Using Tess Gerritsen Novels in the Science Classroom

I’ve received a number of queries from high school and college teachers around the country who tell me they’ve used my books to illustrate scientific principles in their classrooms. Many of them ask which of my books are particularly useful for science classrooms, and which topics they cover. So for science teachers everywhere (and I think that every single one of you is a hero!) I thought I’d offer some suggestions as to which books might inspire lively discussions in your classrooms. Many of my books touch upon a variety of scientific and medical subjects. In the following novels, here are some of the topics that may launch some great teaching points:

GRAVITY

1. Boyle’s Law (the relationship between pressure and volume) is a vital element of the GRAVITY plot. In particular, the scenes involving spacewalks and emergency decompression, emphasize the life-and-death nature of understanding this law.

2. Microbiology: The biology of Archaeons. For more information, check out my entry on this topic in my Creepy Biological Facts section: http://www.tessgerritsen.com/story.cfm?CID=15

3. Anatomy: The pathology of plane crash and other deceleration deaths. This topic is mentioned briefly in Creepy Biological Facts here: http://www.tessgerritsen.com/story.cfm?CID=17.

4. Physiology: The effects of microgravity on humans, from space sickness to deconditioning to osteoporosis.

5. The medical and psychological problems of prolonged space habitation.

BLOODSTREAM

1. Microbiology: Amoebic meningitis. For more information, check out the page devoted to this subject in my Creepy Biological Facts section: http://www.tessgerritsen.com/story.cfm?CID=8

2. Parasitology: Tapeworms. The sometimes devastating medical effects of Taenia solium, the pork tapeworm.

THE SURGEON

1. Forensic science: Hair and fiber analysis. 2. Medicine: Disseminated intravascular coagulation.

THE SINNER

1. Leprosy. The biology and history of Mycobacterium leprae. Skeletal changes in severe disease.

2. Medicine: Death by methyl isocyanate and the catastrophe at Bhopal.

LIFE SUPPORT

1. Mad Cow Disease (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) and Prions. This topic is explored in Creepy Biological Facts (http://www.tessgerritsen.com/story.cfm?CID=4)

HARVEST

1. Transplant medicine

2. Ethical dilemmas in organ matching

On the Air with Art Bell

On Monday, my Amazon.com sales index for VANISH took a sudden jump, and I know exactly why. I’d just spent three hours on the radio show “Coast to Coast AM”, hosted by Art Bell. (http://www.coasttocoastam.com) For those of you who aren’t insomniacs, Art’s late-night show, heard around the world, features weird and fascinating subjects ranging from alien abductions to life after death to cryptozoology. Art paid me the highest compliment I can think of; he called me “the female Art Bell.” Meaning that I share his macabre sense of curiosity. He knows I’m a skeptic about pretty much everything. Whether Art believes any of this stuff, I have no idea; he’s pretty coy about his true feelings. But we both have an insatiable hunger to know the unknowable. That night we talked, as we usually do, about medical horrors and paranromal experiences and weird diseases.

Then Art asked me the question: “Do you ever get freaked out by your fans? Don’t you ever worry about what they might do?”

Sometimes, I had to admit, I do.

I was on book tour for THE SURGEON, a thriller about a serial killer who cuts open women while they’re awake and aware and removes their organs. A very ordinary man came to get his book signed, and he leaned over to whisper in my ear: “Thank you for writing this book. You allowed me to enjoy my fantasies.” Then he picked up his autographed copy and walked out.

He looked so NORMAL. But then, so did Jeffrey Dahmer.

I’ve heard it on good authority that folks awaiting identity reassignment in the Witness Protection Program consider me their absolute favorite author. (Hey guys, I hope you, uh, find nice homes in new cities. And keep buying my books!)

Once, at a signing out west, a fan regaled me with a long and rambling story about her ex-husband that concluded with “And I was ONLY charged with manslaughter!” At which point my media escort swooped in and said, “Tess REALLY has to leave now!”

So yes, occasionally my readers freak me out. Sometimes they tell me stories that make me twitch. But more often their stories move me, or make me laugh, or comfort me. I treasure the things they tell me.

And when they write me, I always write back. (As long as their notes aren’t abusive or threatening.)

If you’ve written me and haven’t gotten a reply, check your spam filter. There’s nothing so frustrating for me than to reply to an email, and have my reply bounce back.

Blogger to Blogger

Monica Jackson reacts to my latest blog about race and publishing:

“But Tess misses the point that only because she’s Asian, she has the choice to write white characters and to be marketed as mainstream to whites.”

Black authors, she points out, don’t always have the option.

And she’s absolutely right. I count myself as one of those peculiar cases where, although “ethnic”, I’ve always gone by my married (Dutch) name. All through my medical training, I would often turn up on the ward to see a patient, and the nurses would be surprised to see me because they thought “Dr. Gerritsen” would be a blonde or something. Because of that name confusion, even readers who look at my author photo on the back of the book aren’t quite sure WHAT I am. The name is so confusing to them, they don’t always trust their eyes.

In this way, I’ve been able to slip into mainstream publishing, without the barriers that black novelists, who are often confined to “black niche publishing” have to face. The exception that’s been pointed out on other blogsites is Stephen Carter, whose debut novel hit the bestseller lists. But as others have also pointed out, his novel was NOT marketed as a “black” novel, but as a mainstream mystery. The author’s race was simply incidental to the larger marketing plan. His race did not hurt him.

Another case in point is James Patterson, whose megaselling thrillers feature a black detective (even though the author himself is white.) The character’s race doesn’t hurt sales, which shows that, yes, white readers ARE happy to cross racial lines and read about black characters. Patterson’s photo is frequently missing from the books, so you’d have no idea what race he is. The important point: his books are marketed as MAINSTREAM fiction. You look at a Patterson book, and the main impression you get is that it’s going to be a scary ride. Not that this is a book about black characters.

That said, what’s a black author to do? How hard can she push to stay out of the niche box, yet still not turn off her publisher? I don’t know the answer to that. I can tell you that when my first thriller HARVEST came out, I strongly suggested to my agent and editor that my photo NOT appear on the book. There was discussion about it, and they decided it wouldn’t hurt the sales. And I don’t think it has. Black authors shouldn’t have to hide their photos from the public. Stephen Carter didn’t, and he hit the lists. But what they should be pushing for is marketing that breaks through niche barriers, and gives them the same chance every white author’s book gets in the marketkplace.

Back to a Delicate Subject: Race and Publishing.

I recently received an email from an African-American novelist who was troubled that her latest book was going to be marketed solely to the AA niche market — even though the story itself did not specify the race of its characters, and could just as easily have been marketed as mainstream fiction. When she objected, she said the response from the publisher was:

“They didn’t want to risk “missing out” on the AA market, which was booming and had far less competition. They did this despite my assertion that the characters were not black, and that the African American market also had far less consumers.”

Smart move or dumb move on the publisher’s part? Let’s think about it.

I know that the conventional publishing wisdom is that African American publishing is “booming.” Last week’s PUBLISHERS WEEKLY had this to say about it:

“Even in a flat overall market and in a black market overloaded with self-published fiction … publishers still cite continued growth in the category.”

The PW article quotes Steve Zacharius of Kensington Publishing, who says that the AA category represents “11% of our revenues, and it’s still growing,” and that AA titles were up 10% over last year.

Which sounds terrific for AA writers, doesn’t it? Look at the success of Terry McMillan and Zane — doesn’t it just prove that being marketed in the AA niche is a smart move?

It depends. And here’s my take on it. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, even though I’m Asian American, I write my books with a much wider audience in mind. Logically speaking, if your books are aimed at only 4% of the American population, your sales are screwed. To make the bestseller list requires that your sales penetration of that 4% slice of the market must be huge. You’d have to sell to every single Chinese auntie and cousin and every member of every Mah-jong club in America to even register a blip on the national lists. Sure, you might be a huge success in the Asian American market.

But unless the sales cross over to the rest of American readers, you’re still trapped in the Asian American ghetto. You’re pegged as a nice “ethnic” writer, a little exotic shot of spice in an America that devours meat-and-potatoes fiction.

I didn’t want to be a shot of spice. I wanted to sell like meat and potatoes, and be paid accordingly. Which is why I have primarily written about white characters, and why my books are marketed as mainstream fiction. Had I been marketed as an ethnic writer, maybe I might have sold very well in the Asian American niche. But hitting the New York Times bestseller list would have been far, far harder.

Part of the problem, I’ve always felt, is that many white readers seem reluctant to read ethnic fiction. It’s an echo of my observation that many men won’t read books written by women. Readers want characters they can identify with, and many can’t seem to make the leap across racial lines.

But there may be another explanation, says the writer who emailed me. She proposes another explanation for why white readers don’t buy much ethnic fiction, saying:

“I’ve spoken to several reading friends who are white and they basically say that it’s because of the marketing. It’s not essentially being “offered” to them, so the assumption is that it’s not written for them. Which makes a lot of sense. So, I don’t believe that the issue is white people not wanting to read books that happen to be about black characters (Terry McMillan is proof of that). I think it’s more a matter of the fact that the market distinction is there, from the bookseller and publisher presentation.”

So maybe the racial barrier doesn’t lie with the readers themselves, but with the MARKETING to those readers.

And booksellers don’t help bridge the divide, either. When this writer asked bookstores about possibly doing a signing, she was told, again and again, that “African American books don’t sell well in our store.” Even though this author was ready and willing to go on the road to promote her book, she was cut off at the pass by balky booksellers. When I think back to where most of my own booksignings have been held, over the years, the vast majority have been in bookstores in the suburbs where the population is overwhelmingly — yep, you guessed it — white. I can well imagine that an events coordinator at one of these stores might hesitate about scheduling an event for an author who’s being marketed exclusively to an ethnic niche.

So what’s an African American or Asian American or Martian American to do? I guess it comes down to the book you are burning to write. If you have something unique to say about your ethnic background, if you MUST write about it, then you have no choice. You simply have to write about it. Should your story strongly resonate with all readers everywhere, your book will escape the hobbling label of “ethnic fiction”. It will then be marketed — and sell to — a far wider audience. It might even make The List.

It happens.

Still, it seems to me that to start off labeling yourself as a “niche” writer whose books will be marketed to a “niche” audience, is resigning yourself to limited sales.

But let’s put it in perspective. The truth is, all writers, niche or otherwise, face enormous odds against them in this marketplace. Very few will ever hit the Times list. Very few will make a decent living in this business. Heck, very few aspiring writers will even get published at all.

Given those odds, it may be that a niche writer, surprisingly enough, has a better chance of getting a first foot in the door. As Steve Zacharius said in PW, the biggest problem in Black book publishing is “(we’re) running out of talent.”

So here’s the paradox. The number of AA titles is burgeoning. Publishers are actively seeking ethnic books. This market offers an opportunity for the first-time AA novelist to get published.

But by going this route, you may well see your sales hit a glass ceiling which few ethnic novels manage to crack through.

Cranking Them Out

One of the questions I most frequently get asked at book signings, at cocktail parties, even at my local coffee shop, is: “Are you working on another book?” The answer, of course, is always yes. There’s never a day when I’m not working on the next one. And that sometimes inspires the follow-up comment, “Boy, you really crank them out, don’t you?”

I know they don’t mean to be denigrating, but come on, folks. I don’t operate a simple assembly line. Writing books is sometimes an agonizing process for me. I obsess over every one, and there are days when I really, really get tired of the book-a-year schedule. I dream of taking a year off from writing and spending it laboring at some archaeological dig in Egypt. Yes, there are days when even digging under the hot sun sounds like a lot more fun than sitting at my desk, struggling with the next scene.

So why don’t I take the year off? Why do so many authors feel compelled to write a book every year?

Well, to start off with, there’s that thing called a publishing contract. My contracts specify delivery dates, and they work out to — guess what? — a book a year. For the past nine books, I have been a “summer” author; come the end of August, my readers can expect a new Tess Gerritsen book will be in stores. Meeting their expectations — and my publisher’s — is a big part of hitting bestsellerdom. Mary Higgins Clark is always published around Mother’s Day, and that was a well-thought-out strategy planned by her publisher. That reliability and consistency is part of her huge success.

I don’t know if this is a true story, but I’ve heard that when John Grisham was touring with his first book, he asked a book buyer what he could do to ensure his success. The answer: “Write a book a year.” Grisham certainly has.

If an author drops out for a year, it can cause lasting damage to her career. Yes, even one year without a book can cause readers to forget you. Drop out of sight too long, and you may never be able to regain your momentum in the marketplace. And when you become a “name”, your publisher won’t LET you drop out because you become what’s called a “payroll author” — one whose book sales are a large part of your publisher’s income that year. They’ve paid you a huge advance; they need to recoup that money, and if you take two years to deliver the manuscript, that’s two years of investment they’re not getting a return on. Of course they’ll be unhappy.

Which leads to the phenomenon of publishers not really caring how good the book is — they just want it. Now. Because it’s already on the release schedule and they need to make back the big advance they paid you.

Despite this killing pace, some authors can continue to write great books year after year. But some authors find their creativity stretched thin, and just can’t keep up the quality. When you see a formerly great author start to write skimpy, poorly written stories, it may simply be that she’s burned out, but just can’t get off the treadmill because her publisher and her agent won’t let her.

And the reason they won’t let her is, of course, money.

If the author doesn’t turn in a book that year, the agent doesn’t get her commission, and the publisher doesn’t get those book sales. The author may be having a nervous breakdown, but who cares? Snap that whip! Keep that pony trotting!

You can see why, sometimes, this writing gig isn’t a lot of fun.

You may ask, “Why not take the time to write a better book? It will sell more copies and make more money than a hurried novel, won’t it?”

Maybe. But look at the dollars and cents here. Unless that “better” book sells TWICE as many copies as your last one, you’re still better off writing two books than taking two years to write one big book.

In the not-too-distant past, the philsophy was that an author should be LIMITED to one book a year, because to write more than that was to saturate the marketplace. It’s why the ever-prolific Stephen King, who was writing more than a book a year, had to take the pseudonym Richard Bachman for some of his books.

Times have certainly changed. Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and a whole host of romance authors have proved that the market is ready to absorb ANYTHING by their favorite authors. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to how many books Nora can release in a year; they’ll all hit the bestseller lists.

The inevitable result: publishers now want their authors to write MORE than a book a year. Can this get any more insane? It makes me think of that “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy’s working in a candy factory. The faster Lucy works, the faster the factory cranks the assembly line, until Lucy can’t keep up.

When authors can’t keep up, they have one other strategy they can turn to: the co-writer. Some authors, such as James Patterson and Tom Clancy, are gracious enough to allow their co-writers to share billing. But others have arrangements with ghost writers whose names never, ever appear on the book cover. Frustrating for the “ghost” and, in my opinion, utterly dishonest on the part of the “author.”

“Why Don’t Men Read Books by Women?” (Part 2)

Although I discussed this topic a few months ago, it recently came up again, over on Sarah Weinman’s wonderful blogsite, “Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.” (http://www.sarahweinman.com/) She cites a review in the Washington Post of Sue Grafton’s mystery series. The reviewer, Patrick Anderson (yes, the same infamous reviewer I’ve talked about before) wrote:

“If Grafton’s talents have not been fully appreciated, it may be because male reviewers can have problems with the Millhone books. The first thing that struck me about them was — dare I say it? — how girly they can be. Kinsey agonizes a lot over whether her love of junk food is expanding her posterior. She often tells me more than I want to know about hairstyles, cosmetics, clothing and kitchens. And she is surely the only private eye ever to declare that, after a hard day’s crime-fighting, the best way to relax is not by lifting a bottle of rotgut but by folding the laundry and scrubbing the toilet.

To appreciate Grafton, we must accept that her series is written not only by a woman and about a woman but also for women. We guys can tune in if we choose, but we’re not Grafton’s core constituency.”

My first reaction was, quite frankly, amazement. And irritation. Because what he’s saying is that the concerns of women don’t amount to a hill of beans to male readers. Okay, so sleuth Kinsey Milhone thinks about clothing and kitchens and maintaining her girlish figure. The very things, quite frankly, that most women — half the human race, mind you — think about. According to Anderson, that makes these books uninteresting to men. And, in particular, to male reviewers.

Now then. How many of us women readers are willing to read countless mysteries starring male detectives who drink to excess, watch TV sports, describe their cars in loving detail, and do “guy” things? How often does a reviewer write, “his books are too man-ish to interest women?” Women readers, it’s automatically assumed, are willing to cross gender boundaries and read about Dirk Pitt and Jack Ryan and Jack Reacher. And we do, with gusto.

But if a woman sleuth dares to act like a woman, then they’re radioactive to Patrick Anderson. Who said, in his review of VANISH, that only women would care about the struggles of a “lactating detective.” Because men sure don’t give a damn.

Think about the fictional male sleuths that have appeared in books through the years: Quadriplegic. Obsessive-compulsive. Jazz-obsessed. Alcoholic. Drug-addicted. Cat burglar. Jewel thief. “Righteous” serial killer. There’s even a sleuth who’s secretly … a dinosaur.

But a female sleuth who’s a new mom trying to figure out the deal about breast-feeding, is just too, well, WEIRD.

Half the human race. And some male reviewers couldn’t care less about us.