Kathleen "Kathy" Reichs; American crime writer; academic and a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her first novel, Déjà Dead, won the 1997 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Her fictional heroine in her novels, Temperance "Tempe" Brennan, is also a forensic anthropologist. Her lifestyle closely mimics that of her creator, with Reichs stating that Brennan and she "have the same CV”. Here Sara Townsend gets to know a little more about Kathy.
ST: You are a forensic anthropologist, professor, TV consultant and best-selling crime writer. How do you make the time to fit it all in?
KR: You have to be disciplined and you have to be organised. Any day I’m not at the lab – and I’m not doing as much case work as I was, I just do selected cases – I write all day. I try to get at it by 8 in the morning and I keep at it until 6 at night, with a break for lunch.
Do you meticulously plan a book before you start writing it, or do you start with an idea and see where it takes you?
I meticulously plan the YA books, the Tory Brennan books, because I write those with my son. We do a very detailed outline, chapter by chapter – probably 15 pages single spaced. For the Temperance Brennan books, though, I do an outline of the first five or six chapters, and then I know where the story is going. I write general notes, and I have a character file. Then it’s more of a free flow.
Has this developed organically?
Yes, the first one or two were very detailed, with a chapter by chapter outline. Not so much anymore.
Your first novel, DEJA DEAD in 1997, introduced us to Temperance Brennan. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I’d always written non fiction – text books, journal articles, and so on. I started thinking about a novel in the early 1990s. I wrote a partial manuscript but it didn’t really work – it was in third person voice. So I threw that away and then in 1994 I switched to 1st person voice and decided I would finish it, no matter what. It took two years to write because I was teaching full time then, which I don’t do anymore.
Your career as a forensic anthropologist clearly informs your writing. Does your writing ever inform your work as a forensic anthropologist?
Maybe, if I’ve been researching. I’m much more aware of science in other fields. I’m always on the look out for cutting edge techniques, and when I go to professional meetings I pay more attention to that – using some sort of geographic profiling, for instance. So if I’m doing an actual case I may be more aware of those techniques now, than I was in the past, and suggest them if I can see a possible application.
You and Tempe share the same CV. Do you share any personality traits?
My friends tell me we share the same sense of humour. She has a kind of smart ass view of the world. She can be a bit biting in her sarcastic sense of humour. They tell me we share that. I also share her passion for her work.
Do you ever borrow personality traits from people you know to create characters? Do your real-life colleagues ever think they recognise themselves in your novels?
I do borrow character traits, but what I do is take something from one person and something else from another person and blend them together. Sometimes people will claim a character is based on them when it really wasn’t.
Most of your novels are inspired by cases that have come up in your role as forensic anthropologist. Does the boundary between Tempe’s fictional world and your real world ever get blurred when you are writing about her?
No. I’m always listening for ideas, with any situation I go into and I think that’s true for any writer. Any time you go into a new experience you think you might be able to use that in your writing. I always wonder if I’m going to get asked that question when I’m testifying – are opposing councils going to challenge this as fact or fiction? But there is a clear boundary. When I write scientifically I write as Kathleen J Reichs and when I write fiction I write as Kathy Reichs. The two writing styles are very different.
Your latest book, BONES ARE FOREVER, takes Tempe into the world of Canadian diamond mining. What inspired you to write about this?
I went to Yellowknife, and it’s quite an intriguing place. It’s up there in the tundra, almost upto the Arctic Circle. There’s caribou and elk, and you’ve got Francophones and Anglophones and aboriginal peoples. I was really struck by the place, and then I learned about how the gold mines closed down, leaving behind tens of thousands of tons of arsenic, which they are now freezing in barrels underground. Then I started learning about the diamond mines. I had no idea there were diamonds in Canada. Once I started looking into that, it all seemed like a great context for a story.
So the setting inspired the plot?
Partly. I was simultaneously working on three child homicide cases. So the opening scenes, which were difficult to write and difficult to read, I’m sure – I have two brand new grandchildren who were born in August, a week apart , and writing about dead infants was not easy. But that’s what inspired the lead-in to the story that takes Tempe to Yellowknife. The concept of the death of innocents – truly vulnerable innocents – came from that.
Do you think as a writer it’s important to tackle the things that are difficult to write?
I think my readers expect realism. They like science driven thrillers. I think they like the idea that I’m drawing on my experiences, if not specific cases. So for me it’s important to bring that in. I think what gives my books an authenticity is that I am regularly in a medical legal crime lab, or at an autopsy, or at a crime scene. So for me it’s important to draw on something I’ve actually done.
Your Tempe Brennan novels inspired the TV series BONES. The series is very different from the books. How much influence do you have on it?
I work as a producer, and I read every script. I have written one, I’m writing another one this season, and I’ve appeared in one. There’s ‘book Tempe’ and there’s ‘TV Tempe’. ‘Book Tempe’ is a bit older and she’s more polished, personality wise. She’s in Montreal and the Carolinas as I am. She works with Ryan. Whereas ‘TV Tempe’ is younger and she’s in Washington DC, which is where I started my career. The very first skeleton I ever handled was in the Smithsonian Institution. So I think of it as a prequel. I think of it as ‘Tempe – the early years.’ And I like that, because when I go to write the Temperance Brennan books I’m not impacted by what ‘TV Tempe’ is doing, and I am free to do what I want with the character.
Are there any other crime dramas you enjoy watching?
I watched THE KILLING, in the US. I thought that was amazing.
What was it you liked about it?
I liked the grittiness, and the acting. The story brought you in, like with a book – the setting, the characters and the plot kept your attention. And you get to care about what happens to the characters, which I think is important.
Do you have a view on which shows are more accurate with the forensic science, and do you find if they’re not accurate you’re shouting at the TV?
Yes. There are some I don’t watch and some that really do take liberties with forensic science. I don’t want to name any names!
Tempe’s cat Birdie is a character in his own right. Are you more a cat person than a dog person?
Yes, I have four cats. I have a dog too, but my daughter rescues the cats and they end up at my house.
Is Birdie based on a real cat?
Yes, a real white cat called Birdie. People like cats. You can kill off babies, but you can’t kill off cats.
I think it was in the first novel that Birdie disappears, and I was so scared that you were going to kill him off.
I actually got an email from someone who said they weren’t going to finish the novel because they couldn’t believe I killed the cat. But the cat wasn’t dead, as it turned out.
Like Tempe, you commute between North Carolina and Montreal. Which place do you consider home?
North Carolina. I’ve lived there more than half my life. I’m only in Montreal one week out of every six or eight.
If you could live anywhere in the world, irrespective of work commitments, where would you like to live?
The Carolinas are pretty nice. Close the mountains, close to the beach. Four seasons. Very nice.
You’ve got a new forensic series aimed at young adults. How do these books differ from the Tempe Brennan books?
The character’s younger – she’s 14. She’s Tempe Brennan’s great-niece Tory. Her friends are 15 and 16. They are science lovers, they’re not the cool kids at school. In the first book you learn about the unique experience they have that changes them. They have some special abilities, and they use these and science to solve crimes. The dialogue has to be different – they don’t talk like crusty 50-year-old homicide detectives. The social concerns are different. They worry about ‘does he like me’, ‘I’m not cool at school’, that kind of thing. But otherwise the stories are just as complex as any Temperance Brennan story. The first two are called VIRAL and SEIZURE. The third one, CODE, will be out in March. They have been very well received – VIRAL and SEIZURE both made the New York Times best seller list.
So since the characters have special abilities, is there an element of science fiction to the books?
It’s called ‘grounded fantasy’. It’s all explained in a very reasonable way. They rescue a dog, the dog was the subject of illegal experimental with the parvovirus. They don’t know this but the parvovirus has been genetically altered and can now jump to humans. They get sick and recover but their DNA has been altered by the mutant form of the parvovirus. They acquire canine abilities of vision, smell and hearing.
How did this idea come about?
We thought about what are kids are interested in. They are interested in forensics. A lot of teenagers are watching BONES and reading the Temperance Brennan books. But a lot of kids are also interested in an element of fantasy, and what makes you special – what makes you stand out from everyone else. We thought that by combining that, it might have an appeal.
So you’re writing this series with your son. Does he have a lot of input into writing the contemporary dialogue?
Yes, he’s much better at knowing how kids talk to each other, and the social media element. I ‘tweet’ and I ‘Facebook’ but he knows much more about that. And he’s very good at plotting and outlining.
Do you have any plans to branch out in your writing and write about other characters and subjects?
Right now I’m under contract for 19 Tempe Brennan books. I’m working on number 16. I’m also under contract for five Tory Brennan books. So that’ll keep me busy for a while.
Which writers inspire you?
I read a lot of crime fiction because I want to know what everyone else is doing. I don’t want to accidentally duplicate what some else is doing. But I don’t read exclusively crime fiction. I love British humourists. I love the HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY series, and Terry Pratchett – that’s what I read for complete relaxation. I just missed Terry Pratchett at Cheltenham. His event was earlier, mine was too late.
Kathy, thanks very much for your time. It’s very much appreciated.
Kathy Reichs was at the Cheltenham Literary Festival as part of her British tour in October 2012. She also attended the Specsavers Crime & Thriller Awards on Thursday 18 October, where she was awarded the Specsavers Bestseller Dagger.
The latest book in the Temperance Brennan series, BONES ARE FOREVER, is out now, and the latest book in her YA series, CODE, is out in March 2013. Season 8 of BONES, the TV series about Tempe Brennan and produced by Kathy Reichs, airs in the UK in early 2013.
Interview: October 2012
Main Photo © Fiona Davies 2012