Tess Gerritsen always longed to be a writer, however, her family had reservations about such a career choice. This made her turn to a career in medicine- which brought brilliant accuracy to her novels. She graduated from Stanford University in 1975, armed with a BA in anthropology. She furthered her education at the University of California, earning her medical degree in 1979. After this, Tess went on to work as a physician in Honolulu.
Tess’s writing dreams were resurrected when, during her maternity leave, she submitted a short story to Honolulu Magazine’s fiction contest. Her short story, “On Choosing the Right Crack Seed,” won the contest. Tess then began writing romantic thrillers. Her first novel Call After Midnight was published in1987. This marked the beginning of a brilliant career as a writer. In 1996, she wrote her first medical thriller Harvest, and this led to her moving onto writing crime thrillers. Tess Gerritsen’s series of crime thrillers featuring Boston PD homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles inspired the hit television show, Rizzoli & Isles.
Tess has since retired from medicine to write full time. She lives in Maine with her family. Her new Rizzoli and Isles thriller I Know a Secret is set to release in August this year.
I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Tess Gerritsen about her books, characters and her passions. It was an incredibly exciting opportunity for me to interview one of my favourite authors.
How did Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles come to exist?
In my 2001 novel THE SURGEON, I introduced a character named Det. Jane Rizzoli. She was just a secondary character, a detective working with the hero to catch a serial killer. I had planned to kill her during the story, so I never bothered to make her particularly likeable. That’s why Jane comes across as rather a bitch – smart, hardworking, but not particularly pleasant, because she’s a woman struggling for acceptance by her male colleagues. While writing that book, I grew to like Jane, and I understood her issues of being the outsider who has to work harder than everyone else to gain respect. When it came time for her death scene, I just couldn’t kill her, and she survived the story. I wondered: what happens to her next? That’s why I wrote the followup story, THE APPRENTICE, to see more of Jane. In that book, I introduced Maura Isles, a mysterious medical examiner whose personality intrigued me. That’s why I wrote THE SINNER, to see more of Maura Isles. Suddenly, I had a two-character series! It was never planned out, but simply arose because of my fascination with these two people.
With Jane Rizzoli’s struggles in the workplace, you touched on issues of feminism. Do you think that gender inequality is still an issue? How would you resolve this issue?
As a doctor, I was fortunate not to experience many problems with gender inequality. But when I interviewed women cops, I heard stories illustrating that it’s very much a problem in police work. I think it depends on your field of work. I don’t know that there is a way to resolve the issue, other than education and constant reinforcement.
Have you gone through any similar struggles during your journey as a female writer?
I know there are a quite a few men who refuse to read any books by female writers. I recall meeting a man in a bookstore who had picked up an armload of thrillers. My publicist suggested he try one of my books. He took one look at me and said, “I don’t read books by women.” Yet I knew that one of the books he’d bought was ghostwritten by a woman. He was already reading books by women, but he just didn’t know it!
The excellent details in your novel obviously stem from your medical background. Why did you decide to pursue writing?
I was a writer long before I was a doctor. At the age of seven, I told my father I wanted to write mystery novels. He told me that was no way to make a living, and urged me to go into the sciences. Years later, I returned to my first love – storytelling.
You write about some very horrifying things, which means that you research these things. How does this affect you?
Since I approach it from the scientific point of view, it gives me some distance from the horrific subjects I write about. When Jane and Maura walk onto a bloody crime scene, they are there to do a job, and they must get past the horror and focus on who did this and why. I’ve been in an operating room where a patient bled to death, and I’ve seen doctors react in the same way. They have no time to be horrified; they’re focused only on how to stop the bleeding.
How do you get into the mind of a serial killer? More specifically, how did you write from the POV of Warren Hoyt from The Surgeon and The Apprentice?
Warren started “speaking” to me very early in the story. From his voice, I knew he was intelligent and meticulous and a student of history. In a way, I just let him crawl into my head and tell me what he did. The experience was disturbing, because it showed me a different view of the world and how people are either predators or prey. With Warren in my head, I’d walk through a shopping mall and notice things I’d never noticed before, such as: which people looked like they’d fight back? Which would be easy victims? It also made me aware of my own vulnerability, and how we must always be vigilant.
You started with romantic thrillers and then expanded your work with medical thrillers and crime thrillers. How did this change happen?
Even my romantic thrillers had crime in them, so in a way, I’ve always been writing crime novels. But my big breakthrough was with Harvest, my first mainstream medical thriller. It was inspired by a dinner conversation with a homicide cop, who’d recently traveled to Russia. Moscow cops had told him that kids were vanishing from the streets, and they believed those kids were being shipped to foreign countries as organ donors. That idea horrified me, and after a few weeks of obsessing over it, I realized it would be my next novel. I had no idea it would launch my career as a thriller novelist.
Playing with Fire, in my opinion, is an entirely new and brilliant kind of thriller. Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
I was in Venice for my birthday when I had a nightmare. I dreamt I was playing my violin, and there was a baby sitting next to me. The music I played was dark and beautiful, and the baby suddenly transformed into a monster! When I woke up, I knew there was a story here, about music having the power to transmit evil, but I didn’t know how to turn it into a plot. Later that day, I wandered into Venice’s Jewish quarter, where I saw memorials to the local Jews who had been deported to death camps during WWII. That’s when the entire plot came to me – while standing in that quiet piazza in Venice.
Playing with Fire features a musical piece titled Incendio. What inspired you to compose Incendio?
Halfway through writing the book, I had another dream. This time, it was the melody of “Incendio” that came to me. I had been writing about this fictional piece of music for months, and somehow the descriptions must have seeped into my subconscious. I woke up with the music in my head, and I immediately sat down at the piano and played it. It took me about six weeks to compose the entire violin/piano piece, and it was later recorded by concert violinist Susanne Hou.
The plot of your novel Gravity (1999) has been hijacked and used for two films. The theft of intellectual property is a violation of the law- why haven’t you received credit yet?
It’s a long, sad story. I sold the film rights to Gravity in 1999 to New Line Cinema, which was later acquired by Warner Bros. When Warner Bros. made the Alfonso Cuaron version of Gravity, I immediately recognized elements from my novel. Since I had a signed contract with New Line promising me credit if a movie inspired by my novel was ever made, I sued for breach of contract. Unfortunately, the judge ruled that although Warner Bros. had the right to make a film based on my book, Warner Bros. did not have to honor the obligations in the contract signed by their subsidiary, New Line. It was a maddening decision, and to pursue the case would have meant years of litigation and legal fees. So I chose not to appeal.
Then this year, a film called Life was released, again with many eerily similar elements to Gravity. But since my film rights are held by Warner Bros., I have no basis on which to sue for copyright infringement.
Your movie, Island Zero, premiered recently (and passed the Bechdel Test- an amazing feat!). Can you tell us more about this film?
A few years ago, my son and I embarked on a fun family project: to make a feature horror film! I insisted on two things: that it be filmed in Maine, with as many Maine people as possible, and that the film must feature strong and mature women as the heroes. The story is about an island off the coast of Maine, inhabited mostly by fishermen and their families. One day the ferry (their lifeline to the outside world) fails to arrive as scheduled. Phones have gone dead and the power’s out. A boat sent to the mainland fails to return. Soon the islanders realize they have a real problem on their hands: someone (or something) is hunting them down. It’s been screened at three film festivals so far, and yes – we passed the very important Bechdel test for women characters!
You’ve contributed a lot to the war on Alzheimer’s. Why is it so important for people to help cure this disease?
Because Alzheimer’s is an emotional and economic disaster for families and for the country. The costs of dementia, both in heartbreak and in real dollars, keeps mounting as our population ages. My own father died with it, and just about everyone I’ve talked to has a family member who’s affected. I’m terrified of it myself. The costs of caring for patients will drain so many resources and disrupt the lives of so many working families. It only makes sense that we should devote resources to a cure.
I Know a Secret is set to release in August this year. What can we expect from this new Rizzoli and Isles thriller?
It draws from my experience as a horror film producer, delves into my fascination with the symbolism of religious art, and it answers the all-important question: where is Maura’s romantic life headed?
If you haven’t read a Tess Gerritsen novel, I suggest that you start immediately. Brilliantly precise and enticing, you will devour every page. Be prepared for nail-biting, wide eyed thrills.
Looking to start reading Tess Gerritsen novels? You can find out all about the author and her books on her website. Don’t forget to get a copy of I Know a Secret this August! I know that I’m counting the days!