Author's fictional characters helped pull him through his cancer battle

The Secrets of the Sakura Girls, by Paul Callan

The Secrets of the Sakura Girls, by Paul Callan - Credit: Paul Callan

A Hampstead author has told how publishing his fourth historical fiction novel fuelled his will in the battle against cancer. 

Paul Callan, 74, has release Secrets Of The Sakura Girls, which tells the story of Japanese girls in 1870s Singapore, then a British Colony, forced into prostitution out of poverty.

He told the Ham&High he wanted this book to humanise the girls and show them to be more than the objects of sex trafficking. 

“When I started writing it, the Me Too movement was very much in my mind. I didn’t want to write a book that showed women to be lumps of meat. I wanted them to be seen as human beings, and for people to pause to think about these girls," he said.

“Singapore was full of Chinese men coming down to work, and they needed some kind of entertainment, they needed women. So the British government turned a blind eye. They banned drugs, and approved of prostitution.”


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Paul said he was inspired by his characters when he was later faced with a struggle against cancer.

“The story shows the bloody-minded determination of these girls and I was very conscious of it when I was applying my own bloody-mindedness to my cancer recovery,” he said. 

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The book was at the editing stage when he was diagnosed with cancer in August 2019. 

“I was already feeling physical discomfort in my lower abdomen before I started the book,” Paul said.

“Two years ago I went to see a GP and straight away he said: ‘Paul you’ve lost a lot of weight.’

"He dragged me downstairs to the theatre and carried out a colonoscopy.

“I was sitting in a small room and the surgeon came in. He told me I had cancer. My first three words were: ‘I’ll fight it.’” 

Two weeks later he was told he had stage 4 lymphoma. He had overcome prostate cancer only 18 months before. 

But the upcoming publication of this book solidified Paul’s will to survive.

“I said to the consultant: ‘Please describe this cancer to me. I want to image it, so I can imagine myself killing it.'" he said.

He was put on chemotherapy to treat the cancer, which brought with it a whole series of unforeseen complications that pushed him close to death. 

“The first two chemotherapies were a piece of cake. On the night of the third treatment I was violently ill,” he said.

"I was rushed to UCLH by emergency ambulance. The chemo had attacked my appendix.”

Between a choice surgery and antibiotics they opted to treat Paul’s appendix with antibiotics, as surgery would have meant stopping chemotherapy for a year. 

“I was admitted and overdosed on antibiotics. Over a period of 12 days I lost 20kg,” he said.

"After 12 days I was discharged. Then a week or so later I was rushed back again and this sequence of events went on for a whole five months, during which I was rushed into hospital by emergency ambulance five times.” 

Over the course of five months Paul had three blood transfusions, and contracted both RSV and MRSA, two deadly viruses that could’ve easily killed someone in Paul’s state. 

“It was a brutal, brutal experience,” he said. “But I kept telling myself: ‘I want to see this book in print. I’m going to survive to see this book in print.’

"It was fight between me and the cancer and I was going to win it.”

Paul hopes both his book showing the determination of young girls in dire circumstances, and his own story of overcoming cancer can be a guiding light to those who find themselves facing hard times.

“I hope it doesn’t come back. I’ve had it twice now. But if it does, I’ll fight it, and I’ll keep on fighting it.” 

Secrets Of The Sakura Girls by Paul Callan, published by Penguin Random House, is out now. 

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