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Interview with Tess Gerritsen 2007

Image: Tess Gerritsen 2007By Chris High

Having flown halfway around the world and already begun the process of promoting their latest novel in a little under forty-eight hours, some authors might appear a little frazzled. However, meeting best-selling author Tess Gerritsen, who was in Manchester recently to promote her sixth novel in the highly acclaimed Rizzoli / Isles series, The Mephisto Club (Bantam Press), she was calm, relaxed and self-assured as the interview began with a somewhat obvious question. What makes a successful doctor and a graduate of Sandford University want to become a full-time writer?

‘I have been a writer since I was seven years old, so I guess what you could say is I’m actually a writer who became a doctor and the real reason I became a full-time writer was that I became a mother,’ Tess explained. ‘I stayed home with the kids and found I couldn’t combine medicine with being the mother I wanted to be. It was then that I decided I was going to do what I’d always wanted to do. Initially my family, which is Chinese-American and very practical, said writing’s fine but there’s no money in it and I chose to go into medicine to begin with because I have always been very interested in science and still find biology fascinating.’

So does Tess miss practicing medicine? ‘My husband is a doctor, so now I see his frustrations. American medicine is fraught with concerns about lawsuits and its practice is not so much about being a doctor but rather about being a bureaucrat. So, no, I don’t miss it. I’m very happy being a writer.’

The Mephisto Club is set around the hunt for a killer with a penchant for leaving what appear to be Satanic symbols at the crime scene. When Anthony Sansone, an aging historian and leader of the Mephisto Foundation, a society interested in studying the root of evil, becomes embroiled in the case, things become ever darker.

‘I don’t really plan my novels and I started this book thinking about where evil comes from. Writers tend to concentrate on the motive behind the killings in their books and rarely does it get down to the more philosophical question as to where evil originates and what makes a killer a killer. That’s what I wanted to come across and that’s why there is very little in the way of comic relief in the book. The subject, to me, was too scary for that. The biblical source material was also pretty frightening, despite my not being particularly religious. The thought that there could be some kind of supernatural force that can get deep down into somebody’s soul and drive them along – like in The Omen, for example – is disturbing.’

That this is the sixth book of the series should not be seen as an obstacle to new readers. So well drawn are the characters that even for followers of the series, this could be taken as the first. Detective Jane Rizzoli and Doctor Maura Isles are, emotionally, two characters set poles apart, yet work together so well together. Was this a difficult characterisation to build?

‘Jane was created first and Maura didn’t come along until book three. Jane is, for the moment at least, very happy after a very unhappy beginning. Almost everything about her is the opposite of me and is a composite of just about every female police officer I’ve ever known in that she’s tough and feels from the start that she has to better at what she does than the men. As a female doctor, I came up against similar attitudes and had similar feelings, so in that way maybe we are alike, but that’s it. Maura though, and I hate to say this because people often say she’s quite dull, is very much more like me,’ Tess laughed. ‘Maura is very logical and very scientific and a lot more introspective than Jane.’

Peter Millar of The Times commented that with The Mephisto Club the author has “turned her attention to what might seem like Dan Brown territory” and there does seem to be a growing number of books with religious undertones to them. ‘If you look at it very superficially, that’s right,’ Tess agreed. ‘However, I was a major in anthropology and have always been interested in ancient history and have always been fascinated in the comparisons between the light and the dark of the human psyche. It’s not just in Christianity. You can go back much further to see that good versus evil is predominant in religious culture. What struck me was that when I first encountered the book of Enoch, which is the basis for this story, the belief that creatures from above, Angels, were having sex with women who were then giving birth to evil offspring is very strong. That is a really prevalent belief from ancient times coupled with the belief that there could be an existing bloodline. That, in turn, has enriched the conspiracy theory that these descendents still exist in positions of power. These are people, politicians, who love violence, who love destruction and who love wars and chaos. It’s an interesting question. Why do some people in power almost voluntarily start wars and use politics to justify the fact that they want to see bloodshed? I’m thinking in terms of Hitler and Pol Pot here, as well as others more recent. To me it’s not only interesting, but also scary. The only comparison I think that can be drawn between my book and Dan Brown’s is religious conspiracy but because of the phenomenon that exists surrounding his novel any new book with religious themes will, in some way, be compared to his. To stop writing books with these themes cuts out storylines relating to history and the bible and a lot of other things besides. It’s a little like romance writers being constantly compared to Danielle Steele.’

So which other writers does Tess admire? ‘I read a lot of historical novels and right now I’m on a big Philippa Gregory kick. I adore her work and also that of Robert Harris.’

Tess researches her books thoroughly, but not before beginning to write. ‘I started off with the idea of having a satanic killing. As I was writing, so did I do more and more research into the Nephilim and into the Basilica of St. Clemente in Rome, which I’d visited, because the story needed it. My research is pretty much an ongoing process throughout.’

The after-word to the novel suggests the idea came to Tess almost by accident. ‘I can usually pinpoint the moment a book is born. For example, with the book before this one, Vanish, the idea came from reading a newspaper article about a young woman who was pronounced dead of an overdose in a bathtub. They put her in a body bag, took her to the morgue where she woke up which, believe it or not, is not such an unusual occurrence. What I was thinking when reading the article, though, was “who is this woman? What does she do when she wakes up? What happens next?” and that was the basis of the story. Had I not read that article, the book would not have been written, so at times it’s a sudden flash of “what ifs” in sequence that gets the idea rolling. You have to remember though that the idea is just the start. The idea is not the book. The trick is learning what’s a good idea and what isn’t.’

The Mephisto Club is Tess Gerritsen’s nineteenth novel. Does the thrill of seeing her work on shelves still endure? ‘I never lose that buzz and I think once you start taking it for granted your writing will suffer. Every time I finish a book I feel, my God, I don’t know how I did this and its amazing that I’ve finished. I still have all the same old insecurities. I’ve never written a book and not felt in the middle that it’s a disaster. After one book or ten books or nineteen books, people tend to think you must really know what you’re doing. I don’t. All I know is that I’m fairly comfortable with my writing process. I feel as though I never learn because I genuinely think that each book will be a disaster even though I’m quite confident now that the book will sell. Writing is a very scary thing for me, especially as I don’t really plan where the story will go. I don’t solve the mystery ahead of time and it’s as new to me when I’m writing it as it is to the reader when he or she opens it for the first time.’

Routine is not something Tess follows rigidly. She does not have a set time to write and does not follow any particular procedure. ‘As long as I can turn out four pages per day, I’m happy. I don’t go by the clock or the weather or anything like that. Getting those thousand words out is the aim. Deadlines are the thing. We all work to them and the closer mine gets, the more work I do. I’ll work seven days a week on the book then, whereas initially I try to keep weekends free and spend them with the family.’
Like a lot of writers, Tess greatly values having a Website and hers is particularly well constructed. ‘Of all the promotional tools available for which we have to pay, I would say having a Website is the most important. You can reach everybody with it.’

Today’s market is tough to break in to. Why is that? ‘Mainly, it’s the glut of books that are being published. There are more books published now than ever before but I don’t think we’re encouraging more readers. People, and especially children, are going to the Internet for instance, so where are the new readers coming from? My readership tends to be people over thirty because those from twenty to thirty, generally, don’t have the time or the patience to read. I think Harry Potter is the one bright spark that has encouraged children to read and, maybe, we should be encouraging kids to write stories as well as reading them because you can’t really do one without the other. The most annoying thing I find is when people say: “Oh I wish I had the time to write” because to a lot of people it seems such an easy job. Believe me, it isn’t and anybody who wants to do it has my full admiration. If you really want to write, whether it be for pleasure or profit, you can always find the time.’

Is there a big difference between what the American and UK readership looks for in a crime novel? ‘I think the UK readership is a lot more intrigued by the bloodiness of their crime fiction. American readers are more into the why’s and wherefores of the storyline, I think, than the actual blood and gore. American authors are also a lot more fond of romantic thrillers than British readers.’

Are there any major influences on Tess’s writing? ‘Not really, no. I feel very strongly that storytellers are born and I don’t think somebody can develop into being one. Storytellers have an ability to choose a path that holds the most drama and will always choose the path that gives them the most trouble. They constantly ask what’s the worst that can happen.’

Tess is taking a break from Jane and Maura with her next novel. ‘I’m currently writing an historical mystery set in the nineteenth century, which is a particularly horrifying time. Imagine what it was like to get an amputation without anaesthesia, for instance, and I wanted to set a mystery around a medical student in the 1830’s. The book is due in July of this year and its only halfway done.’ 

Will there be anything more from The Mephisto Foundation? ‘I really don’t know the answer to that but when I finish this new novel, I hope to know,’ Tess laughed. ‘I have had a lot of feedback from readers who would like to see it as a spin-off, so maybe. They are an interesting group of scholars. Jane and Maura, I think, perhaps have their own agendas. I think it’s really important that, as a writer, you don’t produce the same thing over and over. There are a lot of authors who make their stories gorier or they change the killer or the method and that’s it. For me that’s so unfulfilling and I always want to take my characters in a direction they’ve never gone before. What that leads to though is some fans saying: “what are you doing?” As a writer I couldn’t keep doing the same thing. I’d get bored.

One writer who I really admire is Mo Hayder. Not one of her books is the same as the one that’s gone before and I absolutely adored Tokyo, which was way off anything she’d written before, and I thought it was really powerful. There is always a danger that when you do something like that, though, that your fans will say: “hey, that’s not what I was expecting”. It’s almost as if the more creative you become, the more you get criticised and I think that’s really sad. Nobody ever criticises a writer who writes the same book again and again and those who are really bold sometimes get unduly punished for it.’

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Parts of this interview have, or will, appear in other publications and in other formats.

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“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
© 2007 all rights reserved