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Volume XVII, Issue 45 ~ November 5 - November 11, 2009

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with the times – this week in Chesapeake Country

The Writing Doctor’s Prescription

A good, local story is like a slice of warm apple pie

by Simone Gorrindo

“This isn’t Hemingway,” Joan Lehmann says of her first novel Heaven Below, which hit the shelves in September. “But it’s a good, local story, a slice of warm apple pie. And who doesn’t like apple pie?”

Lehmann, an ER physician turned novelist, grew up among the farms and tobacco fields of Southern Anne Arundel County. The only building her school bus passed was the local doctor’s, her career inspiration.

“I just don’t understand urban people,” Lehmann says, despite her high-stress job at Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie. Heaven Below’s characters are modeled on sturdy “country folk” of her growing up and medical school years in West Virginia.

This book came from a dream, the kind, the author says, “you wake from sweating, with your heart beating a million miles a minute.

“There was a man running through the snow in ragged clothing hitching his little girl on his hip, picking up boots off a sagging porch and fumbling to put them on. I knew he was running from someone. I knew he was running for his life.”

Protagonist Sean O’Connell is a struggling Depression-era Pennsylvania coal miner who, after his world is turned upside down by personal tragedy and murder, winds up on the water in Baltimore.

Though Lehmann left the ER for Heaven Below, her experience as a doctor has given her the insight to shape characters.

“I see 40 people a day,” Lehmann says. “I ask questions other people don’t ask.” She also sizes up their dress. “I used to know a mortgage broker by his three-piece suit,” Lehmann says. “Now, during the recession, I can recognize him by the holes in his jeans.” 

During a difficult time in her life, fiction writing was like therapy for Lehmann: “I was able to shut the door, sit down at my desk and enter an imagined world,” she says. Sonia Linebaugh, former Bay Weekly associate editor and president of the Maryland Writers’ Association, worked with her every step of the way, transforming, Lehmann says, “this storyteller into a writer.”

Lehmann began writing nine years ago with Don’t Move Lily, a nonfiction work chronicling her year in medical residency caring for an 800-pound woman. Lehmann’s first stories in print were witty Reflections for Bay Weekly, beginning with harrowing tales of fishhook removal in the emergency room. Warehouse Creek Yachts reprinted her stories and brought her onto Fish Tales, Whoppers and Lies, a Sunday morning radio hour on WNAV.

Local and family stories are what Lehmann wants to tell. She wrote Don’t Move Lily to document stories “that deserved to be told,” and Heaven Below to safeguard both personal and local memories. “I wrote it to give recognition to small towns and a gone-by era when coal was king, to bring back some Baltimore baby-boomer memories and to recognize my own hometown. I managed to preserve a little of my family history while I was at it.

Lehmann is full of energy and writing plans. To accompany Don’t Move Lily, she envisions a nonfiction work illuminating the deadly epidemic of obesity.

Meet Lehmann between noon and 5pm Sun. Nov. 8 at the annual Christmas Open House at All Things Country in Pastore’s Plaza at the corner of Hog Neck and Mountain roads, Pasadena. Check out her website at for signing dates to come.

© COPYRIGHT 2009 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.