Dr Sebastian Kalwij interview: The GP fiction writer

South London GP Dr Sebastian Kalwij has published a novel about a supercharged chlamydia strain.

What was it that first made you turn to writing fiction?

During my MSc course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 1997, I had to write a lot of essays. One of the topics was planning the investigation of a meningitis outbreak at a large school.

I decided to write this in the format of a medical thriller. I loved doing this. I had to tone it down a lot for the purpose of the essay, but somehow it stuck with me.

For many years I have been writing non-fiction in my role as GP chlamydia screening lead in Lambeth, south London.

I always thought it was hard to convey the importance of chlamydia screening. It was difficult to motivate colleagues to offer opportunistic testing to young people, who rarely came forward asking to be tested.

One day, cycling home, I wondered if fiction would have more impact than facts. What if I could turn chlamydia into something much more sinister, something which has been genetically modified?

A supercharged chlamydia strain causing havoc in London and Paris might start people talking.

Where did you find inspiration for your debut novel?

I love reading, especially medical thrillers. GPs are in a privileged position, in that we meet a variety of people, day in, day out, every 10 minutes. Patients and their lifestyles are a rich source of inspiration.

What is your book about?

Naomi Dubois, a brilliant Parisian scientist, is hired by international scientific consultancy Team Phoenix to work on developing a vaccine against Chlamydia tremendis (a fictional strain invented for the book). When the team's agenda takes a detour that threatens to stall Naomi's ambitions, she creates a more potent strain of chlamydia and tests it on an unsuspecting member of the public. The new strain kills its first victims before they have the chance to spread the infection.

Team Phoenix's newest recruits, London-based scientists Chris Moore and Ravi Kapoor, are working on a prototype vaccine. Naomi joins forces with them and covertly uses their findings to modify the strain. She tests it on Chris, triggering an outbreak of the supercharged infection among young people in London.

With the death toll rapidly rising, a media frenzy ensues. Journalist and blogger Nina Simmons launches her own investigation after the death of her best friend, and eventually succeeds in tracing the outbreak to its origin.

With Chris in critical condition and the outbreak threatening to become a full-blown epidemic, the race is on to find Naomi and the vaccine that may hold the key to saving Chris and many others.

The story starts in Paris and moves to London. Some of the scenes play out in a glamorous and extravagant hotel in Dubai.

I've devised my fictional chlamydia strain, C tremendis, to distance my story from vaccine development in the real world of C trachomatis, to avoid misleading my readers into a false belief that a vaccine is readily available. It's not and it won't be for some time.

For now and the near future, testing is the only way to detect asymptomatic infections with chlamydia.

What do you like most about writing fiction?

The total freedom. In non-fiction writing, each statement has to be cross-referenced and you have to be very economical with words.

I like to let the story flow. I created some of my chapters without knowing how they would end. You can play with the dialogue and see which version looks best.

The stories travel with me inside my head and I play with story lines while waiting for the tube or travelling on my bike.

Another aspect I like is researching the details and for that, the internet is great. An interactive map of Paris is available at the click of a mouse. It tells you the precise route of bus 20, for example.

There are other fun parts, too. The cocktail created by one of the lead characters, Chris, I tried out myself. I ordered a bottle of green melon liqueur online and experimented with different combinations.

Being absorbed by a story at the end of a long day in the surgery, sometimes typing away until midnight, is very inspiring and relaxing at the same time.

What other projects do you have in hand at the moment?

Before writing my novel about chlamydia, I wrote a book about the consequences of climate change in the near future, and space travel.

I may retrieve this draft from the bottom drawer of my desk and shape it into a more publishable form.

A sequel to Supercharged will come out later in the year. The new story already exists in my mind.

I know where I'd like the main part of the story to take place and I am planning my next holiday around this to do some further research. Chlamydia will return!

* Download our iPad edition to read an extract from Supercharged.

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