Scots doctor turned author returns to long, dark nights on the ward

Former junior doctor turned writer Simon Stephenson has returned to long, dark nights on the ward for his latest novel, a literary thriller set around a failing hospital where more people are dying than they should be and where a Scots medic with an opioid issue finds himself at the centre of events.

It is, Stephenson stresses, a work of absolute fiction.

The author, who was raised in Edinburgh, attended medical school in Glasgow, and moved to London in the 90s where his career in medicine started to be overtaken by praise for his writing, now lives in LA, which has been home for nine years and where he works writing scripts for Pixar.

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On an early morning video call fresh from his first espresso, he talks about his love for living here. As a self-styled slightly melancholic, introspective Scot, the positivity of LA just makes him feel...good.

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Stephenson describes his new novel book Sometimes People Die as a literary thriller set in a hospital with the novel allowing him to return to old haunts and perhaps lay ghosts of a former career to rest.

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"I have always had some level of guilt about not being a doctor. I’ve got all the training and I think about all the people who graciously taught me,” Stephenson says.

"I suppose writing this book got me thinking again about medicine and what I left behind.

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Author and former doctor Simon Stephenson. PIC: Contributed.

"The book is an absolute work of fiction but the world it is set in, I know very well.”

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This is Stephenson’s third book. His first, a critically-acclaimed memoir, Let Not The Waves of the Sea, was written following the death of his brother, Dominic, who was killed in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. It was trauma that tested his eternal wrestle between being a doctor or a writer, and what really matters.

Stephenson was drawn into the medical world again as the pandemic unfolded. He volunteered to get his licence back through the General Medical Council but “the reality was no one wanted a doctor who had been out of practice for 10 years”.

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Instead, Sometimes People Die called.

“Writing the book definitely underscored the feelings of admiration I have for those in the NHS. I was thinking how tough the job was before the pandemic and I don’t even know if I would have been strong enough to work through it,” he says.

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Stephenson keeps his narrator anonymous, with the main character balancing the sweat-soaked dread of another run of nightshifts with the strains of an inner city hospital and his own past as an opioid fancier. When people start dying without explanation, the corridors become shadowy with suspicion and investigation.

For years, Stephenson switched between medicine and writing. Today at Pixar, his credits include Paddington 2 and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

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He says being a finalist in the Scotland on Sunday short story competition in 2001 helped shape his path, not least given the advice from judge, poet and novelist John Burnside, who told him “if you really want it, it’s there”.

It turns out he really wanted it, and it was there.

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Sometimes People Die will launch on September 2 at the Edinburgh Bookshop with the author appearing at the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling on September 16.

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