Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

October 15, 2013

True crime inspires best-selling novelist

Debbie Blank The Herald-Tribune
The Batesville Herald-Tribune

---- — BROOKVILLE – How the heck did renowned Tess Gerritsen wind up in Brookville Oct. 10? It turns out the Maine resident has a soft spot in her heart for libraries.

The witty woman said she spent her childhood at the San Diego Public Library. “That’s where I met all my heroes,” from Nancy Drew to Bilbo Baggins. Book tours usually take her to big cities, but a year ago, Gerritsen received an e-mail invite from a Bartholomew County librarian. The writer wanted to speak at a few more libraries to make the trip worthwhile and somehow that ballooned into 23 Hoosier visits. “I specifically said I wanted to go to smaller towns … I know they often get ignored by book tours.”

She was delighted to be a guest of the Franklin County Public Library District in “a beautiful part of the state.”

“I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 7,” Gerritsen confessed. “My father told me it was no way to make a living.” After graduating from Stanford University and the University of California at San Francisco medical school, she was a physician for five years. While on maternity leave, she began the 1987 romantic thriller “Call After Midnight.” “When my son was sleeping, I’d write another chapter.”

“Why do I write such scary stuff?” she pondered. Her mother, a Chinese immigrant who didn’t understand English very well, gets the blame. “She took me to every scary movie .... I grew up thinking horror films were the height of entertainment.”

As a joke, the first thing novelist Stephen King said to her was what everyone asks: “‘Where do you get your ideas?’” Newspapers was her answer. She read an article in the Boston Globe about a woman found dead in a bathtub next to empty pill bottles. The body was zipped into a body bag, but she awoke a few hours later.

Gerritsen wondered how often that happens. A lot, apparently. In the 1970s when a man on an autopsy table awoke, “the doctor was so shocked, he had a heart attack and died.” She reported, “Because I’m a thriller novelist, I decided to take ... (the idea) in a thriller direction.” In her 2005 book “Vanish,” the corpse’s eyes pop open just before an autopsy begins.

“Sometimes I get ideas because of personal crises I’m going through,” the author admitted. “I wrote about what I consider the scariest creature on earth and that is the American teenager” in the 1998 book “Bloodstream.” The mother of two sons was disturbed when her 14-year-old and friends broke into a boatyard. “We ended up going to a therapist to see if we were doing something wrong.” He advised the parents to ask adult men what they did at 14 to realize what their son did wasn’t abnormal.

Gerritsen pointed out, “Sometimes you get ideas because of a long-term interest.” The college anthropology student’s senior project was to examine and catalog a couple hundred skeletons in a Stanford basement. “Every so often you would see something that would remind you these were people.” One 1,000-year-old skull had an impacted wisdom tooth. She thought, “‘I know you died with a toothache.’ It was a very human moment.”

Fascinated by mummies and Egyptology, a scientist invited her to a CT scan of a mummy at Poughkeepsie, N.Y. It revealed the man in his 30s had a broken thigh bone. “Maybe the man ... fell off a horse … bled to death.” The writer turned that experience into a modern murder story, 2008’s “The Keepsake.” She said, “I thought that was a really cool and original idea,” but her Egyptologist friend explained the plot already had happened in real life. He consulted on a young female mummy in India. “It was a bad mummification job.” What bothered the scientist was someone had pulled the teeth out, which wouldn’t have happened in ancient times. It turns out the modern family who killed the woman didn’t want her identified because of dental work, so they extracted the teeth and mummified her, hoping to make some money.

A near disaster on the Russian space station Mir inspired her favorite book, 1999’s “Gravity” (not to be confused with the current movie). After doing extensive online research and voracious reading on astronauts, the novelist spent a week at Johnson Space Cneter and another at Cape Canaveral. “I was looking for emotional details, things that freak me out.”

On a book tour, a woman reported she was not interested in reading about space. She requested a novel about “‘serial killers and twisted sex.’ I asked her, ‘What do you do for a living?’” The answer was third-grade teacher. Gerritsen learned women like serial killer books, but only if the victims are women. “We identify with victims in these stories.”

A book series about Boston detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles was born. In the first book, 2001’s “The Surgeon,” Rizzoli was supposed to be killed, but Gerritsen couldn’t bear to do it. “I wondered, ‘What happens to you next? Do you ever get happy? Do you ever fall in love?’” In the second book, 2002’s “The Apprentice, Isles was introduced and she’s Gerritsen’s alter ego. “Maura and I both believe in logic. We’re both doctors… we were both anthropological majors in college … we both drink the same wine … but I’ve never had an affair with a priest!” she pointed out to laughter.

“I have sold the rights to almost all my books,” but TV shows and movies never panned out, until six years ago, when a TV producer became enthralled with the duo. Actresses Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander “don’t look like my characters. They’re far more beautiful and fashionable.” The TNT show “Rizzoli and Isles” is going into its fifth season and seen by an average of 8 milion viewers weekly.

Why has it been so successful? According to the novelist of 25 books read in 40 countries, “TNT says it’s the first show since ‘Cagney and Lacey’ that highlights female friendship. It’s interesting it took 30 years for Hollywood to see there was a hunger for that.” She reported, “I don’t have any say with what happens with the TV show. They made it funnier, more glamorous.” While Jane is married in the book series, the producer told Gerritsen she never will be on TV.

Now the former physician is in the middle of her next book in the series, focusing on “weird murders in Boston around a zoo” that connect to African safari killings.

When an attendee asked what effect e-books are having on writers, Gerritsen noted, “Over 50 percent of my sales now are e-books … I think that’s starting to level off. If you’re not sure about an author,” she recommends persons sample an e-book for a small fee.

The woman that Publishers Weekly dubbed the medical suspense queen maintained, “This is really the best time ever to be a writer. If you can’t find an editor or an agent … you can self-publish and actually make a living at it. The downside is everybody is doing it and you’re competing with writers” of varying quality.

Debbie Blank can be contacted at or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.