Tade Thompson: full-time doctor who finds energy for full-on writing career

Dalya Alberge
·4-min read

After Anton Chekhov and Arthur Conan Doyle, Tade Thompson is the latest in a long line of medical doctors who have become writers.

Thompson is a full-time hospital psychiatrist, who writes science fiction, fantasy and crime thrillers that have received rave reviews and prizes, but he has no intention of giving up the day job, somehow fitting in everything by writing in the early hours.

A fierce bidding war has finally concluded over the film rights to his Molly Southbourne novellas, a nightmarish psychological story about a girl who, when she bleeds, creates duplicates of herself who want to kill her.

The rights have gone to Complete Fiction, the film company the director Edgar Wright and the producer Nira Park set up with their long-time collaborators the writer-director Joe Cornish and the producer Rachael Prior. They will transform the stories into a multi-season television series in collaboration with Netflix. Thompson is executive producing it and may write an episode or two.

Prior, who is producing, told the Guardian: “Tade’s Molly Southbourne series touched a deep nerve in us. We were profoundly affected by his writing, which is direct, vivid and exceptionally emotionally sophisticated. It came to us at a moment when the world is grappling with so many of the themes explored through Molly and the literal fight that is her life. It’s a story about resilience in the face of incessant trauma.

“It’s also about rebirth and breaking the cycle of toxic and dysfunctional ways of living … Like Molly, we pretty much fought to the death for the opportunity to adapt it.”

Thompson is also developing a revenge thriller with the actor Dev Patel based on The Apologists, his sci-fi short story about aliens who accidentally destroyed the human race. Making Wolf, his novel about a London supermarket store-detective who returns to his west African home country and pretends at a party to be a successful homicide detective – only to find himself having to investigate an actual murder – is being made for Sky.

On top of this, Thompson is about to deliver his next novel while also working at Portsmouth’s St James’ hospital, where he specialises in mental illnesses in people who have physical problems.

Asked how he juggles so much, he said: “Very strict time-management.” But he cannot imagine leaving medicine: “The hospital work is a calling. I help people.”

His regime involves waking up at 5am, writing for about an hour and an half hour, before going to the hospital, and then writing late at night.

Thompson sees a crossover between writing and psychiatry as they both reflect his interest in people. “If you’re writing science-fiction, often people are expecting astronomy and space ships,” he said. “I’m more interested in the human being who has to go up in a rocket. What does the loneliness do to him? How does he keep his head together while he’s in orbit? What really interests me are human emotions.”

Thompson is British of Yoruba descent. Born in London in the 1970s, he grew up in Nigeria, returning to the UK in 1998, studying medicine and social anthropology in both countries, before specialising in psychiatry in the UK.

His parents instilled a love of literature in him from childhood. His father, a lawyer, always had a library at home. Aged 14, Thompson wrote a James Bond pastiche, which his classmates enjoyed, and he found himself trying to write novels. He submitted a crime novel to a small US publisher, winning an award and recognition that led to major publishers acquiring the rights to earlier books.

Thompson joked about battling an addiction to books, saying: “I always have a book with me no matter what I’m doing.”

Last year, he won the Arthur C Clarke award, the UK’s most prestigious prize for science fiction novels, for Rosewater, part of a trilogy set in a mid-2060s Nigeria, where alien animals and bacteria are unleashed.

Luke Speed, his film and TV agent at Curtis Brown, described Thompson as “one of the most talented sci-fi and thriller writers around”, whose stories deal a lot with identity, alienation, one’s place in the world, and being one’s own worst enemy: “He never writes straight genre, he bends it, always subverting things. Is what we’re reading true or not?” said Speed.