Features/Q&A/What to SEE/Literature/Perth Festival

Writers Weekend: Just what the doctor ordered

17 February 2023

Michelle Johnston is an emergency doctor whose lifeline is writing. In the second interview with West Australian talent ahead of Writers Weekend, she tells Julie Hosking why we need to keep looking for those slivers of joy.

It’s a scene familiar to us from endless medical dramas: An emergency department overflowing with patients in various states of distress. There are tears, so many tears. There’s anger, sometimes violence. And blood, of course, lots of blood. 

The reality, says one who walks the walk, is something far more mundane — and profound. 

Michelle Johnston is an emergency doctor in a busy Perth hospital where “the scrubs are shapeless” and the days full of “trauma and mess”. 

So how has she found the time or energy to not only write for pleasure but complete two compelling novels? It’s part of her survival kit, Johnston maintains. Writing is her sustenance. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the good doctor mines the medical profession for her fiction – there is gold in those corridors and cubicles, even if she acknowledges it can be a struggle to extract at times. 

A crowd of people stands or sits on picnic rugs or chairs on the lawn under trees. In the back corner is a white marquee covering a stage. This is Fremantle Arts Centre during Writers Weekend.
Fremantle Arts Centre is full of wordly wonders. Photo supplied

Set in Wittenoom, her debut Dustfall explored the asbestos town’s legacy from the perspective of two doctors fleeing professional difficulty – the first as the dangers of asbestos are being buried, the second stumbling across the abandoned hospital more than 30 years later. 

For the follow-up, Tiny Uncertain Miracles, Johnston returned to the city hospital scene she knows so well. But this is no ordinary medical drama. Chaplain Marick is struggling with the loss of his wife and child when he accepts a job at a large public hospital. Here he meets a scientist convinced the bacteria he uses to produce protein are manifesting something miraculous.

Johnston is part of a session entitled Grey’s Anatomy at Writers Weekend, where she will be joined by two authors whose books also have medical settings. Fellow West Australian Maria Papas won the Hungerford Award for her novel Skimming Stones, about a paediatrics nurse confronting her past, while former zoologist Ben Bravery writes about his journey from cancer patient to physician in The Patient Doctor. It should make for an enlightening conversation. 

In keeping with this year’s theme, Steadfast as the Stars, Julie Hosking asked Johnston for a little insight into her universe ahead of the event. 

Julie Hosking: Tell us about the genesis of your latest novel — what universal force was driving you to write Tiny Uncertain Miracles.  

Michelle Johnston: Tiny Uncertain Miracles was a story trying to find its shape for a long time. I burned through countless drafts shoehorning narratives into a setting I was desperate to use – the strange, labyrinthine tunnels and dead-ends and surprising doors of an old crumbly hospital – but each failed.  

It was only when the most inexplicable of lines floated unbidden into my brain – as though it truly drifted down from the cosmos – that the story could take root, and I could go on to explore what my writerly mind obviously needed to explore. The line was, “What happens when a scientist, who is using bacteria to make proteins, comes into work and discovers his bacteria have started making gold?”   

The book then grew around it, accretions around the grit, allowing the theme to emerge – why do any of us believe the things we do? As I wrote, this thematic question grew more urgent considering the contemporary crucible of anti-science and the backlash against evidence and fact we are all experiencing. Why would a man of God be arguing for science, while a scientist fumbles around in the mystic and his unswerving belief in fate? 

JH: Your festival session is entitled Grey’s Anatomy. As a doctor at a hospital, how far from reality are the starry-eyed depictions of medicine on TV? 

MJ: We neither yell nor have sex with each other as often as they do in television series. Well-written, deeply researched shows often contain grains of truth, but what value is truth when clicks can be sold to the fickle, hungry world of subscription? No. Mostly TV and reality are chasms apart. Our scrubs are shapeless, CPR rarely results in a gaspingly awake, grateful patient on the end of a push, and events are simultaneously more mundane and brutally tragic in real life. 

JH: What elements take a starring role in your writing process? How do you bring the shimmering possibilities to life?  

MJ: The north star for me is love. It’s the nuclear fuel that keeps the whole process ablaze. When time is short, and conditions not optimal for writing, I sit with my manuscript and remind myself of what I love about it – the immersion, the setting, the transportation, the story, the act of creating, fashioning something new in the world. It’s an inoculation against procrastination, a leap of love, a joy that I’m able to do it, and a gift I may be able to give others – a new work that might entertain or bring others their own sliver of joy or give them opportunity to think of things subtly anew. 

JH: Did you take a different approach to your latest novel than your debut, Dustfall? 

MJ: While writing Tiny Uncertain Miracles I had the dubious companionship of the devil of the second novel syndrome – the inner critic. This was barely present with Dustfall  as I hadn’t a clue what I was doing back then. With Tiny Uncertain Miracles I felt I should have some proficiency and knowledge in this novel-writing business. Turned out I was wrong, and my carp of an inner voice had no qualms about letting me know.  

My saving grace is pig-headedness, which permits me to push beyond the terrible drafts and the disparaging voice. I also returned, in remedial fashion, to Kathryn Heyman as a mentor, who gently pummelled those voices out of me, as well as an incredible agent and publisher (Martin Shaw and Catherine Milne, of Harper Collins), both of whom hold my fragile writer’s heart tenderly. 

JH: If someone says reach for the stars, what springs to mind? 

MJ: Reaching for the stars feels like the most glorious cat-like stretch into possibility, whatever and wherever that might be. Go for it, people, however you define the stars. 

JH: Describe your perfect night under the West Australian sky. 

MJ: I may have had it. In a place called Forrest, accessible by only rail or air, so close to the WA/SA border it doesn’t care for time zones, with a fire blazing in a drum, the Milky Way phosphorescent above, and a glass of wine in hand. Nearby is a meteorite hunting station, and a Nissan hut scratched with graffiti from American World War II pilots who were stationed there for reasons not at all clear to anyone. No light pollution, no phone reception, just stories and wonder and the galaxies hanging low overhead. 

JH: If you had to sum up your star power, what would it be? And what do you wish the universe would bless you with? 

MJ: Tricky one. I think helping others to know it’s OK to experience joy despite it all. Go for it, have everything, see all the colours, find happiness in the heat of the tiniest of things, don’t apologise for keeping the throttle on full. We’re all absurd, so let us be blessed with the ability to laugh and play, even in the face of our small and large apocalypses.  

JH: What are you looking forward to the most at Steadfast as the Stars? 

MJ: Everything, if that’s not too greedy. Holly Ringland! Jennifer Down! Sequoia Nagamatsu! Portland Jones! Alice Pung! Alice Nelson! Lee Kofman! Susan Midalia! Poetry! Stories! Legends! Spirits!  

Writers Weekend is at Fremantle Arts Centre, 25-26 February 2023

Read our first Writers Weekend interview with author Holden Sheppard. 

Pictured top: Michelle Johnston says love is her north star – it keeps the whole process ablaze. Photo supplied

Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.

Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

Past Articles

  • Spring into the school holidays

    From Awesome activities to magical nannies, there are so many marvellous ways to have a jolly holiday, writes Julie Hosking.

  • In the eye of the storm

    Breaksea’s poignant story of the search for light in the darkest hours ignites the senses. Julie Hosking rides the waves of emotion.

Read Next

  • Reading time • 10 minutesFringe World Festival
  • Carina Roberts and Gakuro Matsui in The Nutcracker How to watch ballet

    How to watch ballet

    16 November 2023

    If you’ve booked tickets to Christmas favourite The Nutcracker and you’re not sure what to expect, look no further! Rita Clarke has you covered.

    Reading time • 10 minutesDance
  • Reading time • 7 minutesMulti-arts

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio


Cleaver Street Studio