Dawn is a prolific writer who also happens to be a medical doctor.
She has had poetry, novels, flash fiction, short stories, adult literacy booklets, travel pieces and articles published, and has had a short film, several documentaries, a short play and television dramas produced.
Her knowledge of the human body and experiences in healthcare have always inform her work. Now, as a founding member of the Life Righting Collective, she teaches people how to write about their lives. Read more about her writing inspiration and an extract from her latest novel, Breaking Milk, which was short-listed for the 2021 Sunday Times CNA award, below.
Meet Dawn at Tokai Library on Wednesday 7 September at 17:30, where she’ll be giving an author talk.
What themes do you love exploring in your writing?
I am interested in the human condition, what motivates us, how we might change. Also in what ways we are separated from our best selves, and from each other, and what it takes to overcome that. I also explore the splits between art and science.
What is your writing process like?
I start with a scene, or a feeling, or something that preoccupies or troubles me in my own life. In fiction, I give my concerns to fictional characters and let them run with them, and see what happens. In poetry, I work with distillation oif a scene, image or concern, and with rhythm and rhyme. Writing for plays and film has taught me a lot about dialogue. I am still learning.
What was your publishing journey like?
I was lucky to have my first poems and books published as soon as I started submitting them back in 1993. But I have also written several novels that were rejected. I tell myself not to be too excited about my ‘successes’ and not to be too disappointed by my ‘failures’. It’s all part of the process of getting better at what one does.
Do you have any quirky writing habits?
If I can’t sleep, I’ll write in the middle of the night. It’s a very creative time, writing is so close to dreaming.
Please tell us more about the Life Righting Collective?
We help writers to stay curious, to write from the feeling, or the sensory lived experience, not from thinking or interpretation. We think we know the whole narrative, but we don’t until we start exploring the edges of the story through writing. Anyone who would like to attend one of our writing courses should please visit our website and sign up for our newsletters, or have a look at our course page. If you can’t afford the course fee, you can apply for sponsorship.
An extract from Breaking Milk (Karavan Press, 2019)
She sits down across from him, her legs restless. I thought you had already flown over.
Jessica said to come tomorrow. He coughs. Inhales again.
Maybe it’s better they don’t make it. Terrible start to a life. There, she has said it.
Leonard regards Kate, taking his time. Worse things have happened, he says.
Yes, she agrees. Much worse.
Beethoven’s ninth, vibrating in electronic mode. Leonard leans back in his chair and wrestles his cellphone out of his jeans pocket. Jessica, Kate hopes, steeling herself.
He applies the phone to his ear. Hello? Leonard Rycroft here. His telephone voice.
Leonard Rycroft. The famous Leonard Rycroft is sitting stoned on her stoep.
Years back, some svelte woman rushed up to Kate at a party. You are so lucky to be married to Leonard Rycroft! she exclaimed, excited and gleaming. This was the week after Kate had found out about his third affair. She grinned at the woman bleakly, excused herself, faltered down the passage and bolted herself into the toilet, weeping.
Yes, this is the author. A pause, while Leonard focuses. I am the grandfather. He leans forward, interested. He nods. All right. Yes. No. We don’t know yet. They are still in the theatre.
The theatre. Kate understands: Her grandsons are performing for the media. People have always loved a freak show.
Leonard has adopted his dramatic face: Yes, very unusual. Fifty-fifty chance, they say. He takes a last drag, presses the stub out on the heel of his shoe, throws it into her garden. This was one of the marital wars she never won. Even divorce cannot prevent him from coming round to litter her life with the discarded stubs of his pleasure.
Of course. In about two hours. We should know by then. He nods. It’s a pleasure, Joanne, it was Joanne? Phone me later. He switches off, puts the phone on the table. It idles there, waiting. He drinks the last of his coffee. That was the Guardian. This is an international event.
I wouldn’t speak to the papers if I were you.
Leonard frowns. Why ever not? People have a right to know. It could happen to anyone. We have a duty to help others cope with tragedy. Otherwise what is the use of going through this trauma ourselves? Irritation sits in the slant of his shoulders, the tap of his fingers, the reflex reach for his cigarettes in his shirt pocket. It’s not as though this is the Sun, or You magazine.
Kate cannot help thinking that publicity of any kind is good for an author.
If we don’t release the correct story, they are bound to publish something inaccurate, Leonard continues.
Maybe I am a bitch, she deliberates. Maybe he cares, deeply.
He lights up, drags hard, then leans towards Kate and takes her hand. She feels life drain out of it. Her hand becomes a limp object in his grip. She remembers his caress. And she is in need of being held.
What have we done, Kate?
We? She is taken aback. Leonard’s soft eyes are upon her, pleading: You are the love of my life.
The table is in the way. Thank god she put the table between them, the pull is so strong. Like a black hole invitation to merge, to let this all go, the hard life alone. Leonard reaches into his bag with his other hand, not letting her go. Pulls out a white envelope. Places it with emphasis on the table in front of her.
The real reason I came, he begins – Kate’s whole body is on alert – was to tell you that I have booked you a ticket on the three forty-five plane tomorrow. Come to London with me, Kate. Jess could do with both her parents. We must stand together through this.
A twist of relief and grief tightens in her.
Leonard touches her cheek, tenderly. I have booked us into a B&B near the hospital. Separate rooms.
A yearning ignited by his fingers touching her face connects to her sex, which is flowering open against the hardness of the chair. The table edge digs its restraint into her belly, reminding her.
I can’t leave at the moment. Maybe next week.
She withdraws her hand.
Leonard stands, comes round to her side of the table, takes her hands and pulls her up out of her chair. She acquiesces, but there is something wrong with her leg bones, or her knees. Something is again attacking the mechanism by which she holds herself upright in the world. Leonard gathers her up and holds her against his chest.
We’ll pay Gert extra, he’ll keep things going. And Nosisi and that boy who looks after your Dad. Your daughter needs you. His voice cracks. I need you.
He strokes Kate’s hair like a lover would. She is filled with an urge to take him into her mouth and suck, to suck and suck. So hungry. Starving amidst plenty.
And pulls away, with huge effort, shaken, shaking. Trying to recover herself in her own skin. I must see to something, Kate mutters. And turns. Away.
She finds herself in the kitchen, her body aching. It is so hard to know what is going on, she broods, stumbling around in her mind. Looking around the room. Searching. She is here for a reason but cannot remember.
Reaches for the coffee urn. Perhaps there is a way, she fumbles. Poor man. It must be terrible to be caught in a sexual compulsion. Driving the one person you love away …
Perhaps he has changed, she considers. She does believe in change. Perhaps this tragedy is the very thing that could bring them together.
She could go over with him. Jess would welcome them both with relief. If Kate forgives Leonard, her daughter will forgive her. The twins will be healed and all will be well. Kate can cancel the second room at the B&B and receive this man, make him her husband again, take him to her so that they can all be consoled. He would repent in her arms, weeping, forsake all other women, and she would forgive him all his transgressions. They would be delivered, and the mandala of the family restored. The circle of life revived, revitalised.
At what cost a plane ticket?
Through the window, Kate sees his car. There is someone sitting in Leonard’s car. There is someone in Leonard’s car, in the passenger seat, waiting. A woman. She can see a woman sitting and waiting in Leonard’s car. She cannot believe what she is seeing.