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Tess Gerritsen: The Accidental Novelist

By, Vince A. Liaguno

They say there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and apparently – at least in the case of acclaimed suspense author Tess Gerritsen – there’s also more than one way to reach the New York Times bestseller list. For this once practicing physician, it was a small life detour called maternity leave that served as her catalyst into the world of bestselling medical thrillers.

Living in Hawaii in the early 80's, Gerritsen took leave from a thriving medical practice to give birth to one of her two sons and revisited a childhood fascination with writing during her maternity leave. Far from an overnight success, Gerritsen’s success was incremental – a first-place win in a literary contest in Honolulu Magazine and two unpublished manuscripts – before she landed her first publishing deal with Harlequin. Her first novel, Call after Midnight, was published in 1987 and was modeled after the romantic suspense thrillers that kept her company during long rotations during medical school residencies.

In 1990, she and husband Jacob – now a retired physician – and their two sons moved across ocean and continent to the seaside community of Camden, Maine. Gerritsen continued to churn out formulaic romantic suspense novels until a chance dinner conversation about the Russian mafia and organ harvesting ignited the idea to blend her medical background with the suspense formula she knew so well. Harvest hit bookstores in 1996 and she’s been a fixture on bestseller lists ever since. Her books have been translated into 31 languages, and more than 15 million copies have been sold around the world.

Her 12th book of medical suspense, The Keepsake, was released last month. This is the seventh tome in the popular Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles series, and fans are devouring every last bit of fictional forensic evidence.

The seemingly tireless Gerritsen recently took time out of her whirlwind Keepsake book tour to sit down for an intimate chat with DSM about the accidental birth of her Rizzoli/Isles series, the subtleties of violence, and why technology is a necessary evil for today’s hottest dark scribes.

Dark Scribe Magazine: Tell us about your latest thriller, The Keepsake.

Tess Gerritsen: It's inspired by my longtime interest in archaeology. I was an anthropology major in college, and I spent many hours in the basement of the Stanford University Museum, measuring and cataloguing boxes and boxes of human bones, which had been excavated from North American burial sites. Egyptology has been a particular interest of mine – in particular, the science of Egyptian mummification techniques.

In The Keepsake, a Boston museum discovers a mummy in its basement and sends the supposedly 2000-year-old artifact to be studied using a CT scan. But the scan uncovers a shocking surprise: there's a bullet in the mummy's leg. The "ancient" body is in fact a modern murder victim, and Detective Jane Rizzoli must now track down a killer who preserves his victims using obscure archaeological knowledge.

Dark Scribe: What can fans of your work expect that's different from other books in the Maura Isles/Jane Rizzoli series?

Tess Gerritsen: I incorporate quite a bit of both history and archaeology in this modern murder investigation, explaining the science of not just mummies, but also shrunken heads and bog bodies. It's an exploration of some of the more bizarre funerary rituals.

Dark Scribe: Where did the inspiration come from for these two popular characters? Had you always set out to write a series, or was it luck of the draw that the readers connected to these characters?

Tess Gerritsen: I never intended to write a thriller series. It happened quite by accident. When I first introduced Jane Rizzoli in The Surgeon, she was merely a secondary character who was actually supposed to die in the story. But when I reached the fatal scene, I just couldn't do it. She had fought so long and hard to prove herself in the story. She had shown courage and heart and even though she was not the most likeable character, I had come to admire her. And so I let her live.

And wondered what would happen to her next.

The result was The Apprentice, which was the sequel, featuring both Jane as well as the killer who had tormented her in The Surgeon. They both wanted a second book, and so I wrote it. Maura Isles, who was introduced in The Apprentice, also piqued my curiosity, and she deserved a book of her own, which led to The Sinner. Without ever planning it, I suddenly found myself with a series featuring two linked heroines. And I've continued the series simply because I wanted to find out what happened next in these women's lives.

Dark Scribe: Last year's The Bone Garden was also quite an achievement in terms of the book's narrative complexity. How difficult was it to blend the medical and historical thriller aspects? And is this something you're open to do again?

Tess Gerritsen: It was my first ever historical novel and I was so fascinated by the topic (the awful history of childbed fever) that I never really stopped to think about the difficulties. I just wanted to tell the story, and I dove right in. There was so much that was horrifying and grotesque about the practice of medicine during that era (1830's Boston) that I hardly had to include a gruesome crime in the story; just the descriptions of medical practice were horrifying enough.

Dark Scribe: Do you find it difficult to balance the suspense and visceral aspects of your books? How much is too much when it comes to the blood and gore? Have readers ever told you that you've gone too far — or do they want more?

Tess Gerritsen: As a physician, I've witnessed my share of blood and gore in real life, and the bloody scenes I describe don’t strike me as being overly graphic – merely matter-of-fact and realistic. What I almost never show is violence on the page. Instead, I show crime scenes as witnessed by the investigators who walk onto the scene afterwards and try to reconstruct what happened in that room. It gives me (and my readers) a sense of distance from the horror, because my characters are there to do a job and that's their focus. Not on the horror, but on performing their jobs. So I don't think my books are at all as shocking as some other crime thrillers I've read, in which active torture and violence are shown as they happen. I haven't had any readers complain that I've gone too far – if anything, I think they read my books because they crave the real medical details.

Dark Scribe: Many critics of the dark genre fields (horror, suspense, thrillers) cite the proliferation of violence in these books as being gratuitous and as pushing the boundaries. How do you respond to the idea of violence as entertainment?

Tess Gerritsen: I just don't show much violence – and never gratuitous violence. As a reader, I myself shy away from books that are overly brutal. I don't like violent movies. When I write my books, I'm writing for an audience much like myself. I want enough details to be able to picture the scene in my head, but I don't want to be overwhelmed by the gory details.

Dark Scribe: You are, of course, a retired physician. Without the medical background, in which direction do you think your writing career would have gone?

Tess Gerritsen: I certainly wouldn't have written medical thrillers, which require intimate familiarity with real details. I might have simply written crime thrillers or romantic thrillers.

Dark Scribe: Publishers Weekly has dubbed you the "medical suspense queen". Does that title add pressure to continue at the same pace and quality in terms of output?

Tess Gerritsen: The pressure to turn out a book every year actually comes from the demands of the publishing cycle. The accepted wisdom is that if you let more than two years go by without publishing a book, readers will forget about you, and you'll lose your audience. And yes, I've felt that pressure, which may be why I've turned out twelve thrillers in about that many years.

Dark Scribe: So you're out on the road in support of The Keepsake. Do you enjoy book tours — or have they become a necessary evil by this point in your career?

Tess Gerritsen: I love book tours. Yes, they can be exhausting, and the travel aspect has gotten far more difficult lately, as planes are filled to capacity and so many flights are cancelled without warning. But there's no place I'd rather visit than bookstores, and this gives me the chance to meet readers and to see how books are selling around the country – even around the world.

Dark Scribe: What have been some of your favorite tour stops and bookseller venues?

Tess Gerritsen: There are certain bookstores that I frequently visit, including Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona and Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts. But there's only one store that has consistently been on my tours, the same store at which I've launched almost every book, and that's my hometown bookstore, the Owl and Turtle in Camden, Maine.

Dark Scribe: What's your fan base like? I know some writers working in the horror, suspense, and thriller fields are at times amazed by the normalcy of their readers. But preconceived notions work both ways. Do you think your readers are surprised when they meet you?

Tess Gerritsen: My readers are both male and female, both teenagers and octogenarians. So it's hard to put them into one particular category. What they have in common is they enjoy the scientific details, the realism, and the fast-paced stories. I find that nurses, medical personnel, and science teachers are among my most avid readers. And yes, they are – or seem to be – pretty normal! As for how they view me, I suspect they're surprised to find that I'm quite ordinary, and not at all scary.

Dark Scribe: What's been your most memorable fan encounter to date?

Tess Gerritsen: I was on tour for The Surgeon, about a serial killer who immobilizes his victims and performs surgery on them – while they're still alive and awake. One very ordinary-looking man came up to get his book signed, and he leaned in and whispered in my ear "Thank you for writing this book. You allowed me to enjoy my fantasies." Then he picked up his signed copy and walked out of the store. It was his utterly ordinary appearance that was most chilling. It reminded me that people with the most frightening fantasies look like everyone else – and we can't distinguish who they are until they act on those fantasies.

Dark Scribe: On a personal note, September was rough time for you. Readers who follow your blog were shocked to learn that your son had taken ill and was hospitalized. You hinted at some exotic travels and disease-carrying mosquitoes. How's he doing now?

Tess Gerritsen: He's doing fine now, after a week-long hospitalization. As doctors, my husband and I have seen healthy young patients suddenly crash and burn, so of course we feared the worst as we watched his chest x-rays deteriorate, as his platelet count dropped and he suddenly required oxygen. We're still not certain what caused his illness, but the best guess at this point is dengue fever, picked up while he was hiking in the jungles of Thailand.

Dark Scribe: Authors and technology. Some seem to resist it, but you seem to have embraced it with high-tech book trailers, an active Internet presence, and even going so far as to recently admit being wrong when it came to the viability of e-books. Now you're a Kindle-carrying believer. What is it about technology that makes so many writers resistive to change — and do you think writers need to change their thinking when it comes to the incorporation of technology into the old paper and ink mainstay of reading and writing?

Tess Gerritsen: First, I should confess that I'm a reluctant adopter of technology. I love the plain old-fashioned book. I still write my first drafts with (gasp!) pen and paper. But I do recognize the times when technology makes our lives easier, and I'm all for making our lives easier. I only turned to the Kindle when I found my suitcase was entirely too heavy to drag onto an airplane, and needed an alternative to loading up my luggage with books. And as for blogging, I'm only able to do it because I have a young webmaster who has guided my hand every step of the way – believe me, I'd be helpless without him! Blogging is just writing, and that, at least, is something every writer already knows how to do.

As writers, we do need to accept that the world is changing. We work with the old-fashioned medium of words, but what happens to our words – the words we put together as artists – may soon be beyond our control. The digital age means our creations can be downloaded and stolen and given away for free. We need to find a way to keep making a living despite the fact it's easier and easier to steal our work. We need to avoid what has happened to musicians, who can no longer make a decent living because of digital theft. We need to somehow maintain control over what we've created – which means we need to understand that digital books are now a fact of life, and we need to collect royalties every time our words are downloaded.

Dark Scribe: TV police procedurals. Are you a fan of any? Are you more a CSI gal or a Criminal Minds fan? What are your favorite television shows at the moment?

Tess Gerritsen: I confess I don't watch much TV, except for news programs and the History Channel – so I can't claim any familiarity whatsoever with any [current] TV series.

Dark Scribe: What book is on your nightstand at the moment? Who else do you enjoy reading?

Tess Gerritsen: On my nightstand at the moment is The Histories by Herodotus. And a textbook on reading Egyptian hieroglyphs, which I'm frantically trying to learn in anticipation of a trip to Egypt in November.

Dark Scribe: Alright, we'd be remiss if we spoke to you during election season and didn't bring up politics. So, time for a little politics — but with a twist. Maura and Jane go to the polls on November 4th. Which candidate is each voting for and why in relation to their literary personalities?

Tess Gerritsen: Maura would definitely vote for Obama. Jane would be an independent voter who'd normally vote Republican, but I think she'd probably be talked by her husband Gabriel into voting for Obama as well – especially since she lives in Boston, and since police organizations across the nation have just endorsed Obama.

Tess on Tour:


6:00 PM: Bookstacks, 71 Main Street. 207-469-8992


7:00 PM: Jabberwocky Books, 50 Water Street, Tannery Mill #1. 978-465-9359


7:00 PM: Talk at Curtis Memorial Library, 23 Pleasant Street
Brunswick, Maine 0401


7:00 PM: Talk at Swampscott Library, 61 Burrill Street, Swampscott, MA. 781-596-8868.


Lunchtime: speech at the New York Institute of Technology, NYC (private event)

7:00 PM: RJ Julia Bookshop, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison, CT. 203-245-3959 x14


7:30 PM: Westchester Book Company, 975 Paoli Pike, Westchester. 610-696-1661 x14


7:00 PM: Bookmark Books, 299 Atlantic Blvd. 904-241-9026


Appearance at Delaware Book Festival. 10:00 AM, Tent B.


Afternoon Author talk.

Visit Tess Gerritsen’s official author website for more information.

Posted on Friday, October 10, 2008 at 03:31PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | CommentsPost a Comment

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