28 July 2023
Marisa Haetzman describes becoming part of writing duo Ambrose Parry with her author husband
I never harboured any ambitions to write a book.
My husband, Chris Brookmyre, award winning crime writer and author of more than twenty novels, had been successfully ploughing that furrow for two decades. Having minutely observed his career at close quarters, I knew better than most the level of commitment and application required and had never felt a pull to follow suit.
I had my own career. I was an NHS consultant anaesthetist with little time for reading, never mind writing. But then in my mid-forties I decided I needed a break, a sabbatical to regroup and recharge my depleted batteries. For some time, I had entertained a notion to return to university to study a subject purely for its own sake, with no thought of results or career progression. Something to stretch my mind, to prove to myself that I was still capable of doing so. I plumped for a masters degree in the History of Medicine, a subject I already had an interest in.
For my dissertation, I chose to research the early use of ether and chloroform in mid nineteenth century Edinburgh. A propitious choice as it turned out. It led me to 52 Queen Street and Dr James Young Simpson, professor of midwifery and chloroform pioneer.
It’s fair to say I became a little obsessed. James Young Simpson was a compelling figure, and nineteenth century Edinburgh was a boundlessly fascinating place. The more I read, the more I talked, and fortunately my husband listened. One evening after dinner (and a bottle of wine) he declared ‘I think there might be a book in this.’
It was a subject he kept returning to, usually over dinner and more wine: the possibility that we might write something together. I was sceptical at first, but that scepticism eventually transmuted into curiosity. Could such a collaboration work? How would we go about it? And would we still be married by the end?
Eventually I accepted that though it was conceived over drinks, it was a notion that still sounded plausible in the cold sobriety of the morning. We discussed some of the practicalities, and quickly came up with a pseudonym. I suggested Ambrose Parry, an anglicised version of Ambroise Paré, an important figure in the history of medicine who made notable contributions to the fields of surgery and obstetrics. The pen name turned out to be the easiest part of the project and was decided upon before one word of the first book was written.
Once we moved from idea to intention, I had to learn how to write. How to be expansive. How to tap into my creativity (I knew it was in there somewhere). How to just let go and make stuff up. A tall order for someone more in tune with academic writing, where very little of that applies – certainly not the making stuff up bit. I had to be convinced that it was a skill like any other, something that could be learned through diligent application and practice.
I wish I could say that once the decision was made, everything just fell into place. That once I had a pen in my hand and had given myself permission to do so, the words just flowed out of me. Unfortunately, it was nothing like that. It was particularly daunting to leave behind a career where I knew what I was doing and take on a project where I definitely did not. To go from being at the top of my profession to the bottom rung of another.
On the plus side, I had someone massively experienced to guide me. I became a willing apprentice, learning on the job, gaining a working knowledge of how to develop character, story and structure.
The early stages proved to be uncomfortable, and I don’t think I would have had the courage to show my first efforts to anyone other than the person who knew me best and wasn’t going to judge me too harshly. I kept telling myself that I was a work in progress, much like the book.
A week’s residential course at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s creative writing centre, acted as an accelerant, forcing me to take ownership of what I was doing, to be bold and share my nascent scribblings with strangers. It was not for the fainthearted but nor can any real progress be made without the willingness to expose yourself. To be found wanting. To be a bit rubbish. To accept constructive criticism and strive to be better.
Fast forward several years and our fourth book (Voices of the Dead) is about to be published. It is only now that I have fully embraced the idea of being a writer, despite the fact that I still consider myself to be something of a novice. There is no doubt that my writing has improved, that I have learned to harness my imagination and be more expansive. My admiration for other writers has increased exponentially as a result of having to grapple with these challenges myself. And now I am set to explore new territory, taking all that I have learned and applying it to the separate discipline of writing a TV adaptation of our first novel The Way of all Flesh.
So yes, I’m very glad I decided to do it. Yes, I’m glad I decided to take that leap. And yes, we are still married.
Voices of the Dead by Ambrose Parry is published by Canongate (£16.99)
Are you interested in co-authoring a book? Read how husband-and-wife team Olivia Poulet and Laurence Dobiesz collaborated on their novel.