Jo Falla was born in 1954 in Jamaica, where his father lectured in English Literature at the University of the West Indies. The family returned to England a year later on a boat laden with bananas.
The Karamoja experience prompted Jo in 1982 to begin nursing, firstly at Oxford, then at the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases, and finally at Aberdeen Hospital for Sick Children. In 1985-6 he was in Burma, training village paramedics in the Karen rebel free state of Kawthoolei. This strange encounter led to the ethnographic study True Love & Bartholomew: Rebels of the Burmese Border (Cambridge University Press), in print now for thirty years.
In 1991 he was Save The Children’s medical coordinator in Darfur, West Sudan, at a time when the opening stages of the current Darfur crisis were being played out. This difficult time is at the heart of the novel Poor Mercy, published many years later.
During the 1990s Jo was writing drama. A BBC feature film, The Hummingbird Tree, was shot in Trinidad with a local crew, and went on to win several awards. This helped Jo to gain the first Fulbright/T.E.B.Clarke Fellowship to study at the film school of the University of Southern California. The script that he wrote there concerned the Chinese occupation of Tibet. It was never filmed, but became his first published novel, Blue Poppies. Other drama productions included Down the Tubes, a play for community theatre in Edinburgh, and River of Dreams, a musical for children with composer Gordon Murch. He was also translator and scriptwriter for Diriamba!, a co-production between the Edinburgh Theatre Workshop and Teatro Nixtayolero of Nicaragua which won a ‘Fringe First’ on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Other novels followed: Poor Mercy, Glenfarron, and The Physician of Sanlucar, then The White Porcupine and Good News from Riga.
He has written many short stories which have been both published and broadcast, and in 2007 was shortlisted for the National Short Story Prize. He has also written numerous essays and book reviews for publications including the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist, London Magazine, Minnesota Review, The Scotsman and the Scottish Review of Books. He teaches humanities for the Open University and previously at St Andrews University, where he was Director of the University’s Creative Writing Summer School from 2009-2019.
Jo’s interest in tropical healthcare has taken him to Nicaragua and El Salvador, Brazil and Nepal, and he has also travelled in Chile, overland to India, in West Africa and through much of Europe. He continued in nursing until 2006, but then became a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, attached to Dundee University as part of an effort to raise standards in academic writing. In 2007 he was awarded a £30,000 “Creative Scotland” prize for work on a new novel. This project stems in part from his long involvement with a professional Early Music quartet for which he played lute and woodwind and sang baritone. The group made three CD recordings of 16th century music from Spain, France, England and Scotland, the most recent of which was an ‘Editor’s Choice’ in The Gramophone.
Jo married his wife Rona (a doctor) in Edinburgh in 1992. Their son Kit is now a music student in London. They live in rural Fife where Jo is a serving member of the Scottish Children’s Panel.