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Jane Shemilt: On an Idea Growing Over Time

Bestselling writer Jane Shemilt discusses her career change and the 40-year process of her new psychological thriller, The Patient.

While working full time as a physician, Jane Shemilt received an M.A. in creative writing. She was shortlisted for the Janklow and Nesbit award and the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for The Daughter, her first novel. She and her husband, a professor of neurosurgery, have five children and live in Bristol, England. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Jane Shemilt: On an Idea Growing Over Time

Jane Shemilt

In this post, Jane discusses her career change and the 40-year process of her new psychological thriller, The Patient.

Name: Jane Shemilt
Literary agent: Eve White
Book title: The Patient
Publisher: William Morrow
Release date: May 3, 2022
Genre/category: Psychological Thriller
Previous titles: The Daughter and The Playground
Elevator pitch for the book: The Patient is a novel of psychological suspense detailing the boundary-breaking love affair between a doctor and her patient—a disgrace and scandal that will have consequences no one could have predicted.

Jane Shemilt: On an Idea Growing Over Time

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What prompted you to write this book?

The Patient has been growing for a while. The idea for the male protagonist has been in my subconscious for years; I met a young patient as a medical student who was in the grip of a cannabis-induced psychosis. He was attractive and articulate and some of the symptoms he described were familiar to me.

As a hardworking, often sleep-deprived student I had at times felt manic, a known response to chronic sleeplessness. True psychosis is a serious and terrifying condition; I would never claim inside knowledge, but my experiences made me realize that we all share a baseline and how important it is to truly empathize with those who suffer from mental illness. So much stigma sadly is still attached to these desperately difficult conditions. Stories are, of course, a way to change hearts and minds, so this book has given me the chance to aim for that too.

The female protagonist is a mid-life GP; her life changes completely throughout the course of the novel, and she ends up somewhere very different, leading a life she could have only dreamt about before.

Second chances are also familiar to me; I was lucky enough to have the chance of a complete change in my own life too. While I adored the career of a family doctor, when space opened up as my children left home, the desire to explore my early love of writing grew stronger. After a diploma course in Creative Writing at Bristol University and then an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa, I wrote my debut The Daughter which became a bestseller. The fear and the exhilaration in following a dream later in life was something I wanted to share.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

That's a tricky one to answer, as ideas coalesce over time, sometimes over years. I met that young patient 40 years ago! I began to write the story while on a writing retreat in a Dorset farmhouse about six years ago, laying it aside to write two other novels in the meantime. Once I began in earnest, it probably took a year.

The central love story stayed the same, but the crime elements changed completely as did the criminal. It's surprising what changes in response to an evolving story, what feels organic and what’s simply superimposed. I also wanted to bring in Provence, wanting to share this incredible part of the world with readers who often tell me they love being taken to beautiful places in my books! I arranged a walking holiday there with my husband, and as we climbed the hills and walked through olive groves, the idea of the male protagonist’s beloved home took shape.

Jane Shemilt: On an Idea Growing Over Time

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Not really, things seemed to progress very smoothly. The edits were very clear and though I had to change one character substantially I saw that it made the story stronger and more believable which is, I have to admit, usually the way with edits. I have been thrilled with the way my editors have championed this book.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I was surprised how easy it was to go back in my mind to the place of my childhood which was where the protagonists both live. I used the houses of different friends as settings and although COVID prevented an actual visit, I could walk through the rooms and into the gardens as easily in my memory as in real life. I remembered everything with clarity—even the smell of the rooms, the layout of the kitchens and what grew in the gardens.

I was surprised, too, to find my memories of growing up opposite the iconic Salisbury Cathedral were mixed, it is undeniably a place of extraordinary beauty but when I reached back deeply enough, I remembered I had been disconcerted by those high stone walls and the sense of that great building dominating life. The Close in which we lived was incredibly privileged but claustrophobic and, again, delving back, I was surprised to find how much I'd wanted out.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

It is first and foremost a story. I hope they will be both absorbed and compelled to turn the pages. I hope too they will develop empathy for my main characters and for the dilemma in which Rachel, the GP, finds herself as she embarks on a forbidden affair.

I hope they will fall in love with the male protagonist too—seeing far beyond his mental disorder to the warmly attractive personality I hope I’ve portrayed. I hope they will enjoy the settings in Salisbury and Provence and that they will also realize that it’s never too late for second chances

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

Stay as close as you can to the emotional truth of your characters and never, ever give up.

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