Adam Kay will be leading the London Writers Awards Narrative Non Fiction masterclass. Adam Kay is an award-winning comedian and writer, and previously worked for many years as a junior doctor. His first book This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor was an instant bestseller and has been translated into 19 languages. Here he chats to Francesca Baker about the process of becoming an author, and how it took him by surprise.
Francesca Baker: I’m here with Adam Kay, who is an award-winning comedian and writer for TV and film. You wrote for many years at Junior Doctor, and your first book, This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, is a bit of a bestseller, which is very, very cool.
You are going to be running a masterclass at our London Writers Awards program for us, which is great, on narrative nonfiction. But you haven’t been a narrative nonfiction writer all your life, have you? How did you start, and why did you decide to write a book?
Adam Kay: Yeah, not really a writer at all. I don’t really know why I’m running this masterclass. [laughs] But hey, here we are.
I was a doctor, which is what my book is about. The diaries I kept at the time as a doctor. Then when I gave up medicine, I was sort of racking around for some other career to pay the gas bill.
I went back to comedy, which I’d done a bit through university and had loved it. It was fine, but I was doing nothing during the days. Comedy is quite depressing because you’re just driving to the middle of nowhere to do a gig for 30 quid or something.
I ended up doing comedy writing for telly, which I’ve now been lucky enough to do for the last 8 years as my job.
The book sort of happened by accident. I’d written these diaries, as I said, and they were just sat in a filing cabinet upstairs here. I would occasionally refer to them to upset people at dinner parties with my horrible stories.
A couple years ago, the junior doctors were coming under fire. I realized that, as someone who knew what it means to be a junior doctor, having been one, and now being someone on the outside consuming the media, the government story was very loud, the doctors’ story was very quiet. I wanted to try and do something to balance a little.
Francesca Baker: Give them a voice, yeah. Make it fair.
Adam Kay: Give people both sets of data from both sides. So I went up to the Edinburgh Festival I’d been to a few times before, but not for a while, and I read out from my diaries. I thought a couple hundred people hear that and next time the doctors come under fire, maybe they’ll…
Francesca Baker: Someone will speak up.
Adam Kay: Yeah. Through sheer mad luck, a friend of mine, Mark Watson, who’s a comedian and an author, in fact – a very good author – you go and see each other’s shows during Edinburgh. It’s like the AGM for comedians. His plus one was his editor at Picador, and now my editor.
Afterwards she was like, ‘That’s a book. Make that a book.’ I was like, ‘No, no. Books are what other people do.’ I’d never been an enormous reader. I always associated books with what clever, different people write. So I didn’t really get back in touch.
But she was very persistent and was an enormous help – amazing, I couldn’t have done it without her. And yeah, turns out it was a book.
Francesca Baker: How did you manage to shape those diary entries into a bit more of a coherent narrative? I’m sure lots of people have got scribblings and old journals and stuff, but that’s different to a book, isn’t it?
Adam Kay: It is, but not that different. I had all these raw materials. I had way too much stuff. I had years and years of diaries, and most of it was terrible or boring or ‘did Caesarian section #5.’
What I wanted to do, if I was presenting ‘this is what it’s like to be a junior doctor,’ I wanted junior doctors to read it and say ‘yeah, this is it.’
Francesca Baker: Identify with it.
Adam Kay: And they could show their friends, ‘this is what my job is.’ That was really important to me. That meant getting the mix right of the different diary entries.
I felt like I was at a sound desk and I was working with the funny versus the sad versus the mundane and the high-octane and the disgusting. Just seeing that the overall mix was right so it wasn’t just going for laughs or just going for revolting or just going for sad or something.
In terms of a narrative arc, our lives have narrative arcs. It’s just making sure that that’s represented as well. A narrative arc can be a very small thing or a very big thing.
Francesca Baker: I think often people, when they’re writing nonfiction, particularly a memoir, they’re like ‘something really dramatic or really big has to happen to me.’ But actually it can be in those small details.
Adam Kay: Exactly. It’s weird talking about me as a character, but no one knows me apart from my small number of friends and family.
But people who read the book are just learning about some bloke. You invest in that person and you’re interested in what happens to them, whether it’s enormous stuff or small stuff. Most of the stuff that happened to me was relatively small, and then ended with one big thing.
It wasn’t so much constructing an arc; it was just making sure that what I wanted to come across from the raw materials I had, did.
Francesca Baker: You said thinking of yourself as a character. I think whatever you’re writing about – because you say you don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I remember in an email you said that you have read some, and you rediscovered stuff you thought would be the most mundane, boring thing, but now suddenly…
Adam Kay: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I now read a huge amount of nonfiction because I get sent books, which is lovely. Unfortunately, it far outweighs the amount of time I could possibly – I think I now get sent more books than I could humanly read if my job was just reading.
And newspapers have asked me to review things. So yeah, I’m reading a huge amount of nonfiction now.
Just because you’ve got an exciting life, doesn’t mean you have an exciting book. I’ve read some extremely exciting lives portrayed terribly. And just because something on the surface doesn’t sound sexy and interesting, it can often be and would be wonderful stories.
Francesca Baker: What’s the difference between writing for standup and writing for TV and then writing your book?
Adam Kay: I guess I’d already written my book, so it was things that had happened. My recurring question to Francesca, my editor, was ‘This isn’t interesting, is it?’ Because to me it was just stuff I’d done.
Whereas right now writing for telly – I’m writing comedy, really, so I’m just thinking of various things. Basically when you’re writing for telly, the question I really ask is ‘Do you care?’ Which I guess probably applies to nonfiction books as well.
Francesca Baker: And it comes back to the character as well, if it’s a character you care about.
Adam Kay: Yeah. In comedy – Fawlty Towers, an amazing sitcom, isn’t a sitcom about a hotel. It’s a sitcom about an angry man and his relationship with his wife and his staff. That’s what we invest in. It could’ve been set in almost any scenario, because it’s about the characters.
I wish I’d written loads of books and I could tell you what my process is, but my process was having written diaries a decade ago. [laughs]
Francesca Baker: But I think that’s really valuable for everyone. Quite often the advice to writers is ‘just write.’ It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, but just get stuff down.
Adam Kay: Yeah. In fact, now I’m working on my next book, and it’s about – you just have to sit down and write. It is just that. It’s much easier to edit something that exists than start from scratch.
You just have to have the horrible blank page syndrome, ‘here we go,’ and write your zeroth draft that no one’s ever going to see apart from you. That applies if I’m writing a script or if I’m writing another chapter of my next book. It just needs to start.
Francesca Baker: What’s it like seeing your words out there in the world, in whatever medium that’s in?
Adam Kay: Weird. Horrible. [laughs] Less so with the book, actually, but telly, I’ve never been able to watch anything back that I’ve written, let alone if I’ve been on telly. If I’ve written something like a studio sitcom, I can’t be in the studio. I have to be hiding round the corner. I just find it mortifying for whatever reason.
The book, I’ve had to read back a lot because I’ve been doing a load of events, and people quite reasonably expect me to read out bits of my book – which I do, gladly.
But yeah, it’s very weird. I can’t process the idea that half a million people in this country have read the book. It doesn’t make any sense. I still get excited when I walk past –
Francesca Baker: See someone reading it in a coffee shop?
Adam Kay: I’ve yet to see someone read it in the wild. People send me texts a lot of people that they’ve snapped on the tube or something. But I get very excited when I see it in bookshops. That means it’s a real thing.
Francesca Baker: Has it been put on Audible or anything yet?
Adam Kay: Yeah.
Francesca Baker: Did you read it?
Adam Kay: I recorded the audio. I didn’t particularly want to, but they said ‘It would be a bit weird if someone else read your diaries.’ I said okay.
So I went to the studio – it was a massive faff. You don’t realize until you have to say a sentence absolutely correctly how often you fuck up your words when you’re speaking normally. There was a lot of ‘We need that one again, we need that one again, we need that one again.’
The most amazing thing about recording the audiobook was that it turns out I can’t really say the word ‘prescription’. [laughs]
Francesca Baker: As a doctor.
Adam Kay: Yeah, but when I was a doctor I could fudge it. ‘Write up your drugs,’ ‘chart it,’ ‘write a script,’ there’s loads of other ways – but I was reading it out of my book and every single time it would take me a couple of goes.
Then I realized that it was my book, so I could just freestyle it a bit. I started changing the words, and the producer was like, ‘Not sure you’re meant to do that.’ I was like, ‘My book. Not really your choice.’
Francesca Baker: For people who aren’t lucky enough to be on London Writers Awards, what would you say are your top tips for people wanting to write nonfiction?
Adam Kay: Just do it. Just do it. If you think your story is interesting, then write it down.
Francesca Baker: Get something out there.
Adam Kay: I really didn’t think my story was interesting, but an expert from Picador strong-armed me into thinking that it was. If I didn’t have someone pushing me, it would never have gotten out there.
Francesca Baker: I suppose it’s also a testament to the value of – not networking, because that’s such an awful word, but just getting out there and being out there, and if you’re a writer, going to storytelling or going to other events or speaking to people.
Adam Kay: Absolutely. This is a world that I’m brand new to. No one from telly is going to watch this – telly is horrible. Everyone’s really, really mean and in it for their promotion and their awards.
Publishing, everyone’s in it for the love of getting good stuff out there, the love of words, getting people reading. It’s really refreshing and fun.
If there were 10 rules that you have to apply to make a nonfiction masterpiece, publishing would be the easiest job in the world and every single book would sell a zillion copies. But there isn’t.
Francesca Baker: You just sit down and do it.
Adam Kay: Sit down and do it. Don’t copy someone else – which applies in telly as well, because TV commissioners are often like, ‘Oh, that was a big hit. Let’s do something that’s extremely similar to that but slightly different.’ The second generation will never be a hit. You just can’t.
The wonderful thing about nonfiction is it’s already there. It’s already original. It’s already your life. So just get it down.
I felt so unprepared for turning this into a book that I bought loads and loads and loads and loads of books about how to write a book and read a thousand articles. They all completely disagreed with each other.
There was no common ground, pretty much altogether – apart from one piece of advice, which is it’s all about reading. Read, read, read, read, read. The more you read, the better you write. I was like, I never read anything.
But I don’t think it matters. Just have your own voice.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, I think that’s the important bit, isn’t it? That’s what’s going to make your writing unique and special: honing your voice and your story.
Adam Kay: In fact, one of the writers who I adored and always read a lot of was and is David Sedaris. I think he’s the absolute master of the diary. From the moment I knew I was writing a book, I made sure I didn’t read any David Sedaris.
Francesca Baker: Because then you would just write in David Sedaris’ voice.
Adam Kay: Yeah, and then I would just become, unwittingly, a tribute act. I’d never be as good as him. I didn’t want to do that.
Also, your voice can evolve. You can read it back and think ‘that feels a bit cold’ or ‘it needs to be funnier’ or ‘it needs to be sadder.’ You can play with it. But just write your first draft.
Francesca Baker: Just get it out.
Adam Kay: Another piece of advice I was given was to never go back and review what you’ve written. Just get to the end. I’ve found this is true – if you go back and look at yesterday’s work or go back to the start, you’ll just be in an endless cycle that will get you about a third of the way through the project.
Francesca Baker: Especially if you’re writing on the computer rather than longhand, because you can always be changing or commenting or editing.
Adam Kay: Yeah, easily. You just get stuck in this infinite loop and nothing ever happens. That’s the fun bit. That’s the much easier bit, the editing and the brushing up. Save that as a treat for the end.
Just get to the end, and then keep going. I think that’s as close as I can give to some actual solid advice.
Francesca Baker: Awesome. Thank you ever so much for talking to us.
Adam Kay: Thanks for having me.