Monday, April 12, 2010

Tess Gerritsen

Author Interview: Tess Gerritsen

New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen writes gripping stories with scalpel-sharp prose. Her characters linger in the reader’s mind long after the story ends and plots snap close with unexpected twists.

Tess Gerritsen uses everything she’s learned in life—a trained physician, daughter of a San Diego restaurateur, anthropologist, wife and mother—to weave believability and freshness into her fiction. Here are three examples of opening lines she’s used to entice fans to keep turning pages:

“They looked like the perfect family.” The Mephisto Club (Ballantine Books, 2006)

“A scalpel is a beautiful thing.” Life Support (Pocket Books, 1997)

“My name is Mila, and this is my journey.” Vanished (Ballantine Books, 2005)

Such enticements prompted readers to buy more than twenty million books in thirty-seven languages. Tess continues to top the bestseller charts in the U.S. and abroad. Word of caution: Never pick up one of her novels unless you’re prepared to lose sleep.

Tess joins us today to discuss her next novel, Ice Cold (UK title: The Killing Place), to be released in July and a new TNT television show Rizzoli and Isles debuting this summer. The television whodunit is based upon Tess’s novel series about two Boston crime fighters  Rizzoli, a homicide detective, and Maura Isles, a medical examiner. More information about Tess can be found at her website or her blog. In addition, she contributes several Tuesdays each month to the well-visited blog Murderati which boasts of “Mysteries, Murder and Marketing.”

MARK:  Tess, tell us about your latest novel, a Rizzoli and Isles thriller titled Ice Cold

TESS:  Maura Isles travels to Wyoming for a medical conference and decides to join a group of friends on a spur-of-the moment ski trip.  When their GPS sends them up a mountain road, their vehicle gets stranded in a blizzard.  The group stumbles on foot into the village of Kingdom Come, where they find empty houses and meals still sitting on tables.  All the residents have vanished.  What disaster occurred in this remote settlement, and where did everyone go?  Every attempt to escape the village ends in catastrophe, and soon Maura is fighting for her life.  Meanwhile, Jane Rizzoli flies to Wyoming to find her missing friend ... and discovers the pretty shocking secret of what really happened in Kingdom Come.

MARK:  Your novel will be released in the U.S. under the name Ice Cold, while the same novel will be released in the U.K under the name of The Killing Place? How does this work? Why the name change? And, will both titles be released simultaneously?

TESS:  My books are published by two different publishers in those markets, Ballantine in the US and Transworld UK, and they want to tailor the books to their own readership.  They did not agree on the title, so they each decided to use the title they thought would sell best in their own countries.  It gets confusing, I agree, but I think they understand their own markets.  Both titles will be released very close to each other this summer, so there shouldn't be too much competition between the publications.

MARK: Give us a little history about your Rizzoli and Isles characters for the benefit of some who may not yet have had the pleasure of meeting these Boston crime solvers. Who are they? What do they do? And how did they become a team?

TESS: Jane Rizzoli first appeared in THE SURGEON, where she was only a secondary  brash but brilliant homicide detective in Boston.  I had every intention of killing her off in that book, but somehow she fought back against her creator and managed to survive.  By the end of that book, I was so intrigued by this woman, who had the heart of a lion while still being as vulnerable as any woman, and I wanted to know what happened next in her life.  So I wrote THE APPRENTICE.  Soon Jane was as real to me as any person, and I couldn't stop writing about her life, her family, and the challenges she faced as a cop.

Maura Isles started off as a secondary character as well, a medical examiner who first appeared in THE APPRENTICE.  From the moment she appeared on the page, I was fascinated by her.  Who was this mysterious Goth-type character whom everyone called "Queen of the Dead'?  Why did she seem so secretive, so aloof?  What did she hide?  So I featured her in THE SINNER, the third book in the Rizzoli series, and Maura's life came into focus.  Suddenly I realized I had a two-heroine series, featuring two women who had little in common except their jobs, but whose lives end up intertwined in ways I could never have predicted.  They've gone from being colleagues to being  friends with issues and conflicts, because they both see the world so differently.

MARK: You’re currently residing in Maine, after living in places like California and Hawaii. Did the New England winters spawn the idea for Ice Cold?

TESS: I could never have written ICE COLD if I hadn't lived through a number of pretty cold winters here.  The descriptions of snow and wind, of what snow sounds like and smells like when it falls, are something you have to experience in order to fully describe it.  In fact, I find that the most interesting settings for me have to do with wintertime, when the days are so short and there's a spooky black and white quality to the world.

MARK: Let’s travel to Hollywood for a moment. Your “Rizzoli  and Isles” novels have been selected by TNT as a regular television series piloting this summer. Share with us a little about this path to Hollywood and how you felt when you first got the good news.

TESS:  I've been SO close to success in Hollywood in the past -- multiple film deals, outright purchases, promises, etc. So when the Rizzoli and Isles project started moving toward reality, I really discounted the possibility.  I never thought it would happen.  Every step of the way, I thought: "something will go wrong."  Because it always had up till then.  Suddenly, the pilot was approved and I thought: "Well, this will go wrong too."  Because I assumed it would be one and only chance to watch a project of mine filmed, I flew out to Hollywood to watch the production.  The overall scale of it blew me away -- the size of the crew, the sets, the massive truckloads of equipment, the chance to be near actors whom I'd admired from other TV shows -- whew!  I felt like an impostor hanging out among the stars.

MARK: Do you know when this program will begin airing? Will they stick with the “Rizzoli and Isles” title or has another been selected?

TESS: Although the official premiere date hasn't been announced, I think it will be sometime this summer.  And yes, the official name is going to be "Rizzoli and Isles," which I'm so happy about.  It was my first choice.

MARK:  Tell us a little bit about your trip to Southern California and your visit with cast and crew. What did you do there?

I'd never been on a film set before, so I was quite nervous and uncertain of my role.  I went with the intention of just staying out of everyone's way and hiding out in a corner. But the crew was so welcoming -- they even gave me a round of applause when I was introduced.  I found the sheer amount of activity overwhelming.  They were filming on location, at a spacious private home (where the murder was supposed to take place) and I counted about 65 people on the set, from hairdressers to caterers to TNT executives. The director was very generous with his time, taking me and my husband aside to talk about camera technology, to ask me every so often if the scene was as I'd envisioned, and whether they were doing justice to the story.  I was especially delighted to hang out with the writer, Janet Tamaro, whose script was so pitch-perfect that there wasn't a single thing I wanted to change.  And I think that's a pretty rare experience for a novelist.

MARK:  Will the television script writers create their own stories around your Rizzoli and Isles characters? Will you have any input this process?

TESS:  They will be creating their own stories around the characters.  I've been invited to suggest story ideas - and wish I could just sit in with the team.  But I've got books to write!

MARK:  Let’s return to writing and the publishing industry. How much marketing are you expected to shoulder as your newest novel hits the bookshelves this summer? What expectations do the publishers have as these books are released here and abroad?

TESS:  I've been a part of the promotional process with every book since HARVEST, my first thriller.  I've toured for most of my titles, and I expect there'll be some touring for this one as well.  But I'm not entirely sure of the cost-benefit ratio of touring, with the difficulties in air travel, and the lack of media coverage these days.  The real reason to tour is to get exposure on local radio, TV, or newspapers -- and so few reporters seem to really care that an author's in town.  That's one of the reasons you see fewer and fewer authors on the road.

MARK: Tell us a little about your writing journey. You web site mentions that you began writing fiction while on maternity leave from work as a physician. Your first contracted novel, Call after Midnight, was published in 1987. For many authors, that time between starting the writing journey and actual publication spans years.  How long did you wait between the dream and the reality of finally publishing? How many rejections?

TESS: I began writing when I went on maternity leave for my first child, in 1982.  I sold my first short story in 1983, and sold Call After Midnight in 1987.  So that's a good five years between deciding I wanted to write, and actually getting a book published.  In that period, I wrote three unsold novels and numerous unsold short stories.  I can't count the number of rejections.  I wish now that I'd kept them all.

MARK: Is your memory of holding that first novel still vivid, or selling more than 20 million copies—has this memory faded? Tell us a little about the road between that moment and where you are now.

TESS: Oh, that memory is still very fresh and wonderful!  After 22 books (Ice Cold is my 22nd) it still seems like quite a miracle to hold my new book.  But nowadays, with hardcover novels, I first see the book in galley form and I get an advance look at the cover design, so unwrapping the finished book doesn't have quite the impact as it did for me when I first held Call After Midnight.

As for the road since my first novel, it's certainly been an amazing journey, and one I never could have anticipated.  One can always dream about hitting the bestseller lists and having Hollywood adapt your stories, but to see it actually happen seems like a fairy tale.

MARK: Since your first published novel, your genres have —romance, techo-medical thriller, and crime. What impact has this made on your readership?

TESS:  I think many of my romance readers have followed me as I moved between genres.  I never made conscious decisions that "now I'm going to become a thriller writer."  Every book I've written was because I wanted to tell that particular story.  I had no idea that my first medical thriller would be so successful.  Or that my first crime novel would be successful.  Or that writing a series would work out so well.  I went by instinct, and it just turned out that my audience was willing to go along.

MARK: Are any of your characters a mirror of Tess Gerritsen? To which character are you most closely linked?

TESS: Maura Isles is definitely me.  Which, in a way, is a bit disconcerting because you can probably tell a lot about who I am as a person by analyzing that particular character.  While at dinner with the TV writers for "Rizzoli and Isles," someone said: "Maura's got Asperger's, doesn't she?" And I was just taken aback, because that comment was so dead-on.  I have many characteristics of Asperger's, and I've known it for some time.  But for a reader to pick up on it shows just how accurately Maura Isles has become my mirror.

MARK: We understand that you graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. degree in Anthropology in 1975; studied medicine at the University of California, San Francisco where you receive your doctorate in 1979; and began working as a physician in Honolulu, Hawaii. What drew you to medicine and when did you leave that profession? How did your ‘day job’ help your writing career?

TESS:  I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid, but my father advised me that it would be a hard way to make a living.  And he's right; writing is an extremely unreliable source of income.  He encouraged me to go into the sciences, where jobs would be more secure.  Since I'm interested in science anyway, it made sense to me, so while at Stanford, I was both pre-med as well as an anthropology major.  In retrospect, medical training was perfect for the writing I'd later do.  It gave me the background to write about pathology and to create Maura as a believable character.

MARK: What is an average writing day look like in your world?

TESS: It depends on where I am in the deadline cycle.  If I'm just starting a new project, I'm pretty relaxed about it.  This is actually the best part of the project, when I'm having fun playing with plot ideas and character arcs.  I love writing beginnings, because that's where the booms happenthe dramatic initiating events.  I'll goof off a lot, take days off to garden or hike, and waste a lot of time. Then, as the weeks go by I start to get nervous, and I really focus.  I try to write four pages a day on weekdaysif I can produce that much, I'll usually be able to meet my deadline.  It can take me several hours or it can take me all day, but those 4 pages a day are important.  Then, in the three months before deadline, I get scared, because usually I don't know how my book's going to end, or how the mystery will be solved.  That's when I start to write on weekends as well. I get obsessive.  I can't sleep.  I turn into lousy company because I really don't want to talk to anyone.  By the last few weeks before deadline, I'm at work 16 hours a day.

And then poof.  It's done, I email it in, and suddenly I look around and realize that I haven't changed my clothes in days, I haven't gone out of the house in weeks, and none of my mail's been answered in a month.  I clean up my desk, finish off the correspondence ... and start the book-writing process all over again.

MARK: Once you’ve grasped a concept for a novel, how do you lay it out? Outline every plot and scene? Or, just go with the idea and see how it turns out? 

TESS: I do a little of both.  I start off with a few key scenes in mind.  The beginning crime and a hook that makes me want to focus on that crime.  Then I find a way to somehow involve my series characters in a very personal way.  In Body Double, for instance, the dead woman looks exactly like Maura Isles, which is a mystery in itself.  In The Apprentice, the crimes are echoes to something that happened to Jane Rizzoli.  In my new book, Ice Cold, the abandoned village where everyone's vanished is the place where Maura finds herself trapped.  Once I know the crime, and the hook, I just see where it goes.  Sometimes I have a good idea of the villain; sometimes it's a surprise to me that only gets revealed as I'm deeper into the story.

MARK: What is your method of editing? Daily edits or at the end of each draft?

TESS: I don't edit at all until I finish the first draft.  Otherwise I'll spend all my time trying to perfect the first three chapters and I'll never find out what the book's about.

MARK:  Generally, how long does it take to cross that finish line where the final draft can be handed off to the publisher?

TESS:  Ideally, I'll go through at least five drafts.  I want it to be as clean as it possibly can be before I let anyone see it.  So I'll spend at least a few months editing.  But that's an ideal world.  When deadlines loom, sometimes I'll just send in the book at the third-draft stage and as I wait for my editor to send me her editorial suggestions, I'll continue polishing in the meantime.

MARK:  What is one piece of advice you’d give aspiring authors today?

TESS: Finish what you start.  If an idea is exciting enough to make you want to write the book, don't let the sheer challenge of finishing that story stop you halfway through.  Sometimes the best writing, the best twists, will come to you as you near the end of the first draft.  But you'll never get there if you give up before then.


APRIL 19: Brian Davis will return in two weeks to continue his two-part interview on Use of Deadly Force Investigations.  This second interview will narrow in on the actual  interview with the officer under investigation and the decision process of whether to exonerate or prosecute.  You will be able to take a look at some of the behind-the-scenes rarely pictured in the movies or mentioned in fiction.

APRIL 26: Author Camy Tang will join us to talk about her latest novel, Deadly Intent, a romantic suspense set in Northern California’s wine country. This novel—about a murder in an exclusive Sonoma spais a major change in genre for Camy, whose previous works included the chick lit Sushi Series novels Sushi For One?, Only Uni, and Single Sashimi. Camy worked as a biologist for nine years before becoming a full time writer will share with us her writing journey and her move to this new genre.


  1. Mark, thanks for bringing us a great interview with a great writer.

    Dr. Gerritsen, congratulations on your success and best wishes for many more great books (and now a TV series). Your story is an inspiration for this physician/writer and--I suspect--many more.

  2. Thanks, Richard. And best wishes for you own debut novel, Code Blue.