Thursday, January 27, 2022

In Kimmery Martin's eerily prescient new novel DOCTORS AND FRIENDS, three doctors (all friends) find themselves facing a contagious virus spreading across the globe. Here, Kimmery talks about her gripping new novel, her work in ERs, the politics of medicine, writing, and why sometimes 80% of ER cases are "sex gone wrong."

When Ron Block, one of the literary world's guardian angels, AND the podcast host for Friends and Fiction AND the chief honcho for the wonderful Cuyahoga County Public Library tells me that I have to meet an author, that we will love each other--I ALWAYS LISTEN BECAUSE HE IS ALWAYS RIGHT. And yep, yep, he was. 

Kimmery Martin is an emergency medicine doctor-turned novelist whose works of medical fiction have been praised by The Harvard Crimson, Southern Living, The Charlotte Observer and The New York Times. Kimmery is hilarious, smart and I also loved her novel DOCTORS AND FRIENDS.  So does everyone else, because look at the praise:

"The lives of three doctors—friends since medical school who meet for an annual get together—are thrown upside down when a contagious virus begins to spread across the world in this eerily prescient and timely novel written before the COVID-19 pandemic. Martin’s complex characters are infused with such raw emotion that they nearly jump off the page.”—Newsweek

“Martin’s riveting latest focuses on a group of doctors during a pandemic…Martin fills the hospital scenes with vivid descriptions and moving moments. This fully realized account of a fictional pandemic manages to convey the deeply personal as well as the bigger picture.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“With echoes of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, and Anna Hope’s ExpectationDoctors and Friends is precise in details but sweeping in scope and impact. With an innate understanding of emergency room medicine, the inner workings of government agencies, and the complexities of decades-long friendships, Martin’s novel is compelling to its core.”–Booklist (starred review)

“There is beauty in Martin’s gem of a story that confirms that friendship is a powerful force.”– Library Journal (starred review)

Thank you so much, Kimmery for letting me pepper you with questions! And thank you so much for waiting for me to recuperate from my  daredevil headlong fall down a flight of stairs.

I always believe that authors are somehow haunted into writing their books, that they write to answer a question that won’t leave them alone. Is it that way for you? 

Yes, to a degree. I’m character oriented: the first thing that occurs to me is the personality of the protagonist. (Which is not a great way to begin a novel, actually, because readers care most about the big central question every novel seeks to answer.) But once I have my main character settled, then figuring out their particular challenge comes next, and I think that does spring from some sort of mental haunting. The head of an author is a truly weird place. 

Let’s talk about Doctors and Friends which I loved. And so does everyone else because you have starred reviews from everyone. Reviewers have praised it for being eerily prescient. So I have to ask, when you were writing it, as a doctor yourself, did you always have expectations that a pandemic was waiting to happen?

Sure. We’ve been locked in periodic mortal combat with viral pathogens since the dawn of humankind. It didn’t require a degree in epidemiology to figure it would happen again. I didn’t expect it to happen precisely as I was finishing a novel about it happening, however. The one good thing about the timing, though, was I learned a nifty new word: prescient. It turns out professional book reviewers really like that word. I might get a tattoo of it.

Not only do you write about serious subjects, but you are hilarious about them. Even your bio on your website had me laughing.  So I have a weird and hopefully fun question. Do you or did you have different personas as a doctor and as a novelist? How do the two intersect?

I’ve got to congratulate you because no one has ever asked me that exact question before. I do think there is some overlap in the fields of medicine and literature, because in both careers you are dealing with a lot of drama. The difference is that as a doctor you are trying to alleviate suffering and as an author you are deliberately inflicting it. (I should probably clarify that last part: as an author you are trying to inflict suffering upon your characters, not upon your readers. Although you would think it was the opposite if you read my Goodreads reviews.)

As a physician, I’ve been blessed to work in a field where I can offer an immediate impact on the life of other human beings when they’re injured or ill. Emergency medicine is a career overflowing with people at their most vulnerable. We work alongside them, trying to diagnose their sickness, ease their pain, haul them back as they walk the line between life and death. I can’t imagine practicing emergency medicine without humility and a strong sense of compassion.

But to better answer your question: the voice in my novels is pretty similar to my actual voice (i.e. nerdy and a bit snarky.)  I tone down my sense of humor at work because a sense of humor during an emergency is prized by no one. Just as the best writers are those who possess keen insight into others, the best doctors are those with empathy as well as technical competence. I don’t know if those qualities are abundant in my writing, but I tried my hardest as an ER doctor to treat everyone with respect and compassion … and I cared very much about what happened to my patients.

You might call yourself a lifelong literary nerd, but I am a lifelong medical nerd. I used to be the one reading JAMA in the waiting rooms while everyone else was looking at People. (Hey, I have a subscription to that one.) And I’ve been told by all my doctors that Emergency Medicine is where the most exciting medicine is. Tell us about that, and about how you moved from there to multi-starred author!

You are obviously way cool, Caroline. And yes: EM is not dull. It comes in handy at parties: when everyone finds out you are an ER doc, they immediately want to know what the weirdest object is you’ve ever extracted from somebody’s nether regions, if you catch my drift. I’m not kidding: I think laypeople see the ER as 10% heart attacks, 10% broken bones, and 80% sex gone wrong. (And with that statement I’ve probably taken your blog in an entirely uncharted direction.)

I became a novelist because I am, first and foremost, a reader. I love words, love stories, love books of all sorts. But I’d never been a writer. When I first had the wild idea to try to write a novel, I was clueless about the process. How to structure scenes, how to craft compelling dialogue, how to maintain suspense—those are all things I learned the hard way, by doing it very, very wrong. Now I teach writing classes on those subjects but the road to basic competency at authoring was long and humbling for me. I attended conferences and read books and received a lot of help from other writers. Which is another thing my two careers have in common: both authors and doctors (especially women) are exceptionally supportive of one another.

What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or just let them go with the flow?

I’m all flow, unfortunately. I wish I weren’t: it’s an inefficient way to write. I understand the principles of plotting but so far I haven’t been able to achieve them up front. So I try to apply those techniques to my revision process. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Ohhhhh. Ugh. Well, several things: I think a lot about the bizarre turn our country has taken with regard to the politicization of medicine. Deep divisions, where we cannot even agree on the most fundamental aspects of science, or of reality, for that matter. The devaluation of expertise in favor of whatever suits your bias. Demagoguery. Authoritarianism. 

But those things are happening more on a macro-level. When you talk with ordinary people, they are often far more likely to listen to one another and less likely to label each other as the enemy. All this division we are experiencing right now is history repeating itself and I believe there are ways out of it. 

On a different note, I am fascinated by the intersection of quantum physics and the biotechnologies of the future—and what the applications and implications might be. I love reading dumbed-down theoretical physics books.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Usually when people realize I wrote a pandemic novel before Covid, some degree of apprehension flits across their face. This always precedes the same question: what am I working on now? So … I’m not going to answer that one because I don’t want to alarm everyone. Let’s just say what I am writing about now is less likely to occur than the events of Doctors and Friends.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Fiona Davis talks about The Magnolia Palace, dual timelines, writing strong female characters, writing during lockdown, and so much more!

Note the sublime photo above, of Audrey Munson. the first supermodel who was named "Miss Manhattan." The perfect icon for a blog about Fiona!

I adore Fiona Davis. Not just her books, either. I'm not sure when we met, but I keep happily running into her at books events (or I did, pre-pandemic, and every time I do, I get a glow. She is the New York Times bestselling author of six historical fiction novels set in iconic New York City buildings, including The Dollhouse, The Address, and The Lions of Fifth Avenue, which was a Good Morning America book club pick. Her novels have been chosen as “One Book, One Community” reads and her articles have appeared in publications like The Wall Street Journal and O the Oprah magazine. She first came to New York City as an actress, but fell in love with writing, and we are all so happy she did.

Her newest masterwork, The Magnolia Palace is about lies, betrayals and even murder in the gilded age mansion. It's got starred raves from Kirkus, Library Journal and from Publisher's weekly, and a slew of raves from the likes of Christina Baker Kline and Lisa Wingate. Welcome Fiona! I just wish this was in person!

I always believe that writers are somehow obsessed into writing the books they write. What was haunting you that created this wonderful book?

I’ve always loved wandering around old buildings and wondering about the people who lived there over the years, so writing about iconic landmarks really fuels my obsession. The Frick Collection was built in 1914 as a residence, and then turned into a museum in the thirties. As a museum, it feels like it’s been frozen in time, with splendid furnishings everywhere and art by masters like Rembrandt, Turner, and Vermeer hanging on every wall. When you walk in, it’s as if the Frick family is out at a dinner party and will be back at any moment. 

I love that you set your novels in these fabulous New York Buildings! I always feel that buildings have their own personalities, almost something you can feel when you go inside. Do you walk into these great buildings and just inhale the atmosphere and then ideas perk? And can you tell us what building is next?

The building definitely becomes like another character in the story, with its history and layout impacting the plot. During my behind-the-scenes tour of the Frick, I discovered there’s a circa 1914 bowling alley in the basement – which still works – and of course had to include that as a scene location. As I wandered the rooms I definitely began to imagine ideas for scenes and characters. For example, what was it like for a member of the household staff who lived on the top floor, with that splendid view of Central Park? As for the next book, I have a short story being published this summer that’s set at Carnegie Hall, and then the next novel is set at Radio City Music Hall, from the point of view of a Rockette in the 1950s. There are so many possibilities in New York City!

There’s so much wonderful material in this book, from the Spanish Flu to the Frick Mansion/Museum. (I love the Frick and imagine you went to visit and visit and visit again.) What was your research like? 

Because the world went into lockdown a couple of months into my research, I wasn’t able to get back inside after my initial tour – and in fact now it’s closed for renovations (although the works of art are brilliantly exhibited at the Frick Madison nearby). Luckily, at the Frick’s website (, there’s a floor plan with a 360-degree view of all of the public rooms. So I virtually visited multiple times a day as I was writing the drafts. Research for this book involved going through the Frick archives, which had fun surprises like dinner party menus from 1915, or payroll records of the staff, as well as interviewing experts in the art world. 

I loved your female characters, as I always do, Veronica Weber and Lillian Carter. So here is a writerly question. How did you go about developing those women? And what parts of you are in your characters? And what parts of them do you wish you had?

Veronica and Lillian are both models in different time periods – Lillian in the 1910s and Veronica in the 1960s, so it was really fun to figure out how that particular career had changed over time – and also the ways in which it hadn’t. I wish I was more of a free-spirit like Lillian, who is willing to take huge risks and throw herself into life. I’m afraid that’s just not my style. Veronica is probably a little more like me: slightly overwhelmed in a crowd and happy to watch the action from the sidelines. 

And another writerly question. Using a dual timeline nearly killed me! Any tips, because you did it beautifully.

Dual timelines can be an absolute beast, no question. I figure out the plot and outline it fairly thoroughly before I sit down to write that first draft. There’s so much to keep track of, especially with an element of mystery and clues that need to be dropped at the exact right time. Once that outline is firm, I tend to write the older timeline first, and then the newer one. I find that’s easier than bouncing back and forth, which will ultimately be the way the reader views it. 

What’s obsessing you now and why? What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

These days I’m obsessed with the novel The Ballerinas, by Rachel Kapelke-Dale, which is set in Paris at the ballet, and is beautifully written and a great mystery as well. And I think you covered all the bases! Thank you for this amazing opportunity, and I can’t wait to see you in person one of these days and give you a (gentle) hug.