GP and novelist: A career of stories

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GP and novelist: A career of stories

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LFP KerynPowell
Specialist GP Keryn Powell was spurred to write her first novel, Before the Rising, after thinking about climate change; she enjoys writing for the young adult genre [Image: Lynda Forrest Photography]

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Maia Hall talks to specialist GP Keryn Powell about her first novel, pitched at the young adult market and focusing on the effects of climate change

Writing and being a GP goes hand in hand – it’s all about having a curiosity about the world around you

With her 50th birthday looming, Hawke’s Bay specialist GP Keryn Powell decided now was the time to finish her first novel. Four years of weekly “disciplined writing time”, has led the part-time GP to publish a young adult fiction novel, about sea people and imminent climate disaster.

As her first published title, Before the Rising has a big job to perform. The magical and soberingly realistic climate-change story balances the young adult genre’s characteristic dramatic and worldly feel with a proactive, science lens.

Dr Powell says spending immeasurable time thinking about climate change, challenged her to write about potential disaster, without getting as grim and dystopic as the young adult genre is known for.

She recalls driving along Napier Road one day with her children, talking as she always does about the climate crisis, while her teenagers roll their eyes.

“Imagine, when the sea level rises, this road will be under water. How far under water do you think we will be? What would Napier look like six metres under water? Or 10 metres under water?” she pondered.

Dr Powell has always loved the heightened urgency when reading her children’s young adult novels, and combining young people’s emotion with their often proactive approach to social, political and environmental themes and issues.

“The young adult genre is certainly not a dumbed-down version of adult [fiction],” she says.

It was important to Dr Powell that Before the Rising’s objective was to delay the climate crisis, rather than solving it with some miracle cure.

“I just liked the breathing space to be able to explore that. I think as adults sometimes we box ourselves in a little.

"As a young adult you’ve still got all that emotion and ideas that haven’t been dampened down as much as they do in adulthood. I really like the freedom of writing in that genre.”

While her characters have climate effects lapping at their door, Dr Powell stressed the importance of learning from the world’s collective past mistakes and preparing for a new future.

“Not to prevent climate change because humans had gone too far for that, but to delay it. So people can adapt. Maybe that was a little realism in a fantasy world.”

Local Māori story

After Dr Powell established her hometown of Napier would be the setting for the novel, she decided to integrate the local Māori story, “Pania of the Reef”.

This wasn’t her initial plan, but the debut author had read other young adult novels about sea people and wished to employ some form of mysterious ocean community who could tell a story about looking after the ocean.

She felt it made sense to make the protagonist a descendant of Pania; however, Dr Powell says she wished to tread carefully.

“I tried to leave the mātauranga Māori alone, because obviously I’m Pākekā and I didn’t feel I had the authority to delve into that side of it.”

As she was writing, Dr Powell attempted to reach out to people from the Ngāti Kahungunu iwi to seek advice from someone more knowledgeable than herself. She intended to ensure that as a Pākekā author she hadn’t caused offence, but never managed to get hold of the right people at the time.

After the book was published, she received feedback about the use of the word “myth” to describe Pania and the story of her reef.

Dr Powell has since arranged a hui with iwi representatives in the upcoming weeks to korero about the power of language, particularly across intercultural barriers.

Dr Powell says writing and being a GP goes hand in hand – it’s all about having a curiosity about the world around you. “I love general practice. I’m a generalist, so I love stories, and general practice is a lot about people’s stories,” she says. “To me, they’re not writing and being at work, they mesh together.”

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Balancing science and arts

She says there’s both a science and an art to general practice, and while she usually falls heavily on the arts side, Dr Powell spent hours researching to ensure the fantasy elements of her story were nestled into a scientifically convincing world.

One of Before the Rising’s major plotlines relied on the main character spending up to 10 minutes underwater in one go, a length of time she based on how long dolphins can hold their breath.

Dr Powell has no experience in freediving, so she spent a huge amount of time reading about expert freediver William Trubridge.

“The thing about writing fiction is I hadn’t realised how much actual research you need to do for things like that.” As a nod to general practice, the novel’s hero character experienced a “fish scale” skin condition, ichthyosiform dermatosis.

“Giving Rebecca an unpronounceable medical condition was a bit of a wink to my background as a GP,” Dr Powell says.

Like a child leaving home

“I thought writing would be the hard bit, but finishing the manuscript, finding an editor, a publisher and all the rest of it has actually been far more terrifying than writing a novel.

“[For a long time] it’s very much all on your own, just you and your story. Then all of a sudden, it’s out there, your story is separate from you, and you have no control over how other people interpret your characters or anything,” she says. “It’s like a kid leaving home and you think, ‘I hope they behave themselves!’”

Dr Powell hosted her book launch on 12 May, in Hawke’s Bay.

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