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Savannah Book Festival: Lifelong dream to write finally came true for Tess Gerritsen

  • Tess Gerritsen (Photo by Leonardo Cendamo)

Savannah Book Festival: Lifelong dream to write finally came true for Tess Gerritsen

15 Feb 2017

Tess Gerritsen’s dream was to be a writer, but she grew up to be a physician.

“I wanted to be a writer since age 7,” she says. “The whole time, I was writing stories and reading Nancy Drew.

“Every little girl in my generation got a lot of inspiration from her as a role model,” Gerritsen says. “She was an independent, smart girl who solved crimes.”

Growing up in a Chinese-American family in San Diego, Gerritsen longed to be a writer, but her family didn’t agree.

“They didn’t think writing was a secure profession,” she says. “I come from an immigrant family.

“Asian Americans tend to be focused on security, which is why so many end up going into the sciences,” Gerritsen says. “I love science and it was interesting to me, but I didn’t feel it answered my need to be creative.”

Gerritsen graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, and studied medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. After receiving her medical degree in 1979, she worked as a doctor in Honolulu but never forgot her dream of being a writer.

While on maternity leave, Gerritsen submitted a short story to a fiction contest, winning the $500 first prize.

“It was part of a statewide contest in Hawaii,” Gerritsen says. “It was the first time I got recognition for my writing.”

She began writing novels, and when her writing career became successful, Gerritsen retired from her medical career to write full-time.

“It’s nice to be in control of your own life,” she says. “The problem with being a doctor is that, sometimes, you have to get up in the middle of the night.”

Gerritsen’s first eight books were romantic thrillers.

“I was reading a lot of romances at the time,” she says. “As a busy doctor, I wanted a book with a happy ending and the romances always satisfied.

“Even my romance novels were suspenseful. They were 50 percent romantic and 50 percent mystery.

“Eventually, I wrote nine romantic suspense novels,” Gerritsen says. “Then I got the idea for a medical thriller.”

That first medical thriller, “Harvest,” written in 1996, was about organ harvesting for transplants. It made the New York Times bestseller list.

“That book sold so well, I realized it was always what I should be writing,” Gerritsen says. “It drew on my experience in medicine.”

After three more bestselling medical thrillers, Gerritsen wrote “The Surgeon” in 2001. It was a crime novel that introduced the character Jane Rizzoli, a homicide detective.

In “The Surgeon,” Rizzoli was just a secondary character, but in 10 subsequent novels, she and medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles became the central focus. The books inspired the “Rizzoli & Isles” television series.

“I got trapped with those ladies,” Gerritsen says. “The 12th in the series is going to be released.

“It started as a question, ‘What about medicine is frightening? What as a patient scares you?’

“The idea started with getting blood drawn, what happens to the blood, what secrets you find as a result of a blood test,” she says. “If somebody is evil and is in that system, they can find you. Your blood test is being used to find the next victim.”

In 2007, Gerritsen took a break from Rizzoli and Isles to write a stand-alone historical thriller, “The Bone Garden.” Set in 1830s Boston, it includes a character based on Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.

In the final season of the “Rizzoli & Isles” TV show, Gerritsen made an appearance as a writer who helps Isles establish herself as a writer. While it sounds like her life story, it isn’t.

“I actually had nothing to do with the scripts,” Gerritsen says. “It was something the screenwriters did.

“It actually turned out to be funny. When I did the cameo performance on the show, it became even more self-referential.

“It was the first time I had been on television in a speaking role,” she says. “I had my own trailer and got made up.”

Having sold 25 million copies, Gerritsen’s books have been published in 40 countries. In addition to novels, she co-wrote the story and screenplay for “Adrift,” a CBS Movie of the Week in 1993.

Ideas for her novels come from everywhere.

“A lot of my novels are based on interesting tidbits or news or science, real things that have happened.

“Something happened in the 1970s in Utah when a nerve gas accident killed 3,000 sheep. Luckily, it happened on a very cold night when the windows were closed, or it might have killed people.

“It became declassified and the beginning of a story I wanted to tell,” she says. “It became a book called ‘Ice Cold’ that was inspired by a real case.”

An essayist and blogger, Gerritsen is a violinist, and has even tried her hand at composing music. Her “Incendio,” which was written for violin and piano, is a waltz that features in the plot of her latest novel, “Playing with Fire.”

“I’m an amateur musician,” Gerritsen says. “I played piano as a kid and am a very amateur violinist.

“‘Playing with Fire’ is about a fictional piece of music. Halfway through writing the story, the melody came to me in a dream.

“I was able to play it on the piano immediately,” she says. “It took six weeks to write the full piece.”

Her work has even inspired another composer, Damien Top, to write “Yakov’s Lament,” a solo violin piece inspired by “Harvest.”

Gerritsen is looking forward to participating in the Savannah Book Festival.

“I’ve been to Savannah a couple of times as a tourist,” she says. “Other writers have been to the festival and really enjoyed it. We go because we like to be with other writers and meet readers, and if it’s in a nice town, all the better.”

Gerritsen will discuss and sign her latest novel.

“‘Playing with Fire’ is based on a nightmare I had,” Gerritsen says. “I think what I’ll probably do at the festival is talk about ideas and where they come from and what has inspired my stories through the years.

“I’m really looking forward to being back in Savannah,” she says. “It’s a beautiful city.”


Book: “Playing with Fire”

When: 10:10 a.m. Feb. 18

Where: Savannah Theater, 222 Bull St.