Radiologist and debut novelist Heather Frimmer tells the story of a mother planning her daughter’s wedding just as she receives a diagnosis of breast cancer in her new novel Bedside Manners. Frimmer talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how her medical training shapes her life as a writer.
YZM: How did your own training as a doctor influence the writing of this novel?
HF: I work full time as a radiologist specializing in breast imaging. I interpret mammograms, discuss results with patients and perform breast biopsies.
Joyce’s story was inspired by the thousands of breast cancer patients I’ve had the honor of caring for. I used my observations to make Joyce’s journey as authentic and emotionally resonant as possible. Some of the events in Marnie’s story were inspired by or loosely based on situations either I or my friends experienced on the wards during training. I wanted to explore the doctor-patient relationship from both sides. Choosing both a mother and daughter as the protagonists allows the characters to witness and experience both sides of the relationship alongside the reader.
YZM: Why did you make Marnie a surgeon rather than a radiologist?
HF: I would have loved to make Marnie a radiologist, but I knew it wasn’t the right choice. Radiologists stare at computer screens in dark rooms while drinking endless cups of coffee—the opposite of dramatic. Making Marnie a surgeon allowed me to put her in more precarious and emotional situations and raise the stakes for her a lot more.
YZM: The men in the novel respond very differently to the news of Joyce’s cancer than the women; care to comment?
HF: That’s such an interesting observation. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but I think the difference comes from my personal experience. The men in my life tend to underplay their emotional reactions, only getting upset in the most dire of circumstances. The exception to this rule would be my wonderful husband who wears his emotions on his sleeve without shame.
YZM: During the course of the novel, Marnie struggles with her decision to marry a non Jewish man. Were you making a larger statement about intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles?
HF: My goal was not to be prescriptive about intermarriage, but rather to raise questions so readers can think about the issue for themselves. Spouses will inevitably differ in countless ways and learning to negotiate those differences is crucial for a successful marriage. As an obsessive reader, if I can remain happily married for nearly seventeen years to someone who reads less than one book a year, then anything is possible. The keys are open communication, dedication, and acceptance on the part of both partners.
YZM: Do you think you’ll use your medical background in writing your next novel?
HF: I am finishing edits on my next novel which follows a male neurosurgeon with an addiction to pills who makes the decision to operate on his sister-in-law’s brain. The story explores how this decision affects not only the course of both of their lives, but of their entire family as well. I love the way my publicist describes this book—” a complex tale of addiction, love, and survival on the operating table.” While this novel does take place in the world of medicine, it strays much further from my area of expertise. This one required a lot more research to get the details right.
YZM: What’s one question that you wished I’d asked but didn’t?
HF: I like credit to the authors who have inspired me to become a writer. Lisa Genova, the author of Still Alice and Every Note Played, along with several other wonderful novels, has been my major inspiration. I love how the way she uses her expertise as a neuroscientist to explore the details of a specific neurologic disease, its emotional ramifications and the ways the disease impacts everyone in the patient’s sphere. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite—her books are all that good.
I also deeply admire Jennifer Weiner’s writing—I faithfully read her novels the day they are released. The way she can make a story hilarious and compulsively readable while addressing serious topics is truly admirable. Her newest novel, Mrs. Everything, just came out in June and is her most ambitious novel yet. She’s truly outdone herself with this one.