The crimes are fictional but the medical details are real in these astoundingly popular medical thrillers. Author Tess Gerritsen sat down with Physicians’ Life to talk about her journey from doctor to bestselling author.
Photo by: Leonardo Cendamo.
Tess Gerritsen left a career as an internist in 1990 to concentrate on writing (and motherhood). But leaving practice didn’t mean leaving medicine behind. Today she’s the author of 17 bestselling medical thrillers. Her most famous characters are the impeccable forensic pathologist Maura Isles and her partner in crime-solving, detective Jane Rizzoli. The pair are a hit on TV, too, with Rizzoli & Isles returning for a sixth season on TNT this summer. Gerritsen, whose newest novel, Die Again, centers on the shocking murder of a big game hunter, recently talked to Physicians’ Life about storytelling, medicine, and the thing that scares her most.
You’ve said that you wanted to write ever since you were a child. What drew you to medicine?
Well, I’m the daughter of Asian Americans [laughs]. When I told my father I wanted to be a writer, he said, “That is no way to make a living.” He urged me to go into the sciences, and I think this is a story you will hear from Asian Americans everywhere. I enjoyed biology. And I went to medical school, partly to please my parents.
What did you like best about practicing medicine?
Hearing people’s stories. The great thing about medicine is that you meet people from all walks of life, all economic situations.
Is Dr. Isles based on a real doctor?
Actress Angie Harmon as Detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as Dr. Maura Isles on the TNT series based on the books.
Her personality is very much like mine. I’m pretty logical. I always want to find the evidence. If you read the books you’ll see that she and I went to the same college [Stanford University], the same medical school [University of California, San Francisco].
You’ve said that you use doctors’ shorthand when you write fiction.
[Laughs] Well, you know doctors have little things that go onto our prescription pads, which is why they’re so illegible! I use a lot of shortcuts that I learned as a doctor just to speed up my writing process.
Why did you leave medicine?
I left for what I thought would be a temporary reason. I had two infants at home and my husband is a doctor too, and we were having a hard time finding childcare. Sometimes late at night we would both get called into the hospital. What do you do with your sleeping babies? Sometimes I would haul my kids into the hospital to see a patient. That got to be so incredibly stressful that I just said, I’m going to stay home until they’re old enough for daycare. While I was home with my kids I finished my first book.
That was a romantic thriller?
Right. When I went back to medicine, I was still juggling motherhood and writing, so I was working maybe 20 hours a week as a doctor. I wrote nine romantic suspense novels while my kids were sleeping.
Then you switched to medical thrillers....
I got an idea after talking to a homicide detective who had been traveling in Russia: He’d heard rumors that kids were being kidnapped from Moscow and sent to the Middle East as organ donors. I was horrified and thought, I want to write this book. Harvest was my first medical thriller and my first bestseller. That’s when I realized, Wow, why am I not using my medical background to write?
When did you stop practicing medicine?
When I moved from Honolulu to Maine in 1990, I decided: I’m not going to bother getting a state license, I’m just going to work on my writing.
You obviously understand all the medical aspects of Dr. Isles’ cases, but do you think your training also affected you philosophically?
I think it did. Medicine broadens your view of the human condition because in the hospital you’re seeing people at their very best and their very worst. You’re seeing them when they’re delighted to have a new baby and you see them when they’re around their relatives who are dying.
There’s such a long history of doctors who write. I immediately think of William Carlos Williams—but more recently Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, Perri Klass, Ethan Canin, Khaled Hosseini. . . . Why is that?
Part of it is that doctors have been exposed to real people’s stories, but it’s also that we’re usually pretty well-read. We tend to be curious people.
Do you ever miss practicing medicine?
You know, I don’t miss the stress on family life. That was the hardest part. Unless you have really good family back-up, you have to have this whole social network to help you with the children and we just didn’t have that.
Do you keep up with the field?
I try to keep up with microbiology. I think honestly that’s the scariest thing around, microbes [laughs].
In Die Again, cats—from house pets to leopards—play a huge role. This required quite a bit of veterinary knowledge, didn’t it?
Well, you know one thing I’m really quick to do is buy books. I still have this stack of books about cat behavior, including a whole large book about African leopards. What also became important for me was the comparative anatomy between a large cat and a human. I thought it would be interesting to spread out the guts on a table and see how many people would realize, This is not human.
Let’s talk about the TV series. Are you very involved with the show?
A scene from Rizzoli & Isles on TNT.
I’m not involved at all. They have their own writers, and they’re going into the sixth season, so they’re obviously doing something right. It is really different from the books. My Jane Rizzoli is not a good-looking woman, and now she’s played by Angie Harmon!
Do you think the show encourages young people to emulate Maura Isles and pursue forensic medicine?
Oh, absolutely. I get a lot of emails from high school girls who say, I watch the show, I read your books, and I want to go into forensics, I want to go into pathology. I do think that having a role model like Maura Isles is a really big deal for women going into science.
Last thing—any advice for doctors with an itch to write?
First of all, if they want to write fiction, they should be reading fiction. I used to teach a course for doctors who wanted to write. I know it’s hard to get away from giving instructions, from telling stories as opposed to showing. It’s also hard for doctors to understand that what people really pick up a book for is not to learn something—they want to find characters they can care about. That’s the number one thing: Always choose your characters well.
An excerpt from Tess Gerritsen's Die Again
Detective Jane Rizzoli, her partner Barry Frost, and Dr. Maura Isles arrive on the scene of a grisly murder in which a taxidermist has been eviscerated. The trio quickly realize that the victim’s organs have been thrown in the trash.
“I know you like to be thorough, Maura,” said Jane. “but how about picking through those in the morgue? Like, in a biohazard room or something?”
“I need to be certain…”
“Of what? You can smell they’re in there.” To Jane’s disgust, Maura bent over the garbage can and reached even deeper into the pile of entrails. In the morgue, she’d watched Maura slice open torsos and peel off scalps, de-flesh bones and buzz-saw through skulls, performing all these tasks with laser-guided concentration. That same icy focus was on Maura’s face as she dug through the congealed mass in the trash can, heedless of the flies now crawling on her fashionably clipped dark hair. Was there anyone else who could look so elegant while doing something so disgusting?
“Come in, it’s not like you haven’t seen guts before,” said Jane.
Maura didn’t answer as she plunged her hands deeper.
“Okay,” Jane sighed. “You don’t need us for this. Frost and I will check out the rest of the—"
“There’s too much,” Maura muttered.
“Too much what?”
“This isn’t a normal volume of viscera.”
“You’re the one who’s always talking about bacterial gases. Bloating.”
“Bloating doesn’t explain this.” Maura straightened, and what she held in her gloved hand made Jane cringe.
“This is not a normal heart,” said Maura. “Yes, it has four chambers, but this aortic arch isn’t right. And the great vessels don’t look right, either.”
“Leon Gott was sixty-four,” said Frost. “Maybe he had a bad ticker.”
“That’s the problem. This doesn’t look like a sixty-four-year-old man’s heart.” Maura reached into the garbage pail again. “But this one does,” she said, and held out her other hand.