Scottish-born physician Gavin Francis is the author of three books, including the recently released Sunday Times bestseller Adventures in Human Being. In 2013 Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, a personal account of Gavin's experience as on-base doctor at the British Antarctic Survey, was named Scottish Book of the Year.
Despite juggling a successful medical practice and writing career Gavin has still found the time to join The Warwick Prize for Writing judging panel. In our Q&A he talks to us about the theme of instinct, fellow physician-writers and his definition of writing excellence.
Q/ What makes a piece of writing stand out as a potential winner of the Warwick Prize for Writing?
Something written with love and determination, with breadth of vision as well as attention to detail. Something original, startling, that keeps you up reading all night. And in addition to all of that, it has to conform in some way to our theme.
Q/ The theme of this year’s prize is ‘instinct’, how have you seen this reflected in some of the longlisted titles?
In a variety of ways - 'instinct' comes from the Latin 'instinguere' - the same root as 'instigate'. It's about beginnings, as well as about the more usual sense of instinctive responses. Some of the titles examine the theme from the perspective of the animal world, some look at our own beginnings as human beings and how we become conditioned to our lives, while others are more concerned with instinct's sense of being about survival. Some look at the origins of the ways we think about the world.
Q/ What are some of the attributes of great writing? Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
The award is about rewarding great writing. When I read I want to be drawn into a story as well as have a writer transform the way I think about something. I want new perspectives, new tools for the mind, and new ideas. Just inhabiting someone's experience through fiction or poetry can do this just as effectively as the most erudite non-fiction - they're all about communicating something - preferably something beautiful.
Q/ Your book Adventures in Human Being was described by the Times as ‘a sober and beautiful book about the landscapes of the human body’. Does the process of writing itself change the way you understand a subject as complex as the human body?
It makes me far more aware of the narratives we adopt in order to live our lives, and the way we make sense of the world around us - whether we're 'ill' or not. I also have a tremendous sense of wonder at the intricacy and complexity of anatomy and physiology - writing about the body means that I have to think very carefully about ways of communicating that wonder.
Q/ There is a proud tradition of physician-writers, from John Keats and Arthur Conan Doyle to Alexander McCall Smith. Does the practice of medicine, rooted as it in observation and analysis, lend itself to producing great writers?
There's a PhD thesis in there for somebody - I do think that working as a physician immerses you in the reality of human lives, both glorious and inglorious, in a way that few other professions do. Doctors are generally highly trained, highly educated, but their vocation means that they're working with people from every sector of society. It's not possible to sequester yourself away in an ivory tower. At the same time the act of diagnosis, and even of formulating a therapeutic plan, require you to understand the importance of meaning and of stories to the way people make sense of their lives.