Adam Kay: 'We're all obsessed about peeking under the hood of interesting lives'
- Katharine Gemmell
- 9 April 2018
Ahead of his appearance at the London Book Fair, the doctor-turned-comedian talks about why memoirs matter
The London Book Fair 2018 kicks off this week with 25,000 publishing professionals about to descend on Olympia London for a jam-packed three days of everything literary. As expected the festival has secured a plethora of big-name authors to take part and discuss their work and issues in the industry. Ahead of the festival we spoke to Adam Kay: ex-doctor, comedian and best-selling author of This is Going to Hurt: Memoirs of a Junior Doctor. He'll be leading a session alongside publishers Pan Macmillan about the recent surge in popularity of memoirs by normal people.
At the London Book Fair you'll discuss the subject 'Memoirs that Matter' and the growing trend for memoirs written by ordinary people. Why do you think audiences seem to have shifted their interest from the past trend of celebrity memoirs to those of normal people?
I think the honest truth is that just because you're a celebrity you haven't necessarily led a particularly exciting life and, more importantly, you (or your ghost writer) can't necessarily write about it in a captivating way. Conversely, just because you're not a celebrity, doesn't mean you can't write a phenomenal book about your life as a fireman or a farmer or a pharmacist. We're all obsessed about peeking under the hood of interesting lives.
Your memoir is based on your diary as a junior doctor. Was it a cathartic process or was it initially just a way to look back?
As a doctor you're obliged to keep certain records – not just in the patients' notes, but also what's known as reflective practice – looking back on any clinical episodes you can learn from. This morphed into me nipping up to my hospital on-call room and jotting down anything funny, strange or interesting that happened to me. A bit like a medical Anne Frank (only with worse accommodation). The nature of medicine is that more bad things happen than good, and it's certainly helpful to look for the glints of light amongst the dark.
What does it take to write a memoir and get it published?
These days, the major UK publishing houses only accept submissions from literary agents rather than authors, so the first step is to find yourself an agent who wants to share what you have to say with the world. Unless you're a Formula 1 driver or currently presenting a daytime chat show, this probably involves writing your memoir in full first before shopping it around (the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook is a brilliant resource for finding you the right agent). Self-publishing as an e-book is an option too if you just want to get your words read, but obviously this won't result in your book appearing on the shelves of Smiths or Waterstones. There's also a new breed of publishing house, with the big players including Unbound and Red Door Publishing who steer a course somewhere between these two models, and I can only see them getting bigger in the future.
Whose memoirs have you read that really left an impact on you?
I read Cathy Rentzenbrink's book The Last Act of Love two years ago, and still barely a week goes by when I don't think about it. It's the simultaneously heart-wrenchingly sad and strangely uplifting story about her teenage brother's accident, the subsequent decade he spent in a vegetative state and the impossible decision about whether or not to withdraw his life support. I defy any reader not to finish it in a matter of days and not to be profoundly affected by it.
Your memoir came off the back of your stand-up show. How did you find the process of turning stand-up material into a written narrative?
Both my stand-up show and book came from the same source material – a filing cabinet full of old scraps of paper. The big challenge in turning this into a book was ensuring I chose the right mix of diary entries to accurately reflect life as a junior doctor. The funny vs the sad, the high-octane vs the petty bureaucracies, the emotions of labour ward vs the endless objects stuck in orifices. I was lucky that my story already had a clear narrative arc to it – the impact of 100-hour weeks on my life both at home and at work, and how one terrible day it all became too much. (Sorry for the spoiler, but you watched Titanic knowing how that would pan out.)
There seem to be quite a few comedians that have made the crossover from hospital to stand-up — why do you think that is?
There's certainly a long line of medics in comedy from Jonathan Miller to Lee Nelson via Graham Chapman and Harry Hill. This likely stems from the tradition of gallows humour as a coping mechanism to counter the sad stuff and the bad stuff doctors encounter on a daily basis. Both jobs are stressful in their own ways and with fairly unenviable hours, but the stakes are obviously much lower in comedy: if you have a bad day at work no-one dies.
The London Book Fair runs from the Tue 10—Thurs 12 Apr at Olympia London and Memoirs That Matter: Adam Kay This is Going to Hurt takes place on Weds 11 Apr.