Life, death inspire writer

Dr. Maggie Leffler to talk about her first novel, `Diagnosis of Love'

September 16, 2007|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,special to the sun

Holly Campbell is a young doctor with a problem. Shaken by her mother's death, Holly quits her job, leaves her boyfriend and finds herself living in England, unsure of what to do next.

Dr. Campbell is the fictional counterpart of real-life doctor and novelist Maggie Leffler, who grew up in Columbia. In her first book, Diagnosis of Love, Leffler follows Holly's adventures in medicine and love.

Unlike her main character, Leffler has always known what she wanted to do with her life -- become a doctor and a writer. She will talk about her dual life at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the central library. "Meet the Author: Dr. Maggie Leffler" will include a reading, talk and book signing.

Leffler, 34, is a family practitioner in Pittsburgh, where she and her physician husband are raising their 2-year-old son. She was born in Baltimore to a pair of Howard County doctors. Her parents divorced when she was 4, but both remained in Columbia, where Leffler was an All-County cross-country star for Atholton High.

The fact that both her parents were doctors "was inspirational because I saw what they did and that they loved what they were doing. And so I wanted to go into medicine, too," she said.

Leffler's father was Dr. Allan Theodore Leffler II, a well-known Howard County pediatrician. He died in March when a car operated by a drunken driver crossed the center line on Route 103 just west of Chatsworth Way in Ellicott City and hit Dr. Leffler's Volkswagen Passat, killing both drivers. Dr. Leffler was 66.

"I would shadow him in the office when I was in med school," Leffler said. "I liked his way with people and how he treated them, and I wanted to be that kind of doctor."

Leffler said that her stepmother, Melissa Leffler, who was injured in the accident, is home and recovering. Letters from her father's friends, patients and their families in Howard County "have been amazing," she said. "People have shared such really wonderful stories, and it's meant so much to me and my step-mom and my whole family."

Leffler pursued her medical degree at St. George's University School of Medicine in Grenada. Her studies included rotations in the United States -- some at Baltimore's Harbor Hospital -- and in Britain. Notes from the time Leffler spent in Britain became the setting for Diagnosis of Love.

Leffler's novel was shaped by her mother's death in 1999. Martha Leffler Lincoln -- an ophthalmologist -- worked on an unpublished novel during her battle with ovarian cancer. "I would be working on my novel, and she would be working away on her laptop, and we would swap chapters," Leffler said.

According to Leffler, Diagnosis of Love is about a young, female physician. "Her mother has just died and she decides to ... move away to England for a year to reclaim her life," she said. Dr. Holly Campbell "learns to let go of her grief over her mother's death and also to figure out who she is and what she wants to do. She makes a family out of the friends she's surrounded by while she's there."

Susan Clack, a Columbia resident and longtime friend of the Lefflers, read several versions of the book. "It was hard for me to read it without sort of looking for the parts that may have come from [Maggie's] life," Clack said.

The character of Holly Campbell "is sort of unsure of herself, and you see her growing up," said Clack. The characters are "complex, multidimensional people. ... It's one of the reasons I really like the book."

Clack said she also enjoyed Leffler's vivid descriptions of England.

Writing the book "was a long process," Leffler said. She started working on the story during medical school and had a first draft by the beginning of her residency.

"I would work on it at night when I wasn't on call. It was just a great break from interacting with people all day to sort of living in an imaginary world," said Leffler. "I kept rewriting over seven years. The story changed along the way, although the characters remain the same."

Elaine Johnson, the central library's assistant manager, is organizing Leffler's reading. She said Diagnosis of Love is "a book that a lot of people would want to read ... because it's sort of a coming-of-age story." The main character is "struggling -- as all young people [do] -- with keeping up her allegiances to family, friends and career," Johnson said.

Although the story has to do with grief, Diagnosis of Love is full of humor. "Her life experience for someone of her age has been more than one would hope for," Clack said, referring to the deaths of Leffler's parents. Leffler's "writing sort of combines her very mature wisdom for someone her age and her sense of humor."

The library has been promoting Leffler's talk by recommending Diagnosis of Love to book clubs. The novel, which was published in February, received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. Leffler's second novel is due next year.

"You do tend to write what you know," Leffler said. "Going through residency alone gave me a whole vat of ideas ... situations and moments, high-tension situations, but they're also dramatic. Everybody goes through life and death. They're experiences that make for interesting stories."

The library recommends that people register for Dr. Leffler's book talk at 410-313-7800, or at www.hclibrary.org.

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