How can you write a series which keeps your readers engaged, while still keeping your creative spark alive? How can you sustain a writing career for the long term? With Tess Gerritsen.
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Tess Gerritsen is the multi-award-winning and internationally bestselling author of the ‘Rizzoli & Isles' series adapted for TV and other medical thrillers and suspense novels with over 40 million copies sold. She's also a filmmaker, director, and screenwriter, and her latest novel is Listen to Me.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- Tips for discovery writing
- Keeping readers engaged over a long series
- Staying creatively engaged and making time for writing ideas that might not fit anywhere
- The differences between writing books and writing for TV
- Tapping into creative darkness without being overwhelmed by it
- Changes in the publishing industry and increased responsibility for marketing
- Tips for a long-term writing career
You can find Tess Gerritsen at TessGerritsen.com and on Twitter @tessgerritsen
Transcript of Interview with Tess Gerritsen
Joanna: Tess Gerritsen is the multi-award-winning and internationally bestselling author of the ‘Rizzoli & Isles' series adapted for TV and other medical thrillers and suspense novels with over 40 million copies sold. She's also a filmmaker, director, and screenwriter, and her latest novel is Listen to Me. Welcome to the show, Tess.
Tess: Thank you for inviting me. I'm happy to be here.
Joanna: I'm so excited to talk to you. So let's wind the clock back. You were a medical doctor before you started writing.
How do you incorporate that medical background into your novels even many years after you stopped practicing?
Tess: The funny thing is, when I first started writing books, I didn't incorporate any medicine into it because I was writing romantic suspense, and I thought, ‘Oh, nobody cares about medicine. It's a day job for me,' and I think that most of us who have day jobs think of them as humdrum.
It wasn't until I wrote a book called Harvest and that was published in 1996 where the medicine came into play. And I found out, hey, audiences do like these details. So I incorporate my memories of what it's like to be a doctor, also how doctors think.
I think that's what makes this special, is we know how doctors would approach a particular problem. And that's mainly how I incorporate it. When it comes to medical details, I either know it or I have a bunch of textbooks that I can consult or I have colleagues I can ask if it's a specialty I'm not fully aware of.
Joanna: Well, you said, ‘how doctors think.' How do doctors think compared to how novelists think? Is it all about solving problems?
Tess: It is. You have a patient who comes in with an unusual symptom. So you're going to go down your checklist of which systems in the body should we be looking at. And it's a fairly methodical system. And, in fact, you can go online probably and have some computer do it for you. But it is a way of approaching a problem, a mystery.
I don't think it has any effect on how I write, actually. I think the medical background is more what I draw from for informational purposes and for character purposes.
But when I write, I am completely disorganized.
I think it probably surprises people who assume that I must be an organized writer.
I don't do outlines. I've tried. I don't have my plot planned out ahead of time. It's very much for me just taking the path, starting down the dark road, and seeing where it takes me.
Joanna: I love that. I'm also a discovery writer, I call it discovery writer. And I actually read that you didn't plot, and that was very encouraging. So you mentioned the dark road.
Where do you start in the writing process? How do you follow a disorganized process?
Tess: I like to start with an emotional springboard, and it has to do with what is the scene that plunges me or my character into the story. I think that the best premises are those that affect your emotions, that you may evoke something like fear or shock, something that makes you want to ask what happens next.
I start with the premise, and I have to know something about my characters beforehand. And that is one thing I do know, is who are these people and what kind of a voice do they have. I like to listen to a voice in my head. I like to hear this voice in my head, and that will really guide me down this path.
When I started writing that book, Harvest, for instance, the voice that I first heard was that of a 12-year-old boy. He directed a lot of the action, and that told me where my story was going, which is this 12-year-old boy is going to be one of the main characters and he's going to help solve the crime.
So if you can hear the voice, you know who this person is, you know whether they're male or female, young or old, you can tell by their language whether they're educated or uneducated. And I think that really defines which way the story is going.
Joanna: It's funny you mentioned listening to the voice there. Your latest novel is Listen to Me.
Where did the premise for that book come from, and tell people about the premise since that's your most recent book?
Tess: This was really inspired by a voice. And that was the voice of Angela Rizzoli, Jane's mother. I heard her talking, and she's a warm, funny, somewhat annoying woman, but you want to hang around and see what she says. So that book was started by the thought of Angela Rizzoli as an older woman.
She's had a lot of things going on in her life in the course of these last 12 books. She was introduced very early on, and things have happened to her. She was a happily married woman who had raised her children. She just devoted her life to her husband and her children. And then about halfway through the series, her husband left her for another woman.
So now Angela is single. She's on the verge of divorce. She has to find her new life. She's been living in the same suburban house for 30 years. She knows the street, she knows her neighborhood, and she sees something that bothers her. And that was the first thing she said to me in my head, ‘If you see something, say something.'
Angela clearly says things. She bothers her daughter about this. And we get to follow Angela's investigation as something of an amateur sleuth who is a nosy neighbor. We also get to follow Jane and Maura, of course.
They're doing their own real murder investigation of a nurse who has been bludgeoned in her own home. So we have simultaneous investigations, one that's an amateur, one that's a professional. And they will in some ways affect each other's investigations.
Joanna: You mentioned that there have been 12 other books. This is book 13 in the ‘Rizzoli & Isles' series.
How do you keep readers engaged in a long-running series? What are some tips for people who want to write these longer series?
Tess: That is a real challenge because I don't like a series where the characters never change. I want to see them evolve. And that is, I think, one of the things that has kept the series alive, is that Jane and Maura are constantly growing. They're evolving.
Jane, when you first saw her in The Surgeon was not a very likable person. But then she fell in love, she got married, she had a baby. So she's matured in many ways, mellowed a lot of ways. So she now, I think, is a lot more likable.
You also saw her struggle to become respected. That would get really old if that struggle was still going on at book number 12. Now, it's book number 13. The cops know who she is, and they respect her. So we've seen that journey for Jane.
We've also seen Maura have a similar journey, although it's been more of a depressing journey because Maura is searching for love. She's finally found it, but there were a lot of romantic misadventures.
The other thing I would recommend is you have a large universe of characters.
There are people like Barry Frost who's Jane's partner in the homicide unit. We've seen his life have ups and downs. We've seen Angela's ups and downs. I think that it's a little bit like a real-life situation where you know your relatives are going through crises, various crises, and you want to follow those.
Joanna: It's interesting because a lot of detective series and especially those that get adapted for TV are these sort of more episodic where there isn't such a change because you want to keep having the stuff go on forever.
Do you see an end because, of course, your characters are moving forward in their lives? And you mentioned Angela there. Do you see ends for these characters? Because, of course, that can be very difficult for readers, very difficult for writers. Or do you just see this series going on forever?
Tess: I don't know. When I finished book 12, I didn't think I was going to write another book. I leave my characters where they are, and, eventually, maybe I'll come back to them. I don't know.
I don't think I will ever write what I would call a finale because I think of them as real people. I don't want to kill them. I just think that when they become fully happy and everybody settle down, the series is really over.
Joanna: Now, that's interesting. And you said that, ‘I didn't think I'd write another book.' And this sort of feeling of, ‘I am really done with the series,' it seems to me like some writers with the longest series do need to write other things.
As a creative, how do you keep yourself engaged in all your different worlds?
Tess: I do write other books. It's been a 5-year gap between book number 12 and book number 13. It's because I did other things. I wrote two other books that had nothing to do with the series.
I made a film with my son, and I took some time to creatively recharge the batteries. I think it's interesting that, as I get older, I feel that time is running out, and all these crazy ideas I had for books, well, this is the time to write them while I still can. So I am kind of trying to rush through inspirations that I have been harboring for a long time, and now is the time I'm writing them.
Joanna: That sounds fascinating. Which of these books should we look for to see these fascinations?
Tess: One of them, probably my readers are going, ‘Why did she write this particular book?' I wrote a ghost story.
I live in the state of Maine, up in New England, and we are rumored to be one of the most haunted states in the country. Years and years ago, back when I was probably in my 20s, I had this idea for a book about a ghost and a single woman who comes to live in this house, and she falls in love with a ghost, sort of like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
That's a very old book and also a very old movie. But in this case, the ghost may be dangerous. So she doesn't know whether she's fallen in love with the perfect lover or whether she's fallen in love with a sadistic spirit.
And because the house comes with a history of women who've died in this house, it becomes more of a thriller. That book was The Shape of Night. It was fun to write. I loved writing it. I think my readers were puzzled. But that's where your creativity takes you.
Joanna: Well, that's really interesting. Obviously, at this point in your career, you can experiment, and your name is very well known.
Do you think publishers try and box authors into a certain genre?
They probably would have preferred that you'd just written another couple in your ‘Rizzoli and Isles' series?
Tess: Yes, publishers will definitely try to box you in because they know how to sell your previous book, they know which books sell the best, and, clearly, series novels sell better because people are waiting for the same characters.
When you have a book that is out of the box, what do you do with it, if your publisher will take it, that's great. But now we have options.
Writers can self-publish, they can independently publish, or they can change publishers for their out-of-the-box books.
So I think we have a lot more freedom, and I'm not as afraid to be writing the unexpected book as I might have been before.
Joanna: That's good. I'm going to have to get The Shape of Night. I prefer the darker stories.
You said that you took some time to creatively recharge. What kind of things do you do to creatively recharge?
Tess: I wrote some television scripts, which sold. I got paid, but it hasn't gone into production.
I made a film with my son, a documentary film, which was a great deal of fun. We were hunting for the ancient reasons behind the pork taboo. It sounds like a crazy idea, but I come from a family of restaurant tours.
I like to eat just about everything. And it always puzzled me that any culture or religion would forbid a source of protein. So my son and I, we went around the world interviewing archeologists. We were just sort of looking for the ancient history of why pork was ever outlawed.
Joanna: I actually went and watched the trailer for that because I was googling you looking for things, and I saw this review on the ‘Jewish Tribune' or something, a Jewish magazine or something, and my husband's Jewish, and I write sort of religious books, and I'm very in touch with all that stuff.
That's why I was like, ‘This is weird.' I did not expect to see you being reviewed in these places. It just seemed completely out of left field.
Was this just a completely different world for you in terms of the nonfiction, documentary side?
Tess: It was. But in a way, it is similar because it's a mystery. My son and I were trying to solve the mystery which just happens to be a nonfiction mystery with roots that are thousands of years old.
We were like little detectives going from archeologists to pig farmers to pig behavioral experts looking for why the pig holds such a position in human attitudes. People either think pigs are darling and cute, they're like Babe or they think they're disgusting and dirty.
Pigs evoke a lot of emotions. And that's what I was trying to get out of the people we interviewed, that sense of, wow, you know, you either love them or you hate them and why.
Joanna: How was it collaborating with your son? Because, I've co-written some books with my mom, and we decided to stop doing these things because it was quite stressful. So how was that?
How is co-writing and coworking with family?
Tess: My son and I have a lot of similarities in tastes and how we approach things. So we had a great time. I really enjoyed working with him.
He's more on the technical side. He was very good with dealing with all the cameras and all the technical equipment and the editing room, whereas I think I handled more of the scholarly side.
My college degree was in anthropology, so it was in my wheelhouse, and I was the one responsible for trying to contact all these scholars that we dealt with. So we split the work that way, and it worked very well. I think we both had similar ideas for how we wanted the final edit to look.
Joanna: As you mentioned, you've written some scripts, and, of course, now you're a filmmaker, and ‘Rizzoli & Isles' is a TV show.
What are some of the differences between writing novels and also the world of TV and film?
Tess: The great thing about writing novels, you are in control. You don't have people asking you for this rewrite or that rewrite unless it's your editor. I love being in charge of my universe.
I think the downside of writing certainly for TV scripts is that you have a whole bunch of people who are telling you, ‘Oh, could you do this, could you do that?' And sometimes you don't agree with what they're saying, but you do it anyway.
I think that is the real stress for working in television and film unless it's a documentary where you are working with a committee. And as you've discovered, collaboration is not always easy.
Joanna: Absolutely. And then, I guess, with the TV show, with your characters, which is so close to you, how has that been?
Because, of course, as authors, those of us who are not adapted hear that basically they just want the author not to be there. They don't want to have the author anywhere near anything because we're just a pain in the neck. How's that been?
Tess: The ‘Rizzoli & Isles' TV series, they invited me to join them in the writers' room and help them with what they call break story. But I was under a contract as a novelist, so I really could never participate. But they were always very welcoming, I have to say.
And then they had their own team of writers, so they wrote all the episodes. I had nothing to do with it. I got a consultant's fee, but I didn't have to do anything for it. So it's like the best job of the world. You get paid for not having to work.
They made some creative changes when they adapted it to television. This always happens.
The main one being that suddenly my very ordinary-looking characters became glamorous. They're such beautiful women, both these actors who played Jane and Maura.
The other thing was I was told very early on that neither character would get married in the course of the series because they wanted the focus to be on the female friendship, and they felt that having men around would be a little distraction. So that was the ground rules for ‘Rizzoli & Isles,' this television series. And sure enough, neither Jane nor Maura got married over seven years.
Joanna: I think that has to happen, too, because when they get married, either it's going to be the end of a series or they're going to have to have some kind of disaster because happy people can't be happy for long in these dramas.
Tess: That's right. You hit the nail on the head. That is really the key about drama or series is when everybody is happy, it's a happily ever after. Where do you go from there? There's just nowhere to go. So you have to keep a little drama going.
Joanna: On your website, you have this great quote from the ‘Chicago Tribune' which says, ‘She has an imagination that allows her to conjure up depths of human behavior so dark and frightening that she makes Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft seem like goody-two-shoes.' I just thought that was perfect. So this is something I think about a lot.
How do you tap into that creative darkness without being overcome by it?
Tess: First of all, where does it come from? Because I'm not a very dark person. I'm actually a very happy person. I think that maybe I tend towards looking at the dark side because when I was a child, my mother dragged me to every horror film that was played by Hollywood.
I grew up on a steady diet of horror, and this was back in the Hollywood golden age of horror films. It wasn't bloody. It was more psychological. It was more a sense of unease as opposed to slasher films. I loved those old movies, so that's probably been part of the inspiration for me.
I'm writing these horrifying scenes, but it doesn't scare me so much. I think the reason for it is it's the same reason you can't tickle yourself. You know what you're doing. You're in control. You could stick your fingers in your armpit, and you're not going to get tickled because you know what you're doing.
I feel that way about writing. I can be writing a horrifying scene, but I'm in control and I know when I'm going to pull out the knife. So, I'm pretty good about keeping the dark side away from my real life. It's just all fiction.
Joanna: I'm a very happy person, too. I actually think a lot of the horror writers I know are the happiest people because they put all their darkness on the page and their life is quite happy.
Tess: Yes, I know. And it's really funny because I don't think I've ever been depressed in my life. I inherited the happy gene from my dad, and that is a real blessing.
Joanna: That's really interesting. Then I see that quote on the front page of your website, and then there's these quite serious photos of you, the author looking as if you're very serious and dark.
How have you had to curate your brand in that way?
Tess: The brand kind of came about on its own. I never was consciously branding myself. It's just that the books I write kind of branded me. And people make assumptions based on the books we write.
If you write a spy novel, they assume you must be a whizz with a gun, and they want you on a desert island because you'll keep them safe. I don't think that's true at all. I think we just have active imaginations and we put ourselves in the shoes of heroes.
We write about people we'd like to be. We write about the perfect version of ourselves when, in truth, we may be totally unlike these people.
Joanna: I'm glad you say that because, of course, we have to have diverse characters when we're writing about different things. But as you say, imagination. I think imagination and good research is obviously very important. But we're not just writing about our lives. If we were, it'd be very, very boring.
Tess: Yes, I got up and drank coffee. That's about it.
Joanna: I want to ask, you were first published in 1987.
What do you think has changed in the publishing industry and what is different for authors starting out now?
Tess: So much has changed. In 1987, we didn't have the Internet, the fax machine had just come in, and we didn't have to do social media.
So back then, you wrote your book, you turned it in, you mailed it in, and sometimes you got a phone call back from a publisher saying, ‘We love your book. We're going to publish it.'
We just wrote. Writers just wrote. We didn't have all these other responsibilities. Now, when you write, you're expected to get on social media and tweet and do Facebook and go on tour. There's a lot more on the shoulders of writers.
The good part, however, is that if you can't get published, if you can't find a publisher who likes your little out-of-the-box book, you can go it alone. And I think that's what's happened, is the democratization of writers now.
Anybody can get published, and now the vast majority probably shouldn't be published, but anyone can get published, and you can put your work out there and see what the public thinks. So I like that aspect of it.
Joanna: You mentioned that the job of the writer has really changed. And I get comments, sometimes people say, ‘Well, you're not a real writer because you didn't spend 100% of your time writing.'
Tess: Oh, gosh.
Joanna: Exactly. How do you balance it?
What percentage of your time is writing, and what is the rest of what the job of a writer is?
Tess: I think probably 50% of my time is writing because a lot of the rest of it is, especially when your book comes out, you have a lot of promotional stuff you have to do, whether it's climbing onto an airplane and going to a bookstore or doing social media or working on your webpage.
Everybody has a webpage now. I wish I could go back to the days when I didn't have to worry about it. I don't do Facebook and Twitter very much unless I have to. And I pretty much use Twitter just to keep up with the international news, and I think would help a lot of writers if they turned off their Internet and just got to work on their books.
Joanna: I think we all dream of that. But it was your PR person who reached out for this podcast in which I really appreciate you doing it.
But it's funny because when I heard from her, I was like, ‘How does such a famous author like Tess Gerritsen still need to go on podcasts?' Because it feels like you said, I mean, ‘Why is this necessary?' So even for big-name authors now, this seems to be an important thing. Or do you feel like it's just because that's what the publishers want?
Tess: It is a good thing. It's a great thing that I can be on your podcast or I could do Zoom sessions. And the reason that it's so much better now is that we don't have to travel the way we used to.
It takes a lot of energy, and it takes years off your life when you have to travel across time zones. So in that regard, I think podcasts and Zoom are fantastic. I've actually kind of liked the last couple of years of not having to leave my house for a while.
We all have to do it now. You'll see John Grisham and James Patterson are doing interviews, and they have to promote their books. It's part of what is expected of us by the publishers.
Joanna: Yes, and, of course, a lot of independent authors, we have to do that because we don't have a publisher. But, equally, that's what's so interesting, is that it's expected for every author. Did you have media training?
Did you have to learn all this stuff or you just sort of make it up as you go along?
Tess: I make it up as I go along. The first media really was for Harvest in '96. And I didn't have any media training. I guess they just threw me on the road, and that was it.
You learn a lot as you go further into your career. I've learned, for instance, on Zoom to try and always keep your mouth in a smiley position, that you can't let your negative emotions show up on Zoom.
And I've learned to do my own makeup and all these things that, well, of course, most women do, but it's a different kind of a makeup when you know you're going to be on a screen somewhere.
Joanna: Yes. That's why I do audio-only!
Tess: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. Because I'm sitting here in shorts right now.
Joanna: Exactly. I haven't done my hair or my makeup. But one thing that's interesting is when you've been in public a lot since, I guess, the '80s or, like you said, '96 when you first were on the media. But it feels like now there's a need for authenticity but also a difficulty in protecting your privacy.
How do you share in these authentic ways but also protect your privacy?
Tess: Where I do share is when I feel emotionally connected to some new story. That's the only time I really talk about myself very much. I don't like to share photos of my family. I will very rarely share a photo if it's really cute of my granddaughters.
I try not to engage too much on Facebook because I'd rather people not know where I am or where I'm traveling or that I'm on holiday. I like keeping that aspect of my life separate.
Now, if you want to find out what kind of a person I am, you probably should look at the character Maura Isles because that's me.
I put so much of myself into her personality, and that's probably as intimate a look at me as you're going to get, is through Maura.
Joanna: That's interesting you say that because I feel the same way. If you want to get to know me, then read some of my fiction, which is odd because people think, ‘Oh, well, then you should write a memoir or something like that.' You really feel like you're in your fiction.
Tess: I do. There's so much that we writers put of ourselves into our stories, not always being aware of it.
I'm writing a book now about a retired spy who's in her 60s, and I thought, wow, there's a lot about her that's like me, just the way she looks at the world and the fact she loves being with her chickens and the fact that she'd rather not engage with people at certain times, and that feels like, in some ways an aspect of Tess Gerritsen.
Joanna: Does that book have a title?
Tess: No, I have a title in my head right now. I'm not sure that's going to be the actual title, but it's based on the fact that I live in a small town in Maine where we have, I don't know why, a lot of retired spies living up here, a lot of retired CIA.
I thought, ‘Would it be fun to do a story about older spies who are no longer active?' And then one of them, a woman, finds a dead body in her driveway and doesn't know if it's related to work that she did when she was younger.
That idea of older people who have been cast aside, who have been put out to pasture, but who really have a lot of valuable information and talents going back to work for other reasons, that fascinated me.
Joanna: That's good. So you've seen that movie, ‘RED: Retired, Extremely Dangerous.'
Tess: I did. That's the thing. I love this old guy, these creaky people with bad joints, and maybe they can't run as fast, but, boy, they still have the smarts.
Joanna: Helen Mirren in that, she's just fantastic, too.
Joanna: Talking of more maturity, I guess, longevity in the writing business seems like a rarity. And people who've sort of been publishing for 30-plus years and are still going, that is amazing.
What are your tips for people who want to forge this kind of successful long-term writing career?
Tess: I think it's really a matter of productivity.
A lot of beginning writers think they'll write a book, it'll be a bestseller, and they can relax on their laurels. Well, you really can't. You have to be constantly churning out another story.
The other secret to longevity, I think, is taking the time to write the book that you want to write. Eventually, if you're successful in your first series, that's all your publisher's going to want, is that series. And you have to keep your creativity recharged.
So if a story comes to you that's out of the box, indulge yourself and go ahead and write that. But I think the main thing is that you should always be productive. As soon as you finish one book, you should already be playing with the idea for the next book.
There's a saying in publishing, ‘The frontlist sells the backlist.' So your most recent book is going to pull readers in, and they're going to go, ‘I want to read what she wrote before,' and they'll go and read earlier books of yours.
My first romantic suspense novel was published in '87, they're still selling. They're still turning in some nice royalty checks.
Longevity is just a matter of refusing to give up, I think.
Joanna: You must have seen writers who've left the industry over that time. I've only been in a decade and I've seen a lot of writers leave. What have you noticed from those who've left so we can maybe avoid those pitfalls?
Tess: I think a lot of people leave because they lose their publisher. They just can't find a traditional publisher to work with them. What I would say to them is if you still want to write, if you still have stories, for heaven's sakes, become an indie publisher. Put it out yourself. Don't stop.
That discouragement of being turned down by maybe a publisher you've been with for a decade, that's really got to hurt. But if you're a real writer, you still got those ideas percolating in your head. You still want to tell that story. Don't stop and find another way to get it out to the public.
Joanna: So, you are an indie filmmaker, right?
Joanna: Are you interested in the indie author route?
Tess: I think it's really kind of an interesting idea because I often think that there are stories that I write that are so far out there I should write them under a pseudonym that nobody knows.
I played with that idea once or twice, but so far I have been able to sell all the books to traditional publishers. But if I get an idea that's completely off the wall and turned down, yes, I would definitely do that.
Joanna: Sure. That's good to hear.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Tess: You can find my website at tessgerritsen.com. I am on Twitter @tessgerritsen, and I'm on Facebook if you just do a search for me.
Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Tess. That was great.
Tess: Thank you.