Adam Kay Q&A: ‘I don’t think either the NHS or the BBC have ever been in more peril’

‘I major on the funny, but sneak in the politics,’ says the bestselling author of This is Going to Hurt

You describe your bestselling debut, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, as a slight confidence trick. It is sold as a funny book, which it is, but it asks a serious question: how compatible is it to be a doctor and a human? Tell me more.

I suspect if I’d called it “A Harrowing Polemic about the NHS” it might not have been a bestselling debut. I major on the funny, but sneak in the politics; the same rationale as dicing a carrot finely enough that a toddler doesn’t notice.

What can we expect from your new memoir, Undoctored?

It’s both a prequel and a sequel to This is Going to Hurt: looking back at my time at medical school and what happened after I left medicine. If it asks a question, then I suppose it’s: how does medicine mess you up?

There is a strong if diverse tradition of Jewish humour, from the Torah to the Diaspora. Can you relate to it?

I don’t know where my fairly GSOH [good sense of humour] comes from, but it’s probably an amalgam of Jewish tradition, medical tradition and being the class clown.

I interviewed the psychiatrist Anthony Clare in the 1990s and he was lamenting the decline of the BBC and the NHS under Tory rule. To an outsider now, it seems so much worse. Having had a foot in each camp, how do you feel about it?

In retrospect, those were the “good old days”. I don’t think either the NHS or the BBC have ever been in more peril.

What other medical memoirs would you recommend?

So many! House of God by Samuel Shem, With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and anything written by my needy friends who would be cross if I don’t mention them here.

Could you give me five examples of how healthcare could be improved?

More resources, more staff, more staff, more care for the staff and more resources.

Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage?

Not per se, but I was on holiday in Cornwall recently and read that a churchyard in a nearby and unlikely-sounding village called St Just-in-Roseland had been described by John Betjeman as “the most beautiful churchyard on earth”. I trundled over, expectations set fairly low, and it was some kind of incredible waterside tropical garden paradise. Cheers, John!

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Which of your books are you proudest of, and why?

My first kids’ book, Kay’s Anatomy, because of the number of messages I get from parents telling me that it got their child reading for pleasure for the first time. And all it took was a book full of poo jokes.

Who do you admire the most?

AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez].

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

Eight years’ imprisonment for talking in the cinema.

What current book, film, TV show and podcast would you recommend?

You should read Without Warning and Only Sometimes by Kit de Waal, watch How to With John Wilson and The Woman King, and listen to the outrageously funny Three Bean Salad podcast.

Which public event affected you most?

The UK junior doctor strike ignited my political energy, got me on my feet and — in attempting to prove that the government were lying to the public — saw me revisit my diaries and publish them as a book.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

Iceland. Snowmobiling on glaciers is — and I’m afraid [I] can’t find any better words — f**king extraordinary.

Your most treasured possession?

My biggest extravagance: a beautiful Bechstein grand piano. Unless I’m supposed to say “my engagement ring” or something, in which case, that.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

I have a first edition of The Jungle Book, which is a work of art. Actually, I think it’s technically my husband’s because I bought it for him as a birthday present, but I bought it because I wanted it.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Bill Bryson, Ian Rankin and Helen Fielding. All alive, please.

The best and worst things about where you live?

I moved from London to the Oxfordshire countryside a few years ago and the best thing is the quiet, an infinite number of walks to take the dog on, and no one to notice/arrest me if I wee by the side of the road. The worst thing is the driving it requires — a walk to the nearest shop would be a matter of hours.

What is your favourite quotation?

My mother tells me that “hope is not strategy”, which always sticks with me. Not enough to stop relying on hope, but still.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Niles Crane. Perfectly drawn, with the best lines in the history of telly.

A book to make me laugh?

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. Agonisingly funny.

A book that might move me to tears?

About a Son by David Whitehouse. In fact, if it doesn’t move you to tears, there’s something wrong with your ducts.

Undoctored by Adam Kay is published by Orion in trade paperback, €17.99

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times