Writing fiction enlarged the scope of my thinking” – Penelope Todd
Penelope Todd is a novelist, editor and publisher. She trained as a nurse, and practised for almost 20 years in hospitals, GP surgeries and a hospice. Her powerful novel, Island, draws inspiration from her nursing experience, and from a real-life quarantine hospital on an island near her home in Dunedin, New Zealand. About making the transition from nurse to novelist, Penelope says:
I went into nursing keen to make some sort of practical difference in the world. I was young, idealistic and somewhat blinkered by my ideals. I’m glad now of the exposure to such a variety of people and to the suffering of others, which doubtless lifted the lid on my insularity. It didn’t occur to me to write (besides in letters and journals, which I’ve done since childhood) until I had three young children, and found myself exhilarated by the act of writing a short story for a competition deadline. This galvanising activity seemed suddenly necessary, and I was to learn in due course just where that vital current could lead someone willing to follow it.”
Kamau Taurua in the Otago Harbour, Dunedin, New Zealand, is commonly known as Quarantine Island, due to its role from 1883-1924 as quarantine station for immigrants with infectious diseases. In her novel, Island, Todd creates the closed world of a similar quarantine station on a similar island. It is the nineteenth century. Sailing vessels drop anchor after months at sea. One terrible day, a ship pulls into port carrying an outbreak of diphtheria. Liesel, a young and inexperienced nurse, must pitch in to treat an influx of desperately ill patients:
For protection, she, like all the nurses, wore a cotton mask over nose and mouth, but otherwise there was nothing for it but to muck in, stripping off filthy clothes, replacing them after a hasty wash with warmed flannel gowns, cleaning crusted noses and mouths, placing hot fomentations on thin chests, and wrapped-up bricks beside them in their beds. She offered the children gargles and liquids, but when these proved unmanageable, she swabbed their throats with the same muriatic acid and honey that they wore on their fronts. When she pulled the swab back from the boy’s mouth, he gagged after it a rope of pale grey, and at once began to breathe more freely, sat up, and asked for a drink. The girl grew paler and feebler with every ministration, and yet as soon as Liesel had fixed these two as best she could – and while the other nurses were still applying first aid to their charges – they heard men’s voices and the stomp of boots at the door as the next boatload of patients was delivered.
Here were older children and two women; all looked weary, bewildered and ill. Neither woman was mother to a child in the ward, but one was able to tell – between wrenching bouts of coughing – which children were related to one another, whose mother had already died, whose was still on her way and in what condition. This time Liesel tended two girls of about fourteen; again, one looked likely to pull through after six days with the disease while the other, newly infected and febrile with icy extremities, bled from the nose and retched bright gobbets of blood into the scrap of flannel she clutched as if it were her life.
Hail from a pewter sky rattled the windows as Liesel stripped off the sicker girl on the old sheet spread for the purpose on top of her bed. She murmured feeble reassurances as she sponged and brisked her dry. She called to Susannah, scurrying towards the dispensary, for another gargle of potash. Liesel bound the filthy hair of both girls in turbans of clean rags – one day there might be time for delousing and disinfecting, but it was hard to imagine when” (Island, 199-200).
I asked Penelope about the transition from being a nurse to becoming a writer. Her answer beautifully describes the revivifying nature of creative practice:
I found that writing fiction enlarged the scope of my thinking as I created characters who insisted on broader, deeper and more intricate experiences than my own. Then I began to find that my own experience of life was enlarging in ways hinted at by the fiction. I’ve written about this in my memoir Digging for Spain. I had no idea when I started that ‘art’ worked in this way. In fact I still manage to forget it — to forget why it’s vital to keep going, and to encourage others to do so, quite apart from what’s produced.”