21 October 2016 – Doctor Quentin Smith, Saint Andrew’s Head Boy in 1982, travelled from England to Bloemfontein to serve as guest speaker at the school’s recent Speech Day. A successful anaesthetist, he has also become a successful writer of fiction after taking on that challenge later in life.
He has thus far released three books – The Secret Anatomy of Candles, Huber’s Tattoo and 16mm of Innocence. The latter two were both named finalists for the People’s Book Prize and recently, in August, it was announced that an American publisher will release his latest book, Sweet Bergamasque.
Quentin Smith, Saints’ Head Boy in 1982, has carved out a successful career as an anaesthetist and author of fiction
Addressing the recognition he has received for his writing, he said: “It was really nice to be nominated. It was a real surprise to see how many people were prepared to vote. That was really nice, because those are the people who have read or know of your work. It was very strange for me, because the world I live in doesn’t work around things like that. You don’t have awards evenings or get recognition for what you have done. It just goes on. It was very different.”
It was a long, challenging road to getting his first book published, and all the while he continued his day-to-day work as an anaesthetist at the highly-regarded Sunderland Eye Infirmary.
Making time between dealing with patients, editing an anaesthesia journal for five years and taking writing courses all formed part of Smith’s path to success, but it took a lot of discipline and a five and 10-year plan.
“I owe my family a lot”
“It was hard. I owe my family a lot,” he said. “It was nights really. I did work during the day. I am a bit of a night owl as it is, so I very easily go to bed late. I don’t easily go to bed early.
“Working at night, there’s no TV, no things like that. I come home, we do our evening meal and sort things out. My son was a bit younger then, so he was going to bed early, so that helped. Then I would have the night to myself, three or four hours of ‘me-time’ to do the work, also working on weekends.
“It was hard, though. Looking back, it must have been particularly hard for them. I am fortunate that they gave me the space to do it.”
After three successful books, there is some demand for more from publishers, “But I am not JK Rowling or Wilbur Smith. I would like to be,” he laughed. The truth of the matter, though, is that he will remain a medical professional first and foremost.
History and medicine
Smith’s knowledge of medicine is often featured in his books. He shared: “When you stray away from what you know, it is hazardous, because you are into unknown territory. It is much easier to write about things you know or things you are interested in. There is always a little bit of medicine somewhere in what I write and I really like history.
“I like European history, particularly in the 20th century, so the First World War, Second World War, that area. I have read a lot of books along those lines, so I have a fair idea of areas of interest potentially.
“You do have to do more research. Thank God for the Internet! You can do it anywhere, any time, on the hoof.
“I would find interesting articles. If I had to go to a meeting in London, I would be on a train for three hours, so I would print off a whole lot of articles and take them with me and highlight things. While you are doing this, your mind is churning and you’re thinking of how something would fit in.”
Little black book
Smith has a little black book in which he jots down ideas, some of which become something more, even many years later.
Once he starts exploring an idea or ideas, a lot more work has to be done. “You need to have all your characters and all their conflicts and sub-plots. You need a lot more than just an idea,” he explained.
“If it all coalesces into something, it usually takes a few years. Some of the ideas I’ve had I had written down ages ago and been transformed a bit, but the central idea’s been there for a long time. It gradually moves into something, grows into something and then I will start going to do a bit of research…”
In the beginning…
As a young boy, Smith said he read and wrote a lot, with an aunt who was a journalist and writer, taking him under her wing. “I remember going to their house and sitting in this quite austere dining room. I used to go and sit in there with her and she would go through my stories with me,” he recalled.
Later, he considered studying journalism. “Mrs Cranke was my English teacher [at Saints], and then she retired and Mrs Gower came along, and I remember them well and they were influential.
“I enjoyed English. I enjoyed what we did. I don’t think I was the best English student in the class. There were one or two other boys who were better than me at English. But I still really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. Then I went to Medical School and it all came crashing to a halt and I was doing other things.” Fortunately, he was later able to revive his dream.
National essay competition winner
While at Saint Andrew’s, Smith won a national essay competition – “something about clouds and aeroplanes, but I can’t remember” – and his reward included a supply of cold drinks from Coca-Cola for a year.
“Every week, we would get a wooden case with about a dozen of those returnable bottles, all different flavours. I was very popular in the house. I was the most popular sibling in the house at that point in time,” he smiled.
“That’s the dream you have in your head”
Now, his writing provides him with a lot of pleasure again, especially when he sees his books on bookshelves, he admitted. “It is wonderful. That’s the dream you have in your head. Going to a book shop and seeing your book on the shelf still gives me a bit of a thrill. You think ‘they’ve actually got my book, I can’t believe it’.”
Online reviews, though, can have a sobering effect, because nobodies’ books are universally liked, he added.
His favourite authors include Sebastian Faulks, the author of, among others, Charlotte Grey and Birdsong, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from when he was much younger, a number of European authors who have been translated into English, Patricia Cornwall and Kathy Reichs.
Asked for a book recommendation, he selected Faulks’ Charlotte Grey, a book set in France during the Second World War, which was made into a movie starring Cate Blanchett.