It all began a couple of weeks ago, when one of Transworld’s publicists [@BenWillisUK for all of you discerning tweeters!] emailed me to ask if I would like to interview Tess at one of the UK events promoting her new thriller, The Silent Girl. I accepted without hesitation.
And so it was that a few days later I found myself backstage at the event, perched on a chair and nervously holding my voice recorder – which was so big and threatening that Simon Kernick would mistake it for a taser later that evening! – out towards Tess Gerritsen…
C&P: Hi Tess. I wanted to start at the beginning of your literary career. You – along with other authors like Lisa Gardner and Karen Rose – came to writing thrillers from a romance background. How do you think that this has affected the way that you write crime thrillers?
TG: Well, I started off writing what we call ‘romantic suspense’ which is fifty percent mystery and romance, so there was a little bit of a thriller-ish theme at the beginning. But what I think was a big advantage coming from romance for not just me but also Lisa and Karen and other bestselling authors in the US, was that romance forces you to focus on character – it’s all about character and relationships. So when you go into any other genre, that’s a good thing to have in your background and to immediately be able to paint a picture of who this person is.
C&P: So, with a series, you feel that this background has enabled you to build and evolve your characters?
TG: Yes, it allows you to have an idea of where they are going to develop – and how they are going to develop – and who they are going to fall in love with and have conflicts with. It’s so much more devoted to personality as opposed to plot. And then you get into thrillers, which, for a large part, are all plot driven, and I think that it just makes the writing more powerful as you have the tools for both.
C&P: I completely agree, and you can certainly see that in the way that Maura and Jane have developed over the series. And in the new book, The Silent Girl, they are also in conflict – with Maura’s fact driven logic in opposition to Jane’s more ambiguous take on what constitutes justice. Were you playing devil’s advocate or do you personally have a particular side?
TG: I never planned it out, it just happened because of what the book was about, which is: ‘is murder ever justified?’ And ‘does justice have any boundaries, or can you do anything to get rid of a bad guy?’ And from Jane’s point of view, and in that way she is very black and white, if it’s justice then fine, go do it. And Maura is not necessarily going to say that.
So I think that both these characters are having problems with this relationship between the two of them. Maura starts of the book with a big gap between her and Boston PD based on her job – she’s testified against a cop and he’s going to go to jail because of her testimony. It goes against that whole thing of loyalty.
C&P: Breaking the ‘thin blue line’?
C&P: And your novels are renowned for there use of medical and scientific practices. How do you go about researching them and do you ever hear about something and think it sounds intriguing and work it into the plot?
TG: It tends to come out of the story. And with crime novels that is quite an easy process as death is an organic process and there is always going to be a medical examination. So, in that way I’m not looking for new and bizarre ways to die.
C&P: Although there is quite a bizarre sequence in The Silent Girl with the young boy finding the severed hand on the ghost tour in Boston’s Chinatown. So how did you come up with that?
TG: Oh, because I’m a fan of ghost tours. I hit a new town and I sign up for the ghost tours! I’ve already been on the Jack the Ripper tour multiple times. So it occurred to me, as I was in Edinburgh doing a ghost tour, what if we were to find a dead body down here? Here we are, we’re being lured into being spooked and what if one of these things is not actually a prop? That’s where it came up in my head, and I thought I’m going to put this in a book.
C&P: Your father was a cook and you have described this as your most personal novel, so did you draw upon your own experiences?
TG: Yes, one of the victims is a Chinese restaurant cook and a lot of the descriptions I put of the girl thinking back to what it was like to watch her father in the restaurant…
C&P: With the burnt hands?
TG: That’s exactly how I saw my father. He would cook in his old t-shirt and he had multiple old scars from the burns from the hot oil and it was hard work and you were on your feet. But it’s the kind of thing that immigrants do to survive – they work their fingers to the bone and their flesh gets scarred up. And I think that there is something very touching about that man doing that to keep his family alive.
C&P: And do the martial arts and sword elements also come from personal experience?
TG: Well, I grew up with these flying warrior women movies from China and Hong Kong, so it’s a whole genre that’s familiar to me from my childhood. But the interesting thing from this is that there’s the character of Iris Fang, who is a martial arts expert, and she’s based on a real woman who teaches in Boston.
She’s a master – a grand master, in fact – in wushu, the Chinese martial arts variety and she’s now seventy years old. She introduced Chinese martial arts to America thirty-five years ago, but she’s very well known as an expert swordswoman. And I thought, wow, this is someone out of real life, she’s someone who is revered by martial arts people around the world – I could make her a character.
C&P: And does she, like Iris, walk around the neighbourhood with her sword? It’s a great image!
TG: Well, I don’t know if she does that, but I’ve seen videos of her demonstrating her swordsmanship. And she’s very tiny. There was an article about her in the Boston Globe last month with a quote from a Navy Seal – one of the elite soldiers in the US Navy – who was a black belt in Karate, and he decided to train with her because he wanted to learn Chinese martial arts.
So here’s this big man, and she’s only five foot tall. But whenever they sparred he said that he’d end up on the ground and he didn’t remember how it happened! And I think that it’s extraordinary to think of women as being powerful warriors, but that’s a tradition in Chinese history.
C&P: Yes, there’s that great section in the book in which Iris talks about the lineage of the sword.
TG: Right, the female General.
C&P: So is that based in fact?
TG: The female General is a real historical person, who is known for fighting with two swords and for fighting Japanese pirates.
C&P: And along with the historical element there is quite a lot of mysticism and a hint of the supernatural about the novel – especially with the idea of the Monkey King. Why did you decide to use that in the book?
TG: Well, the Monkey King is a really well known myth in Chinese history. And what I loved about the Monkey King as a hero is that there are these two sides to him. On the one hand he’s a typical hero who fights evil and defends the good, but on the other side he’s also a very naughty monkey!
So in the book, which is called Journey to the West and which was put to paper I guess in the fifteen hundreds, you see that this monkey is unpredictable. So even though he does the right thing he gets into trouble a lot. So that was what was fascinating to me – the unpredictability of this hero and the lengths that he will go to in order to see that justice is done.
C&P: So, within the novel, you do see him as heroic?
TG: I do see him as heroic – and within the legend he’s heroic. But, again, sometimes he bends the rules a bit.
C&P: And The Silent Girl also sees the introduction of a new character, Johnny Tam – who’s very enigmatic and mysterious. Will he be returning?
TG: I think we’ll be seeing him again. Not the next book, but the book after, he will have been taken into the Homicide Unit.
C&P: That implies a certain level of forward planning and knowledge of where the series is going on your part.
TG: They’re vague – they’re very vague.
C&P: So is it quite an organic process?
TG: It is very organic. I’m never quite sure who is going to live and who is going to die. Jane was first introduced in a book called The Surgeon and she was a secondary character – and she was supposed to die in that book. So, clearly, things changed.
C&P: And, finally. I have a question that I have wanted to ask ever since I read Keeping the Dead. In it there’s a Dr William Scott Kerr. Was this intentional, as it is the name of Bill Scott-Kerr who works at Transworld [Tess’s UK publisher]?
TG: You know, this is really funny, because at Transworld they had a little contest for finding the best title. And I said that whoever came up with the best title would get their name in the book. Well, I got a bunch of good titles so I decided to throw a bunch of them into the story. There are five or six Transworld people who ended up in there. In fact, and I hate to call him the ‘bad guy’ as now you’ll know who the bad guy is, but the bad guy was named after a Transworld driver. He was thrilled that he got to play the part of a serial killer!
My thanks to Tess for taking the time for her busy schedule to answer my stuttering questions [luckily transcribing the audio recording means that you will never hear this!]. And also to Transworld for arranging the interview. And you can read my review of The Silent Girl, here.