Joanna Nell on her Fabulous New Novel, The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

Joanna Nell on her Fabulous New Novel, The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

Briefly tell us about your book.

The book is set in Woodlands Nursing Home where the thermostat is permanently set to ‘meat and two veg’ weather, and even a bar of soap is considered a safety hazard. It tells the story of two reluctant ‘inmates’, Hattie Bloom, a reclusive nature writer who prefers birds to people, and Walter Clements, a gregarious would-be comedian who dreams of riding his mobility scooter to freedom. When the home’s popular but unconventional night nurse is dismissed over an unfortunate incident, Hattie and Walter must put aside their differences and an unexpected friendship grows as they work together on a covert mission to have their favourite staff member reinstated.

What inspired the idea behind this book?

My books always start with a character and in this case, I saw Woodlands Nursing Home as both a setting and a central character. Although fictional, Woodlands was inspired by visits to many different residential aged care facilities over the past twenty-five years as a GP. Hattie’s character was inspired by the woman I imagined lived in a neglected sandstone cottage near my home, a place my children used to think was haunted. I preferred to think that the owner was reclusive by choice and given that I’m a bird lover myself, it made sense that she was an ornithologist.

What was the research process like for this book?

I was able to draw on years of observations and experiences working in aged care to hopefully create an authentic nursing home. When it came to finding out where the keys to the minibus would be kept however, I did have to enlist the help of a friend who works in a local facility. In the book, Hattie’s main motivation for wanting to return to her cottage is to save a nest of endangered birds, so I went along to the BirdLife Australia centre at Sydney Olympic Park to learn more about bird conservation and the Powerful Owl project.

Walter’s mobility scooter, nick-named The Tesla, plays a central role in the story and I wanted to get the details right. Fortunately, a friend introduced me to her parents who owned one and were only to happy to demonstrate, although apparently my test drive raised a few eyebrows around their village.

If I looked at your internet history, what would it reveal about you?

In common with many writers, I imagine there’s enough there to warrant surveillance by the authorities! Some of my latest searches have included:

Gin and tonic scone recipe.

Evil dictators of the twentieth century.

How do you remove the battery of a Mercedes SLK?

How heavy are chandeliers?

What are you hoping the reader will take away from reading your book?

First and foremost, I’m hoping that readers will be entertained and uplifted by the antics of this band of feisty seniors and left with a sense of optimism. Equally importantly, I hope the book dispels some of the fear and misconceptions about nursing homes and pays tribute to the many dedicated staff, the real unsung heroes of aged care. I hope readers take away the message that no-one is too old to laugh or love, and that it’s never too late to embrace new friendships. Lastly, by seeing the challenges and frustrations of old age through the eyes of the characters themselves, my hope is that the book highlights society’s often patronising and paternalistic attitudes towards older people and delivers a greater awareness of ageism in general.

Does the creative process get easier for you with each book?

If anything, I’d say it gets harder. Each book has taught me something new about the craft of writing and storytelling, and it’s all too easy to get bogged down in ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’. With this in mind, I’ve learned to work through the messiness of the first draft by letting go of all these self-imposed ‘rules’ and simply letting the story flow onto the page before I cast a more critical editorial eye over the work.

How does it feel to hold your book in your hands?

I always think it’s like holding your own baby for the first time. After all these months growing inside you it’s now out there for everyone to see. However, as with a precious child, there’s also the fear that comes with letting go as it makes its own way in the world.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

My previous books have been written from the point of view of a single female character. This time I had two point of view characters, one of whom was male. The challenge was to keep the forward momentum of the story while switching between the two characters, and also with putting myself inside the head of a ninety-year-old man.

How did you think of the title of the book?

My publisher came up with the title which is a whimsical nod to Walter’s favourite movie about a group of prisoners of war who escape from a German POW camp, The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen. I also like that the concept of ‘escape’ can be interpreted both literally and in a more existential sense.

What is something that had influenced you as a writer?

My career as a doctor has undoubtedly influenced my writing. Another physician-writer Somerset Maugham sums this up in his 1938 memoir: “I do not write as I want to; I write as I can . . . I have had small power of imagination . . . I had an acute power of observation, and it seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed.”

What’s the easiest and and most difficult parts of your job as a writer?

The easiest part is the writing itself. It’s as much a part of me now as breathing. Because I’m quite a private and naturally introverted person, the most difficult part is the publicity surrounding a book’s release. I find it more difficult to talk about the book than to write it, and even harder to talk about myself!

Do you write about people you know? Or yourself?

All my characters are purely fictional. However, their traits and mannerisms are often based on real observations and in that sense the characters are really a montage of different people. In this latest book I tried something new and wrote myself into a small cameo role which I’m sure readers will be able to spot.

What’s some great advice you’ve received that has helped you as a writer?

I’m glad I was forewarned and prepared for the early rejections that I now realise are part and parcel of being a published writer. It would have been so easy to feel disheartened and give up when my first (still unpublished) manuscript was widely rejected.

If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Be patient. Imagine that you’re serving an apprenticeship. It takes a long time to gain mastery of the craft but like anything, the more you practice, the better you get and in the case of writing a novel, the more likely you are to be published.

Who are some of your favourite authors? Or favourite books?

I read very broadly across a whole variety of genres: women’s fiction, historical, crime, romance, literary and non-fiction. When I was young I read a lot of Thomas Hardy, Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier and I absolutely loved the Silver Brumby series. As an adult I’ve read all Maggie O’Farrell’s books and return time and time again to Alan Bennett’s hilarious work.

Are you able to switch off at the end of a day of writing? If so, how?

I always stop at five o’clock, recognising the law of diminishing returns if I carry on past this time. I read for pleasure for an hour, then join my husband for a gin and tonic at six o’clock, followed by dinner and family time.

What’s your daily writing routine like and what are you working on at the moment?

I usually do my correspondence and social media first thing in the morning over a cup of tea in bed. On a purely ‘writing’ day as opposed to a ‘medical’ day, I start by walking my dog (and faithful muse, Margot) for about an hour. This is the time when the ideas flow and I scribble down copious notes afterwards over a coffee in my favourite café. I’m physically at the keyboard in my backyard cabin between ten and four with breaks every hour to stretch or make tea so my neck and shoulders don’t stiffen up too much.

Reviews

Your Preview Verdict: The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home by Joanna Nell

Review | Preview

5 November 2020

Your Preview Verdict: The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home by Joanna Nell

    Joyous, Irresistible: Read an Extract from Joanna Nell's The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

    Review | Extract

    2 November 2020

    Joyous, Irresistible: Read an Extract from Joanna Nell's The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

      Joanna Nell's The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is Utterly Charming

      Review | Our Review

      2 November 2020

      Joanna Nell's The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is Utterly Charming

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                  Publisher details

                  The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home
                  Author
                  Joanna Nell
                  Publisher
                  Hachette
                  Genre
                  Fiction
                  Released
                  27 October, 2020

                  Synopsis

                  The joyous, charming and utterly irresistible new novel from the author of mega-bestseller The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement VillageAt nearly ninety, retired nature writer Hattie Bloom prefers the company of birds to people, but when a fall lands her in a nursing home she struggles to cope with the loss of independence and privacy. From the confines of her 'room with a view' of the carpark, she dreams of escape.Fellow 'inmate', the gregarious, would-be comedian Walter Clements also plans on returning home as soon as he is fit and able to take charge of his mobility scooter.When Hattie and Walter officially meet at The Night Owls, a clandestine club run by Sister Bronwyn and her dog, Queenie, they seem at odds. But when Sister Bronwyn is dismissed over her unconventional approach to aged care, they must join forces -- and very slowly an unlikely, unexpected friendship begins to grow.Full of wisdom and warmth, The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home is a gorgeously poignant, hilarious story showing that it is never too late to laugh -- or to love.
                  Joanna Nell
                  About the author

                  Joanna Nell

                  Joanna Nell was born in the UK and studied medicine at Cambridge and Oxford universities. Her short fiction has won multiple awards and has been published in various journals and literary anthologies. A former ship's doctor and now a GP with a passion for women's health and care of the elderly, Joanna is drawn to writing character-driven stories for women in their prime, creating young-at-heart characters who are not afraid to break the rules and defy society's expectations of ageing. Her first novel, THE SINGLE LADIES OF JACARANDA RETIREMENT VILLAGE, was a national bestseller. Joanna lives on Sydney's Northern Beaches with her husband and two teenage children.

                  Books by Joanna Nell

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