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From Romance to Corpses: Tess Gerritsen’s Writing Life
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In New York for a UN conference, Omar Yussef uncovers an assassination plot. The suspect: his own son. The Palestinian sleuth's most personal investigation so far.
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Tess Gerritsen started with romance, but soon realized that dead bodies were where it’s at. At least, dead bodies handled deftly by the two most compelling female series characters in thriller fiction, Detective Jane Rizzoli and Dr. Maura Isles. Her first books were romance novels, but after writing eight of them she switched to medical thrillers. The 25 million books she has sold prove that this was one plot twist she very much got right. The first of many, in fact. Tess is an absolute master at a particular kind of twist which does more than simply surprise the reader. Her plotting and pacing genius is such that each new element seems to set the actual book racing as fast as the reader’s pulse. I saw her at work in this way at a recent book festival in Dubai. At a social barbeque for the writers attending, we were chatting about an anecdotal incident from another writer’s student days. Tess took what had been a moderately disturbing moment for the writer and instantly rattled off enough nimble plot twists to structure the first quarter of a fast-paced thriller—so that those of us chatting around the roasted chickens were gasping and wishing for her to tell us how the story would end. That’s part of Tess Gerritsen’s tremendous gift. But once she has that idea, how does she proceed? Here’s what she has to say about her Writing Life:
You had a career in medicine before you published. But for how long before you became a professional writer were you interested in writing?
I knew I was a writer at age seven.  I wanted to apply to journalism school as a teen, but my father -- a very practical Chinese-American parent -- warned me that writing was no way to make a secure living.  As an obedient Chinese daughter, I followed his advice and went to medical school instead.  But a few years into being a doctor those old writing impulses reasserted themselves and while I was home on maternity leave with my sons, I wrote my first novels.  A few years later, I realized that I really could make a living as a writer – and I've been one ever since.
How long did it take you to get published?
I wrote two practice manuscripts before my third was accepted. That was CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, a romantic thriller that was published by Harlequin/Mira books.  I wrote romances, and then wrote a thriller HARVEST, which was my first really big bestseller. I've stuck with thrillers since then.
Would you recommend any books on writing?
TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT by Lawrence Block is my favorite advice book about the craft of writing.  It's funny, it's snappy, and it's spot-on.
What’s a typical writing day?
Breakfast, coffee, exercise, and then four first-draft pages.  Only when I've written those four pages do I call it a day.  It usually takes me all day to produce those four pages.
You have a new book out soon, “The Silent Girl.” How would you describe what it’s about? And of course why’s it so great?! When a dead woman is found on a rooftop in Boston's Chinatown, the only clue are two mysterious hair strands that come from a non-human primate. The key to the mystery lies in the ancient Chinese legend of the Monkey King, a mythical creature who may -- or may not – be lurking in the dark alleys of Chinatown.  I love this story because it draws from my own Asian American experience and weaves in all the fairy tales my Chinese mother told me while I was growing up.
What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
I'm traveling at the moment so don't have the book in front of me, but it's the first sentence from GONE WITH THE WIND (paraphrased): "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it..."  At least, it's the one sentence that has stuck with me through the years.
And you remembered it correctly, even on the road, by the way. What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
The battle scenes of Helm's Deep from Tolkien's THE TWIN TOWERS. Or maybe it's just that the book was such a beloved favorite that I still remember the horrible description of the decapitated warriors' heads flying over the battlements.
Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
An impossible question!  Let's just say that I'm very much enjoying the creativity of Markus Zusak's THE BOOK THIEF.
Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
Another impossible question!  But I do think that there's a reason that writers such as Grisham, Connelly and Deaver are so successful -- they know how to keep the plot rolling and unpredictable.
Your books have a technical aspect to them, given that some of the most popular are about a homicide detective and a medical examiner. How much research is involved in your books and how do you carry it out?
The amount of research varies with each book.  Sometimes, I need to look up only a few details.  But other times (such as with my space story GRAVITY) I may spend months doing site locations, talking to experts, or reading textbooks.  When it comes to police facts, I do occasionally visit Boston PD.  I also have cops I can consult with. But let's face it, crime novels are not really all that tied to reality -- things happen on a very short time scale, and in fiction, detectives don't have to wait months and months for lab results to come back.
Where’d you get the idea for Detective Rizzoli and Examiner Isles? And how did you go about building the characters?
They popped up of their own accord.  Really.  It's odd how that happened.  Both started as secondary characters who weren't supposed to appear in more than one book.  So I didn't spend much time thinking about who they were, and they ended up developing on their own, without much attention from me.  By the end of their first books, they had grown into real people, and it all happened completely organically.  To this day, I believe that they gave birth to themselves.
What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
Write another book.  And another.
What’s your experience with being translated?
More than half my income comes from outside the US, so those foreign translations are very, very important to my success as an author.
You’ve sold 25 million books, so I assume you live entirely off your writing. How many books did you write before could make a living at it?
I was finally able to make a living at this business after my novel HARVEST, which was my 10th book. Before that, while I was just writing romantic thrillers, I never could have supported myself.
Did you write unpublished books before you were actually published?
Yes.  Two unsellable romances.  I'm glad they were never published because they would be very embarrassing today.
What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
I was on book tour the morning of 9/11 and was on my way to the airport to catch a flight when the driver's radio carried the first news reports of the Twin Towers.  I arrived to find the airport in chaos and everything shut down.  I ended up spending a very sad, very shell-shocked week in a Seattle hotel.
What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
Years ago, I had the idea for a religious thriller featuring a man whose job is to investigate "miracles".  I was advised that there was no market for religious thrillers. Then came THE DA VINCI CODE.  Oh, well. Read more of Matt's Writing Life interviews at www.themanoftwistsandturns.com