Saturday, 24 January 2015

What a treat! Interview with Linda Chamberlain, author of THE FIRST VET

Linda, thank you for agreeing to be featured on my blog.

Before last month, I rarely read a book that featured horses! Now, I have read three. I thought a lot of the book & film “WARHORSE” as I read this. Not as much for the content, but for the fact that horses have been used (and abused) by humans for years. One of my favourite stories ever written, ANIMAL FARM, depicts this perfectly with the catchphrase “must work harder”.

In your book, THE FIRST VET, we get to see the other side. How men fought to protect and create a better life for animals by creating a new profession, veterinary science. Ultimately, they had a vested interest. The longer the horse lived, the more they could use it. However, your addition of complex characters added to my overall enjoyment.

This was my official review…

5 stars – Review on Amazon and Goodreads

“I came across this book by chance after I sent out a request for book links a few days before Christmas! For a change, I decided to buy some books instead of getting free books! I loved the sound of this one and I was not disappointed - what a fantastic story!

Basically, this book is written from the point of view of Bracy, a man who has given up a career as a surgeon to become one of the first vets ever. Even though set in the late 18th Century, the story is vivid and I immediately liked Bracy a lot. He stands by his principles, is kind, hardworking, and will not tolerate corruption.

Whilst challenging the new head of the veterinary college, a surgeon more interested in lacing his own pocket, he meets his "crippled" sister, who becomes another key figure in this well-crafted tale. Without giving away the plot, Bracy then goes on to establish himself as a vet in London and prove that he can help people keep their horses, and livelihood, alive.

I devoured this book and learnt a lot in the process. I would highly recommend for readers who love a romantic story with a historical element and horses! I also think it does a lot to raise awareness of the perception of disability that still exists today.”

What do you think of my review?

It made me emotional and I had trouble reading it aloud to my family. I’m a very emotional person and it was my first professional review so I was a little choked that you liked it so much. It’s great if friends, or even strangers, think your book is good but if a reviewer likes it, you have to take yourself very seriously. I used to do theatre reviews for a living and know how jaded some critics can become. I was never jaded but a critic searches for quality so much that they end up demanding it, unlike someone who doesn’t get out much! I was chuffed with your very erudite and well written review!

I am over the moon that my review created this response… you deserve my praise.

Moving on, did you find it hard to write historical fiction? I am currently writing one and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done! One step forward, two steps backwards. How did you research it?

Hard? I was screaming, ‘Let me write chick lit,’ most days. Writing isn’t easy. (I totally agree…)

Writing historical fiction is so frustrating and difficult that it’s a wonder anyone finishes one. There were so many times that I had to rewrite because I’d got the history wrong. Not all of it was easy to research. How did they ‘put a horse to sleep’ in 1794? How long would it take to lead a lame horse from Camden to the city of London? Such useful information is not on the Internet but there were plenty of sites telling me that women didn’t wear knickers in those days!

Fortunately, I was writing about a man who wrote a lot of books and he helped me a lot. He told me of his battle with the head of the college and explained many of the veterinary terms and medicines used at the time. I included his recipes and I used many of his cases. There was even an account of a young child burnt in an accident who Bracy thrust into a huge wine bucket full of icy water which was on the dinner table. It wasn’t generally known at the time that cold water would soothe a burn. I loved being able to put real events like that into the book although I swapped the dining room for a wood yard.

It’s a well-documented period in veterinary history and there are a number of books available that cover those early days. I also took myself many times to the Royal Veterinary College library and the British Library. There I found Bracy’s books, his many periodicals and his letters. That’s how I knew he was a man determined to give up surgery to help the horse, a man who cared little for money. He was a worthy hero of a book.

What was the editorial process like once the book was written? Did this take a long time?

I had a wonderful editor – Liz Bailey. She has written novels in the Georgian period herself for Penguin and was pretty damned sharp.  She kept my writing tight and she kept me in period if I slipped up, which I did occasionally. Thoroughbred? Did they call horses thoroughbreds then, Linda? she asked. No, they were known as blood horses, I should have remembered that.

I spent a few months rewriting once she gave me her suggestions. It’s not always easy to hear where your book is not working but it’s something authors and journalists have to learn to listen to. You need to find someone who treats you and your manuscript with sympathy and respect. They need to be able to explain why it’s not working. I particularly had to work with my opening chapter, a sagging middle and the character of Edward Coleman, the head of the college, who was too urbane and placid until I gave him a bit more temper. (This worked very well)

Can you tell us about the inspiration for the story?

Bracy Clark himself was the inspiration. He led in the first horse to the veterinary college; he was one of our first vets. He is still highly controversial today and I am drawn to a good contretemps! Let me explain…you see, he was ahead of his time 200 years ago and horse owners and veterinary professionals are still struggling to keep up with him now. He spoke out against strong bits, spurs and whips but most importantly he made the important discovery that nailing a metal shoe to a horse’s flexible hoof was harmful and shortening their lives.

He proved his case using science but his work was ignored by the veterinary establishment and it’s still being condemned now by many sceptics who remain unconvinced. Ah, but that is changing slowly; his name crops up on a number of websites and his work is being revisited.

More and more people are riding horses without shoes, myself included. I first found him in an obscure book by a German vet of all places and thought he’d make a brilliant subject for a book.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I began researching him, though, because the real story was very strong. He didn’t care about money and he spoke against the abuse of these animals the economy so relied upon. His battle against corruption helped me to understand why his veterinary work was suppressed; he was making someone extremely uncomfortable. That someone was the head of the veterinary college; a man he accused of pocketing the student fees, a man who was patenting and selling horse shoes and medicines! Imagine the headlines in the popular press today. (Animal welfare cases can get into the headlines today, but I wonder if it would make the front page?)

I was completely engrossed by the two main characters, Bracy and Christina. I respected Bracy for his dedication and Christina for her fiery nature. I found the way they both dealt with her disability to be beautifully portrayed. Do you think society has changed significantly in over 200 years in its perception of disability?

Yes, I do. I’m not saying it’s easy for people with disabilities but at least they are sometimes admired and celebrated for their achievements. They are given some protection in law against discrimination and they are much more likely to lead full, independent lives.

I went to the Paralympics just as I was beginning to write The First Vet and it was awesome. There were riders who had limbs missing, some who could barely walk and yet they rode a horse in a crowded stadium with such skill. Seeing them made me confident that someone with Christina’s disability would manage much better on a horse than she would on the ground. Riding would give her a rare chance for equality, a need in her that Bracy, as a Quaker, would understand. Thanks to the brilliant riders of the Paralympics, my character of Christina was born.  

I have never ridden a horse, and find that I am nervous amongst animals, having never had much exposure to them growing up in Gibraltar. What experience do you have, and did this help you write your novel?

I have ridden horses most of my life and I don’t seem to be able to give them up even now! I have my own horse, plus one for my daughter, and we look after them ourselves. If you have horses you learn how to care for them when they are injured or ill – you become their nurse even though you can’t become their vet. So, sadly, I am familiar with some of the medical conditions described in The First Vet and that was a great help. There is a scene in the book where Bracy is fighting for the life of one of his patients. It was very emotional for me to write because I’d been there and done that. Equally, there were appalling treatments that I was ignorant of, such as firing which is now illegal in Britain. Bracy described in one of his books how a burning hot, metal rod was applied to a horse with an injured tendon. He began to abhor the practice and said the scene he witnessed at a forge in Brighton was enough to ‘make a grown man shudder’.

Vanessa, don’t be frightened of horses! Remember they are grass eaters and are rarely aggressive. (I will try to remember that)

The head of the veterinary college, Edward Coleman, was not someone I regard as honest or likeable. He was definitely the villain, even though he kept the college in an outwardly ship-shape condition. The way your story evolved I was drawn back to my GCSE English days, when I studied THE CONE GATHERERS. I was in tears when I read that book, since its depiction of disability was brought to life by Duror, a man driven to madness by his disgust of his wife. Do you think a “nasty” character adds a certain depth to a story? Did anyone inspire Edward?

Yes, a story needs characters of contrast – the yin and yang of a book. A nasty, or negative, character gives the hero something to battle against and something to overcome. Once again, my character was based on the man himself or, at least, what I could find out about him in the history books. Edward Coleman was the head of the college for more than 40 years and one historian described him as an ‘unmitigated evil’.

Bracy’s own account of him would make a wonderful libel trial were he to write something similar today with our current laws against defamation unless he had proof of the corruption that he alleged. I didn’t set out to make Coleman a villain but the more I read of him the more I turned against him. Importantly, he couldn’t be two dimensional in my book. He was said to be a charming and popular man, particularly with his less educated students. He successfully secured the future of the college by getting funding from the government by providing vets for the cavalry regiments. He wasn’t all bad and I had to ensure that his treatment of Christina was misguided and not simply cruel. I would have been unjust had I made him a ‘straight forward baddie’.

But, according to Bracy, there was something very unethical going on thanks to Coleman and his young assistant, William Sewell. Places on the veterinary course in exchange for payment was one of the allegations. With such stories abounding, I didn’t need to make one up.

When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

Primary school, probably. By secondary school I was rewriting news stories from the newspaper in my spare time. When I got a reporter’s job on my first paper (rather than go to university) I was writing on my days off. Time I got some help for this addiction? It’s the news story rather than writing that hooks me. A literary agent once advised me to ‘quit focusing on an issue and get on with the romance’ but I can’t separate them. They fuel each other. (I agree with you. Not all readers are interested in the facts, but I am not one of them. Give me a well-researched story and a healthy dose of romance and I am in heaven)

What advice would you give to new authors to finish their books?

Borrow a news editor who shouts in your ear – ‘Where’s that bloody story.’ That always helps productivity. Failing that – find out which is your most awake time of day to write; some people are better in the morning, others at night. Then devote some of that time to your writing. Never, ever wash the kitchen floor in your peak time when you could be nurturing that manuscript. Don’t iron any clothes and seriously consider whether or not skirting boards look better with a light dusting of…well, dust. (Ha ha ha… so that’s where I’ve been going wrong this year! I decided to do housework!)

Thank you for your time. Can you tell us where we can find out more about you and buy your books?

Thank you for having me here, Vanessa, and good luck with your own historical. Dare I ask which period you are working in?

Victorian Times. My novel is based on the lives of my great, great grandparents – the first Beanland to arrive in Gibraltar in 1866!

Find out about Linda via her Horse blog 

Follow her on TWITTER

Buy THE FIRST VET now as a paperback or for your Kindle/ Kindle App.


  1. I'm the Liz Bailey so kindly mentioned by Linda here. I loved her book, even when it still needed work. I found it inspiring and I loved her voice. It was one of the most enjoyable editing tasks I've been privileged to work on. I'm so very glad my faith in the book is being recognised.

  2. What a lovely interview, Vanessa and Linda. The First Vet sounds a great read and is now on my TBR! Good luck to you both with all your writing projects.

  3. Liz - if you let me know your website links, I'll add it to this post! I truly loved this book - thanks for stopping by :)