It’s time to talk about the “F” word

Yes, I mean THAT “F” word, the one I myself never, ever say in polite company. But every so often one of my characters will utter that word, and I know what will happen as a result. I’ll get letters from offended readers, scolding me for using such profane language. “Your story was good without it! Why must you resort to filthy words?” they’ll ask.

“But — but — it’s not me saying that bad word,” I want to tell them. “It’s my characters!”

It sounds like a lame excuse, but it’s true. These characters I’ve created really do have their own minds and personalities, their own opinions and political beliefs, and there are times when they’ll say something that makes me rock back in surprise, the way I rocked back when my son, who was just five years old, came home from school one day and told me the nifty new four-letter word he’d just learned on the playground.

Yes, these darling creations of ours — whether they’re in the flesh or on the page — sometimes shock us.

It’s not to say that I, as the writer, am utterly helpless and unable to control them. I am, after all, the creator here; I’m the master of this fictional universe. With a few dozen keystrokes, I could kill off Jane Rizzoli. What I can’t do, though, is violate the rules of my own universe. I can’t suddenly transform her into someone she is not, because I won’t believe it and you won’t believe it.

If I want you to truly accept Jane as a living, breathing person, then she has to think and act and, yes, TALK the way you’d expect a Boston girl cop, raised in a blue collar neighborhood, would talk.

Which is where the “F” word comes in.

A few years ago, I was standing on a street in Boston, waiting for a cab. A few paces away were two young men, talking about a football game. The dialogue went something like this:

“Didja see that f***ing interception?” “Oh man, that was f***ing great.” “He ran it like a f***ing rocket!”

I think you get the picture. That’s what you’ll hear, standing on a street corner in Boston. Is it any surprise that Jane and her fellow cops will occasionally let slip some choice four-letter words? Try to imagine her saying instead: “Oh, fudge!” or “Darn tootin’.” It sounds fake and it IS fake. Not to mention laughable.

When I wrote the book GRAVITY, I had an even greater challenge while writing dialogue. That story was about the space program, and my characters were engineers and astronauts who have their own secret language of acronyms. How was I going to make my readers believe in those characters if their dialogue didn’t sound realistic? Should I have my astronaut say: “I’ve donned my EMU and I’m go for EVA”? Or: “I’ve put on my space-suit and I’m ready for my space walk”?

The same dilemma comes up when I write dialogue between physicians. In real life, you won’t hear a doc say to another doc: “Mrs. Jones has had a heart attack.” He’d say instead: “Mrs. Jones has had an M.I.” Which line do I choose? The one that’s realistic? Or the one that’s most easily understandable to lay readers?

With every every line I write, I’m forced to make choices. I know it must seem to non-writers that we novelists just “crank these stories out” every year, that it’s as mindless as manufacturing widgets. But I’ve spent a good hour hunched at my desk, struggling to get a single sentence just right. Often, the very sentences readers are least likely to notice — the ones that flow effortlessly past a reader’s eyes — are the very same ones I worked the hardest to perfect. The best writing doesn’t call attention to itself; instead, it sucks you in so completely you hardly notice the writing at all. You’re too busy gulping down the story, enthralled with the characters.

Even if they occasionally use the “F” word.

Comments That’ll Make an Author Wince

Well, here’s one of those comments that’ll make an author wince. It was posted anonymously in my guestbook today:”I skipped thru this book, Vanish, and found it to be one of the most filthy, disgusting things I have ever read.”

I guess it goes with the territory for any writer who chooses to write crime fiction, but there’ll always be a certain number of offended readers who are upset that a book dares expose such filthy subjects as murder and rape. How DARE we, as writers, explore the seamy side of human behavior? How dare we reflect reality?

I wonder if these readers are just as offended by the fact that the heartbreaking crimes in VANISH are actually happening to thousands of real Milas across this country. I don’t have to dream up these horrors; all I need to do is pick up a newspaper to see that reality is even worse than any story I could ever create.

In the January 25, 2004 edition of New York Times Magazine, writer Peter Landesman explores the plight of thousands of girls who’ve been trafficked into the U.S. for the sex trade. It is one of the most riveting and, yes, disgusting articles I have ever read. But it opened my eyes, which is exactly what a great article is SUPPOSED to do. That NYT piece was a cruel slap of reality, and it was my inspiration for the story of Mila in VANISH. I wanted to see one of those girls triumph. I wanted to write about one girl who fights back and wins. Who transforms from victim to victor.

If the story of Mila is “filthy and disgusting,” so, too, is real life for these girls.

So don’t get angry at the author for writing about it; get angry at the world-wide criminal network that allows these crimes to happen.

A Huge Success

Just a quick note to let you know the surgery (a microscopic discectomy) was a huge success, and I feel great! I have to admit, though, as they wheeled me into the O.R. and I saw those bright lights and the surgical team of five standing around waiting for me, I had that instant’s thought: is this the last thing I’ll ever see?I woke up with an incision on the back of my neck that was closed not by sutures or staples but … glue. Very cool!

Also very cool was discovering that several of the nurses who took care of me were fans of my books. (I’m just embarrassed that they saw me so un-glamorous in that silly hospital gown.)

Now I’m home for a few weeks, but expect this will be a very swift recuperation indeed. I want to thank you all for your kind wishes! I’m so sorry about missing some of my book events, but most of them will be rescheduled for a later date.

Lately, I’ve received several emails that mentioned VANISH was selected as their book group reading choice, and it got me to thinking about how I can be of help. If your book group has chosen VANISH to read, let me know by email. Tell me a bit about your book group — what city you meet in, how many members, what sorts of books you usually read, and a mailing address. I’ll mail you enough signed bookplates for the entire group, plus a packet of the source material I used to write VANISH. In particular, the article about a young woman waking up in a body bag (it launched my story), as well as the shocking NY Times Magazine article that was the basis for Mila’s subplot.

A Conversation with Tess Gerritsen

As I’m about to head off to my adventures with the surgeon’s knife, I thought I’d post, instead of my usual blog entry, a piece that Random House sent out with their publicity packet for VANISH. It’s the sort of creepy backstory that usually serves as the wellspring for my books!————————–

A CONVERSATION WITH TESS GERRITSEN

Q: Your new thriller, VANISH, opens with the corpse of a beautiful woman suddenly waking up in the morgue. Did you just dream up this macabre scenario, or is it based on real events?

A: It was inspired by a true event that happened a few years ago in a Boston suburb. A young woman was found lying in a bathtub of cold water, with empty pill bottles nearby. A fire and rescue team was called to the scene, as well as a state police investigator, and they detected no signs of life. The supposedly dead woman was zipped into a body bag and transported to a funeral home ï¾– where, a few hours later, she woke up.

The idea of being mistaken for dead, and of waking up in a body bag, truly horrified me. When I read that news article, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about just such a scenario ï¾– a young woman, waking up in the morgue. But then, as a novelist, I found myself asking more and more questions about this mysterious woman. Who is she? Why doesnï¾’t anyone know her name? Why is there no record of her existence? Itï¾’s these questions that are the heart of the mystery in VANISH.

Q: How often does that actually happen, that a モcorpseヤ is later found alive? Isnメt it rare?

A: It happens more often than most people realize. There are historical examples of premature burial, of unfortunates waking up in coffins or tombs to find themselves trapped and doomed to a terrible death. Their fates were only discovered much later, when their graves were opened and claw marks were found inside the coffins. In the Victorian era, the fear of being buried alive was so widespread that some coffins came equipped with bells so that the interred モcorpseヤ could alert people above ground that he was still alive. There is even the rather heretical theory that the resurrection of Jesus was, in reality, simply a case of premature burial.

Even today, there are instances of the モdeadï¾” waking up. In a North Carolina morgue just this year, the medical examiner discovered a young man in a body bag was breathing, and transferred him to the hospital. Also this year, in Utah, a 4-year-old boy, presumed dead from drowning, was found alive after his death certificate had already been signed. There are cases of corpses waking up on the embalmerï¾’s table, or during their own funerals. Perhaps the most startling case happened in the 1980’s in New York, when a pathologist was about to slice open a corpse on the autopsy table. The corpse suddenly woke up and grabbed the doctor ï¾– who keeled over, dead. The モcorpseï¾” survived.

Q: Have you, as a physician, ever mistakenly declared a patient dead?

A: Not to my knowledge! But I understand how easily it can happen. And every doctor Iï¾’ve talked to agrees with me that it isnï¾’t difficult to make the mistake. I vividly recall one night while I was on call as a medical resident, and I was awakened by the nurse to come pronounce a patient dead. Itï¾’s not really a formalized process; it simply means you check for vital signs, concur with the nurse that the patient is deceased, and write a note to that effect in the chart. So I stumbled out of bed and headed to the patientï¾’s room. I found the bed surrounded by sobbing relatives, who all stared at me as I examined their loved one. I was so aware of the audience, so anxious to escape that room that I probably didnï¾’t listen as long as I should have for a heartbeat. As I walked out, I suddenly thought: maybe I should have listened a little longer. Maybe I missed something. So when I hear about medical personnel making premature diagnoses of death, I know exactly how it can happen.

Q: Your thrillers dwell on the darkest aspects of human nature, and on some pretty horrifying crimes. Why do you think youï¾’re drawn to such dark themes in your writing?

A: All the credit goes to my mother! Sheメs an immigrant from China, and when she first came to the U.S., her command of English was poor. What she did understand and enjoy, though, was American horror films. You donメt need to understand dialogue when youメre watching monsters wreaking havoc on the screen. It was her introduction to American culture, an introduction that needed no translation. So she dragged me and my brother to some pretty frightening films, and I spent much of my early childhood in movie theaters, cowering in terror ヨ and learning to love it! I still remember many of those films with great fondness: モThe Birds,ヤ モInvasion of the Body Snatchers,ヤ モThem,ヤ and of course the countless versions of モThe Mummyヤ. While other kids watched Disney films, I kept company with Godzilla and Dracula. Horror films taught me to always consider the darkest possibilities, to peek under rocks and look around corners for the monsters I knew had to be there. To this day, thatメs what I do with my fiction. I look under rocks, and wait for terrible things to come slithering out.

Q: Female authors, you among them, seem to be in the forefront when it comes to writing crime novels with graphic forensic details. Why this focus on the gore?

A: I canï¾’t answer for other novelists, only for myself. I write from a point of view thatï¾’s been shaped by my years as a physician. During my training, I saw a man bleed to death in the operating room. Iï¾’ve watched my own patients die, and then had to attend their autopsies. Those are traumatic events for anyone to witness, but itï¾’s what every physician sees in the course of his training. All readers want to learn secrets; they want to be brought into worlds theyï¾’re not privy to. Thatï¾’s what I try to do, tell them the secrets that I happen to know. Bring them into the autopsy room, show them what itï¾’s like to pick up a scalpel and slice skin. If the details arenï¾’t entirely unpleasant, itï¾’s because Iï¾’m trying to be honest, as a writer. Itï¾’s hard to prettify death.

Violence, however, is something I tend to shy away from when I write. Ironically enough, I myself donï¾’t like to read about graphic violence, and I try not to show it on the page. Instead, what I show is the aftermath of violence, when the investigators ï¾– doctors, criminalists, detectives ï¾– walk onto the scene and get to work doing their jobs. When you wear the hat of an investigator, it gives you distance. Focusing on the evidence, and on the science, helps insulate you from the horror of what has just happened.

Reader Email

I recently received this email from a reader who told me about her recent visit to a bookstore.”As I was checking out, the girl asked me about the Robin Cook book I had in my hands and commented that she really liked his books as they usually dealt with medicine. I then told her about yours, at which she gave me a puzzled look and said ‘Tess Gerritsen? I’ve never heard of her.’ A couple of other people standing there said the same thing and at that I went back to the paperback table bought up your remaining paperbacks and GAVE them to everyone standing there. Geez!!!! what is it with people down here?”

I tell you this story not only because this is the sort of reader I want to absolutely hug and kiss, but also to illustrate just how hard it is for an author to become known. Just a few days ago, I was signing books at a Kroger’s store in Cincinnati, and quite a few customers frowned at my books, confessed that they’d never heard of me, and said they weren’t really willing to buy a book by someone they didn’t know.

I don’t know how to get past that. No amount of advertising will change it. There’s only one thing that can change it: Word of Mouth. It’s the most powerful force on the planet. It takes time to generate it, and in the meantime, many an author’s career has crashed and burned, many an author has found himself abandoned by his publisher. We can’t force word of mouth. We can’t even beg for it. We can only hope it happens, that our readers like our books enough to tell their friends, their colleagues, their room-mates.

Or, as my reader did, to tell even strangers in line at a bookstore!

And so I want to thank every single reader who’s ever passed my name along. If you’ve convinced someone else to read one of my books, someone who’s never heard of me before, email me and let me know the details! Let me know your address, too, and I’ll send you an autographed bookplate in appreciation.

Now, for some other not-so-pleasant news. I may be out of commission for a few weeks — it looks like I’m headed for the surgeon’s knife in a few days. That shoulder pain I mentioned earlier now looks like a slipped disk in the neck. Am I scared of surgery? You betcha. I know all too well what can go wrong in the O.R. But I also want to get back to my usual tip-top condition, so I’m anxious to get this over with.

I won’t be answering my emails for awhile — my web-meister Marshall may be taking over those duties while I recuperate. He’ll also be launching a fun new cover art contest and will let you know about a special offer for book groups who’ve chosen to read VANISH as their selection

My biggest regret is that I’m going to have to cancel my scheduled book signings for the next 3 weeks. Never, in my nine years of book touring, have I ever before had to cancel a signing, so this is really hard for me. But I’ll be back soon enough, and better than ever!

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

I’m off to Cincinnati tomorrow, to meet with the wonderful folks from Kroger. They took on a huge order of VANISH. (And many of my readers have mentioned in their emails that they bought their copies of VANISH in a Kroger’s.)

I’ll be signing at two of their stores:

Friday, Sept. 16, 4:30 – 6:00 PM Kroger’s 3760 Paxton Ave Hyde Park Plaza, OH 513-871-4142

and

Saturday, Sept. 17, 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM Kroger Marketplace 199 Graceland Blvd Columbus, OH 614-898-3242

If you live in the area, come on by and say hello!

MEDICAL CASE HISTORY

A middle-aged female writer in previously excellent health awakens one night with excruciating pain in her left shoulder and upper back. She describes it as “feeling as though she’s being stabbed with a knife.” The pain radiates down the ulnar aspect of her left arm, and there is numbness of the fourth and fifth fingers. It is not relieved by high-dose Tylenol, anti-inflammatories, Valium, or even narcotics. The pain is severe enough to keep her from sleeping for more than a few hours each night, and for several weeks, she spends most of the nights whimpering in a chair. Neck movement does not exacerbate the pain. The shoulder has full range of motion. The patient reports she has been under stress recently, with the release of her new novel.

On physical exam, there is marked weakness of the left triceps muscle and decreased reflexes of the left arm.

What’s the diagnosis?

Ah, dear readers, you may be wondering why I’m presenting a medical case on my blog. But by now, some of you have probably guessed that the above patient is me. Yep, I’ve had a pretty rotten last few weeks. The pain started while I was in Maui, and it’s kept me from sleeping and even eating these past few weeks. I gave birth to two kids, without anesthesia, and this pain was worse. Way worse. Yet I kept thinking, “it’ll go away, it’ll go away.” Here I’m a doctor, and my husband’s a doctor, and we both assumed it was just nerve irritation in the neck, and that would settle down eventually.

We’re such idiots. Believe me, having two doctors in the house probably means you get WORSE medical care!

So finally, practically in a trance from lack of sleep, and whimpering all the way, I show up in a neurologist’s office. Dr. Stein listens to my story, nods, and says: “Even before I examine you, I know exactly what you have. Brachial plexus neuritis. It’s often preceded by a viral infection or a vaccination. It hits perfectly healthy people of any age, and it’s said to cause some of the most excruciating pain anyone can have. And I can help you.”

My god, I wanted to kiss this man’s feet. Not only did he acknowledge that I was miserable, he gave me the reassurance that the pain would be completely gone within a month, and that my arm would regain its strength within a year. He prescribed a pill usually used to control seizures. I took two doses, and that night, for the first time in two weeks, I slept like a baby.

I tell you this story not because I like to talk about my health. Geez, that is the most boring topic anyone could ever talk about! No, I’m telling you this because I want to say something about doctors. Good doctors.

In many of my books, I write about evil doctors. Doctors who lie and kill. Doctors who are villains. I’m often asked, in interviews, whether I know any evil doctors, and my answer has always been the same: NO. I’ve known doctors with human frailties, doctors who’ve fallen in love with their patients, doctors who’ve made mistakes and tried to cover them up.

But evil? I haven’t met a single one.

The docs I know are simply people trying to do the best job they can. Maybe they miss a detail, or get distracted and careless. Maybe they’re arrogant. Maybe they have poor relationship skills. They’re like every other human being in this world.

And damn it, when you’re sick and you’re hurting, you don’t go to a carpenter. You go to a doctor.

So here’s a toast to the medical profession. And to neurologist Dr. Rob Stein of Rockport, Maine.

(And if I’m late replying to your emails, you’ll know why!)

DISPATCHES FROM THE FRONT LINES

I have the best readers in the world! They were willing to be my scouts, to venture into bookstores all over the country and check out where copies of VANISH were located. And they reported back. Boy, did they report back. I’ve gotten emails from Florida to California, from the Caribbean to Hawaii to British Columbia. I can’t tell everyone enough how much I appreciated hearing from you all.

I learned that the books are well-displayed in Books a Million and Target and Krogers. But I’ve also heard that my depressing experience in Barnes & Noble in Honolulu was not all that unusual. In about 30-40% of B&N stores, VANISH, in its first week of sale, was shelved in the back of the store. Which is very disturbing, and here’s why.

My publisher paid for co-op.

For those of you who aren’t in the pub business, you may not realize that the front octagonal table in B&N is actually PAID display space. (Otherwise known as paying for “co-op”.) Publishers pay for that bit of real estate so that their new titles can be seen. I don’t know how much it costs them. (If anyone happens to know the answer to that, I’d love to hear from you privately!) Ballantine paid for, and expected, VANISH to be displayed on B&N’s front tables for its first week of sale, yet in up to 40% of B&N stores, my readers found that the books were shelved at the back of the stores, with no discount stickers.

I’ve since heard that this isn’t unusual, that in fact B&N co-op compliance overall is only about 65% in New York City stores.

Now, imagine paying a contractor to build your house, and he only builds 65% of it. Wouldn’t you have SOME recourse?

Apparently in publishing, there’s none. A bookstore chain can take a publisher’s money, simply ignore the co-op agreement, and not suffer for it. But really, what’s a publisher to do in response? Refuse to do business with the largest bookstore chain in the country? A chain like B&N is too powerful to mess around with. If you’re not displayed in front, readers won’t find you. If you don’t do well at B&N, you don’t make the bestseller lists. Publishers, and authors, are at its mercy.

(note: Borders doesn’t seem to be a problem. At least, I haven’t heard any similar reports from Borders so far.)

I’m fortunate enough to get weekly sales reports. As I may have mentioned, I love numbers, and I’m finding some little tidbits that other publishing nerds may find interesting. Even though my B&N store sales have suffered for this title, my B&N.COM sales (their online sales) have increased by almost 300% over my last title. Could it be that readers are going online to buy VANISH because they can’t find it in the brick and mortar stores?

Speaking of online sales, here are some numbers that may interest other authors. There’s a lot of speculation about just what the “sales index number” means for Amazon.com and B&N.com. Here’s what I’ve found. During a week when my B&N.com index ranged between 10 and 30, my sales were about 36 per day. Over at Amazon.com, during a week when my index ranged between 50 and 80, my sales were about 85 copies per day. So you can see we’re not talking huge numbers here. And it appears that my Amazon sales were two and a half times my B&N.com sales.

I wonder if that ratio holds true for all their online titles.

The irony, of course, is that despite B&N’s touted ability to “make” a bestseller, they seem to be losing market share to other, less traditional outlets such as wholesale clubs and grocery stores. At least, that’s what I’m seeing in my own sales pattern.

Bookselling is clearly in transition.

I’ve gotten one comment from a bookseller about my frustrating experience doing drop-in signings. “Why didn’t you just call ahead and talk to the manager?” I was asked. “Don’t mess with some clerk.”

The truth is, in every store I visited, I DID talk to the manager. And as for calling ahead — try calling a major chain bookstore and doing your “I’m an author in town” spiel. Count how many minutes it takes to get hold of someone who’ll give you an answer. (Which I have a feeling would have been: “Oh, we can’t have you sign books. We can’t return them.”) Part of the reason for drop-in signings is just to say hello, greet the booksellers, and in my case, offer to leave some glossy bookmarks. Being cut off at the pass, over the phone, would have meant never even stepping foot in many of those Honolulu stores.

So to all you authors with books on sale, or about to go on sale: gird yourselves. The bookselling world is not for the faint of heart!