Tess Gerritsen on Her First Foray Into Gothic Fiction

Mindy:             Today's guest is Tess Gerritsen, whose books have been bestsellers in the United States and abroad. She has won both the Nero Wolfe award and the Rita award. A Retired medical doctor, Tess joined me today to talk about her newest and first Gothic novel, The Shape of Night.

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Mindy:             Your newest, The Shape of Night is a dark and sexy psychological romance thriller set in a haunted house. So tell us a little bit about the new one.

Tess:                 It's about a troubled woman who rents a mansion on the coast of Maine. She's running away from something she has done and so she hides out in this house, which she soon realizes is haunted by the sea captain who used to live there which becomes this Ghost and Mrs. Muir set up until she discovers that every woman who's lived there has died in that house. And now the house takes on this threatening tone. So the question is, is it the ghost that's killing people or is there somebody else who is a murderer?

Mindy:             Fascinating. I love it. It almost feels like with this sea captain and the dead women there's a blue beard feel to it.

Tess:                 I think the readers are gonna have a hard time trying to understand whether this ghost is friendly or not.

Mindy:             Interesting. I like it a lot. So speaking of the ghost and bringing a ghost into it, you've got sexy and psychological and it's a thriller and it's a romance and in some ways it is a ghost story. So that is a lot of genres packed into one book and a lot of my listeners are actually aspiring writers. They're very aware of marketing and how marketing operates and works and how it's really helpful to find a niche that your voice fits into. And you are just throwing everything at the wall with this one. Lots of genres. I think it's fantastic. I love it. I'm a genre blender myself, but do you worry at all about genre blending drawling some readers in while others might be turned off by that?

Tess:                 Well, I think there's always a risk when you make an abrupt change in the kind of book you're writing that you will lose some readers. But it also means you're going to pick up new readers as well who've never come across you or maybe weren't interested in crime novels. Yeah, I wasn't really aware I was blending genres when I wrote the story. I thought of it as being an updated Gothic novel. You know, when I was growing up, I loved Gothic novels. For those who aren't really familiar with what actually goes into a Gothic novel, it generally has a mysterious house with secrets. It has an innocent heroine and it has a brooding hero. So those three elements go into a Gothic novel. Now, Shape of Night has the mysterious house, but the heroine is in no way innocent. And the brooding hero happens to be a ghost. It's a Gothic novel. But, uh, I just updated it.

Mindy:             I love it. I love it. You speak about reading Gothic novels, uh, growing up on them, I was a big fan of Mary Stewart.

Tess:                 Oh yes, yes and I, yes. And you know, Victoria Holt and Daphne DuMaurier and actually if you want to go back all the way to uh, to Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre, I mean, I think that may have been one of the original Gothic novels.

Mindy:             Absolutely. Absolutely. And you mentioned DuMaurier. Rebecca has probably the best opening line in the history of Gothic literature. You can't argue with that.

Tess:                 No. Yeah. Absolutely. Right. And in a way, Shape of Night, there is an echo of Rebecca in this particular book.

Mindy:             Then the romance angle, is that something then that is developing with the ghost?

Tess:                 Yeah. Well, I mentioned that Gothic novels have a brooding hero and yes, that is absolutely what happens. She starts to fall in love with this other resident of her home. He may not be alive, but he is a perfect lover. And in some ways, when you think about what makes the perfect lover from a female point of view, it's somebody who knows what you want, fulfill your needs. And the case of this heroine, she has very specific needs. She needs to atone for something she's done that was very bad. It's also kind of convenient to have a ghost as a lover. You don't have to cook them breakfast. He doesn't leave his clothes strewn all over the place. He doesn't mess up the bathroom. It's almost like the perfect lover who comes in, gives you his attention and then vanishes.

Mindy:             That does sound nice actually. So is this your first official foray then into the Gothic world?

Tess:                 It is. Well, I'm trying to think about, you know, I've written 28 books now and I have to go back and think, did I ever write anything like this? It is the first time I have delved into the Gothic world. Now, I used to write romantic suspense. My first 10 books I would consider romantic suspense novels and I have not done that for a long time. It's very backwards and full circle to my roots.

Mindy:             You mentioned your career, which is longstanding. You've been publishing since 1987 you have 28 books published and you've got three decades in publishing. So for my listeners who are also writers, can you talk a little bit about staying invested in the craft and ways to keep your imagination firing over that long a period of time?

Tess:                 I think it's most important to be curious, to be curious about a lot of different things and to be aware of what's going on around you. So I make it a point of reading multiple newspapers every day. I subscribe to a lot of magazines from wide variety of subjects, from archeology to forensics to nature, and I travel a lot. I think that travel really opens your mind to new possibilities. A number of my novels were started because of something I saw on a trip. I was on a Safari with my husband in South Africa when we had a little run in with a a leopard, and I came away thinking, wow, it's really a dangerous out there in the Bush. And the writer's mind is always going to - what could be even worse? And my mind went to what if the most dangerous animal in the Bush is not a lion or a leopard? What if it's actually the two legged ranger who is there to protect you? What if he is actually the person you should be most afraid of? And so that turned into a book called Die Again and I can recite case after case where being away from home got the creative ideas going.


Mindy:             I think that's very true. I think when you are living your day to day life, you get stuck in those day to day cycles, dishes, laundry, dusting, food, all of the things that are never finished, especially if you are a female author and if you are also having to work, raise children or take care of your own home. Not that men don't do those things, they do as well, but the onus is usually landing on the female, right? You do get stuck in those cycles and those cycles are literally mind numbing. It's hard to think outside of the box when you are in the box and you're, your day is the cycle of things and then you're exhausted at the end and it's time to sit down and be creative. So I agree completely. Getting outside of your comfort zone, doing things, seeing things, interacting with other than the daily is always very healthy

Tess:                 And pursuing your interests and your hobbies. That really helps to have a hobby that you're passionate about. I've long been interested in archeology and particular Egyptology and that led to a book because I had just never stopped reading about Egyptian mummies. I was in Italy when I had a nightmare and that nightmare became a book about Venice. Be aware that dreams are fantastic. They're sort of these, these ovens in which we are baking all these ideas without our even being aware of them. And sometimes I'll wake up and I don't know what that exactly what the plot is, but there's a thread from a dream that you can play with and eventually weave into a story.

Mindy:             I agree with that completely. There may not be a plot because it's a dream, but there might just be a visual that gets you

Tess:                 Right or an emotion, you know, waking up scared. Why was I scared?

Mindy:             Waking up scared is the worst and multiple times I have posted on Twitter and no one has backed me up on this, but I have, you know, a reading lamp attached to my bed and the kind with a bendable neck and I can't tell you how many times I've woken up in the middle of the night trying to figure out what the hell that is.

Tess:                 A good writer's mind. It's never still, it's always moving around, whether it's working on the story that you should be working on, incubating something that's about to happen. And it's a problem being married to a writer and my husband has often complained about that. He'll often say, you're not in the present, you're off somewhere else. You're thinking about something else. And yeah, that's the way we are. It's, it's tough being married to us.

Mindy:             We are not the easiest people to love, but sometimes we pay the bills. So, so speaking of writing and the publishing industry, technology has changed publishing in many, many ways. Even when I was first querying, which was back in the late nineties I was still sending out physical self-addressed envelopes with my query letter trying to get an agent and I'm sure that you dealt with that and also any number of different scenarios that I will never be familiar with, but technology has not been the death knell of paper books that everyone predicted. But I am curious from the perspective of a writer who has been doing this before we had the internet before we had cell phones and technology. How do you feel that tech has affected appearances? Because I feel like I am so accessible to my readers and my fans and I don't mind doing it at all, but I feel that I am very accessible online and people can get to know me that way and that's wonderful. I'm fine with that, but I'm curious if author appearances aren't what they used to be because now all anyone has to do is shoot you an email or tweet you.

Tess:                 I am not finding that the audiences are shrinking when I do go on tour or when I make a special event. Um, and I think it's because when you appear before an audience, you're giving them special, you're giving something extra. I mean, yeah, I can do Skype interviews with book groups and I have done those. But when you get in front of an audience, there's something that turns on inside you as a performer. And I'm up there and I'm telling stories, I'm telling the stories behind the stories and I don't normally speak about when I'm doing a Skype interview. So you have to give your audience something special if you're going to appear before them. And that's, that's what I try to do. I just don't read, I don't like to go to do a reading because I figure they can do that themselves. So I try to tell the secrets behind where this book came from.

Mindy:             I agree. I have a hard time even reading when they do ask for a reading because I sometimes will actually see people like following along and reading along, which is fine. I mean everyone has their own processing, but I'm just like, why am I reading to you then?

Tess:                 I will read like a couple paragraphs sometimes just to get them into the mood or to introduce, um, what the story is about. But other than that, I mean the idea of standing in front of an audience and reading for 20 minutes is it bores me to tears and I would think it would be for them as well.

Mindy:             Oh, definitely. And I am a performer. There's no doubt about that. But I'm not an audio book reader. Those are two different, well, audio book readers are performers, but I can't do voices or anything like that.

Tess:                 Yeah, they're very special. It's a very special talent and I would never do it myself.

Mindy:             Oh no. It's definitely a skill. So speaking of audio books lately that has been the delivery system that has just caught on. Audio book sales are through the roof. People are using them, people are buying them, people are invested in audio. I mean, I personally love it, especially when I'm traveling. It's a fantastic way to filter my environment. It can be on a plane. I can read, you know, two or three books on the road, catch up with my TBR. When you are reading, do you prefer a physical book, an ebook or an audio book?

Tess:                 I don't listen to audio books very often because most of the time I'm sitting at my desk and I'm too impatient to wait for somebody to read a story for me. I just want to get the words in front of me and read myself. When I'm traveling, I go to eBooks because they're just practical and when I'm at home, I prefer a physical book. I'm consuming books in multiple ways. I think that's the way readers are doing it these days. If they have long drives, yeah, audio books are fantastic, but if they're home in bed, a lot of us still like to have a physical book.

Mindy:             I do too. I like to have that physical book. There's been research done about that tactile experience of touching the pages and turning the pages, but then you're also smelling the book like you are interacting with that object that you don't in a way when you are holding an eReader or listening to an audio book.

Tess:                 Well I love being able to flip back and forth and that's where a physical book is superior to everything. Being able to just go back to another chapter and say what? What was that name again? And it's particularly true for nonfiction. I would much prefer a physical book for nonfiction.

Mindy:             Oh, definitely. When reading nonfiction, I am usually making little notes and highlighting and writing inside of the book. That is definitely a physical book genre for me. You write thrillers featuring female protagonists. Do you find your readership to be mostly female or is that a dividing line that doesn't really exist as much these days?

Tess:                 It goes by country. Strangely enough in the US my readers are primarily female and they're primarily 40 years and older. And I think it has to do with the life cycles of women. When we are below that age, we are so busy raising children, we don't have the time to read a book. I have noticed that when I do my tours abroad, when I'm in Germany, my audience tends to be much more, you know, 50/50. And it also depends on the, on which book we're talking about. I wrote a book some years ago called Gravity in which everything was flipped. It was mostly men reading that story. I think it has a lot to do with the genre. What calls a particular member of the audience. Unfortunately it does seem there is some prejudice against female writers among male readers. There are a lot of men who will just not read a book by a woman.

Tess:                 They don't trust us to tell a good story. They don't trust us to write what they would be interested in. So I was on tour once, so one of these warehouse clubs signing books and there was a man nearby picking up thriller novels. My publicist said, why don't you come and get a book by Tess Gerritsen? She'll sign it. He'd said, Oh I don't buy books by women. And I looked at the books he was holding and I knew that some of those books were ghost written by women. They just had men's names. He was already reading books by women. He just didn't know that.

Mindy:             To follow that up. Because you are writing crime thrillers that is a male dominated arena. Do you run into any type of sexism inside the industry?

Tess:                 Not that I'm aware of. I think the industry from my perspective has been very friendly to me. It doesn't seem to care whether I'm male or female. It may be because I do have a technical background. I am a medical doctor. They respect that knowledge base and I could write about medicine more authoritatively than any guy thriller writer who's not a doctor. So I think just having that background probably puts me in a special category.

Mindy:             Yeah. More than likely it does. I am curious then quick follow up, what do you think is the cultural difference that you have men showing up in your audience and in your readership in a place like Germany and not in the US?

Tess:                 Yeah, that's a good question. I never, I was never quite sure about that. I wonder if German men are just more open to books by women. Are they more liberal as readers? Is it that American men are more sexist? I have no idea why. It's an interesting puzzle and I think I probably have a larger percentage of male readers in the UK as well. It's America seems to be peculiarly sexist when it comes to choosing which author you're going to read.

Mindy:             My very first book is a post-apocalyptic survival and it was suggested to me to try to do it under a pen name. My numbers would be better.

Tess:                 I understand why they gave you that advice. I mean it makes a certain amount of sense because who reads post-apocalyptic thrillers, it tends to be men.

Mindy:             So you mentioned your medical background and you do write medical thrillers specifically. So as a person with your MD, you are obviously highly qualified to write about that subject matter. So when you're reading or you're watching a TV show or participating in that genre, as a consumer, do you ever come across something that just makes you shake your head or roll your eyes or just want to cry?

Tess:                 Oh all the time. It's just, you know, it's funny cause my husband and I are huge fans of this TV show called Midsommer Murders set in England and just about every other week we encounter a mistake on that television show and just shake our heads and laugh. It just happens. And I'm certainly guilty of making mistakes. I have made mistakes about cars. For instance, I made some mistake about what year this particular car was made. It didn't make a difference to the story. It was just a throwaway detail. And yet I got caught out by several men who wrote to me and said that particular car was not made that year. There are people out there who are experts in their own little spheres of knowledge and you are always going to make mistakes. You just can't avoid it. The mistakes you make are not in subjects that you don't know because you're careful to research those. They are in subjects that you think you know, you just assume you know this and so you don't even bother to look it up and that's when you make errors.

Mindy:             That's interesting. It's very true. My first book is about post-apocalyptic survival. Like I said, it takes place in a world where there's very little water, very little drinkable water, and I researched water like crazy. I could tell you so many things about water because of the work I did for this book. Yet at one point I have people driving cars and using gasoline and this book takes place like 30 years after the world ended. Gasoline stops being viable after about five to seven and I didn't know that because I worked so hard.-

Tess:                 I didn't know that either.

Mindy:             It's true. It stops being a combustible product because the chemicals break down.

Tess:                 Let me guess. A guy told you that? The funny thing is you were probably 100% correct on everything to do with water and your story, and it's the throwaway detail that you did not know you did not know where the mistake was made. You know, as writers, we have to be forgiving of other writers and that's all I can do.

Mindy:             Very, very true. I always am forgiving as well. For me, my hangup is corn fields. I am a farmer's daughter. I live in Ohio. Movie and TV producers - and my listeners know this because I've gone on this rant a few times - but they never get corn right. They never do it right. It's very beautiful and it's very mysterious and it has all these elements that they like visually. The actors are never interacting with corn correctly. They'll be saying, well, we got to, you know, get those harvest in. The corn is green. It's bright green. That's my area. Farming in the Midwest and it's never right.

Tess:                 Well, the only way I know to interact with corn is to eat it with butter.

Mindy:             Butter, and salt. That's good stuff right there. Last question. Let my listeners know where they can find you online and where and when they can get The Shape of Night.

Tess:                 You can find me on my website . The Shape of Night comes out in the United States October 1st just in time for Halloween, which is sort of the perfect season for it.

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