Kimmery Martin knows her way around the human heart: its passions, its fears, its loyalties and its flaws.
And its composition: She is a “lapsed” (her word) emergency-room doctor.
She also knows her way around Charlotte -- geographically, sociologically and medically.
Her debut novel, “The Queen of Hearts” (Penguin Random House), is set mostly in Charlotte and due in bookstores this week.
It’s a jog of a read, engrossing, funny (if you’ve ever had a child biter in your family, you’ll laugh with relief early on) and Charlotteans will enjoy the familiarity of the landscape. Martin’s main characters are Emma, a trauma surgeon, and Zadie, a pediatric cardiologist. The two have been friends since summer-camp days, and they tell the story in alternating chapters. In their third year of medical school in Louisville, Ky., the women live through a tragedy that will reverberate for years and follow them to Charlotte. When a larger-than-life character – Nick Xenokostas – also arrives in Charlotte, Emma fears he will reveal a secret that will detonate her friendship with Zadie.
Martin arrived in Charlotte in 1998 to complete a surgery internship. She moved to Nashville for her residency in emergency medicine at Vanderbilt, then back to Charlotte in 2003. She met her husband, James Fleischli, at CMC, where they were both residents. Fleischli is a sports medicine orthopedist with OrthoCarolina. They have three children. Martin would like to state for the record that the villain in the book is not based on her husband, though she says he would point out that they do share certain attractive traits.
Q. So many scenes in this novel make me wonder if this or that is based on fact. For instance, the giant map of Charlotte in the surgeon’s lounge: Emma says that whenever anyone got shot, “we stuck a red-topped pin in the map at the location of the shooting…” Some areas of the city were so overrun with red pins, she says, “they looked like they were hemorrhaging.” Is there such a map?
A. To my knowledge, there is no such map in the surgeon’s lounge in any Charlotte area hospitals. But I did base that anecdote on my personal experience: When I first moved to Charlotte as a general surgery intern, I didn’t know anyone in the city and was unfamiliar with its geography. I kept my own map of where people were when they got shot, more out of curiosity than anything else. It would have made interesting data for a sociologist!
Q. One stunning scene takes place poolside at a Charlotte country club. A man chokes and Zadie and Emma – Zadie a pediatric cardiologist and Emma a trauma surgeon – clad in bathing suits, save a man’s life using a bottle of gin, a knife and a packet of straws. Urban legend?
A. This procedure is called a cricothyrotomy, where doctors punch a hole in the throat to allow a person to breathe around an obstructed airway. I’m pretty certain it hasn’t happened at any pools in Charlotte, but there have been well-publicized cases of doctors saving someone’s life in restaurants with pocketknives and ballpoint pens. So, yes, technically, this could happen.
Q. You’re now writing a second novel, and you’ve made the transition from emergency room doctor to full-time writer. If you were able to write a novel once while working, why not twice?
A. Emergency medicine is a wonderful field, and I miss it. I truly loved the doctors and nurses and hospital staff at the places I worked, and most of all, I loved the patients. The ability to help sick or injured people is incredibly rewarding. But writing is equally compelling to me. There are many physician writers who are able to do justice to both jobs. But writing consumes an astonishing amount of time, especially when you have a book coming out. Many days lately, I’m at the computer for 10 or 12 hours, and I still have to balance that with the needs of my family. To compensate, I’ve lost all semblance of hygiene, I have a terrible time remembering to pay bills, and my house is a wreck.
Q. Death is something almost every physician deals with. One character loses a very young patient – the daughter of a friend – during surgery. Have you ever lost a patient and believed deep in your psyche that if you had done something a bit differently, you have have saved that life? If so, how do you live with the sting of second-guessing?
A. I don’t remember ever losing a patient from a catastrophic error, for which I am grateful. I have found that one benefit of not being in the ER anymore is the absence of the constant, inescapable dread of making a mistake that could harm someone. I didn’t realize how much that particular anxiety affected me until it was gone: It’s sickening, thinking that you could contribute to someone’s death or impairment despite your best intentions. Sometimes, like you say, it’s uncertain if your judgment call under pressure would have made a difference. Interestingly, that particular plotline was not in the original manuscript – the publishers asked me to raise the stakes for one of the charactes by placing her in that situation. Even writing about it made me squirm.
Q. Emma says: “I was not a church attender, but in the South this registered as a bizarre personal failing akin to owning four hundred cats or having an unusual sexual fetish. You didn’t bring it up in public.” Sounds as if you might have had experience with this kind of reaction.
A. In Charlotte, people tend to ask which church you attend as a matter of introduction — I’ve done this myself – because it’s the default mode. Personally, I am fortunate to attend a church – First Presbyterian – that feeds my heart and soul in incalculable ways. But I also have friends and family members of various faiths or non-faiths who’ve experienced exclusion because of their beliefs.
Q.. When novelist Lee Smith was writing “Fair and Tender Ladies,” her young sons were playing sports and her mother was dying. She says she could write anywhere – bedside in the hospital, on the soccer field. As a writer, are you portable or do you prefer a particular time and place?
A. Oh, how I admire Lee Smith! I work best when I have a long, uninterrupted block of time – I’m not very good at writing in bits and pieces when it comes to novels. However, I write a weekly column for a writer’s website called The Debutante Ball, and I’ve found I can do that anywhere: Stuff just pops into my head and I scramble to get it down before it vanishes. I actually think I’d love writing for a magazine or a newsaper.
Q. You nail Charlotte in many ways. This may be my favorite: Emma says, “If you had a house in one of the neighborhoods neaer the hospital, and your kids went to one of the schools nearby, and you or your spouse volunteered in the same philanthropic circles ... and you joined one of the main country clubs in town, then you were a de facto member of a group that knew everything about you.” I’m sure that’s true. Does that bother you?
A. I love Charlotte and the sense of community I feel here, especially since I’m raising children. Emma is a lot more of a loner than I am – I get sad when I’m not around people. But yeah, the downside is you can’t really fly under the radar if you belong to a lot of groups, whatever they may be. This provides me enormous incentive to avoid doing stupid things that everyone will hear about. Or trying to avoid them, anyway.
Q. What kind of literary community have you found in Charlotte?
A. Charlotte is a literary town. I have three writing groups: one consisting of my beloved girlfriends – Tracy Curtis, Bess Kercher, and Trish Rohr – who are all amazing writers. We meet multiple times a week for everything from straight-up writing time to emotional support. I’m also in a literary critique group that includes Betsy Thorpe, a well-known local editor who helped me with my initial manuscript. Finally, I joined a writer’s salon, composed of many well-known Charlotte novelists who meet regularly to discuss publication issues. I am also devoted to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation, which provides so much invaluable service to our community. Here’s to libraries!
Q. You say in a blog that you don’t have an MFA, and that you didn’t even major in English. So when you decided to write a novel, how did you begin?
A. I’m an indefatigable reader – I make it through several books a week and I admire authors more than anyone. I started writing book reviews on my own website a few years back, and became curious if I could write a book, too. One day, with no idea at all of what I was doing, I sat down and started writing. Needless to say, this approach resulted in a massive need for revision.
Q. You quote Mark Twain: “You can’t reason with your heart; it has its own laws and thumps about things the intellect scorns.” What makes Kimmery Martin’s heart thump?
A. My children and my husband. Going home to Kentucky. Travel. A beautiful room. Books.
Q. What can you say about your second novel. Is it also set in Charlotte?
A. I have two novels in mind: One is about a minor character from “The Queen of Hearts” who faces a life-threatening illness, and it takes place in multiple locations: Charleston, California, France, the Netherlands. The other is a departure – it’s a biotech-themed thriller with a female protagonist, set primarily in California. I wanted to work on that one next – but my agent gently suggested sticking with the same genre as my first book for awhile.
Feb. 13: A conversation with Martin moderated by humorist Tracy Curtis, 6:30-8 p.m., in the newly renovated Morrison Regional Library, 7015 Morrison Blvd. Free. RSVP required: 704-416-5400.
Feb. 22: A luncheon honoring Martin at Main Street Books in Davidson, noon-1:30 at the Flatiron Kitchen in Davidson. Tickets ($30) must be purchased by Feb. 20, and are available at Main Street Books, 126 S. Main Street, Davidson, or online at mainstreetbooksdavidson.com.