Tess Gerritsen Talks Medical Thrillers

29 May

Tess Gerritsen, a now-retired physician, is the New York Times Bestselling and multi-award-winning author of a dozen medical thrillers, including Harvest, Bloodstream, The Surgeon, The Apprentice, and The Keepsake. Her fiction career began while she was on maternity leave from her medical practice. Initially writing romantic suspense, she quickly transitioned to medical thrillers, her first, Harvest, hitting the bookstands in 1996. Since then her gritty, pulse-pounding stories have won her many fans around the world. Including me. So when she agreed to an interview, I was thrilled.

TGerritsen Photo 1

DPL: Your protagonists include a medical professional (Medical Examiner Maura Isles) and a cop (Detective Jane Rizzoli). Which do you find most enjoyable to work with? Easiest to write?

TG: I find Jane the most enjoyable to write, because she’s so unlike me. She’s aggressive, straightforward, and quick to express an opinion, which means it’s always easy to show, on the page, exactly what she’s thinking. Maura is far more introspective and reserved, and sometimes even I wonder what’s going through her mind!

DPL:  As a physician you know medicine and even though medicine and forensic science share a common language they are in many ways very different. How do you research the forensic science you need for your stories? Any favorite sources or websites?

TG: I have a huge library of reference books, everything from medical textbooks on surgery, pathology, and infectious disease to forensic texts dealing with taphonomy, geology, and radiology. Since I already have a background in science and medicine, it’s much easier for me to do the research — and understand exactly what I’m reading. All those years of medical training have certainly come in handy. I also love to use  the Journal of Forensic Sciences, where you can find some of the most recent research, as well as some fascinating case studies. Every so often, I’ll use one of those true cases in my books. That’s where “Airplane Man” came from in THE APPRENTICE.

DPL: What’s the coolest forensic detail you’ve used in your books?

TG: It was a detail that showed up in THE APPRENTICE. Suppose you’ve found a strand of a scalp hair — and that’s all you have. You know nothing about where it comes from, or who it belongs to. It turns out that by examining the root and hair shaft, you can tell whether that hair was pulled from a living person — or whether it came from a scalp that was already in the process of decomposition. Hair plucked from a living person looks different from hair plucked from a corpse.

DPL: I think one problem we physicians have when we write fiction is that we know too much medicine. What is commonplace to us might be foreign to the reader. How do you incorporate just the right amount of technical details so that the reader understands what is happening but isn’t confused?

TG: That’s one of my biggest challenges, deciding just how much detail and how much lingo is too much in a novel. I’ve learned to, unscientifically speaking, “trust my gut.” If a technical detail is really interesting to me, or if I can somehow give it a grotesque or creepy spin, then I’ll put it in the story. For instance, in GRAVITY, I had to tell the reader about  the backup mechanisms that a space walking astronaut has for getting safely back into the spacecraft. If I’d merely described the devices (tether, jet pack, etc.) it would have been boring. Instead, I focused on what happens if the devices fail — what is it like to die in space? What would that death feel like? It was those gruesome details that added urgency to the information.

Lingo is another difficult thing to work with. I want my professionals to sound like professionals, so I want them to use the correct terms. I don’t want my physicians to tell each other “Mrs. Jones had a heart attack.” I want them to say, “She had an inferior M.I.”  I don’t always stop to define the terms, but I try to introduce them in such a way that the reader understands that “V fib” is a very bad thing. The reader doesn’t have to know exactly what it is — only that everyone in the room is suddenly frantically rushing around trying to save the patient’s life. Sometimes, though, you can’t avoid stopping to explain things. In GRAVITY, which was chock full of engineering and NASA terms, I ended up using a glossary at the end of the book. I just couldn’t have my astronaut say “I’ve got my space suit on and I’m going for my space walk.” It would have sounded stupid. Rather, I wanted him to sound like an astronaut and say, “I’m go for EVA.”

DPL:     Your latest book, The Keepsake, will be out in paperback this summer. I know it deals with mummies, both ancient and of a more recent vintage, but without giving too much of the plot away, what’s the story about? What medical and forensic issues will readers encounter?

Keepsake Cover 2

TG: Yes, the paperback edition of KEEPSAKE will be out this summer. It’s about a killer who preserves his victims in grotesque ways, using ancient methods that only an archaeologist might know. It opens with a scene in a hospital CT room, where an Egyptian mummy, which belongs to a Boston museum, is getting scanned. They find a bullet in its leg, and realize that this mummy is not an ancient artifact at all, but a modern murder victim.

The forensic issues are quite specialized, and different from what most homicide investigators will ever have to deal with. Readers will learn how to make a mummy — and how relatively uncomplicated the methods are. I also talk about the biochemistry of bog bodies, and the techniques of shrinking human heads. The best part of researching this book was that I got a chance to watch a CT scan being done on a mummy down in Poughkeepsie, NY. That was fascinating!

DPL: What’s next? Are your touring anywhere soon?

TG: Since this is just the paperback edition (the hardcover came out last summer), I won’t have a book tour this fall. I took 6 months away from writing to move my mom to Maine, so my next book won’t be out until 2010.

Visit Tess’ Website and Blog


Posted by on May 29, 2009 in Interviews, Writing


5 responses to “Tess Gerritsen Talks Medical Thrillers

  1. Darden North, MD

    May 30, 2009 at 4:42 am

    Having written three novels while still continuing to practice medicine (ob/gyn) full-time, I found Tess’s article intriguing. I have myself wrestled with the issue of how much medical detail or historical information to include in a storyline. Thanks for an inspiring discussion.
    Darden North, MD


  2. Mary-Frances Makichen

    May 30, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    Hey Doug & Tess,
    Great interview! It’s interesting to read about how Tess decides what information to include in her books. Thanks for the scalp hair detail–that’s some amazing stuff.


  3. Pat Browning

    June 1, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Fascinating interview! I’ve never read Gerritsen’s books but looks like I’ve been missing something! Thanks for the post —
    Pat Browning


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      June 1, 2009 at 10:36 am

      You have missed out. If you’ve never read any of Tess’ books do yourself a favor and do so. They are all excellent, well-written stories.



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