From Physician to Medical Thrillers: SNHU Talks with Award-Winning Suspense Novelist Tess Gerritsen

by Pamme Boutselis

Internationally bestselling author Tess Gerritsen began her career as a physician, turning to fiction writing during a maternity leave from work. Her first novel, a romantic thriller, published in 1987. The success of “Call After Midnight” led to eight more romantic suspense novels as well as a screenplay, which aired as a CBS Movie of the Week. Her first medical thriller, “Harvest,” made the New York Times bestseller list and Gerritsen has since earned the distinction of having the top-3 bestsellers in the U.S. and abroad. Her long-running series of novels, which feature homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles, is the basis of the popular TNT television series, “Rizzoli & Isles.”

Gerritsen has won the Nero Wolfe Award for “Vanish,” the Rita Award for “The Surgeon” and Suspense Magazine’s Crimson Scribe Award in recognition of “Last to Die” as the best book of the year. Her books have been published in 40 countries, with more than 25 million copies sold worldwide.

Bestselling suspense novelist Tess Gerritsen ~ Photo credit: Jacob Gerritsen

Your first book was a romantic thriller. What led to that genre?
My first book was a romantic thriller because that’s the genre I happened to be reading at the time. I was working as a doctor, and at the end of the day, wanted to be entertained by a story that would thrill me as well as give me a happy, uplifting ending. Romantic suspense was just such a genre. When I sat down to write my first novel, naturally, I wrote the sort of book I was enjoying so much.

What was the process like for you in becoming initially published?
After writing three unsold manuscripts, I did finally sell my fourth novel in the traditional way: I sent the manuscript to both an agent and to a publisher (Harlequin Intrigue). Both of them accepted me.

You eventually turned to medical thrillers. Was this a natural transition given your medical background?
The transition to medical thrillers came about because I got a chilling idea for a novel, inspired by a conversation with a detective. He told me that children were vanishing in Moscow, and the Russian police believed the kids were being kidnapped and shipped to foreign countries as organ donors. That inspired me to write HARVEST, which became a bestseller. Suddenly I was known as a medical thriller writer, and I decided to stay with that genre. Since I’m a physician, it was a natural genre for me to working in.

What interests you most about writing thrillers?
I love the chance to learn and immerse myself in new subjects. Thrillers can encompass such a broad range of subjects, and during my career I’ve written about the space program, organ harvesting, Egyptian mummies, and Chinese folklore. Not only do I get the thrill of exploring new topics, I can use this new knowledge to create scary stories. And that’s the real fun of writing these tales: that I get to scare people.

How do you keep your characters fresh in your Rizzoli & Isles novels after all this time?
The characters remain fresh for me as long as they continue to evolve and grow. My heroines’ lives are never static. In the course of ten books, Jane has fallen in love, married, and become a mother. Maura has … well, fallen in love several times. Their friendship is also organic, and it’s had its ups and downs. I love the way this universe of characters feel like real life, in that people are always facing one crisis or another.

What’s the toughest part of writing for you?
The toughest part of writing is just sitting still long enough to produce my pages. I get sidetracked so easily, and can be distracted by just about everything. What’s also tough is juggling all the other things that come along with a writing career, from promotional tours to correspondence. Perhaps if I could hide in a cave for a year, the writing would be easier.

Are there things you know now that you wish you had caught on to much earlier in your writing career?
What I’ve learned is how important it is to focus on the characters’ voices. Sometimes I don’t start a story until I can hear a character speak to me. I want to hear a voice that’s unique. I want that character to capture me. If you have a compelling character, you have a compelling story.

How has your writing changed your life?
It’s given me the freedom to explore so many new places and themes. I’ve discovered that travel inspires many new stories for me, so I make a point of going somewhere new every year. Egypt, Africa, Italy — all these places have been (or will be) featured in my stories.

When it’s time for pleasure reading, which authors do you turn to and why?
I’m always discovering new favorite authors! But for sheer pleasure, I can always turn to Philippa Gregory’s historical novels.

Which of your books is your own personal favorite?
“Gravity” is my personal favorite, perhaps because it was such a challenge, and because I’m proud that I managed to pull off a thriller set mostly in space!