Monday, July 23, 2007

An Interview with Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen is one of the headliners who’ll be appearing at the 10th Anniversary Love is Murder on Dark and Stormy Nights Conference in Chicago, Feb. 1 through 3, 2008. To learn more about the conference, go to

JCS: Tess, you wrote on your blog “…the less impressed I am by the culture of empty celebrity, and the more I value the chance to sit and talk with someone like Robert Edwards (former president of Bowdoin College. I want to know his journey. I want to know what propelled him through life.”

What propelled you through life? You write about being the daughter of immigrants, but you also note that they worried you couldn’t support yourself by writing. You already had a degree in medicine—a degree that would make any parent both proud and confident you wouldn’t starve—so why then did you want to write books?

TG: I always knew I wanted to tell stories, and I knew I was a storyteller by the time I was seven years old. But as for what propelled me through life, I think it was a drive that comes out of being an immigrant's child. I grew up understanding that my position in society was insecure, that I would have to work hard to be accepted. That insecurity seems to be an almost universal characteristic of successful people. We worry that we're not accepted. We worry that we'll starve. We worry that we're not "measuring up". And that's what makes us try so hard. Of course, it just so happens that I'm trying hard at something I really wanted to do anyway, which is tell stories.

JCS: You started writing when you had children. How did you juggle your work and being a mom? Did you ever feel stressed over the choices you made?

TG: Motherhood alone was hugely stressful! But I was blessed by having babies who took very nice long naps, and who went to bed by 7 PM, and that was my signal to start writing. Before then, I'd been working 80 hours a week as a doctor, so I was used to "double" shifts -- which is what I had as a mom. Taking care of the kids by day, writing by night.

JCS: In your blog, you wrote: “Before I became a thriller writer, I wrote eight romantic suspense novels for the huge romance publisher, Harlequin Intrigue.” A lot of successful authors start by writing romances. What did you learn from writing romances and how did that influence your work today?

TG: Romance novels taught me a number of really important principles of storytelling: Get the story launched at a full gallop. Introduce characters who are, if not completely likable, at least people who have a core sense of integrity. Keep the plot complex enough so that there's always a twist coming. Pay attention to your characters' emotional lives, which is exactly what every good romance novel does. Learn to introduce conflict in every chapter. Those principles end up being important to every genre. Finally, of course, I learned a lot about the writing business, from meeting deadlines to evaluating cover designs. Romance writers are the most savvy in the industry, so no wonder many of them go on to become bestselling authors in other genres.

JCS: You’ve written that the most important thing a writer can do is to keep the story moving forward while writing a first draft. And you’ve written about the worries you face when contemplating a second draft. (I call that the “crap” moment. You look at what you wrote and think, “Oh, crap. I picked the wrong idea. The wrong characters. And this is all just…crap.”) How do you get through the “crap” moment?

TG: I don't know that there's any good way to get through it except to just forge ahead. I have that "oh, crap" moment with every single book. Which means I have to figure out how to fix the problems, and it usually means tightening the plot and getting rid of extraneous details that are only distracting. The difference between an amateur and a pro is that the amateur doesn't think he has a problem, and the pro sees problems everywhere -- and proceeds to fix them!

JCS: Tess, what do you know now about writing that you didn’t know “then,” when you began? How would you counsel a “young” author? What nuggets of wisdom would you share?

TG: I would tell writers that if they know which genre they really, really want to write, they should just start right off and write in it and not waste their time doodling around in short stories or so-called "easy" sells. I know several novelists who think, "oh, I'll just try to sell a romance because it'll be easy to publish, and then I'll write what I really want to write." Don't waste your time. If it's not a genre you love, the editor will be able to see that. I also would counsel new authors to not give up on a book until the first draft is completed. Too many of them get halfway through a book and give up. And start the next one, and give up on that one, too. They end up with stacks of half-finished novels. If they only realized that getting discouraged midway through a book is normal, they'd understand they have to just keep on writing.

JCS: You teach a writing class. Is there anything you see that your more successful students have in common? (Besides the fact that they actually do READ books as well as want to write them?)

TG: The most successful students write using their emotions rather than with pure logic. They understand that the most interesting stories grow from the conflicts we have with other people, and not from who shot whom, and what kind of gun he used. The worst writers over-explain, and the number one problem I find among beginning authors is the "info-dump", where I get a character's entire biography in the first chapter.

JCS: You’ve also blogged about how some women won’t read books about “guy topics,” and you explain you weren’t very tempted by Myron Bolitar, Harlan Coben’s protagonist. Did you worry that men wouldn’t read your thrillers? Did it take a lot of courage to write under your own—obviously feminine—name?

TG: I know that I have a hard time getting some men to read me. It's just the way the world seems to work -- many men aren't interested in what women do or how women think, and I've learned to live with that. On the plus side, the vast majority of fiction buyers are women. Most of my male readers were introduced to my books through their wives, and once they've found me, they discover that, yes, a crime novel written by a woman can be interesting. The odd thing is that I've found my male/female reader ratio depends on which country we're talking about. In the UK, for instance, I've found my bookstore signings have attracted nearly 50% men -- does that mean Englishmen are more open to female authors? I don't know. But it certainly seems that way!

Visit Tess Gerritsen at her blog Her most recent novel is The Mephisto Club. The Bone Garden: A Novel will be released September, 2007.


Mark Terry said...

Hey Tess! Nice of you to drop by. And thanks again for your great blurb of THE SERPENT'S KISS.

Good luck with your upcoming novel, too.

Mark Terry

Peg Cochran said...

My husband LOVES your books (and so do I of course!) Thanks for some great insights on writing.
Peg C.

Anonymous said...

Writing with emotion is so important and something writers often "miss" in the beginning. Thanks so much for emphasizing this and it makes me wish I'd taken a class from you--those E. George was a very fine teacher. And conflict-oh yeah. There should be conflict on every page "even if it's only the character getting a drink of water," words from a wise teacher (though I can't remember who), words that I have never forgotten.

Leann Sweeney
Yellow Rose Mystery Series from NAL

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Tess. As was your talk at Thrillerfest.

Where were you when I first started writing?