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Memoir makes bestseller list the second time around

Jennifer Craig was told to "write what you know," so she crafted a memoir about her working life as a nurse in her native England.

She was an experienced writer, but her previous work had been in the stilted, formal structure needed to earn a doctorate. "I was used to academic writing," she said, "which is full of drivel, of course." The creative-writing class she took in Nelson encouraged her to explore memories of her life as a trainee nurse at Leeds General Infirmary, a slate-roofed Victorian hospital of red brick.

She tried to get the memoir published.

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"I was a complete novice at this," she said. "I started with the big [publishers]first."

The first house she approached rejected the book. As did the second. And the third.

She tried lesser publishing firms. The brush-offs began piling up. She had 27 rejections before she got good news from "a small publisher in Derby in England."

Breedon Books released Yes Sister, No Sister in 2002.

Over the years, it sold just under 3,000 copies, a respectable figure but not one on which anyone could count riches.

And that seemed to be that.

Until one day the author received an unexpected e-mail that would not only revive her book but bring to fruition an author's dream.

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Ms. Craig, 78, still carries in her voice the intonations of her native Yorkshire. She was born out of wedlock in the Depression year of 1934 in Knaresborough, a historic market town. Her parents were forced to marry, the young family supported by a paternal grandparent, as her father continued engineering studies at Coventry.

When she was 5, her father went off to war with the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, serving in far-off Burma. She would not see him again for six years. "He came back a stranger to us all," she said.

Meanwhile, she and her mother were evacuated from Coventry, a target of German bombing, spending the war at a remote vicarage in Gloucestershire, where disaster struck. A flame ignited the girl's nightdress and she suffered terrible burns, spending nearly two years in hospital.

Later, when it came time for her as a young woman to select a career, her options included teaching, factory work, secretarial school or nursing.

After several years at the hospital in Leeds, she sailed to Canada in 1961 to take a nursing job at Vancouver General Hospital. She raised a family before settling in the Kootenays at Nelson in 1994.

About three years ago, she got a surprise e-mail from Charlotte Cole, commissioning editor at Ebury Press, a division of Random House. The London-based imprint wanted to acquire the memoir for a mass-market paperback edition.

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"I thought long and hard," the author said, "for about 10 seconds."

The new edition was released about 20 months ago with a lovely cover featuring two nurses who look like they're sharing a private joke.

"To my sheer astonishment," she said, "it went straight onto the Sunday Times bestseller list."

Where once she counted rejections, now she toted sales.

Yes Sister, No Sister spent 17 weeks on British bestseller lists, climbing the chart as high as the No. 2 position, failing only to overtake Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the massively popular defence of the rules of punctuation by Lynne Truss.

In the end, Ms. Craig's book sold more than 140,000 copies, an astonishing figure.

"It's like a lottery, really, and I got the winning ticket," she said.

Now, an hour each day is dedicated to her latest book project, the story of a divorced woman working as a waitress in Nelson who loses her savings in the stock market and loses her job when the restaurant burns down. Desperate, the woman starts a marijuana grow-op in her basement.

"A novel," the author insists.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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