Heartfelt humour from nurse novelist

1 April 2010

You need a sense of humour to be a nurse, says Michelle Holman. But not many write for laughs. Fiona Cassie talks to Holman – a published Kiwi romantic comedy novelist and nurse

Michelle Holman says there’s a lot of herself in her latest heroine.

So has she ever threatened to defibrillate an unruly patient’s testicles?

“No,” she laughs down the phoneline. “But I can’t say I haven’t been tempted at times.”

Nor has she ever hijacked a truck blocking the ambulance bay. Or had witty repartee while giving a bed bath to a hunky American with more than a passing resemblance to George Clooney.

But her character Danny has – the quick-witted ED nurse in Holman’s ‘chick lit, rom-com’ novel Knotted which made it to number one in the New Zealand fiction lists this summer.

It is Holman’s third Kiwi best-seller – which provides kudos but not enough money to give up her day job of managing youth health projects in her home region of Waikato.

Holman says she has always been a writer – hopping out the window at Intermediate to write stories whenever the teacher left the room. But she fell into nursing training after arriving in the UK at age 17 from West Auckland not sure what to do next.

“I can’t say I felt a great vocation,” recalls Holman and quips she tended to work with unconscious people.

But jokes aside she says “once a nurse always a nurse”. On graduating from Redbridge on the outskirts of London she nursed in intensive care and  neonatal intensive care in the UK for a number of years before returning to work in Starship, and then about seven years in ED at North Shore Hospital while her children were little.

So while she is a novelist at night (writing under her maiden name of Holman), her first priority is her day-time job of managing a project bringing GPs and nurses into secondary schools. She is passionate about youth – a much maligned group she believes we should be proud of as the “smart”, “switched-on”, real delight that they are. And of course she still keeps up her practising certificate.

The nurse is just always present. So while the novelist in her fills in time in the supermarket queue noting how people dress and act, the nurse in her checks out veins. “I think ‘that would be a great one to cannulate’!”

Nursing is also a good novelist’s apprenticeship for getting to know how people tick. “You see people at their very best and their very lowest... people facing heartache and distress.”

While nursing gave her an insight into humanity, she believes it was becoming a mother that really taught her compassion. “I used to see everything far more in black and white... but having children adds another layer... and I looked at people and thought ‘God I used to be hard on you’.”

And of course the other side of tragedy is comedy  – and Holman says it’s the human condition that in hard times humour just pops up.  “You have to have a sense of humour to be a nurse,” says Holman.

More than humour pops up when Danny her heroine gives the ill hero a bed bath in her spare bedroom. The bed bath technique is pure nursing, the raised sheets pure fiction. Holman laughs and says such uprisings weren’t an issue with her often unconscious patients. She also adds she never had a patient that looked like hero Ross – a tempestuous George Clooney look-alike, multi-millionaire novelist.

Nursing and motherhood are also good time management training for squeezing writing in between shifts and kids. Holman says she never lacked ideas, just time to write and – more importantly – finish the half-dozen or so novels she’s begun. The shift to the Waikato and a supportive husband and children (a son now 15 and daughter 12) meant her New Year’s resolution for 2006 was to finish a book and send it away to a publisher.

In October that year she sent off the first three chapters of Bonkers and a week later, to her delighted surprise and panic, the publishers HarperCollins wrote back wanting to see the rest. Only problem was that the last quarter or so was still in her head. But fed on chocolate biscuits from her daughter, hot drinks from her son and meals from her husband, she did manage to finish the novel in a week by writing every hour free from work or sleep.

Bonkers hit the shelves on December 1 2007, her second book Divine in 2008 and Knotted – starring Danny the hard case ED nurse – came out late last year. With the publisher receiving 700 unsolicited manuscripts a year, she is still not totally over the shock she’s a published writer, let alone she’s now getting fan emails from Germany after Bonkers was translated.

She has yet to come across another nurse-turned published novelist but says to be good at either profession you require a good imagination.

The best nurses, the ones she’d like looking after her loved ones, are those who can imagine themselves in their patients’ shoes, at least a bit, believes Holman.

Nurses are definitely amongst her readers, as they come up to her after book readings or writers’ panels to say, “I knew you had to be a nurse because…” and go on to talk about how accurate her descriptions were of bedside care or breast reconstruction.

But one of her proudest bits of fan feedback came from a non-nurse over the frozen food section of her local supermarket. She was picking frozen peas when a male voice from the frozen turkey side asked: “Are you that writer Michelle Holman?” Holman gave him a quick glance, trying to decide whether he was friendly or not, “because if it wasn’t he had turkeys on his side and I only had peas”. But he went on to say, “my wife didn’t cook dinner all weekend because she was reading your book”. She still glows warmly at the memory.

Another fan is her husband Les, who took Knotted away on a work trip for a fortnight and said heroine Danny was so like her that it was “like having you with me”. He even laughed so much on a plane that his traveling companion demanded to know what he was reading and, intrigued by the answer, asked to read the first chapter and left the plane saying she was off to buy the book.

Holman acknowledges that she is probably more like Danny than any of her heroines to date.

Not only is Danny a nurse but she has short spiky hair, a boyish... well, okay, flat-chested figure and “I’ve got a really fast mouth”.

Her novels tend to mine that sense of humour – her first was about a woman awakening from a life-threatening accident to find herself in another – and more shapely – woman’s body; the second about a Remuera-type housewife who escapes to the countryside and a career in phone sex after her husband decides to become a woman; and the third about the acid-witted Danny dueling with an American brother-in-law over the custody of their orphaned nephew and niece.

The genre is firmly give people a laugh, some down-to-earth Kiwi settings, a bit of sex, a lot of anticipation, a few twists, a few tears and a happy ending.

These are no sappy doctor-nurse romances – a good laugh is as important as a good love interest but she believes there’s also room for serious issues like sex changes and breast cancer.

Danny’s twin sister and mother both die of breast cancer and Holman believes a romance novel shouldn’t steer away from bad news or the chance to slip in health promotion without “hammering people” with it.

Holman’s upcoming book takes on family violence and has a policewoman heroine who works in an Auckland family violence unit. As an ED nurse she says it took her some time to click at how good victims were at hiding the violence and that some “caring” men kept close to ensure the woman kept quiet.

So real life is not ignored... but there will always be laughs, a little sex and a happy ending in her novels as that she what she and her readers want to read.

And this nurse-turned-novelist says she is far from short of ideas and after the Auckland novel she has her eyes set on Central Otago and the novel sport of cherry stone spitting. “I’ve probably got another ten books in me easy…”

Published for the first time at 45 years’ old, Holman’s advice to others is that it’s never too late to try and fulfil your dreams. And if you want it enough – “I couldn’t not write” – don’t give up, as the best things never come easily.