Mother, doctor, writer - in any order
No-one is more surprised than Karen Hitchcock about how her life has turned out.
In the not-too-distant past she was studying English literature at La Trobe University "one subject a semester, nothing too taxing" and working in a TAB to support herself. "I never handed in an essay that I didn't have five extensions for," she says, only half-jokingly. "Then I decided to get serious after feeling directionless."
Fast forward 12 years and the wiry, quietly-spoken doctor is finishing her physician training at the John Hunter Hospital, has completed a PhD in English (creative writing) at the University of Newcastle, is married, and a mother to five-year-old twin girls Ida and Yve.
Last, but definitely not least, Hitchcock is the author of a critically and commercially successful collection of short stories. Publisher Picador was so impressed with her manuscript for Little White Slips that they offered her a two-book deal, which is almost unheard of for a first-time author.
Little White Slips has subsequently won the Arts Queensland Steele Rudd Award and was short-listed in April 2010 for both the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award for New Writing and the Dobbie Encouragement Award.
Hitchcock is now immersed in writing her debut novel and there is every possibility it will also be published in the United Kingdom. "I can't believe it," says the 38-year-old, sincerely astounded at the unexpected twists and turns that have led her to this point. "I have moments where I'll be thinking about my childhood in the paddocks of Deer Park (in western Melbourne) and then I'll realise, oh my god, I'm a doctor, a mother, a writer.
"I've been really, really lucky."
Hitchcock moved to Newcastle in 1998 to study medicine, her bag packed with "Melbourne garb made of black wool" and has thrived on combining her medical and writing careers; each passion informing the other.
"As a physician it's your job to listen to people's stories," she says. "That's what I like so much about internal medicine."
Medicine has a strong influence on the settings and themes of her fiction. In the opening story in her collection, Drinking When We Are Not Thirsty, the protagonist Jessica is studying for her specialist physician exams and is on the verge of a stress-induced implosion.
Her husband and child are neglected as she becomes obsessed with the idea of escaping into the arms of an Irish registrar. While the dalliance is fiction, Hitchcock drew on her own experience to convey the intense anxiety that consumes many doctors in training.
"The year I sat my physician's exam was hideous for my family," she recalls. "I knew it was going to be hell. I did nothing but study. I couldn't fail because I couldn't put them through it again.
"Just after I finished the clinical exam, one of my girls – they were two at the time – said to me, 'Mummy, you don't play', and I thought, thank god she said it now when I'm almost finished and can start playing. It would have been terrible to hear that if I was only halfway through."
Hitchcock credits the University with giving her the opportunity to pursue both medicine and writing. In 2002 while in the fifth year of her medical degree, instead of travelling to developing countries for a three-month elective like many of her fellow students, Hitchcock joined the creative writing course in the School of Humanities and Social Science.
Helen Garner, who is now a friend and part-time neighbour, was then writer-inresidence and guided Hitchcock.
"I completed my first real story, which had a beginning, middle and end, and read it to the class and everyone laughed and loved it," Hitchcock recalls. "It was the moment for me. I'd never been so happy in my life."
What do Ida and Yve make of her dual careers? "If you ask what I do, they say, 'Mummy is a doctor and an author'. They understand that each is just as important."
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