September 1, 2007
By Denise Tong
With her last 10 books having landed on The New York Times bestseller list, Tess Gerritsen has become one of the most popular authors in the medical and crime thriller genres. But this year, she’s decided to shake things up. She takes her first leap into historical suspense with her latest work, The Bone Garden, which hits shelves on Tuesday, September 18.
The crime thriller toggles between the present day and the early 1800s, a grisly period when medicine, in Gerritsen’s words, was in a “primitive state … when the standard treatment for almost every illness was to slit open the patient’s vein and bleed her.”
In the present, Julia Hamill discovers a buried skull in her yard and decides to find out what happened to the woman it belongs to. Hamill’s journey is interwoven with the 1800s thread, which follows medical student Norris Marshall and seamstress Rose Connolly as they hunt a vicious killer.
During her extensive historical research, Gerritsen was so inspired by her studies of revolutionary 19th century doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes that she decided to write him into The Bone Garden; he appears as a medical student who accompanies Marshall and Connolly on their investigation.
This isn’t the first time that Gerritsen has hopped from one genre to another. The retired physician began her writing career in 1987 with the romantic suspense tale Call After Midnight, the first of nine romance novels.
She didn’t draw on her medical background until the 1996 thriller Harvest, which vaulted her for the first time onto the New York Times‘ bestseller list. She remained on the list—and continued to bring medicine to the page—for the next nine books. The last six have married pathology to crime investigation, starring the wildly popular characters Detective Jane Rizzoli and Dr. Maura Isles.
Her stories’ unrelenting pace, absorbing investigative puzzles, and memorable characters have won her accolades—2001’s The Surgeon won the Rita Award; 2005’s Vanish won the Nero Wolfe Award and nominations for the Edgar Allen Poe Award and Macavity Award—as well as fans from around the world. Frightmaster Stephen King has said, “Tess Gerritsen is an automatic must-read in my house; what Anne Rice is to vampires, Gerritsen is to the tale of medical suspense.”
Even when she’s not drafting a novel, Gerritsen is writing—she maintains a blog on her Web site, talking candidly to her readers in the tone of an old friend. In addition to sharing with them the highs and lows of her work, she responds to their questions and posts photos of them with her books.
Gerritsen spoke with equal candor to Current Vine, making room in her busy schedule to discuss The Bone Garden and how she feels about her fans.
CV: How would you describe your first foray into historical fiction?
TG: In one word: Scary! Aside from having to be factually correct about the times and about Oliver Wendell Holmes, I also had to capture the historical “voice,” and I was terrified I’d get it wrong. I wanted the rich texture of the language, so I read the writings of Holmes as well as his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, hoping to absorb their rhythms. Yet I also knew I had to make it accessible for contemporary readers, so the challenge for me was to make it sound authentic but not too difficult to understand.
My other challenge was: How do I introduce the underlying medical and scientific themes in an entertaining way? I wanted to show the beginning of modern medicine and microbial theory, yet I didn’t want to turn it into a history textbook.
After writing ten contemporary thrillers, it would have been so much easier for me just to write another modern serial killer thriller. But I took on this challenge because I wanted to create something deeper, richer, and meatier than anything I’ve ever done before.
Of all of my books, I’m particularly proud of The Bone Garden and also Gravity, which is about the space program. Regardless of sales, regardless of reviewer reaction, these two books were the most challenging and the most ambitious, and they both required a certain kind of courage to tackle.
CV: You’ve blogged about being nervous about the book’s reception when it comes out, especially since it’s a new type of novel for you. Can you talk a bit about that?
TG: I remain pitifully thin-skinned about my work, and it particularly galls me that critics don’t see all the hard work and angst that may go into a book. They seldom pause to think about how challenging the subject matter may have been. In essence, they’re quick to award a five-star review to the simple tune of “Chopsticks” if it’s played well, but if it’s a Rachmaninoff concerto with maybe a few glitches, it will only get a one-star review with no extra points for ambition.
CV: What are the worst and best parts of the writing process for you?
TG: The hardest part is toward the end of the first draft, when I glance back and see all the flaws. Invariably I wonder why I thought the idea was any good, and wonder how I can rescue it. Since my deadline is usually hanging over me at that point, I wake up in cold sweats, feeling doomed.
The best part for me is when I get to play around with ideas for a new book. At that stage, everything is possible, and the book always promises to be brilliant.
CV: Have you ever creeped yourself out when reading drafts of your own stories? How do you know when they’re suspenseful?
TG: A few times, yes, but most of the time I find it hard to scare myself. It’s a bit like trying to tickle yourself—you just can’t do it! I know a scene is suspenseful when I get that icy breath up my spine. It happens rarely, but it happens.
CV: Which character do you feel particularly connected to?
TG: The character I’m most connected to is Maura Isles, simply because she very much represents my own personality: Logical, science-minded, and reserved. Whenever I write from her point of view, I feel like I’m writing about myself.
CV: How has your blogging experience been so far?
TG: I started blogging because I have so many frustrations with writing and the publishing business, and I needed a way to vent. I didn’t know if anyone would bother to read it, and am surprised that so many have found it—mostly writers, I think, who see their own experiences mirrored on my blog. Now I feel I’ve got a little community on the site. I don’t know if it sells books; I do it because it’s therapeutic!
CV: How would you describe your relationship with your fans?
TG: I value every single reader, and I believe that if they take the time to e-mail me, the least I can do is e-mail them back. What’s frustrating is that I don’t always have the time to respond in a timely fashion, although I want to. What’s fulfilling is discovering how many former non-readers have re-discovered the joy of reading by picking up one of my books.
CV: What’s the best piece of advice you could offer to aspiring authors?
TG: Never stop reading. That’s how you’ll expose yourself to the beauty of language, and to the varied techniques of other writers.
Photo courtesy of Tess Gerritsen.