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Working with Words: Susan Hurley

Read Sunday, 5 May 2019

Susan Hurley is a Melbourne-based novelist and medical researcher. She spoke with us about her biotech background and favourite fountain pens, and discussed the authors whose work inspires her.

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What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

Photograph of author Susan Hurley

I was a big Charles Dickens fan when I was young, so it was probably Oliver Twist, and I would have been crying. Reading about such cruel treatment of a young boy – who wouldn’t cry?

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

Friends tell me I wrote short stories, and I may also have written cringeworthy ‘Dear Diary’ entries, but they’ve all been moved to the trash folder of my brain, where they belong.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I confided in a research colleague that I’d started writing a novel … Perversely, I found his lack of encouragement motivating.

I worked as a hospital pharmacist in the days when all pharmacists compounded medicines. After I did my PhD, I worked in medical research investigating subjects like asthma, HIV/AIDS, mammographic screening, vaccines and smoking cessation programmess. My main area has been cost-effectiveness analysis: looking at the short- and long-term costs and effectiveness of medicines and public health programmess. I also did a stint in business development for a pharmaceutical company, in-licensing medicines for Australian use.

Cover image of 'Eight Lives' by Susan Hurley

So, I’ve seen a lot and it all underpins my writing. The settings for my debut novel, Eight Lives  – a hospital, a medical research institute and a biotech company – correspond to workplaces I’m familiar with. Eight Lives has its origins in a catastrophic trial of a drug that acts on the immune system, so I had to understand some immunology to develop the plot (it’s a mystery/thriller). My research skills helped enormously.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

That’s really hard to imagine. I like sketching, hiking and travelling, and I try to combine all three. Maybe I’d do more of that.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I confided in a research colleague that I’d started writing a novel. He was extremely skeptical that anyone could make the switch from what we did to writing fiction. Perversely, I found his lack of encouragement motivating.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now? 

I keep a journal, but it’s not in the ‘Dear Diary’ genre (see above). I give myself a prompt like ‘here I am in the here and now’ and write a few pages about where I am and what I’ve seen or done, or read. Sometimes I do a pen and ink drawing as well, and sometimes I add watercolour. It’s like an illustrated travel diary, even though I’m not necessarily travelling.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

I’m going to mash up my answer here and nominate Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. It’s the story of Susan Ward and her husband Oliver, as told by their grandson Lyman, a historian. In the 1880s, Susan and Oliver leave the cultured east coast of America for the wild west. It’s the story of the American frontier, Susan’s thwarted ambitions, and also Lyman’s life. A lonely, disabled man, he’s at war with his son and struggles to understand his grandmother though her letters. In other words, it’s a timeless multi-generational saga of a troubled family who somehow manage to survive.

Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, so it’s not underrated. And I love it, so I don’t believe it’s overrated. But it’s not widely known here in Australia, so I’m putting it in the unsung gem category.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I write my journal and first drafts with a fountain pen. I have a collection of them, many purchased from Goulet Pens in the US. (I have to give a shout out to Brian Goulet, the King of Pens, who does amazing videos about the products he sells.) The Lamy Joy pen is my favourite. I have a collection of inks too. The De Atramentis document ink in black is my go-to.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

When I was in high school, I wrote an essay for English class arguing that because men dominate the political, professional and business worlds, they must be genetically superior to women. What can I say?  I was 13 or 14 at the time and had a lot to learn.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

Ian McEwan, because I love his work. I’ve read that he’s a keen hiker, so I like to think we’d talk about hikes we’ve each done, then segue to discussing how he translates his extensive research into novels. I’m thinking especially of Saturday, where the protagonist is a neurosurgeon. 

Eight Lives was published by Affirm Press is March 2019. 

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