It is a pleasure to welcome Neela Janakiramanan to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews for A Tea Break with Mrs B, an author interview series. To help celebrate the release of The Registrar we sat down for a chat. Thanks Neela!
Hello Neela. It is my pleasure to welcome you to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews. I greatly appreciate the time you have provided to answer a few questions. To begin, what is your drink of choice as we sit down for a chat about your new book?
Definitely Earl Grey tea, preferably with a little shortbread.
How did you make the transition from a reconstructive plastic surgeon to a published author?
I was having a coffee with a journalist friend in 2017 and got a text message from my son’s GP practice, asking me to confirm an appointment for the following day. The thing was, I had never taken my son to the GP, and we had tried on multiple occasions to have my husband listed as the primary parent. This is no criticism of the GP practice, but just an example of how implicitly gender roles are reinforced in society. On a whim, having not written for years, I did, and she sent it to her editor at Women’s Agenda, and it kind of went everywhere.
Since that time, I’ve written small bits of commentary, often about gender or health equity. Having a day job allows me some privileges when it comes to writing – I don’t have to write every day and I’m not trying to earn an income from my writing, so generally I only write when I’m interested in something or moved to. Not everything I write sees the light of day! I’ve written and thrown out plenty, as I’m still very much learning the craft.
The novel arose from an almost overwhelming need to tell the story. I had just learned that a former colleague had died, and I sat down and wrote the first three chapters of a first draft that evening (two of those three were later cut, proving that writing is actually rewriting, repeatedly!)
Can you describe your new novel The Registrar in a sentence?
The Registrar is a novel about a workplace, but also a story of life, death and both being and treating the sick; it’s about the bad things that happen to people but also about the mad, ridiculous, hilarious things that happen in hospitals and of the friendship, camaraderie and connections that sustain and save us all.
What kick started the creation of your novel The Registrar?
One night, I was chatting with friends when, very casually, one of them mentioned the death of a close colleague. It had happened several years earlier, only six months after I had last worked with them, but I hadn’t heard about it as I was overseas at the time and had come home to work at another hospital. I had always assumed that this person who I had shared so much time and so many stories with was still alive and well, just working and living life somewhere else, and yet they had died of suicide, and I had not seen any signs.
This was not the first friend or colleague I had lost, but this was a particular kick in the guts. We had worked together just after we both finished our registrar years, and many of the stories we had shared was of that time. It made me think about how unprepared we had been for what was coming, and how important that six months of working together, debriefing, had been for me.
I wrote the start of the novel in sadness, but I wrote the rest in fury. There’s so much to love and hate within our hospitals, and yet what little storytelling there is always centres the male experience – whether on TV or in literature, the main characters are stereotypically old powerful brilliant men, even though over half of doctors and patients are women, and most nurses, allied health, and others are women too. Thinking back to my friend who died and my own experiences as a patient and parent of a patient, I really wanted to ensure that our stories, as women, whether as healthcar worker or patient, were told too.
What issues and topics do you explore in The Registrar?
The Registrar is a novel about hospitals but also about life. I consider the Australian/New Zealand health system and the challenges that the system faces and the impact on individuals, but also the lives of those who work within it. Emma is smart, ambitious and dedicated. She is not only a doctor, but also a wife, sister, aunt, daughter, sister-in-law and friend. I also spent a lot of time thinking about high pressure jobs and hierarchical workplaces affect lives and relationships, and lead to distress and burnout; but also why we stay in those roles, the everyday wins and the friendship that buoy us along.
How long did it take you to write The Registrar?
It was about four years from the first words being written to publication day. There was about eighteen months there where I really didn’t work on it at all as I was undertaking other pro-bono work. The first draft was about six months of work in total, but writing is re-writing, and the manuscript was redrafted multiple times to get it publication ready. Being shortlisted for a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for unpublished manuscript was really wonderful and helped this little story on it’s journey.
Did you find it challenging to capture the voice of your lead protagonist Emma Swann?
Emma’s voice was clear as day to me from the moment I put pen to paper. I never really understood other authors in the past when they said that aspects of their character’s personality reveal themselves over many drafts, but redrafting this was illuminating. Her character, personality traits, quirks all developed as time went on, but her voice was always very clear.
What is one thing you would like your audience to take away from the experience of reading The Registrar?
Truly, I hope that they enjoy reading it. A reviewer called it a ‘novel of social protest’ and that’s probably fair, but highlighting issues wasn’t really my intent in writing this book. Most people will interact with the health system, and I hope that readers get an insight into the place, environment and pressures, but also enjoy the adventures and misadventures.
How did you celebrate the release of The Registrar?
The Registrar came out in the school holidays, and what no one tells you is that just because it’s publication day doesn’t mean that boxes of books have arrived at the bookstore, or been unpacked and put on the shelf. I spent a week dragging my kids to various bookstores and skulking around to see if we could spot it. The book launch was the following week and that was a really wonderful celebration with literally hundreds of people spilling out of the store and onto the street.
How do you balance life with writing?
Poorly! I do have a busy day job and three kids and a crazy dog and a geriatric cat. I spend a lot of driving and house work time thinking, and write in a rush when I can.
What books are on your to-be-read pile?
I have a few books that I picked up on a recent trip to visit family in the US – Black Girls Must Die Exhausted by Jayne Allen, and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.
Of Australian books, I’m currently reading Every Version Of You by Grace Chan, a fellow doctor-writer, and I’m very excited for Desi Girls by Sarah Malik which just came out. I’m going to struggle not to let The Unbelieved by Vicki Petraitis push all these others out of the way, because I am a sucker for a fast-paced thriller!
What is next on the horizon for Neela Janakiramanan? Do you have any writing projects you would like to share with us?
I am currently working of two works, both in early stages. One is a bit more serious – a novel with themes of migration and aging and family. The other is a murder mystery – because are you even an author if you don’t write romance or murder at some point! We’ll see if either see the light of day.
Thank you for taking the time to visit Mrs B’s Book Reviews Neela and congratulations on the publication of The Registrar!
Sometimes in hospital people die – but not all of them should. A moving, addictive debut novel for readers of Going Under and Emotional Female.
‘Emma, you’ll be totally fine … If there’s ever a doctor who’s going to thrive in surgical training, I’m sure it’s you.’
Dedicated and ambitious, Emma Swann is about to start a gruelling year as a surgical registrar at the prestigious Mount teaching hospital. She’s excited to join her adored older brother Andy in pursuing the same career as their father, an eminent surgeon who made his name at The Mount.
But the pressure of living up to his distinguished reputation is nothing compared with the escalating stress Emma experiences as a registrar. It’s an arduous, unremitting slog of twenty-hour days, punishing schedules, life and death decisions – and very little assistance, instruction or support from her superiors, who waste no time pointing out just how superior they are. Amidst a background culture of humiliation and bullying, being a woman just makes things worse: misogyny is rife and Emma is subjected to other, more insidious, kinds of male attention.
As Emma battles overwork, exhaustion and increasing disillusion, she has less and less ability and time to care for her patients’ welfare, and that of herself and those she loves. Is it possible for her to be the doctor, wife, sister and friend she aspires to be in such a broken hospital system? Can she salvage her own life while she’s trying to save others? And how can she and her colleagues endure such impossible conditions without making fatal mistakes?
With the frenetic pace of a psychological thriller, The Registrar offers a rare insight into the world of a surgeon-in-the-making from one who has survived it. Told with compassion, skill and emotional heart, this gripping and moving novel goes behind the headlines to reveal the human experience of being both doctor and patient in a medical system at breaking point.
The Registrar by Neela Janakiramanan was published on 5th July 2022 by Allen and Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
Connect with Neela here: