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Bestselling novelist Patrick Taylor’s literary obscurity

Author Patrick Taylor at his home on Salt Spring Island September 3, 2015.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

He is one of Canada's bestselling authors and he has a new book out, but you won't find Patrick Taylor headlining any of the country's major literary festivals this fall.

Taylor has sold more than 1.7 million books in all formats worldwide thanks to the popularity of his Irish Country Doctor series – and yet he operates outside the usual literary circles, chugging out novels at a remarkable rate to a dedicated readership, and promoting them at regional libraries and independent bookstores. "He in some respects is a stealth bestseller in Canada," says Jamie Broadhurst with the Vancouver-based Raincoast Books, which distributes Taylor's work (he is published out of New York). "He really is the biggest bestseller that not everyone has heard of – yet."

Taylor flies under the CanLit radar atop a hill on Salt Spring Island, B.C. From his writing studio with a view of the Strait of Georgia, the retired 74-year-old physician (and infertility pioneer – more on that in a moment) brings to life the village of Ballybucklebo, Northern Ireland – a tiny place of his own invention, but now intimately familiar to his readers around the world. The books have been published in 13 languages. In Canada, they are perennial bestsellers, appearing on Canadian bestseller lists more than 180 times since 2008, according to Raincoast.

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Shortly after moving to Salt Spring in 2010, Taylor popped into the town's used bookstore. He walked over to the fiction section, grabbed an Irish Country Doctor book, took it to the cash and asked, "Do you want me to sign that? Make it worth twice as much money?" The woman behind the counter responded, "That depends. Are you Patrick Taylor?" He tells the story now, laughing, while signing a pile of books he found at that same store during a visit last month. (They know who he is now.)

Taylor's Irish Country Doctor books concern an initially fresh out of medical school GP named Barry Laverty, who gets himself a job in 1964 Ballybucklebo working (and rooming) with the much older Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly – who could use a few lessons in bedside manners. They're pure genre books – character- and plot-driven, bursting with Irish charm and language. Each features a glossary at the back, in case you weren't sure of the meaning of, say, hooley (party), stocious (drunk) or buck eejit (imbecile).

Taylor was born in Blackpool, England, and raised in Bangor, Northern Ireland – a seaside town east of Belfast in County Down just east of the fictitious Ballybucklebo. The son of a physician, he knew he wanted to be a doctor from the age of nine, when he was struck with polio. "I was in hospital for three months and I was just so impressed with the doctors and the nurses. … And I never, never wavered."

But he also began writing, and at 16 won a prize for an essay written in the style of Francis Bacon. "And that was the last time," he laughs. (Although he was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in B.C. in 2005).

In 1969, Taylor was working in Belfast and "as a kind of cathartic thing" he wrote his first short story about the Troubles. That was the same year he did a locum in Alliston, Ont. Concerned about the political situation in Northern Ireland, he sought something more permanent in Canada. He later worked in Calgary, Winnipeg and ultimately Vancouver. (In Calgary, at the Foothills Medical Centre, he established the IVF clinic and led the team that produced Canada's third test-tube baby – her baby photo sits next to her wedding photo in his office.)

He was still writing, albeit academically. As editor-in-chief of the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, though, he also wrote a humour column. When someone at the Canadian Medical Association Journal saw it and asked Taylor if he would consider writing for the CMAJ, he said he had a character he was interested in developing; would the journal be interested in a column from that character's perspective? That character, the crusty old doctor Reilly, later morphed into O'Reilly when Taylor went on to write for Stitches: The Journal of Medical Humour.

At some point, Taylor's friend, the bestselling author Jack Whyte, offered a suggestion. "He said to me, 'You know you've got something there, Taylor; why don't you stop writing those stupid humour columns and write a novel?' So I did." Taylor's voice drops to a whisper. "God, it was awful. It was 800 pages of landfill."

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But he did publish a book of short stories in 1997, Only Wounded, and a novel, Pray for Us Sinners, in 2000 – both of which dealt with the Troubles. When he suggested to an editor that they "take my columns and stick 'em between covers and make a buck on that, too," she responded, "Pat, if your name was Garrison Keillor, I would be able to," he recalls. "The implication is: Who the hell's ever heard of Pat Taylor?"

But she added, "I really like the O'Reilly character; why don't you develop a novel around him?"

Running the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver while also a professor at UBC's Faculty of Medicine, Taylor spent evenings writing in his condo – and brought his laptop to work so he could work an hour here or there in between meetings, until he retired in 2001.

His first O'Reilly tale was initially published as The Apprenticeship of Dr. Laverty by Insomniac Press in Toronto, in 2004. "That rocketed to instant obscurity like everything else I'd ever published," says Taylor. But the New York publishing house Forge took notice, and in 2007, it republished the book as An Irish Country Doctor, making the New York Times bestseller list.

"I'm a broken-down old guy. I used to do research. My sole ambition was to get a work of fiction published, and I did it with my short stories. And then I got a bit arrogant and carried away and kept doing it. And it was just unbelievable," Taylor says. "I was on a two-book contract. I had no idea what the next book was going to be. But it had to be an Irish Country Something."

An Irish Doctor in Love and at Sea, published this past Thanksgiving weekend, is the tenth book in the series. This novel is dedicated to his father, a squadron leader in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War, and the book opens with a picture of Dr. James (Jimmy) Taylor.

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"He was a very modest man, my father," says Taylor, when asked how he would have felt about seeing his photo on the book's opening pages. "He'd probably give me hell. … But he can't, he's dead."

Set mostly during the Second World War, the novel tells the story of O'Reilly's medical training, his stint on a warship as its doctor, and his relationship with his first love, Deirdre. Heavily researched, the book includes details from real-life battles and other stories of war – as well as contemporary medical practices of the day.

Book 11 (Irish Country Love Stories – "no more battleships, no more hospital, no deaths") is set to be published next October. And the day before our interview, Taylor wrote the first 1,000 words of book 12.

"I tend to go into a sort of postpartum depression when I finish a book," says Taylor.

While a couple of fellow successful Irish-Canadian writers have been busy this fall at the country's prestige arts events – TIFF for Emma Donoghue, whose award-winning Room is now a feature film, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Anakana Schofield, whose Martin John is shortlisted for the $100,000 honour – Taylor has made appearances at the Salt Spring Island Public Library and the Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival.

"Patrick is not above going to small towns, not above going to regional libraries. For him, if he can spend an afternoon with readers, he's perfectly happy," says Broadhurst. "The literary baubles and the starry lights – not something that concerns him at all."

Taylor is a polymath who has written six textbooks and translated others from French. He can play the bagpipes, and in his living room, there's a War of 1812 frigate model that he built back when he was doing microsurgery to keep his fingers supple. (He can't carry a tune, he insists, when asked if there's anything he can't do.)

"I've had a constant wonderful learning experience all my life doing new stuff, never being in a rut," he says during a lengthy interview – interrupted the odd time by his wife, Dorothy (who prepares a lunch that includes Irish country chicken breasts with champ), to point out a pileated woodpecker at the bird-feeder or a rainbow stretching across the sky. Paintings of the cover art from two of his Irish Country Doctor books – the first one and A Dublin Student Doctor – hang in the hallway of their sprawling bungalow.

Taylor, with his heavy breathing (he's a former smoker) and Irishman's gift of the gab (a friend once warned he should not kiss the Blarney Stone because he might never stop talking), is gracious and social. He loves engaging with readers, and replies personally to fan mail.

"I had a beautiful e-mail yesterday from a lady; all it said was, 'I'm not Irish, I'm not Catholic. I cried when Kinky met Archie. Please keep writing.'" At this point he chokes up. "It gets to you. I get an awful lot of letters from people who have been sick and they say, 'Your books have helped me through the illness.' For an old doctor, that's very nice."

He doesn't like all the questions he gets – he scoffs at the time he was asked by the local library about his philosophy on writing. But his answer, even to that "bloody silly" question, feels more like a gift than a reprimand.

"Life's a carousel," he responded. "You get one ticket; enjoy the ride. And if you're a writer, take notes."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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