Best-selling author Tess Gerritsen, 61, was raised in California and graduated from Stanford before attending medical school at UC San Francisco. While on maternity leave from her work as a physician, she began writing fiction, publishing her first novel in 1987. She wrote eight more romantic thrillers before releasing her first medical thriller in 1996. She has since published 17 more, all set in Boston, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide. Dubbed “the medical suspense queen” by Publishers Weekly, she has won numerous awards, written screenplays and had her novels adapted into the TNT television series Rizzoli & Isles. Her latest novel, Die Again, was released in December. She lives in Maine.
Tess Gerritsen: It’s my mom’s fault. She was an immigrant from China and didn’t understand English, so what she did was watch a lot of horror films. I spent my childhood screaming in movie theaters and getting used to the feeling that entertainment and fear were intertwined.
Favorite forensics TV show? I don’t watch a lot of TV. The only show I watch faithfully is The Big Bang Theory.
Not Rizzoli & Isles? Well, of course.
Before the show started, I had two people in mind. For Jane Rizzoli, Marisa Tomei, and for Maura Isles, Catherine Zeta-Jones. I always saw Maura as a goth version of Catherine Zeta-Jones.
It’s a rehearsal for everything bad that could possibly happen. I’m afraid of a lot of things. Everyone is. Crime fiction allows us to imagine how we would get out of those situations.
So do you think it’s therapeutic? I do think crime fiction is therapeutic. Horror is therapeutic. Anything scary is therapeutic, as long as there’s a happy ending.
Is it weird when you’re in an airport and you see somebody buying one of your books? It’s not weird. It’s really thrilling. I’d be more worried if it wasn’t there or nobody wanted it.
Has a physical object ever inspired the premise for a book? No, but a bad dream has. In fact, the book I’m working on now is based on a nightmare I had in Venice. I had too much wine to drink that night, and I dreamt I was playing my violin. There was a baby next to me, and the baby’s eyes glowed red—it turned into a monster. So my book is about a violinist who picks up a mysterious piece of music in an antique store in Rome. Every time she plays it, her 3-year-old daughter turns violent. So the question is: What is wrong with this music? Why is it haunting this family? So she has to dig into its history. Every parent’s worst nightmare is that they’re terrified of their own child. This story weaves back into the Italian Holocaust.
Your books have been translated into 35 languages. Strangest one you’ve seen? We just had one come out in Azerbaijan. That’s pretty exotic.
Something about forensics people would be surprised to know? One trick a pathologist told me was that to clip ribs, she uses heavy garden shears. Of all the stuff they buy, most of it is off the shelf for other purposes. Butcher knives. Rose clippers…
[Laughs] Oh, yeah. All the time. But the creepiest one was when I wrote a book called The Surgeon about a serial killer who cuts out women’s organs before he kills them. I’m on tour, and a normal-looking man came to get his book signed. He whispered in my ear, “Thank you for writing this book.” I said, “Why?” And he said, “You let me enjoy my fantasies.” Then he took his book and walked out.
Did you report that to the police? No. He hadn’t done anything. He just had fantasies. That’s not a crime. But it’s a reminder that there are people out there you don’t really want to get too close to.
Are doctors unfairly schooled in life’s harsh realities? I think doctors are on the front lines of life’s harsh realities. Medicine is a noble profession, even though doctors are often cast as villains. Yes, they’re arrogant. They’re know-it-alls. But they take care of people from all walks of life, from the very rich to the very poor. Outside of cops, how many people can say that?
Thing you miss the most about practicing medicine? Hearing people’s stories. That was the best part.
I have a bizarre practice of writing my first draft with pen in longhand, on unlined typing paper. It has to be unlined. If there are lines, it kind of screws me up.
Do you work a story from beginning to end or the other way around? I know about the first third. Then, when I get to that point, I figure it out. I can see a little way ahead of me, but I really don’t know how it’s going to end, except for the imperative that the bad guy is going to get his comeuppance.
Right now? I’d like to know what happened with the Malaysian jet that went down. The one that vanished.
I’d go back to the horror films of my youth, because they continue to haunt me as an adult. The number-one most disturbing psychological thriller that I remember watching with my mom was the original black-and-white version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I don’t know why. I don’t remember there being any violence. But it was unsettling, particularly for a child, because it’s about people you love and care about who go to sleep, and when they wake up, they’re not them anymore. And nobody believes you. For a child, that’s particularly scary—the idea that Mommy becomes an alien. For me, it was a metaphor for alienation between people who love each other.
Oh, with a nice overdose of some incredibly wonderful drug.