T MINUS 29 DAYS until VANISH goes on sale!

**************************************

What do writers do on their days off?

Well, here’s what this writer did on Sunday. Spent the whole day — and I mean the WHOLE day — making tamales. Started at nine AM and worked until five, hand-mixing the masa, simmering the pork, grinding the chilis and garlic and tomatoes into sauce, soaking the corn husks. Then came the assembling and wrapping and tying and steaming. I know it probably seems odd that I, a Chinese-American, would so desperately crave a traditional Mexican dish. Even odder is that tamale-making was a yearly tradition launched in my family by my Chinese grandmother. Grandma, who didn’t speak a word of Spanish, learned to make tamales from her Mexican neighbor, who hardly spoke a word of English. I like to imagine those two ladies, unable to say a word to each other, sharing their cultures through the universally seductive language of food.

That’s what I love about this country. For all its flaws (and there are many), it’s a place where “culture” doesn’t have a hard and fast definition because in the U.S. it’s always changing, always absorbing new richness, always adapting.

In this week’s issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Stephen King writes a wonderful column about how much he loves popular American culture, from books to movies to music. I’m glad he came to its defense — because, yes, it does need defending.

I say this not because I’m the author of what’s called, sometimes denigratingly, “popular fiction.” I say it because I was one of those kids who grew up sitting in front of a TV, and I still think of those hours as some of the best times of my childhood.

*************

Do you know this song?

“Now sit right back and I’ll tell the tale, the tale of a fateful trip…”

Yep, I can sing the rest of it. Utterly useless information, but that’s not the only song I know…

“Meet Cathy who’s been most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Barclay Square…”

Can YOU sing the rest of that TV theme? No? Then you’re either too young or .. . could it be you’re culturally illiterate?

Or —

“Let me tell you ’bout the story of a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed…”

*************

I can hear some of you saying: “But THAT’S NOT CULTURE!”

Yes it is. It’s the culture of my childhood, and I don’t regret having that useless information rattling around in my head. While others may try to impress me at dinner parties by quoting from Macbeth, I can impress THEM by belting out:

“Greeeeeen Acres is the place to be! Faaaarm living is the life for me! Laaand spreading out so far and wide, keep Manhattan just gimme that countryside!”

Just how much do I value popular culture? Here’s how much:

My sons think I’m the coolest mom on the planet because, on the day that STAR WARS EPISODE I opened, I told them they wouldn’t have to go to school the next day as we were all going to the midnight premiere. (Luckily, my husband was out of town that day, so I could get away with it.)

Okay, some of you are going to call me an exceedingly bad mom for allowing my kids to skip school. And for what? A MOVIE?

“But it’s not just a movie! It’s a cultural phenomenon!” I tried to explain to my husband, who came home from his business trip to find out that his wife and kids had played hooky. “It was an educational experience! A way to connect with the heartbeat of geeks around the world! And besides, there were all these fat middle-aged guys in line wearing Darth Vader masks and waving their light sabers, and how could you deny our sons THAT experience?”

My husband still doesn’t get it. But my sons do. And they weren’t the only ones. I noticed several of their teachers in line as well, looking a little sheepish about being spotted. (I bet they played hooky the next day, too.)

Of course, I was faced with the tough task of writing their excuse notes for school. Should I lie? If I told the truth, wouldn’t I get a disapproving call from the principal? I decided, in the end, just to tell the truth:

“Please excuse my sons’ absences yesterday. They were too tired to go to school, as they stayed up until three a.m. watching the premiere of STAR WARS, EPISODE I.”

To my relief, I didn’t get any calls from the principal.

(But then, I think he might have been the guy in the Darth Vader mask.)

It’s nail-biting time again

I feel this way every summer, when my new books come out in the U.S. The BODY DOUBLE paperback goes on sale July 26th and VANISH goes on sale in hardcover on August 23rd. You may think that an author who’s appeared on the NY Times bestseller lists is beyond feeling anxious about her book sales, but that’s certainly not true for me! Maybe it’s because I came up through publishing the hard way, starting off as a paperback novelist. It wasn’t until my tenth book, HARVEST, that I made the list. I’ve never forgotten what a hard climb that was; nor do I ever stop feeling that success is fleeting, that my bestsellerdom is just a lucky fluke, and that my career is any day going to vanish in a puff of dust.

So it always surprises me when I hear myself referred to as that “big-name” author. Because even now, as I write my 19th book, insecurity is still my constant companion.

Now it’s almost August, and in a few weeks I’ll have something else to obsess over: Will my new book be a “bestseller”?

Just what the heck does “bestseller” mean?

It’s worth it here to stop and define that word, as it’s thrown around so much that it’s lost its significance. The loosest defnition of “bestseller” is a book that has made it onto SOMEONE’S list. But the lists that we in publishing really care about are the national lists, and there are several that we monitor closely: PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (top 15), USA TODAY (top 50, all genres, paperback and hardcover), WALL STREET JOURNAL (top 15), and of course, the real biggie, the one that really matters when it comes to prestige — the NEW YORK TIMES (top 15).

*******quick break for a question****** Q: How do you make it onto these lists? A: You sell a hell of a lot of books. ****************************************

Well, that’s the short answer. And like most short answers, it’s not the whole story, because these lists are compiled in different ways. My understanding is that USA TODAY, PW, and WSJ all use reported sales data from various outlets, including retail stores, bookstore chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, wholesale clubs such as Costco and Sam’s Club, and online stores such as Amazon.com. But the data is incomplete, and may not take into account sales outlets such as grocery stores.

In contrast, the NY TIMES list is compiled in its own unique way. For decades, the TIMES has used a network of “reporting stores” to tell them what’s selling. They compile data from bookstore chains and wholesale clubs as well, but they also have a network of “independent reporting stores”, and this explains why their list is sometimes quite different from the other lists. If you’re an independent bookseller who volunteers to be a reporting store, then once a week, you’ll have to fill out a form detailing which books are selling well in your store. (The NYT also provides these stores with a helpful list of particular titles that they think are potential bestsellers. If your novel is not on that “potentials” list, you’re already at a disadvantage, because it means the bookseller has to take the time to specifically write in your title in order to report its sales.)

For an author with a new book on sale, nail-biting time reaches a peak on Wednesday afternoon. That’s when publishers receive word from the NY TIMES which books will appear on the published list in the Sunday TIMES ten days later. The news usually comes by phone call around five or six p.m., from your agent or editor. A call that can either be a happy “Guess what, you’re number five!” Or a glum “We just don’t know what happened…”

And following that call, it’s time for either celebratory champagne or a stiff shot of Scotch for the author.

The other lists become available soon afterwards. USA TODAY is published on Thursday morning, and the WSJ and PW lists appear on Friday.

The very first time I made it on “The List”, I was not expecting it at all. I was in Cincinnati on book tour for HARVEST, which was in its third week of sale. Just that morning, I had visited an airport bookstore and found no copies of my book anywhere. When I asked the clerk, he shrugged and said, “Oh, we used to have some copies, but I guess they didn’t sell so we sent them back.”

Completely demoralized, I dragged myself to my bookstore signing that evening. While in the ladies’ restroom, just before the event, I heard the clerk announce over the PA system: “Come and meet New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen!” Feeling like a fraud, I went out and told the clerk, “That’s not true, you know. I’m not a NY Times bestselling author.” She gave me a confused look and said, “But we got a call a half hour ago from New York. Some lady said you were on a list of some kind.”

I grabbed her phone and called my publisher. Oops — it was seven o’clock NY time. No one was in the building.

I called my agent. She wasn’t home.

I called my own house. My husband answered and said, “You know, Josh (our then-11-year-old son) said something about a lady calling from New York about a list, but I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

It was the longest signing of my life. Three people showed up. Two of them bought books.

Two hours later, I got to my hotel room, and found the telephone message light blinking crazily. There were messages, all right — from my agent, my publisher, and my editor, all congratulating me on having hit #13 on the Times list. There I was, all by myself in Cincinnati. What did I do to celebrate? I went downstairs to the hotel bar and told the nice lady bartender. She presented me with a small bottle of champagne on the house, which I drank alone in my room while reading the latest issue of the NATIONAL ENQUIRER.

Just as you’ll always remember your first time having sex, you’ll always remember your first time hitting the list.

I’ve now had six titles on the Times list. It’s still a thrill every time. And it’s still a nail-biter every time. I take nothing for granted. Really, I’m just glad to be getting paid for something I love doing.

On August 3rd, I’ll get the news about whether the BODY DOUBLE paperback made it on the first week. And on August 31st, I’ll hear whether VANISH is on.

So if you see me drinking Scotch on a Wednesday evening, you’ll know why.

“Your English is so good!”

I’m always amused when someone says this to me. I never take offense because I’ve had such temporary lapses of common sense myself. I remember, in Paris, hearing a woman scold her dog in French and being momentarily amazed that the dog seemed to understand her. (As if a French dog wouldn’t understand French!) So when someone here seems amazed that I speak perfect English (the language of my birth, by the way) I understand the reason for their temporary confusion. I mean, look at my author photo. That’s no blond chick you’re looking at, folks. That’s — my god — that’s a CHINESE gal there!

Not the face one automatically identifies as AMERICAN.

But I grew up in an English-speaking household. Yes, my mom was from China, and my dad’s parents were from China, but my mom and dad spoke completely different Chinese dialects, so their only common language was… English.

Well, a sort of English.

I have a distinct memory of being six years old and asking my mom how to spell the word “grape.” She said, after thinking it over long and hard, “G-R-A-P.”

I learned pretty quick that my mom’s spelling was not to be trusted.

I have another memory of being about ten or so, and seeing my pet dog run over by a car. I was too upset to go to school the next day. My mom wrote the school an excuse note: “Her dog died. She was so sharked she had to stay home.”

This is a country of immigrants. A country where even the kid of a refugee mother can grow up speaking perfect English and write bestselling novels and live in a house by the sea. But I often feel caught between cultures, and never so much as when I’m asked the question: “Why don’t you ever write about Asian-Americans? Why do you deny your own ethnicity?”

I was asked that a few years ago, during a meeting of the Asian American Journalists Association. People there wanted to know why I don’t write under my Chinese name (Tom), why I write mostly about white characters, why I don’t write a novel about “my” heritage.

The answer to the first question — about my name — is easy. I’ve gone by my married name for too many years now to suddenly change it just to be more “ethnic.”

As for why I write about mainstream characters, and not Asians, I must make a confession here: I’m a commercial writer. I support my family with my writing. Some years ago, I spoke candidly with an editor from my then-publisher and asked her about the prospects of my writing a book with Asian-American characters. Her frank answer: those books don’t sell. Her publishing house had done extensive market research and discovered that books with Asian American themes were big disappointments in the marketplace. They had tried, again and again, and the experience was always repeated. She knew she risked offending me by her honesty, but she felt she had to share that.

And I listened.

You’ll still find Asians throughout my books — from Vivian Chao in HARVEST to Yoshima in the Rizzoli series. I try to include the full ethnic rainbow of America. But I’m not sure the American readership is ready for a thriller series with an Asian in the lead.

A sad, but not sharking, truth.

“Why won’t men read books written by women?” (Part 1)

I’ve heard this asked in publishing circles, and I think it’s an interesting question. First, is it true? Do men truly turn up their noses at women authors? I’m not aware of any hard statistics backing up the claim. All I can offer are my own experiences as a thriller author, based on the reader mail I receive.

Most of my fan mail — I’d estimate 75 % — is from women readers. When I do hear from men, they’ll often confess that the only reason they read me is because their wives had introduced them to my books. Yes, men WILL read books by women authors — if they’re prodded into it. So it does appear that men tend to shy away from women authors, while women are far less discriminatory when it comes to the author’s gender.

The one exception I’ve experienced was for my NASA thriller, GRAVITY, for which my reader mail had an abrupt gender switch — 75% of my letters were suddenly coming from men. (And I don’t think it’s because my author photo was especially sexy!) It’s not that I picked up that many extra male readers; rather, I think my women readers dropped out for that book. Which probably explains, in large part, GRAVITY’s disappointing sales.

How can a woman writer snag those hard-to-get, flighty male readers?

I had a taste of just what I was up against during my book tour down south a few years ago. I was standing in a Sam’s Club, autographing copies of my book, when I noticed a male customer picking up an armful of various paperback thrillers. My media escort, a nice Southern gentleman, approached the customer and said, “Say, you seem to like thrillers. Why don’t you come over here and meet Tess Gerritsen? She writes great thrillers, and she’d be happy to sign one for you.”

The customer gave me a long look and then responded with a dismissive shake of his head. “Naw,” he said. “I don’t read books by women. I don’t like the way they write.” And he turned and walked away.

Now, I happened to get a good long look at the books he was purchasing. And I knew, for a fact, that at least two of those books were actually ghost-written by WOMEN writers. The man was ALREADY reading — and presumably enjoying — books by women, but he didn’t know it.

What many men truly dislike isn’t necessarily women’s writing. Rather, they dislike reading books with WOMEN’S NAMES on the cover.

There’s no way to get past that prejudice.

Unless I change my name to Terence.

Guten tag!

That, I’m embarrassed to say, is just about the extent of my German vocabulary, despite the hours I spent listening to foreign language CDs in preparation for my BODY DOUBLE book tour to Germany and Austria. (Well, okay. I also knew the all-important “where is the toilet?”) Most of us Americans are way behind western Europeans when it comes to foreign language skills. I myself can speak some barely passable Spanish. But if you stop the average young Dutchman or German on the street and ask him a question in English, chances are, he’ll answer you right back, and in perfectly fluent English. He can probably also manage in French, Spanish, and maybe even Italian.

Which is why my book tour in Germany was not such a wild and crazy idea. Although I don’t speak German, many of my readers there could understand my English readings. Plus, my publisher came up with the brilliant idea of pairing me with a well-known German actress, Michaela May, who read excerpts from the German translation of BODY DOUBLE (The German title: SCHWESTERNMORD.) Accompanied by our guys plus our fun-loving publicist Dr. Berit Boehm, we were a traveling road show, moving from city to city, drawing crowds of readers from Frankfurt to Munich to Hannover. I gave interviews to radios and newspapers, hung out in bars with Berit, and sipped wine late into the night with my Frankfurt Crime Festival hosts, Lothar and Eldad .

If it sounds like fun, well it was! And if you know me well, you also know which question to ask next of this restauranteur’s daughter:

“What did you eat?”

One of my favorite photos from the trip is of my first wide-eyed confrontation with a wienerschnitzel. No, folks, it’s not a dog! It’s a specialty of Vienna, a tender veal cutlet pounded paper-thin and dipped in egg and bread crumbs. The one I ordered at Figlmuller Restaurant in Vienna (on Wollzeile) was so huge it draped over the edges of the dinner plate. At the Sacher Hotel, also in Vienna, I ordered a slice of their famous Sachertorte, and made the mistake of sharing it with my husband. It turned into a desperate duel of forks as we fought for the last bite of chocolate cake and the richest whipped cream I have ever tasted.

In Frankfurt, I ordered a “curry-wurst”, a sausage with a rather bizarre-sounding sauce made of ketchup and curry, and discovered it was not so bizarre after all, but quite tasty. A few days later, the front-page headline in a German newspaper proclaimed that “Eating curry-wurst might prevent Alzheimers Disease.” (Of course, it’s really the curry that’s beneficial; the Germans just had to throw in the sausage for good measure!)

Finally, the beer. Ah, the beer. I used to be a Guinness girl, until I sampled Munich’s famous white beer. It’s said to be a cure for kidney stones. Well, I don’t know about the kidney stones cure, but I do know that white beer is just plain delicious, and with just a hint of sweetness. In Munich it comes in an enormous, vase-shaped glass. (Confession: I didn’t stop at just one!)

But wait, this is a writer’s blog, after all, and I guess I really should get back to the writing biz, and why, exactly, an American writer would even be touring in Germany. The reason is simple: Germany is a HUGE book market. It’s the second largest market in the world, after the U.S., and it deserves any writer’s attention. A look at their national bestseller list (published every week in Der Spiegel and viewable at http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/charts/0,1518,belletristik,00.html ) shows that Germans are reading many of the same books we are, from Harry Potter to The Da Vinci Code. They’re wildly enthusiastic about familiar names such as John Grisham, Diana Gabaldon, and Stephen King. Crime thrillers are big there, and romances have an enthusiastic following.

In other ways, the German book market is different. Their online book sales are a far larger segment of overall sales, and I’ve read that the German Amazon site is actually the second largest bookseller in the country, after their largest brick-and-mortar bookstore chain. (Amazon sales make up a much smaller sliver of overall book sales in the U.S. I would estimate that only 3% of my own book sales go out through Amazon.)

The other big difference is that Germans seem to LOVE attending author readings. I was told by one German reader that it’s a major social activity there, much like going to the movies or attending a play. Not only do they turn up in large numbers at bookstore events, they often have to PAY to get in, with prices somewhere around five to seven Euros. Despite that entrance fee, my readings were much larger in Germany than in the U.S., where I’ve occasionally sat through some truly depressing book signings with only two or three people turning up. In contrast, my reading in Hannover, Germany drew 200 people, and the bookseller sold out of all my books. Every single copy was gone.

Here in the U.S., we writers can only dream of such events.