It’s been a while since we last spoke to the prolific Tess Gerritsen, who publishes her Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles detective thrillers with Transworld Publishing while her earlier work is published by MIRA UK. On her promotional trip to Waterstones Charing Cross Road with Dennis Lehane, she kindly agreed to talk to Shots Ezine about her work.
More information available from www.tessgerritsen.com and www.tessgerritsen.co.uk
If you’ve yet to read Gerritsen it’s time you did because her work is remarkable. But beware, it is also very disturbing – Ali Karim
Ali Tess, you have a very successful series featuring Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles of which your latest novel, Keeping the Dead, is the seventh; but you have changed genre several times in the past [romance, techno-medical thrillers, and crime]. What reaction have you experienced from your readership when you’ve switched genres?
Tess They get very confused, very confused. I know that some of my crime readers occasionally come across one of my earlier romance books and they are completely flabbergasted to find out that I used to write romance. On the other hand some of my crime readers come across Gravity and are surprised to discover that I wrote science-fiction.
Ali Some of your SF was in the late Michael Crichton mode – a writer who also wrote in other genres, such as his mysteries under the names John Lange and Jeffery Hudson, amongst others.
Tess Precisely. I think basically I write whatever I feel like writing, and wherever it takes me.
Ali A novel’s location is often key to the telling of a tale and you set much of your work in Boston. Your 2007 bestseller The Bone Garden was set in historical Boston, and the Jane Rizzoli/Maura Isles novels [which started with The Surgeon] are also set in that city. Considering you live in Maine, what’s your fascination with Boston?
Tess Partly because I have a couple of characters who are homicide investigators, and quite honestly the state of Maine has one of the lowest homicide rates in the country, so it would start to feel rather unrealistic if I were to have serial killers running around rural Maine. So I wanted to set my crime novels in the nearest large city that you could have serial killers operating; I chose Boston as it is the nearest metropolis to us.
Ali Both you and Dennis [Lehane] have carved a very loyal readership with your series characters. How much do you attribute your success to these characters? And where did they come from?
Tess I attribute a great deal of my success to the characters, particularly Jane Rizzoli, who I think is the one readers have the most fun with. She’s not a lovey-dovey person and perhaps, to answer your question, I’ll have to reveal something that many of my readers may not be aware of. Jane first appeared in the first book, The Surgeon, and a lot of people told me ‘I don’t like her, she is quite a bitch’. The explanation for her appearing that way was that she was never intended to survive that book. You see I never planned to write a series, but when I got to the scene where she was supposed to die, she refused to die. So when she survived that book, I became really interested in her and wanted to find out what happened in her life. When I wrote the second book [The Apprentice] she appeared again and suddenly I had a series. It was totally unplanned.
Ali So is Maura you, Tess?
Tess Very much; we both have backgrounds in science, both studied medicine, both like to believe that there is a logical explanation to why things happen. So whenever there is any biographical detail required in Maura’s life, like what wine does she drink? what car does she drive? I just take it from my own life.
Ali I’m very interested in the differences in covers between your US and UK editions. Your UK covers [Transworld] are very distinctive in terms of design. For instance your UK cover for The Surgeon was very minimal, a white sink basin with three drops of blood, whereas your US cover is much busier and more colourful, featuring a rear-view image of a surgeon holding a scalpel behind his back – far less subtle.
Tess I love my UK covers – they are stark and clean and very distinctive. At the time I would go as far as to say that Transworld were revolutionary in their design. I don’t think anyone else was making such minimalist imagery work in the crime fiction world. As it turned out, it was the covers that really caught people’s eye when I was published in the UK by Transworld. I think the difference is a cultural thing: Americans like more colour, we like a lot of sex on our covers, female form, faces – a lot of this has to do with the art director at the publishing house and their taste. To be honest, I don’t really know what makes a cover work or not work. So I leave it to my publisher as they are usually right.
Ali You have some very interesting points that you raise in your blog[s] at both Murderati and also your own website. After a short hiatus, you are back blogging – can you tell us why you enjoy blogging, and what are the down sides?
Tess I blog, because I have a very solitary profession. I sit in my office all day, and something will occur either in the business of writing or in the process of writing that makes me want to write about it, and I blab. I like the sense of sharing with others what I am dealing with, and I really didn’t think anybody cared until I discovered that I have quite a few blog readers, especially a lot of other writers who can identify with what I am talking about.
Ali Your latest work is called Keeping the Dead in the UK, but in the US is was released as The Keepsake. Can you tell us your feelings when a publisher suggest retitling a novel for a market?
Tess I always worry about confusion amongst readers as some don’t realise that both titles are the same book. In my latest book, both my US and UK editors had very strong opinions about the title[s]; neither liked the other’s title. So to make everyone happy we decided to go with the two titles.
Ali Talking of confusion, I was amused to see that much of your backlist has recently been reissued by MIRA UK, and the covers do look rather similar to the Transworld style. How does it feel seeing much of your earlier work repackaged and back on shelves?
Tess Well, again I’m a little concerned about the confusion this causes as much as I am very happy to have my early romance novels rereleased. But what happens is that my current crime-fiction readers think they are crime novels and I get a lot of angry emails from readers …
Tess Yes, really. I get some upsetting emails from people: ‘What is wrong with you? Your style has changed. I’ll never read your books again!’ Nasty stuff!
Ali Bizarre. Aren’t these people bright enough to read the copyright page?
Tess Well, in a word, perhaps not, and I end up responding nicely by telling them that the next time they pick up one of my books, they should check the copyright page and date. If it’s before 1997, it may very well be a romance novel. I am, however, concerned that I may have lost readers who never told me this, who never realised about my backlist being re-released with covers that accentuate the crime-fiction angle, when in reality they are romance novels.
Ali Is this just a UK issue or are your romance novels also being reissued in the US to look like crime novels?
Tess It’s all over, not just US and UK, but all over the world. MIRA has re-released my older work in a number of countries.
Ali What’s next after Keeping the Dead – a standalone or another Jane and Maura thriller?
Tess Well, my next contract specifies three more Jane and Maura novels. I love doing the standalones, but what I’ve noticed is that they just don’t seem to sell as well as the Jane and Maura series. I think readers get very attached to the characters of Jane and Maura, and want more. Saying that, The Bone Garden sold very well. I have plenty of ideas for standalones but I’m not sure if I’ll be doing one just yet as I am working on a Jane and Maura book right now.
Ali Could you tell me how much time is spent being away from your garret working with publishers in promoting your books? And what are your feelings about this time taken away from the actual writing process?
Tess It has become a more and more critical part of establishing a career as a novelist. I do love going on tour meeting readers like today, but the problem is you do have to turn out a book a year; that’s what my publishers want, so that combination of having to tour – not just in the US but internationally – plus turn in a book a year has made writers lives pretty insane. If it was up to me, I’d turn in a book every two years, and do a leisurely tour. But the problem is how much a writer can manage these days of promotion and writing without going insane?
Ali As an established prolific and bestselling author with a loyal readership, what is your take on the current economic turmoil as related to publishing? And what are your thoughts on anyone mental enough to think about embarking upon a fiction-writing career today?
Tess Well, from what I understand it is very hard for a debut author to sell a book, simply because readers don’t know what to expect from that author in future work. Whereas if you’re an established author, you’ll still be selling books as you have a readership. Looking at book sales in late 2008, they have held pretty steady compared to other retailers, so let’s hope this year that book sales are not going to be hit as hard as other sectors.
Ali Well, let’s keep our fingers crossed, Tess, and thank you for your time.
Tess And to you, Ali, for some fascinating questions.
Tess in Borders Charing Cross Rd
Shots Ezine would like to thank Patsy Irwin for organising this interview and Borders Charing Cross Road for providing an interview room.
An edited version of this interview first appeared at www.therapsheet.blogspot.com