Author spotlight: John Graham-Pole

John Graham-Pole graduated from University of London College of Medicine in 1966 and was a clinician, teacher, and researcher in the field of childhood cancer and palliative care for forty years. He co-founded the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine in the 1970s. In 2007, he moved to Antigonish after marrying Dorothy Lander, a professor of adult education at StFX. In 2018, John and Dorothy co-founded HARP: The People’s Press, dedicated to publications on art and health. You can find many of HARP’s books at The Curious Cat bookstore and teashop on Antigonish’s Main Street. John has written eleven books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and you can learn more about his work by visiting his website.

After living and working in cities across the UK and US for many decades, what drew you to the Antigonish area?

I fell in love with a Canadian woman, Dorothy Lander. She’s lived in Antigonish for 35 years and was attending a course on arts and healing I was helping to run at University of Florida, where I was working. We share many interests and we were both approaching what’s laughingly called retirement age, she as a prof of adult education at StFX and I as a prof of pediatric oncology and palliative care at UF. So we got married here in our kitchen fifteen years ago, and I’ve been blissed out ever since.  

You’ve released two YA novels over the past few years, Blood Work and A Boy and His Soul, that feature young protagonists with cancer. Why did you want to explore this topic through a fictional lens?

(And I’m just wrapping up my third – Songlines – this time about two Dalhousie students, told from the viewpoint of the girlfriend of a senior who develops a brain cancer.)

I’ve written a large number of articles, both academic and non-academic, about young people with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. And I’ve also written two medical memoirs, one to be published soon, and the other – “Journeys with a Thousand Heroes” – published in 2018 by Wising Up Press. Both these books are full of stories of my patients, and it struck me that to write novels inspired by those “thousand heroes” was a much more appealing way to attract – and to educate – readers among young people and that huge population of grown-ups who also read YA novels. And I think writing good fiction is mostly more challenging than writing non-fiction.

Blood Work and A Boy and His Soul were both released through your company HARP Publishing. What led you to found HARP and share your work with readers in this way?

Both Dorothy and I have a long time interest in the healing arts, and we realized there was a niche that ought to be filled. HARP Publishing, The People’s Press is a multi-media publisher focusing on the healing arts and the arts for health equity. Our focus is a popular readership of caregivers and care receivers (which means all of us!), in both electronic and print media. The acronym, HARP, stands for Healing Arts, Reconciling People. Our name represents both art and cooperation amongst all communities for our greater personal and collective health. We were drawn from the start to the harp’s healing symbolism in creating a publisher with a particular stress on the healing power of art, especially through telling stories. 

What has it been like to set up shop as a small press in Nova Scotia?

The steepest learning curve I’ve been on since medical school – and that was almost 60 years ago! If we’d realized what we were getting into at the age of 76 and 71 respectively I suspect we’d never have embarked on this journey. We started out in 2018 planning to publish mostly our own writing, starting out with The People’s Photo Album, a pictorial genealogy of the Antigonish Movement. We launched it on Parliament Hill with three senators present. Then word got out and our own books had to quickly take a backseat to publishing authors from all over Canada and America with compelling work that fit right into our niche and we felt needed to be published. Among our 14 publications so far are three focused on healing from war and genocide (Indigenous, Guatemalan, Armenian), three books of poetry, and a book and online audio flipbook for young ones—Hmmm – M the Humdinger—about difference (the heroine communicates only by humming).

You’ve also looked back over your career through poetry, essays, and memoir. Do you have a favourite mode of creative expression?

Play in all forms. I happened to go to primary school with John Cleese and to medical school with Graham Chapman (both Monty Python luminaries), and later became friendly with Patch Adams. So I became aware of the healing power of laughter very early on and used to do a lot of what I called “playshops” with adult colleagues. Children of course know the value of play instinctively, but sadly this gets suppressed somewhere along with the emergence of adolescent angst.

Overall, what role do you think art and creativity have to play in the healthcare system?

There’s been so much written in the past thirty years since we started our Arts in Medicine program and the Center for Arts in Medicine back in the seventies. Patch Adams wrote a foreword to the book I wrote in 2000 entitled Illness and the Art of Creative Self-Expression. His opening lines were: “Art is an essential nutrient for human culture. Every society has used art to create a social glue, to express its faith and ideas, and to interpret the world…Our current economic system has disconnected art from the general public…The consequence of this social disconnection from the arts is the malaise we physicians see as so pervasive in our society.” I certainly couldn’t say it better, but I’ll just add that I spent almost my whole 40-year career hanging out with children. Children don’t lurch—the way we adults so often do from past regret to future anxiety, totally missing the bit in the middle: our precious gift of the present. They are artists in life—so let them be our leaders and our teachers.

Are there other writers with a medical background that you admire?

Another tough question—there are so many. Here’s a short alphabetical list:

Rafael Campo, Larry Dossey, Atul Gawande, Jerome Groopman, Paul Kalanthi, Perri Klas, Vincent Lam, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Jock Murray, Sherwin Nuland, Danielle Ofri, Oliver Sachs, Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, and Abraham Verghese. And that’s not even to mention all those wonderful nurse-writers, and…and…and…

During the summer months, how do you enjoy spending your time when not writing?

When I read that question to Dorothy, she burst out laughing—something to do with the ridiculous and probably unhealthy time we spent at our computers all year round… But we do have a wonderful 1.8 acres of land in which we grow lots of fruits and veggies, as well as planting many new trees every year. We have no lawn to mow, because we are doing our best to attract all the pollinators. We have some important daily, rituals—walking our “forest”, reading aloud to each other, riding our e-bikes, weekend trips around the province, yoga, vegetarian cooking…

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

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