Interview: Tess Gerritsen

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Today, Tess Gerritsen is one of America’s leading crime fiction authors, but she took an unusual route to get there. A graduate of Stanford University, Tess went on to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, where she was awarded her MD. While on maternity leave from her work as a physician, she began to write fiction and in 1987 her first novel was published. Call After Midnight, a romantic thriller, was followed by eight more romantic suspense novels.

But it’s the Rizzoli and Isles series that her crime fiction fanbase adores, and number 12 in the series comes out 10 August, entitled I Know a Secret. It’s hard to believe that the Rizzoli and Isles story started all the way back in 2001 with The Surgeon back in 2001. The novels, featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles, inspired the TNT television series Rizzoli and Isles, starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander. We invited Tess over to Crime Fiction Lover for a chat about her work.

What’s in store for crime fiction lovers in I Know a Secret?
In I Know a Secret, Jane and Maura must solve the case of a murdered horror film producer whose eyes have been removed, but whose cause of death is unknown. Days later a second mutilated victim is found – and again, the cause of death is unknown. To solve the mystery, Maura must ask for help from someone she’s vowed never to see again: Father Daniel Brophy, the man she still loves.

Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
It was inspired by a trip I took to Italy a few years ago. I had been exploring so many churches and art museums that I was burned out from staring at too many religious paintings. But then I bought an art history book called How to Read a Painting about the symbolism in religious art, and it opened my eyes to symbols in those paintings that I’d never seen before. Suddenly I understand that if a woman is holding an ointment pot, she must be Mary Magdalene, and a man shot with arrows must be St Sebastian. Every painting became a treasure hunt, and I’d search for the telltale clues to tell me the figures’ identities. Then I thought: what if that’s what a killer does with his crime scenes? Leaves clues based on religious art? Readers raised Catholic may understand immediately what the crime scenes are meant to represent. But then comes the next question: why is the killer doing it, and who are these messages meant for?

Was it always your plan that Rizzoli and Isles would be a series?
I never planned to write a series. When I wrote The Surgeon, the first book with Jane Rizzoli, I thought it was a standalone, and Jane was introduced as merely a minor character who was supposed to die toward the end of the story. But as the story took shape, Jane kept nudging her way into the center of the conflict. By the time I reached her death scene, I just couldn’t kill her; I’d gotten to know her and like her too well! After that story ended, I wondered what happened next to Jane. Would she ever fall in love? Would she ever find happiness? So I wrote The Apprentice, to find out. In that book, I introduced a minor character named Maura Isles, a new medical examiner in Boston. Soon I was fascinated by Maura, so I wrote the third book, The Sinner. And that’s how the series was born – because I kept wanting to spend time with these two women.

After 12 books, Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isle must seem like old friends. Are you surprised at how their stories have developed?
Very much so! I never had character arcs planned, and their lives have unfolded only as I wrote the books. I had no idea who Maura’s birth parents were. I didn’t know that she’d fall in love with a man who’d bring her both happiness and heartbreak. I only knew that the friendship between these women would deepen, and that they’d struggle with their personal lives just like real people do.

It’s rare to have two strong, capable women sharing the limelight. I’m imagining endless battles for supremacy as you’re plotting the books. How do you strike a balance that suits both the characters and your readers?
Depending on their roles in the story, they take turns being in the limelight. In Body Double, Maura took centre stage because the plot focused on her search for her birth parents, and the shocking revelation of who they are. In Vanish, Jane takes centre stage when she goes into the hospital to have her baby, and becomes a hostage. I don’t think of it as a battle between them for supremacy. Rather, it’s more about which one is going to face the bigger personal crisis.

You don’t stint on sharing the gruesome detail of the autopsy or crime scene – are these chapters difficult to write?
Not really. Because I’m a doctor, I tend to have a clinical approach to gore, so it’s a bit like just going to work. You do your job, get your hands bloody, wash up and go home to eat dinner. What makes it less upsetting for me is that I don’t show actual violence on the page. My characters walk onto the scene after the horrible thing has already happened, they have a job to do, and they do it. It gives me a sense of distance from the upsetting nature of the crime.

Is the process of writing different for you in a standalone novel as compared to a series?
Very much so. In a series, I’m always trying to move forward my characters’ rather complex lives, and I have so many aspects to juggle, not just Jane but also her parents, her brothers, her colleagues, her husband, her child. Maura’s up and down love life is also a continuing thread, and like real life, it has no neat ending. I rather like the messiness of a series, and the various interweaving threads. In a standalone, everything must be tied up at the end, or you leave your audience unsatisfied.

What prompted you to write crime fiction?
I’ve been a crime fiction reader since childhood – all credit goes to Nancy Drew!

Is there any other genre that you’d love to explore?
I’ve written in other genres: historical (Bone Garden and Playing with Fire), science fiction (Gravity) and romance (my nine Harlequin Intrigue titles). Of them all, I think I love writing historical the most.

How do you write? Are you a disciplined writer with daily/weekly targets or do you prefer to work by the seat of your pants?
I write by the seat of my pants, often not knowing the solution to the mystery until I’m halfway or three-quarters through the first draft. I’m disciplined enough to turn my manuscripts in on deadline, but now that I’m not under contract and writing on spec, I find that I’m much more easily distracted!

Who are your influences as a crime writer?
My primary influence is the news. Much of what I write is inspired by something I read in the newspaper, even if it’s only tangentially related to crime. For instance, Vanish was inspired by a New York Times article about sex trafficking. Ice Cold was inspired by the news about a military nerve gas experiment gone awry.

What’s next on your writing agenda?
I’m working on a stand-alone thriller that’s unlike anything I’ve ever written. Also, my son and I are working on a documentary feature film about… pigs! We’re having lot of fun traveling and interviewing a wide variety of experts, from chefs to religious scholars to pet pig owners. I’ve decided that life is short, and the time to satisfy all my crazy creative urges  is right now.

You can pre-order your copy of I Know a Secret with the button below, or start from the beginning with The Surgeon. We reviewed Die Again, here.

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