Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tess Gerritsen, the "Medical Suspense Queen"

I. Am. So. Unbelievably. Excited.
My guest today is a Stanford graduate, a medical doctor, an internationally acclaimed bestselling author, and winner of the very prestigious Nero Wolfe Award and the Rita Award. Publisher Weekly dubbed her the "medical suspense queen," and her Rizzoli thrillers have inspired the popular TNT series "Rizzoli and Isle," starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander. Not to mention, she's delightful to talk to and she loves Italian food. What else could you ask for?

Yes, I can hardly believe it myself. Tess Gerritsen was so gracious to stop by today and answer my questions. What an incredible honor! I'll try not to faint and be up to the task.

EEG: Tess, thanks so much for being here! Besides avidly reading all of your books, I am also a fan of your blog because you reveal bits of your life I can easily identify with, like skipping breakfast because you have to finish a writing project and then facing your husband's grudges; or not being a "tiger mom." The part I want to ask you about is back when you were still working as a physician and scribbling bits of your stories as they came to you, for example while in a meeting. How hard was it back then? What do you think of those days now, when you look back?

TG: The hard part in the beginning was proving to myself -- and others -- that I really was a writer.  That occupation "writer" doesn't require a degree.  There's no diploma you can point to that qualifies you to claim that as your profession.  We are all, in some ways, writers, but the only writing that others seem to respect is published writing.  So at the beginning, I felt I had to earn that title, and the only way to earn it was to write something publishable.  It meant being persistent, determined, and willing to take a lot of knocks.  So when I look back at those days now, I remember that feeling of struggle, and being hungry to prove myself.

EEG: I still get the shivers when I think of the first chapter in The Surgeon. What was the idea (or image) that sparked the novel?

TG: A reader inspired that story.  I was on book tour for GRAVITY (about the space program) and a woman at a booksigning stood up and said "I'm not interested in the space program.  I want you to write a book about something I AM interested in: serial killers and twisted sex."  Well, that got me thinking.  How could I work medicine, serial killers, and twisted sex into a story?  So I started thinking about things that scare me or bother me about medicine.  And I hit upon the fact that so many faceless people have access to our medical data.  What if there was a blood technologist in a hospital lab somewhere who was also a serial killer?  What if he chose his victims because of something about their blood tests?  He'd know the patient's name, address, and marital status.  He'd know how to find them.  And since the blood tests come from doctors' offices all over town, the police wouldn't be able to pinpoint what links all the victims.  It was my vision of some quiet, brilliant, creepy guy in a laboratory that really got the story going.

EEG: Your characters Rizzoli and Isle are now a popular TV show. What did you feel the first time you watched the show? Aside from the excitement of seeing your own characters on screen, there must have been some moment when you thought, "But... that's not how I had imagined this!" What was your reaction to that?

TG: I was thrilled to have it come to TV at all.  And even though the actors don't look like the characters I imagined, their personalities come through.  I was also a huge fan of Angie Harmon's from Law and Order, so when I heard she'd been cast, I knew the show was going to be great.  Any jolts I might have felt about the differences in the book and TV characters were swept away by the sheer excitement of seeing these people come to life.  I've continued to write the books based on the original universe that I created, and the TV show follows its own parallel universe, but these are still characters who wouldn't exist if I hadn't created them.

EEG: Every novel of yours has some fun science tidbit folded in. How important is science in your writing?

TG: It's very important.  My background is science, and it irritates me to read a book where details are horribly wrong (for instance, when the author confuses bacteria with viruses!) so I try my very best to be accurate.  In a book like GRAVITY, about the shuttle program and medicine in microgravity, that meant a ton of research and visits to NASA.  It meant months of background reading about astronaut training and launch sequences and shuttle operations.  Do I get details wrong?  Undoubtedly.  There are so many different topics covered in every book, that it's bound to happen.  Most mistakes occur because you don't know what you don't know -- so you haven't even thought of checking the facts.  For instance, I didn't know that no American car companies manufactured any automobiles in 1945.  A reader pointed that out to me after I'd made the goof.  It was just an irrelevant detail in the story, and it never occurred to me that I might be wrong, so I didn't even think to confirm it.  But those are precisely the details you get wrong.

Now that I'm writing crime fiction, my science might be drawn from a wide array of specialties.  For instance, in THE SILENT GIRL, I had to go to an expert to find out what monkey hairs look like under a microscope.  I had to look up which techniques will identify specific species.  I had to find out if you can carbon-date an ancient sword.  And how those swords were made.  In books past, the scientific topics have ranged from ground penetrating radar to the identification of surgical sutures to the autopsy findings of organophosphate poisoning.  You just never know what new adventures a book will take you on!

EEG: Being a scientist I completely understand the need to thoroughly research everything. And that's exactly what I love about your books!

Tess, thanks so much for being here! Tess's last book, THE SILENT GIRL, came out in July from Ballantine Books, and it's another page-turner, read-in-one-sitting masterpiece. To find out more about all of Tess Gerritsen's thrilling novels, check out her website:


  1. Ooooh, brilliant! My husband's a big fan of Tess Gerritsen. Excellent interview; it's good to see published authors sharing their self-doubts about the process of writing.

  2. Thanks! Your husband has excellent tastes! :)

  3. Great interview! I'm definitely going to check out Tess Gerritsen's books now. The Surgeon sounds especially creepy.

  4. That's the first book in the Rizzoli series, so definitely get that one first.


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