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.

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