Mrs Winterbottom Takes a Gap Year was inspired by your journey after leaving your medical practice. How has your life changed since retiring, and what’s surprised you since leaving full-time work?
In 2022 I thought I was ready to hang up my stethoscope after more than thirty years as a doctor. Having worked through the pandemic, during which I developed some health issues of my own, the timing felt right. The word ‘retirement’ felt so loaded, however, and I couldn’t imagine putting my feet up either literally or metaphorically, so I framed it as transitioning from my day job to a life stage where I could write fulltime and pursue other interests.
The thing that surprised me most about leaving work after the initial honeymoon period during which I travelled to visit family, was how much I missed my job! Not the stress and long hours, but more the camaraderie of working as part of a team, personal interaction with patients, and the sense of achievement at the end of the working day. Writing is a very solitary occupation, and although I’m naturally introverted, I was surprised how much I craved company, so much so that while I was an inpatient following a knee replacement operation (something I’d put off for years while I was ‘working’), I accepted a new job as a doctor in a rehab hospital. It’s early days, but what I’ve come to realise is that the path to retirement is different for everyone. Retirement requires preparation and planning. It is a process rather than a fixed point in time, much as a marriage is more than a wedding. And for me, retirement is still very much a work in progress.
Friendship is a recurring theme in all your novels, but the relationship between Heather and Esme in Mrs Winterbottom is especially touching. Can you tell us why including this dynamic in the book was important to you, and was it based on any of your friendships?
Although I treasure my many adult friendships, ironically, it was my childhood experience of struggling to make friends that taught me the most about friendship. Observing from the sidelines, I managed to work out the dynamics of these alliances without necessarily participating myself. I’ve been exploring the theme of friendship through my characters ever since.
In this book, I was keen to explore an intergenerational friendship. My feeling has always been that our friendships are more segregated by age or specifically generation than by gender, ethnicity or even language, and yet, as I hope the relationship between Heather and Esme demonstrates, there is often a depth of understanding between older and younger individuals that transcends the years between their births.
Esme is Heather’s former patient, and although they have always communicated well and shared more of themselves than in the usual doctor-patient relationship, it is only after Heather retires that their connection deepens into something even more unique and special. I’ve had the same experience with some of my older female patients, women (and some men) who felt more like friends than someone I saw in a purely professional capacity. I looked forward to visiting them and often lingered for a chat or to share a laugh or two. I also mourned them like real friends when they were gone and remember them fondly.
You advocate for people, but especially women, to feel comfortable with the ageing process. Do you think the expectations placed on women from a societal and media standpoint are beginning to shift, and greater acceptance around the ageing process is being brought into focus?
Attitudes are definitely changing for the better, but there’s still a long way to go. You only have to look on social media to see the rise of the older female influencers, especially those who like me, have ditched the dye and embraced our natural grey (sorry, silver!) hair. We have many more positive role models on screen and in the media. It’s heartening to see older actresses in leading roles rather than seeing them being relegated to supporting roles as the mother/grandmother/insert ‘stereotypical older woman’. Emma Thompson’s portrayal of a fifty-five-year-old woman rediscovering her sexuality in the film Good Luck To You Leo Grande was particularly poignant and relatable.
Sometimes, the messaging gets a little mixed, however. Take the very air-brushed image of eighty-one-year-old Martha Stewart appearing in a swimsuit on the cover of Sports Illustrated, for example. It was refreshing to see an older woman featured, but the point was that she didn’t look her age. It’s as though we want to celebrate age but not witness the reality of ageing.
More worrying is to see younger women having cosmetic procedures, including prophylactic Botox, to prevent future wrinkles. Apparently, to end up looking like me (!) is enough for younger generations to want to stick needles in their face. And yet, ageing is a normal, natural process. It happens at a cellular level, and despite what the adverts say, it cannot be ‘fought’. It is no surprise that the fear of ageing drives a multi-billion-dollar beauty industry designed to extract money from women. Ironically, the stress of trying to look younger can theoretically accelerate the ageing process.
Women can still make the most of their appearance while looking and celebrating their age. There should be no make-up or fashion ‘rules’. Most women know what suits them, and it has nothing to do with their age. Rather than trying to ‘stay young’, we should all aim to age well, with healthy lifestyle habits and an equally healthy attitude. And what a positive message to pass on to the next generation.
Do you listen to podcasts? If so, can you recommend any?
I listen to lots of podcasts and have been fortunate enough to have been interviewed for some amazing podcasts about writing, books, and ageing. I must give a shout-out to two very talented members of my writing group, The Ink Well: Pamela Cook for her podcast Writes4women, which supports and champions women writers, and Michelle Barraclough for The Writer’s Book Club that, uses each episode to do a deep dive into a different book with the author, revealing the secrets of the creative process behind the story. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, I highly recommend both podcasts.
Another of my favourites is Natalie Haynes stands up for the Classics (a BBC Radio 4 podcast). I stumbled across this podcast while researching the Greek storyline in Mrs Winterbottom Takes a Gap Year. Part stand-up comedy routine, part history lesson, Natalie Haynes dissects the classical stories of Ancient Greece and Rome with a modern eye in front of a live audience. For a nerd like me, the result is very entertaining and highly addictive.
Prime Time by modern ageing expert Bec Wilson is an engaging and informative podcast that helps people prepare for retirement and the second half of life, not only financially but personally, psychologically and socially too.
What are you working on now?
As always, I am busy working on my next book. It’s early days, and I can’t give away too much at this stage other than to say I’m hoping to surprise readers with a twist on my usual protagonist.
Start reading Chapter 11 from Mrs Winterbottom Takes a Gap Year by Joanna Nell
Start reading Chapter 1 from Tell Her She's Dreamin' by Simone Amelia Jordan