Monday, March 23, 2009
Dubbed the "medical suspense queen" by Publisher Weekly, the New York Times bestselling physician-author Dr Tess Gerritsen’s books have been translated into 31 languages and more than 15 million copies have been sold around the world. She talks to Scope about how her stellar and lucrative career as a novelist has been shaped by her years as a doctor.
It was the ex-cop’s grisly account of the abduction and harvesting of organs from Russian orphans that held the dinner guest in fearful enthral.
Operating a security service protecting American businessmen in Russia, the retired policeman heard that orphans were vanishing off the streets of Moscow. Sources in the city’s police force confided that the Russian mafia was snatching children and selling them abroad for their organs.
This chance dinner conversation with US physician and author Dr Tess Gerritsen provided her with the gruesome hook from which she later hung the plot for her first medical thriller “Harvest”, but not before she raise the alarm with a reporter she knew at Newsweek.
An investigation into these horrific claims ensued but no hard evidence was found.
“If it's happening in Russia, it would involve the Russian mafia, and that would be both difficult and dangerous to track down,” Tess disclosed.
Unable to shake the gruesome story from her thoughts, she created a narrative about a young female surgical resident who derails her promising career and risks her life in pursuit of Russian Mafiosi behind an extremely profitable black market in human organs harvested from orphans who believe they are bound for adoption in the US.
Tess recalled: “I wanted to bring into it all the medical and autopsy details that I'd learned from my years as a physician. The sights, the smells of the autopsy and operating rooms - everything.”
The resulting novel, ‘Harvest’, was released in hardcover in 1996 to critical acclaim, marking her debut on the New York Times bestseller list.
And she has made that list every time since - another ten books.
Her sizeable international fan base, many of who include doctors, would be familiar with her graphic autopsy scenes and forensic details, but they may be shocked to learn that her very first published novels were actually romantic suspense.
The romantic thriller ‘Call After Midnight’ was her first book, published in 1987 while she was a resident in internal medicine, and was followed by eight more romantic suspense novels.
Since writing Harvest, the San Diego, California-born doctor has penned four more medical thrillers (Life Support (1997), Bloodstream (1998), Gravity (1999), and The Bone Garden (2007)) and six forensic thrillers featuring the unlikely pairing of volatile Detective Jane Rizzoli and the emotionally remote Boston Medical Examiner Maura Isles: The Surgeon (2001), The Apprentice (2002), The Sinner (2003), Body Double (2004), Vanish (2005) and The Mephisto Club (2006).
It may be her work as a doctor that allows her to render situations in authentic and excruciatingly gruesome detail, but she is in no doubt that her first love was always writing.
“I have been a writer since childhood. In fact, I wrote my very first book at age seven, and bound it together myself with needle and thread.
“So it was the writer who became a doctor, and for the most practical of reasons - because my Asian American father warned me that there was no living to be made at art, and I'd better find a more practical profession.
“Luckily, I was already interested in science, so medicine became my chosen profession. For a while, at least.”
With a Degree in anthropology from Stanford University under her belt, Tess went on to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, where she was awarded her MD.
Her physician husband Jacob - a Hawaiian native - wanted to return to his boyhood home, so he and Tess applied as residents to the University of Hawaii program. The move took them from sunny California to a hectic new life as specialists in internal medicine in Honolulu.
Tess continued writing all through medical school and residency, recording the stressful, dramatic, often painful things she experienced, however it wasn’t until her years of post-graduate training that she began to write in earnest again, and then only because she went on maternity leave for a few months.
Her publishing success in the late 80’s gave her the opportunity to gradually cut back on her internist's practice and eventually concentrate full time on writing and raising her two sons, Adam and Joshua.
In 1990, she and her husband moved the family from Honolulu to Camden, Maine, a picturesque seaside town of 5,000.
“The real reason I finally had to leave medicine was because of its intense demands. As the mother of two young sons, I found I couldn't combine motherhood and doctoring without one or the other suffering.
“And with a husband who was also a doctor, there were times when we might both be called in during the night - and what do you do with your sleeping children?
“I was a specialist in internal medicine. I was accepted into a pathology residency, but chose, ultimately, to stick with living patients. Perhaps if I'd gone into pathology instead - with a far more civilised work schedule - I might still be working as a doctor!
“We finally decided that I would stay home while the children were small. And that's when I returned to my first love of storytelling.”
She recalled several perplexing experiences during her years as a doctor that still linger:
“It's always the tragedies and the eerie incidents that stay with one. I'm a confirmed sceptic when it comes to the paranormal, but there were things that happened that still give me a chill.
“For instance, there was a nurse who could "smell" when a patient was dying - days before it happened. There was the haunted hospital room where patients always complained about seeing a ghost.
“Or the time a patient unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest and died - and his daughter, who'd been out at a shopping mall, suddenly came rushing into the hospital because she'd "had a feeling" that her father needed her. No one had called her; she'd simply sensed that he was dying. Those sorts of things make one wonder, don't they?”
One gets the impression that Tess is drawn in by chilling oddities and dark possibilities. Like the harrowing conspiracy-inspired plot in ‘Harvest’, many of her stories were seeded by creepy ideas that just wouldn't leave her alone.
Vanish, for instance, was inspired by a true news story about a woman who was found dead in her bathtub in a Boston suburb. She was zippered into a body bag and transported to the morgue - where she woke up a few hours later.
“That gave me such a chill that I knew I had to write a book about just that scenario - a corpse who wakes up in the morgue.
“Body Double was another story that started with a chill. It happened while I was watching an autopsy, and suddenly had the horrifying thought: what if I could watch myself get autopsied? Wouldn't that be a frightening experience? Since I don't write ghost stories, I had to find another way to make it happen in the book.
“I use true news stories for a lot of my inspiration,” she revealed “Gravity was inspired by an accident that took place aboard Mir Space Station. It got me wondering: what if there was a medical emergency in space, a disease condition so horribly contagious that the astronauts are quarantined in orbit and left to die?
“It's quite far afield from that original accident aboard Mir, but it drew its inspiration from a news story.
“I also incorporate true forensic cases into the stories. In The Apprentice, the killer kills couples, first forcing the husband to watch while he assaults the wife. One little detail in the story (the placing of chinaware on the husband's lap) is taken from what a real criminal has done.
“I've also used interesting facets of medicine. The Sinner, for instance, dealt with the subject of leprosy. Life Support was about the spread of mad cow disease in Boston.”
Tess’s latest novel, The Bone Garden, acquaints the reader with a dark and tragic chapter in the history of medicine. Set in the early 1800’s, one of the main characters, a penniless medical student named Norris Marshall, has found ghoulish employment after dark. He is a “resurrectionist”, one of the local grave robbers who supply medical schools with cadavers.
While The Bone Garden is a crime thriller with requisite serial killer in situ, it also deals with “childbed fever”, which was then rampant in maternity wards, and explores a frightening time when doctors killed as many patients as they cured. And when brilliant doctors like Oliver Wendell Holmes were just beginning to understand contagion.
Tess explained that she wanted to give her readers an inspiring look at the first glimmerings of microbial theory. And a glimpse at one of the gifted men who changed the face of modern medicine.
“Science has long been an interest of mine, and I consider myself something of a ‘popular interpreter’ of science when I write my books. I try to make it understandable and interesting.”
So then how important was her training and experience as a doctor to her work now as a full-time author?
“While medicine did give me some subject material for my stories, and it did give me a chance to incorporate fascinating facts, it didn't really teach me anything about storytelling,” she said.
“In some ways, I think a science background is a detriment for a storyteller because science forces one to be objective and logical. And storytelling is anything but logical.”
Tess is approached “very often” by other doctors with plot suggestions for her next bestseller, although she confessed that most of the time “their ideas don't strike me as very interesting”.
“Oftentimes they involve evil drug companies or malpractice suits - subjects that may be interesting to doctors, but are often not so interesting to the average reader,” she added.
Nevertheless, the level of interest from doctors who aspire to write fiction reached such a degree that she and fellow physician/author Michael Palmer now teach a course once a year that is specifically geared for doctors who want to be novelists.
The medical thriller is a hardy genre, so it is very natural for doctors and surgeons to want to circumvent the frustration of their professional lives by the writing of such novels.
After all, they know the territory, they have the facts, and many believe that if they were smart enough to get into medicine, it follows that they can do just about anything. Right?
“Doctors are unique students - they're diligent, intelligent, and they're quick to grasp new principles. But they're also somewhat handicapped by years of scientific training that's taught them to write emotionless, logical prose, and that can deaden their writing. Michael and I try to get them out of their doctor mode and into their artistic mode.”
Her advice for the medic and struggling scribe is to “read read read”.
“Identify which genre you enjoy most, because that's probably the genre you should be writing. The number one problem I see with many aspiring doctor/novelists is that they haven't read enough, and so haven't absorbed the techniques of writing gripping scenes. Or they try to over-explain by telling instead of showing,” she said.
Reflecting on her flourishing second career as an award winning, best selling author, Tess acknowledged: “If I'd been a doctor, I wouldn't have travelled nearly as much, or had the opportunity to learn about so many diverse subjects.
“Writing has opened so many worlds to me. And it's provided me with a far better income than I ever could have had as a doctor.”