How I accidentally wrote a book

How I accidentally wrote a book

Posted on April 8 by Phil Dwyer
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I accidentally wrote a book. Not the kind of accident where you break a favourite lead-crystal glass by dropping it on granite tile, or brain a fellow golfer by slicing your tee shot onto an adjoining fairway. More like that accident where you set off looking for a western route to the Indies and discover a whole new continent. Or you design an adhesive to stick porcelain tile to a metallic spaceship and end up with a Post-It note.


I know it’s an odd thing to say. It’s hard enough to write a book on purpose. Harder still to get that book published. How is it possible to accidentally publish a book?

It’s not an altogether frivolous question.

I did, after all, set out to write something. That something was a piece of literary journalism. I envisaged, when I planned it, a 7000 word article on “a day in the life of a palliative care physician”, preferably one who looked after their patients at home.

I had a guide — Larry Librach — who agreed to help me navigate a tricky path through the healthcare system.  Larry was one of Canada’s most prominent palliative care physicians. But just three weeks into the journey the guide himself received devastating news. He had advanced pancreatic cancer. It was untreatable. He had just a few months to live.

The focus of my story shifted. Larry was a pioneer of the discipline when most doctors still considered it voodoo medicine. Over the course of a forty-year career, he’d helped thousands of patients to die well. Now it was time for him to put his wisdom and accumulated experience to practical use in his own cancer journey.

He agreed to let me accompany him. Neither of us understood what we were getting into. I knew it was likely to be a rough ride, but I didn’t appreciate how rough. Because of course it’s impossible to preserve any so called (and completely illusory) professional reserve when someone you care about declines and dies over a matter of months.

Larry lived much longer than he anticipated. The “couple of months” he’d been promised stretched out to three, then four. We met as often as we could: once or twice a week, if all was well. I was accumulating a mass of material — far more than could be contained in a 7000 word piece. But I was still resisting the notion that this project might be morphing into a book. Perhaps I felt I didn’t have the emotional stamina for a book length journey.

Then, in a single week in June 2013, three people in “prominent places” (Larry’s words) suggested he should turn his journey into a book. In our next session together he persuaded me I should write it.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written.

Freud said there are no accidents, and perhaps he was right. Circumstances conspired. Stars aligned. I happened to find myself in the crosshairs of a particularly determined muse. Whatever. I accidentally wrote a book.

Phil Dwyer

Posted by Dundurn Guest on June 30, 2015
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Phil Dwyer

Phil Dwyer’s journalism, essays, travel writing, and fiction have been published in over fifteen international titles, including The Financial Times, The Times (of London), and the Globe and Mail. He is an alumnus of the Humber School for Writers. He lives in Toronto.