came to the conclusion that I was not a commercial prospect in the eyes of the current publishing culture because I was already into my mid-sixties and therefore unlikely to make a lot of money for an agent or publisher before I died. That sounds cynical, but I think it is realistic. At the same time I enjoyed writing and did not want to stop. When I read short stories at spoken word events I was often asked if I had published any of my short stories.
I investigated self publishing and found that it was easy to do. After my first book sold 500 copies I stopped counting and realised that I was more interested in writing more books than trying to sell more of the first one. Since then I have published two more novels and a collection of short stories. Several more books are getting close to completion.
EJ I believe you also run a small publishing company, Black Pear Press. How did this come about?
RG Four years ago, about the time I began the MA, after many conversations with two friends from Worcestershire Writers Circle we came to the conclusion that we knew a number of people who wrote well, but for various reasons had not got into publishing their work. My two friends and I all had experience of self publishing. We spend some time considering the options and eventually decided to set up a company to pool our experience and offer our services to other writers that we knew wanted to publish. We put up our own capital and determined that we would not charge our authors for our services. We offered a simple contract based on a template from the Society of Authors.
EJ What sort of work do you publish?
RG So far we have published over 40 books. They include collections of short stories by individual authors, collections of poetry by individual poets, fiction novels and anthologies of entries from literary festival competitions and our own Black Pear competitions.
EJ Where are your main outlets?
RG We sell books through launch events, on Amazon and through wholesale distribution channels. It is inevitable that as a small publisher we rely on our authors to promote their own books. The majority of books are available as ebooks and paperbacks. After the initial print we usually use print on demand but some novels have been reprinted when the initial print has sold out.
EJ Have you any work in progress?
RG I usually have one or two novels in progress at any given time. I find it best to put a draft away for a while and work on another book so that I can come back to edit and revise with a fresh mind. Of course that may be an excuse for being more interested in writing that anything else.
EJ Where can we find out more about you and your work?
RG The simplest thing is to look at http://www.Blackpear.net
I have three novels on Amazon and one collection of short stories;
Aimless Fear:- https://amzn.to/2TymMQw
Side Effect:- https://amzn.to/2Qbf7ZM
Triple Trouble:- https://amzn.to/2Sacrcb
The Not So Stories:- https://amzn.to/2Qb6j62
EJ Thank you, Rod. You are a great inspiration for all of us.