An Irony You Can't Invent. And Also: Casturbation for The Antidote for Everything
PJ: Dear Reader, I know The Antidote for Everything swept you off your feet. Kimmery is a wicked talent and her writing oozes clever voice, delicious one-liners, and heartbreak in equal measure.
In Martin’s follow up to her critically acclaimed debut, The Queen of Hearts, the “Liane Moriarty of Medical Fiction” (in quotes because I tweeted it once) explores the deep friendship between physicians Georgia Brown and Jonah Tsukada—and the lengths to which they’ll go to protect one another when threatened by institutional malice.
Side Note: If you haven’t finished TAFE, started it, or (cue my gay gasp) even procured your copy yet, bookmark this immediately and go change that. Seriously. Go. Now. We’ll wait.
Okay, since you’ve finished the novel, we can jump right into this very kla$$y author roundtable between myself and the one and only Kimmery Martin, MD.
KM: Hi, everyone. For those of you not familiar with him, PJ Vernon is a dog-owning, Canadian-dwelling, PhD-possessing scientist who also happens to be a dazzling suspense writer (When You Find Me, Crooked Lane Books, 2018) AND Bath Haus, his next thriller, soon to be released from Doubleday Books.
Hello PJ! Hit me with some insightful, hard-charging questions.
PJ: I saved the hardest question for literally the very first one: You open the book with what just might be the most hilarious scene I’ve ever read. Why start with testicles?
KM: Because, as I think we can all agree, testicles are funny. It was hard to write a book about a urologist without having the entire thing devolve into one running testicle joke.
PJ: New blurb: “The Antidote for Everything: Somehow not one long-running testicle joke.” —PJ Vernon.
I’m so grateful for our friendship—and for the novel that forged it. Before tackling all the Real Talk, we must address the unusual amount of things we have in common. You wanna take a stab at listing them all out?
KM: This is one of those real-life ironies you can’t invent. Here’s how we met: another author recommended PJ to be a reader of an early draft of this novel. As we started chatting I realized two things: first, the two of us share a number of weird commonalities; and second, PJ also shares a number of similarities with Jonah, the main male character in the book. They’re both scientists (PJ an immunologist and Jonah a physician), they’re native South Carolinians, they’re humorous, intelligent gay dudes in their thirties.
PJ: Early thirties, but go on...
KM: And then it became obvious PJ and I are alike too: we’ve both transitioned from medical careers to writing fiction; we’re both obsessed with library fundraising—PJ as grants development guy in Calgary, me working with the library board in Charlotte—and we’re both misfit Southerners.
But more than that, we get each other. It’s that magical, indefinable chemistry you sometimes stumble onto with another person where there’s instant comfort. Georgia and Jonah own the ultimate version of this kind of friendship in the novel, where there’s no artifice, no self-censoring, no need to filter your personality through a socially acceptable lens. They love each other and can be themselves. Warts and all.
(The opposite of warts: I realize it’s shallow to admire someone because they strongly resemble Ryan Gosling. But in PJ’s case it’s a legit hazard.)
See what I mean?
Photo Credit Ryan Gosling: Craig Dean
Photo Credit P.J. Vernon: Jodi O Photography
So this talk of idyllic friendship leads me to an obvious question. Given that the central relationship of this novel—between Georgia, a straight woman, and Jonah, a gay man—could be construed as a cliché, can you comment on the longing many straight women seem to have for gay male friends? Why are you guys so desirable?
PJ: Calling Georgia and Jonah’s friendship a cliché is easy—the book presents a fashionable, clever gay man and a ball busting (literally) straight woman killing it (not literally) in the OR. Jonah’s concerned Georgia is mismanaging her love life, and she worries he’s mismanaging… well, a number of things. On the surface, we have the formula for a sassy sit-com. But like most things, including this novel, that’s where the tropes end.
KM: What do you see in their friendship that transcends tropes?
PJ: If puritanical clinic administrators and entitled male surgeons represent the “mean”, then Georgia and Jonah are at least one standard deviation outside of it. Hallelujah that women are beginning to outpace men in medicine, but simply by existing (the audacity!) Georgia and Jonah are threats to toxic masculinity. She’s a roguish surgeon in a field that once recognized female “hysteria” as an actual illness. Meanwhile, Jonah is a visible minority. He’s queer. His family rejects him. And the cherry on top? He’s drowning in student debt.
KM: Debt and financial discrimination have an outsized impact on the LGBTQ community, actually, which is something I didn’t realize until I’d researched it.
PJ: Your research shines in the book. Except that one line I flagged about how Grindr works, but you can be forgiven for airballing a hook-up app for queer men.
KM: I could have researched harder there.
PJ: I’m not going to touch that one. What I love about Jonah is he’s a fully formed human being. Yes, he’s witty and exuberant but you’ve balanced his strengths with weaknesses and captured traits that defy stereotyping. I particularly appreciated his poor taste in interior design. Positive stereotypes like a penchant for style, physique and culture are just as destructive for those of us who don’t embody any or all of them.
KM: It has to be said: Jonah was a compelling character to write. One of my favorite things about him is his multi-faceted personality. In addition to his goofy charm, he’s also a brilliant, empathetic clinician who is beloved by his patients. His relationship with Georgia is authentic and deep; they’ve become each other’s family. So let’s talk about Georgia too: she’s bright, bullheaded, and bossy. What did you make of her actions throughout the novel?
And do we need fiction from an ally’s point of view?
PJ: Georgia is sharp, seemingly in-control, but also quite vulnerable. As the story unfolds, we appreciate that vulnerability as far more than the messy love life of a career-driven professional. While her actions range from comical to thoughtful to ethically dubious, they’re singularly driven by love for Jonah. Now, queers are some of the most tenacious folks around, but the harsh reality is that we don’t sign our own rights into existence. We fight tirelessly, but equality is ultimately rendered by the privileged. How many LGBT justices on the Supreme Court voted for marriage equality? We need our allies. In today’s culture, we need Georgia Brown more than ever—and that extends to fiction.
KM: Why fiction?
PJ: Like her creator, Georgia is an ally, not a queer person herself. Readers who share Georgia’s sensibilities leave the story feeling empowered. Perhaps more important, however, is the opportunity to change hearts. Readers who connect with Georgia during the story are encouraged to interrogate their own beliefs when they see Jonah’s struggles through her eyes. Books are powerful in their ability to cultivate empathy and evolve views, and characters like Georgia can be a conduit.
Which brings up my next question: Georgia is a peripheral character in The Queen of Hearts, so why choose this character for this book? And why do you think ally fiction should be a thing?
KM: Regarding the selection of Georgia: I liked her verve and her vivid personality. If you’ll forgive the horrible pun, she’s got balls.
A physician ally was also a more legitimate point-of-view character for me to write. The story is not about a suddenly-woke straight chick who realizes Hey, discrimination is happening! I must save the day! Rather it’s about a long-term ally whose profession directly interfaces with these institutional attempts to legitimize inequality. And to be fair: much as she’d like to have saved the day for the person she loves the most, she fails.
PJ: Did any real-life events inspire the storyline?
KM: Yes. Two things happened to spark this storyline. First, my state passed a bill forbidding communities from passing their own anti-discrimination laws and it sparked my interest. We are currently awaiting a SCOTUS ruling affecting this but as of today, it remains legal in many parts of America to fire someone or deny them housing or refuse them services solely because of their orientation or identity. And, most relevant to my profession, the current administration’s Department of Health and Human services has openly stated they will not enforce their own *medical* anti-discrimination policies against the trans community.
PJ: So how far-fetched is the scenario of a physician being fired because their employer doesn’t want to provide treatments for trans patients?
KM: The book itself is fiction: I made stuff up. I invented a world with its own laws and created people and put them in terrible jeopardy because that’s what writers do. Imaginary drama is my job.
That brings me to the second real-world event that sparked the idea for this novel. I know someone, a friend and colleague, a medical professional, who was instructed to stop providing care for the transgender patients in their practice. They refused.
PJ: Did they face fallout for taking a stand?
KM: They did. They were fired.
PJ: Precisely why your novel is relevant, but does timeliness present its own challenge? Any insecurities or anxieties you can share related to the writing of it?
KM: I have all the worries. My people in real life are highly variable in their politics and outlooks and experiences. It would have been much better for my own peace of mind to write a sweet love story.
But again: I think most of us would find the kind of medical discrimination that takes place in the book to be abhorrent. I’d never want some corporate overlord telling me I cannot treat a particular group of patients because of who they are; doctors should not sit passively by and allow someone else to take up the burden of fighting this kind of thing. This story evolved from the reality that this could legally happen.
PJ: Being on the right side of history is fraught with danger, but empathy wins the day. Your characters have that in spades.
KM: Speaking of characters, let’s indulge in an exercise we writers like to call ‘casturbation.’ Who do you see playing Georgia and Jonah in the movie version? Also: Mark, Beezon, and Darby? And Edwin the hot security guy, of course.
PJ: Georgia is totally Reese Witherspoon (Hi Reese’s book club and production company!) I pictured Jonah as Godfrey Gao and Danny Pino as Mark (smoldering eyes are a non-negotiable for both). As for Beezon? I know a few perfect administrators who shall remain unnamed. No acting lessons needed. Oh! And Kristen Bell is a shoo-in for lovable debutante Darby.
KM: Those are excellent casting decisions, PJ. Also: Edwin. He is not based on a real-life person but I could see him as Colton Haynes or maybe some sort of Hemsworth.
PJ: I’m game for some Colton Haynes screen time in this film adaption casturbation! What about the flip side? Is there a real-life inspiration for Georgia?
KM: She’s an amalgam of some of my girlfriends, plus some total nonsense I invented. Same for Darby, who was originally a narrator who got pared down...I might revive her in a future book because she’s much more interesting than she lets on in this one. And Jonah is my fantasy friend. He’s infinitely lovable. And I love how he reminds me of you.
PJ: When friends’ romantic lives require meddling, neither of us blink at a transatlantic flight.
KM: Yep. We are not averse to meddling. Or travel. And speaking of travel...I think my next book will be set in Atlanta, Spain, and Northern Africa so I definitely see a research trip in our future. You in?
PJ: You know it! Just don’t expect me to help you with any in-flight emergency tracheostomies. But you knew that already.
Learn more about P. J. Vernon HERE