From summer camp to medical school to the reality of upperclass marriage and family in Uptown Charlotte, best friends Zadie and Emma have traversed together the mysteries, pitfalls, joys and jostlings of life. Scrub in husbands, children, friends and family, and ER doctor-turned-author Kimmery Martin’s “The Queen of Hearts” (Berkley) offers enough domestic drama, real-life medicine and humor to satisfy anyone wishing that the betrothal of “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Big Little Lies” would birth a page-turner of a novel perfect for a serious rom-com — there is such a thing, and Martin’s debut is proof — in the form of an intellectual getaway.
And … publishing just 24 hours in advance of Valentine’s Day? Who could resist?
Certainly not “Southern Living,” “Booklist,” “Kirkus Reviews,” “Publishers Weekly” or myriad other industry staples of “I got to read the book before anyone else,” which each declare Martin’s first authorial operation a success.
“The Queen of Hearts,” told in alternating chapters of voice and time — medical school and present day — details the life journey of Zadie and Emma, a successful pediatric cardiologist and trauma surgeon, with successful families who live, work and travel the roads of small stuff and big stuff in the same circles. That they each end up in a far different place at the finale from where their story begins is part of the magic of the novel.
Blame that magic on secrets, a bit of mystery and a hefty dose of the past catching up with you as Zadie’s former chief resident boyfriend makes an appearance from professional and personal past to personal and professional future — with enough historical baggage to inflict serious and irreparable harm on a friendship that has sustained two lifetimes.
Martin here writes like a veteran, which shouldn’t be surprising in that she’s no literary newbie. She writes blogs and book reviews and won her first short story contest in the first grade. Although her later writing turned a bit more pedantic — “Lymphatic Mapping and Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy in the Staging of Melanoma” is a sample — “The Queen of Hearts” surely portends a foray into fiction that will draw a phalanx of fans.
Taking time from her overachieving life — again, she is a doctor, but also a mother who offers her free time to nonprofit boards, publishes travel writing and is at work on her sophomore novel — Martin recently took a few questions from Mountain Times about her new book, life and the opportunity to dish on few former patients.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom: Let me start with the obvious, and the question your publicist led me to ask you through approximately 23 references in her pitch to critique the novel: How, and why, does an ER doctor and practicing mother transform herself into a novelist?
Kimmery: This particular ER doctor also happens to be a hardcore book nerd who reads about three books a week. If you gave me a choice between being a rockstar or an author, I’d pick author because the pay is so much better. (Terrible joke, sorry.) I’d pick author because I admire writers with every fiber of my being. I love words and language and stories, and consider a novel to be the ultimate means of expression. It might seem odd to meet a physician-author, but there are actually quite a few of us: I’m in a Facebook group with a hundred people who are all doctors, writers and mothers. I actually think there is some commonality between the region of the brain that handles creativity and the region of the brain that processes a scientific discipline.
Tom: Part of what makes “The Queen of Hearts” work so well is that you construct such a true-to-life wish-they-were-my-friends-and-family cast of characters. Each has a unique voice, but everyone’s going to love little Delaney, Zadie’s youngest who manages to get herself kicked out of preschool. Where did those voices come from, and Delaney’s in particular?
Kimmery: You are correct. Delaney gets more love from readers than all my other characters combined, including the protagonists of the novel. She also happens to be the only character in the book who is based on an actual person; my youngest child was 3 as I was writing the book, and she was 20 kinds of crazy. (Although, to be fair, the only person she’s bitten in real life is her brother.) Three year-olds are so magnificently unfiltered and engaging and curious. I adore that age.
The main characters — Zadie and Emma — are a blend of me, people I’ve known, and straight-up fiction. Dr. X is probably an amalgam of some jerks I’ve dated with my husband’s sense of humor thrown in, plus a bit of creative license.
Tom: You’ve obviously got a flair for the romantic comedy — I love the British-esque serial chapter headings — but this novel also ventures into serious personal space. You infuse the idea of “past catching up with the present” to craft a novel that is far from rom-com. Was it always your intention to publish a story with a moral? In other words, what’s the true takeaway from “the Queen of Hearts?”
Kimmery: Thank you! I love those chapter headings; I had fun with those. Sadly, I had no overarching moral theme in mind as I was writing the novel, because initially I had no particular plot in mind, either. I wanted to write a book that was smart and entertaining and set in the world of practicing physicians. The storyline developed as I went along. But I think at its heart, the novel is an exploration of friendship and where you’d draw the line at forgiving someone.
Tom: Beside medicine, what’s the biggest personal life experience you incorporate into the novel? Consider this an extremely open-ended question.
Kimmery: Well, you have kneecapped me a little by taking medicine out of the question. But that’s an obvious one. Right now, I’m at a point where most of my friends have not yet read the novel, but that will change this week when the book is published. I’m curious to see how many of them recognize my parenting skills, or lack thereof, in Zadie’s mothering. There’s one scene where she’s trying to make breakfast and get the kids ready for school and her head explodes because the children are so dysfunctional, and … yeah. That’s basically every morning of my life.
Tom: Last question, and back to medicine, did you ever, like Emma, perform a poolside tracheotomy with a fork at a posh private club? On the off-chance the answer is no, I bet you have at least a couple of anecdotes to share. Using real names is an option.
Kimmery: I have not performed any poolside tracheotomies, but it is my secret fantasy. Or it used to be, back when I was doing a lot of them in ORs. Now I’d be happy to save someone in less dramatic fashion. But, the real problem with this question is that every interesting ER story that comes to mind is not suitable for printing in a newspaper, if you know what I mean. That might just be the way my mind works, though.