Thursday, October 17, 2013

Recap, Tess Gerritsen at Daviess County Public Library

Tess Gerritsen had just finished a twenty-two city library tour of Indiana, and she ended with one stop in
Kentucky at Daviess County Public Library in Owensboro. She said her father was a chef, and she was looking forward to going out for barbeque after the program.

Gerritsen said most of the time audiences want to know where ideas for books come from, so she would talk about ideas. She said she's interested in the emotional reaction. What happens next? She goes for the punch in the gut. Gerritsen reads a lot of newspapers, and they serve as inspiration. She likes the National Enquirer because it mirrors what people care about. She also likes the crime stories in People magazine.

Here was a story from the Boston Globe. There was a woman found in a bathtub with a pill bottle beside her. It was thought to be an accidental overdose. The body was sent to the morgue. Half an hour later, she woke up. Gerritsen found that interesting and did a NexisLexis search for people who had been thought dead She found a number of stories about that. One of her friends was declared dead, and was on the way to the morgue on a gurney. The attendant banged the gurney into the door, and her friend woke up. Fifteen years later, he's still alive. Even worse, one person in New York City was about to be autopsied and woke up. The doctor was so shocked, he had a heart attack and died.

All of these stories can go in a different direction, depending what genre the author writes. If you're a thriller writer like Gerritsen, a dead person wakes up, and Dr. Maura Isles calls 911. But, the recovered corpse grabs a security guard's gun, and takes hostages in the hospital. One of those hostages is a pregnant homicide cop who is terrified she'll be discovered. A horror writer might write about zombies or vampires. A writer of spy novelist might say, ah, Jason Bourne faked his death.

Tess Gerritsen's B.A. is in anthropology, and she's always been fascinated with mummies.  There's a group in the U.S. that arranges for mummies to get cat scans. There are 300 mummies in the U.S. When a doctor friend of hers was going to x-ray one, she drove down to see the cat scan. It had taken months to arrange the x-ray. Everyone wanted to do it; the hospital, the museum. The hospital's lawyer held it up. He said in this country, we have HIPAA rules, and he wouldn't let the cat scan be done because the patient couldn't give permission. The museum had itself names the official guardian for the mummy so they could get the cat scan. When they did the cat scan, the brain wasn't there. Everyone thinks the brain is sucked out through the nose. But, first, the brain is whisked, and allowed to drip out. The heart is left, because that was considered the center of the soul. And, the other organs are removed.

Gerritsen likes to freak people out. She thought, what if a mummy was x-rayed, and someone found a bullet?That would mean it was a modern homicide victim. She used that is a Rizzoli and Isles book, The Keepsake. When Isles found the bullet, she called Jane Rizzoli. Gerritsen thought that had never been done in fiction. But someone had done it in real life. Truth is stranger than fiction. A doctor consulted on the x-ray of a mummy in India, and, when it was discovered the teeth had been removed from the female victim, they found it was homicide. The family killed her for dishonoring the family, and then decided to make money by selling it as a mummy.

The mummy that Gerritsen saw x-rayed had a broken femur. They thought that was the cause of death. It turns out that broken bones are seen a lot. It takes seventy days for a body to dry out, and then, when it's found it doesn't fit in a coffin, the legs might be broken.

Gerritsen is interested in a wide variety of topics. She follows her curiousity. And, she tries to write a plot with things unrelated that no one has put together before. Gravity is her favorite book. It's about a female astronaut stranded in space, but it's not the Sandra Bullock film.

Gerritsen put a couple ideas together. When the Mir space station spun out of control, she knew there were three men on board. If they died, the Russian command would hear them scream. The second idea came from Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. She was reading it at the same time the Mir was out of control. Krakauer said the men on the mountain in his book knew they were dying. One of them called his wife on a satellite phone to say goodbye. Can you imagine the emotion? The third element came with an article she read in a scientific journal. It was about the discovery of organisms called Archaeons. They live in extreme conditions on earth, deep in the earth and ocean.

Tess Gerritsen decided to bring the Archaeons from the bottom of the earth. What if it changed form? It uses our DNA to make it the creature it was meant to be. Gerritsen set it loose on the ISS. Most of the crew dies, and the last one alive is a woman. She has seventy-two hours to live. She's ordered to stay in quarantine to die. Her husband refuses to let her die. She told her editor about the idea, and her editor not only said write it, but gave her a check to do it. Gerritsen thought, "Oh, God. Now I have to write it."

She did research for eighteen months because she wanted it to be scientifically accurate. She loves research. She read aerospace medicine. It was pre-911, and NASA had released some documents. Gerritsen had over 1000 pages on the shuttle space manual. And, she had blueprints to the international space station that had not yet been launched. Gerritsen wanted to be accurate, though, so she called NASA. She talked to the PR person, the PAO at Johnson Space Center. (NASA stands for the national acronym agency in Gerritsen's opinion.) She tried to convince him to tell her how to make a shuttle crash, and he said that isn't what his job is. When she said everything that goes wrong is the military's fault, not NASA's, he asked when she wanted to come. Gerritsen's anthropology background came in handy. She knew the culture. People from the space program are idealistic while the military space program is the killer space program.

Gerritsen spent a week at Johnson Space Center. She wanted to freak her readers out, and she asked what the risks of space flight is. NASA tells the public that 1 out of 1000 flights will go wrong. Actually, now 1 out of 50 missions will go wrong. Astronauts know that, and when their name is listed for a mission, AP and the other news agencies start to write their obituaries. At Cape Canaveral, the Air Force has a group whose only job is to blow up the shuttle if something goes wrong over a populated area.

Tess said she asked questions about little facts. How do you do CPR in space? Blood doesn't drip in space. It forms globules. And, she still wanted to know how to make a space shuttle crash.

Gerritsen gets some of her weirdest ideas from readers. When she was on tour for Gravity, a woman who appeared to be normal told her she wanted to read about her favorite subjects, serial killers and twisted sex. When asked, she said she taught third grade. Gerritsen had never written a book with a serial killer. But, a lot of women like serial killer books with women victims. It makes them scary.

Gerritsen decided to make it a medical theme. In The Surgeon, the female heroine is stalked by a killer. The
killer was referred to as "the surgeon" because he removed the victims' organs, just like Jack the Ripper did. There was a homicide cop in the book who had a partner, a scruffy female homicide cop named Jane Rizzoli. Jane was supposed to die in the story. She wasn't a likable character in the book. She was a bitchy woman with two brothers. Tess planned to kill her. But, she was smart, and Gerritsen loves smart female characters. She started to like Jane, and when it came time to write the scene where she was supposed to die, she survived.

Tess didn't plan to write another book featuring Rizzoli. But, she had a villain named Warren Hoyt. For TV, they changed the name to Charles Hoyt because there was a Warren Hoyt in the Boston phone book, and they didn't want to get sued. Warren is an amoral character. Gerritsen was fascinated by Warren. She talked to her husband about him, and they discussed him as if he really lived, saying, "Warren would do that."

The second book featuring Hoyt was The Apprentice. Dr. Maura Isles was introduced in that book. Isles name came about because Gerritsen auctioned off a name for charity. The person who won asked that she be named for a relative. Tess grafted herself into Maura. They drive the same car. They both play piano. They have lots of things in common, but Tess has never been in bed with a Catholic priest. Tess and Maura have the same degree in anthropology. They went to the same medical school. Maura and Jane have bonded, but it's a friendship based on professional truth.

Six years ago, a TV producer contacted her about rights for the books, and she said, write me a check. It had been sold before to Hollywood for movies, but nothing happened. This time, the producer contacted her again a year later, and said we've got a pilot script and TNT is interested. We're getting ready to cast it. Then, a couple months later, "We have Jane Rizzoli. Angie Harmon certainly isn't short or scruff. Gerritsen's response was, "Jane's pretty now." But, once you've seen her, she embodies the personality just right. Now, it was time to cast Maura. The harmony between Angie Harmon and this lovely blonde, Sasha Alexander, was right. The chemistry was immediate. Sasha is more glamorous and lovely than she'd been written. The network wants them to remain good friends. They don't want men getting in the way of that friendship.

The TV series, Rizzoli & Isles, is now in the fifth season. There are eight million viewers a week. It's the first show in thirty years, since Cagney & Lacey, to show professional women in a friendship.

Tess Gerritsen's next book will be out next year. She went on an African safari, and was told, don't get out of the jeep. If you get out of the jeep, animals will see you as prey. And, it had happened. Lions had recently killed two Chinese men who didn't understand the directions, and got out of the jeep. Gerritsen wondered what's the worse that can get happen on safari. What if the person who is supposed to keep you safe is the most dangerous creature out there? The ranger was a fake. He had killed the original ranger, and went on the ultimate hunt. Only one woman survived who had seen his face. Five years later, there have been deaths near the zoo, and Jane Rizzoli connects it to the story of the African safari, and goes looking for the survivor of that trip.

Gerritsen ended the program by taking a few questions. Who is her favorite writer? She says it depends on her mood, but Phillippa Gregory is one. She writes from the point of view of medieval women.

Tess Gerritsen wanted to be a writer at the age of seven. She told her father, who was Asian American, but he said that's no way to make a living. She went to medical school to be a dutiful daughter. When she went on maternity leave with her first son, she started writing, and never really went back.

And, how long does it take to write a book? One year, because that's all they give her.


Reine said...

Terrific interview, Lesa—love Tess'es books!

Karen C said...

Great recap of the event, Lesa! I enjoy her books, too.

Lesa said...

Thanks, Reine and Karen. I enjoy sharing recaps for those who can't be there.