White Coats, White Slips

Little White SlipsThere are some authors at whose sheer, unrivalled way with words you marvel. Then there are some at whose ability to both craft works of art with words while accomplishing other, on-their-own-incredible feats. Debut author Karen Hitchcock falls into the latter camp, having not only wowed us with her collection of short stories published in book form, but having done so while being a doctor, a triathlete, and a mother to four-year-old twins. I know. Part of you wants to know how she does it. Part of you wants to hate her.

I first heard about Hitchcock when she was interviewed by ABC Radio’s brilliant, brilliant Richard Fidler, and what struck me first and most was how unbelievably funny she was. Hitchcock has that inherent ability to tell a story in a gripping, perfectly timed and perfectly pitched manner. She was absolutely p*&s funny. And wild. Which kind of seemed at odds with how you expect doctors to be.

Hearing her back story I realised that she’s not your average doctor—she almost failed her HSC, ran away to America for a year for an ill-fated, short-lived marriage that saw them both working in a fruit shop for $4 an hour, returned to complete an arts degree, and landed in medicine only because Newcastle uni adopted a novel recruitment style. They opened the course up to students from non-scientific backgrounds, reasoning that science and medicine could be taught, but good communication skills and bedside manner not so much.

It’s taken me almost six months to finally get around to reading Hitchcock’s book, Little White Slips, for the most part because my backlog of to-be-read books is multiplying like rabbits and the read pile seems, contrary to logic, to be dwindling (that or I’m getting old because the only book I can ever recall reading is the one I’m currently on—every other book goes into a blank, forgotten-book abyss the moment anyone asks me what I’ve read ‘lately’).

There was also, I have to admit, a slight reluctance to crack the spine lest I be made to feel even worse about myself as a writer. You know, I struggle to commit anything coherent or witty to a page and here Hitchcock is doing it while working as a doctor, while being married and raising young twins, while training for triathlons. Oh, and while she completed a PhD in creative writing. Yep, some of these short stories were completed as part of a doctorate that now makes her a doctor doctor.

But I kept thinking about how funny she was during the Richard Fidler interview and figured I needed to get over myself. Ironically, a recurring theme throughout Hitchcock’s book is women’s insecurity with their bodies and their competition with each other.

Told from a female, omniscient-narrator perspective, Hitchcock’s stories examine the marriage problems, frenemy-style undercurrents to women’s friendships, and the stresses of work, family, and weight. She peppers some of the stories with medical references, and I have to say that these stories were by far my favourites. Her opening story, in particular, which is about studying for a specialty, the craziness of the study regime, and the distractions of an oh-so-tempting, unmarried study partner, sets the story bar high.

I don’t think the rest of the stories live up to quite the same standard, but I was still sufficiently impressed with the others to read all the way to the end of them and then the book. I kept thinking that I’d like to see her extend some of the stories into long-form pieces, and Google tells me that she signed a two-book deal with Picador, the second of which is a novel and which she’s working on now. If it’s a long-form version that’s of the ilk of her first story, sign me up to read it.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.