New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger is one of my favorite thriller writers. Her new novel INK AND BONE will be out June 7 — and it’s fabulous. We recently had a wide-ranging conversation about writing, life, guns, nightmares, and more. Thought you’d all enjoy what two otherwise ordinary ladies talk about when the subject turns to dark fiction.
Ghosts, Guns and Dark Places:
Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Unger in Conversation
When authors get together there’s no telling what they’ll wind up discussing. When it’s acclaimed and bestselling thriller writers like Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Unger, you better believe they’re going dark and deep. From nightmares that turn into novels, to how thriller writers are often metabolizing the things that frighten them on the page, from research war stories, to the conflict between science and the supernatural, this conversation took some wild, twisty roads – just like their novels.
Lisa Unger: A couple of years ago, when I was writing FRAGILE, I ran into a character I wasn’t expecting, psychic Eloise Montgomery. I was excited about her. I thought: Oh! A psychic! Even if she’s a fraud, that’s still interesting. My characters have minds of their own, so I was disappointed when she only had a small part to play in that book. But but she stayed with me. She’s had a couple of books since then, three short stories, and in my upcoming INK AND BONE we meet her granddaughter Finley, who has powers of her own. Eloise’s story has told itself in a way that I wouldn’t have expected, and it has led me down some roads I didn’t imagine I’d go as a writer. Which is, of course, the joy and the magic of writing. So I was struck while reading PLAYING WITH FIRE that you, too, had walked into some of the same territory. Was it a character, or a story, or curiosity about something else that led you there?
Tess Gerritsen: It was a nightmare! I was in Venice for my birthday, and after a night drinking a bit too much wine, I had a freaky dream. I dreamt I was playing my violin. A baby was sitting nearby, and as I played a dark and disturbing melody, the baby’s eyes suddenly glowed red and she turned into a monster. I woke up wondering what it meant — and knowing there was a story here. Something about the power of music to haunt and to transform people. That day I wandered around Venice and ended up in the old Jewish quarter. There I saw memorial plaques dedicated to the Venice Jews who were deported to death camps during WWII. That’s when both parts of the novel came to me — a story about a 1930s Jewish composer whose haunting melody will nearly destroy the life of a woman violinist 70 years later. I’m already a violinist (strictly amateur) with a lifelong love of music, and that knowledge helped inform the musical aspects of the story.
I find that the interests and passions we’ve developed during our lives can both inform and inspire our novel writing. Was there anything from your own life that worked its way into INK AND BONE? Some part of yourself that slipped into the character or plot?
Lisa Unger: I love that, that an intersection of your dream life and your waking one led you to write PLAYING WITH FIRE. It’s so true to the way the process works for me, this blend of waking, dreaming, and imagining. The musical elements of your story are so rich and alive that I thought you must be a musician, or someone with a deep knowledge of music. Which is where, I suppose knowledge and passion move in.
There’s some blend of all of that, as well, in INK AND BONE. I have a fascination with the the idea of psychic phenomena in the Jungian sense, that it might be considered a natural extension of normal human ability. In my other life in publishing, I had a chance to work with psychic John Edwards. And I was struck both by his abilities and how normal he was, how he could just be your cousin from Long Island. In a weird way, though this was many years ago, he was the inspiration for Eloise Montgomery. The fictional town in which INK AND BONE is set, The Hollows, first showed up in FRAGILE, which was very loosely based on a real event from my past. Though I didn’t see it at the time, The Hollows shares certain similarities with the place where I grew up. So, in a lot of ways I suppose I’m dreaming on the page, the real and the imagined get twisted into fiction.
History plays a big role in INK AND BONE, the history of The Hollows and the way the energy of dark deeds has pooled up there. For me, dark, unresolved histories always bring to mind ghosts and the haunting of the present by the past. So it’s true with PLAYING WITH FIRE. Obviously, your medical training has informed many of your fantastic novels, but did that doctor’s mind resist the idea of ghosts and haunting, or inform it any way?
Tess Gerritsen: I’m afraid my science training prevents me from straying too far into the paranormal. I always (boringly enough!) want a logical explanation for everything. In that regard, my character Dr. Maura Isles is very much like me; we both want science to give us all the answers, and we’re bothered when it can’t. Ironically, I love reading paranormal fiction, and wish I could write it, but it’s like I have a form of writer’s block about it. Just when I’m on the verge of crossing over into a paranormal tale, that nagging scientist in my head yanks me back.
That’s why I’m so impressed by writers who can pull it off, and so convincingly. Your stories manage to merge the real and the spooky so perfectly, that I sometimes feel like I’m in the middle of a feverish dream when I’m reading them. I remember racing through CRAZY LOVE YOU and my sense of reality kept shifting in different directions. It’s as if you opened a psychic curtain and let us peek through into a universe that’s invisible to most of us.
I’m intrigued by the fact your character in INK AND BONE was inspired by your work with psychic John Edwards. I love hearing about the research that writers must do to make their stories convincing. In fact, research is the part I enjoy most about writing, because I can delve into new worlds. As a writer I’ve attended autopsies, watched the CT scan of a mummy, and scouted Boston for the best places to dump a body. I’m sure you have some interesting tales to tell as well. What lengths have you gone to to get the details right?
Lisa Unger: Wait! Don’t give too much away! I’m deeply engrossed in PLAYING WITH FIRE. Of course, I had an inkling that your scientist’s mind would resist the supernatural. But I do sense more than a passing curiosity, Dr. Gerritsen! Science and the supernatural are not necessarily at odds. There is so much we don’t know about the universe and the human mind; there are more questions than answers. I suppose I believe anything is possible, which might be why I’m willing to go into the unexplained with my characters.
I’m always amazed, in all of your books from HARVEST to GRAVITY, to the Rizzoli and Isles series at the depth of your knowledge about so many things. Most writers are explorers. I like to think of myself as a spelunker, shimming into the dark spaces between things I don’t understand to try find answers. So, yes, research (and life) are an important part of the process.
I’ve taken a concealed weapons course (and absolutely hated the feeling of firing a gun). I’ve interviewed a woman who claimed to be a ghost hunter. One of my closest friends is a retired Federal Agent who, if he doesn’t know the answers to my million questions, can always find someone who does. I lived with a New York City police officer for eight years – okay, so that was a relationship, and a pretty bad one at that. So lots of research there in all areas, but in the end I just wound up with a good knowledge of police work and fantastic recipe for roast pork — which I guess is something. I’ve been lava tubing in Iceland (not sure where that’s going to turn up, but I’m guessing it will). I spent five weeks in Prague while writing DIE FOR YOU. Recently, I’ve become obsessed with birds. I’m an information junkie. I’m constantly reading non-fiction in all areas with a special focus on psychology, addiction, trauma, biology and the brain. For me, more than the nuts and bolts of procedure, it’s human nature and the mind, and where those things intersect with nurture and spirituality, that fascinate me. Much of INK AND BONE is laced through with those themes.
Are there themes that you find come up again and again in your novels? Have you ever been surprised by a recurring question or idea that surfaces without your realizing it?
Tess Gerritsen: I love your research tales! I too hated firing a gun. I was painfully aware that if I was the slightest bit careless and didn’t stay in control of where it was pointed, someone could die. I also learned how difficult it is to be accurate with a handgun. I certainly understand how cops can fire a dozen rounds — and still miss their target.
When I’m writing, I’m thinking primarily about characters and plot, and it’s only in retrospect that I understand what the theme might be. You asked whether I’ve been surprised by recurring questions that seem to surface in my books, and the answer is: yes, absolutely. Thriller writer David Morrell once told me that novelists often address their own childhood traumas in their books. For instance, a writer who never felt his father loved him may write book after book about heroes trying to please authority figures. When Morrell told me that, a light bulb went on in my head, because I realized it was true for me as well. When I was a child, I adored a family friend named Uncle Mike, who served very much as a father figure for me. He was a gentle soul who counseled me about school, life, and love. Then when I turned eighteen, Uncle Mike was arrested for murdering his sister-in-law. I was stunned because I never saw that violent side of him, and it led me to question whether anyone is who they seem to be. That’s the theme I return to again and again — which smiling face hides the monster? In a way, it’s a universal theme for crime writers, the evil that lurks in the hearts of seemingly ordinary human beings.
Now I’ve reached a point in my career (I’m much older than you!) where I yearn to branch out and try new things in my stories. I feel the pressure of time, and wonder how many years do I have left to write stories that really matter to me. Playing With Fire was a departure for me because it isn’t a crime novel, but a book about music, history, and the Holocaust. For my readers, it was certainly unexpected, but for me as a writer, it was immensely satisfying to write. I would also love to write more screenplays (we’re in production now with my indie horror film “Island Zero”) as well as try my hand at young adult novels. Most writers have a secret “book of their heart” they’d like to write. Do you ever plan to divert from crime novels? Are there any projects that no one’s expecting from you, but that you’re itching to write?
Lisa Unger: I felt exactly the same way holding a gun. I was awed by the experience, the terrible responsibility, the potential to do the ultimate harm. I was aware already from my years dating a cop what a huge role adrenaline plays in decision making when there’s a gun in your hand, how lucky you are to be anywhere near accurate even with training. Still, experiencing it first hand was eye-opening, even in a controlled environment with no potential threat or danger. I was also saddened by the thought that here in my hand was something created for the sole purpose of killing another living being. It was a deeply affecting experience for me.
Very early in my career, I heard David Morrell speak and his wise words struck a chord with me, too. When I was fifteen, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered. We lived in a small, supposedly safe town, the kind of place you move to give your kids a happy, suburban upbringing. And then, on a day like any other day, a girl walking home from school fell victim to a monster. I never saw the world the same way again. The theme of the lost girl runs through almost all of my novels in one way or another, never with my intending it and always obvious to me only after the book is done. I think most of us are metabolizing fear on the page, and looking to put order to the chaos we perceive in the world. Maybe that’s why people read crime fiction, as well — because there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end where some kind of justice is served. Not always so in the real world.
I’m writing pretty close to the bone. I follow the voices in my head, and so far they’ve all been pretty dark and twisted, wrestling with questions of identity, struggling with everything from addiction to body dysmorphic disorder to hauntings. I have a voracious curiosity about people and all the different things that make us who we are. If someone else turns up with something different to explore, I’ll certainly honor that. For me that’s the joy of writing, following character voice wherever it takes me.
Wow! I’m excited about your indie horror film ISLAND ZERO. What a great title! I’m scared already. Can you tell us a little bit about it? And I think next up for you is a new Rizzoli and Isles entitled STRANGE GIRL. Any tidbits you would like to share?
Tess Gerritsen: I grew up loving horror films, especially those old classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Them,” and I’ve long thought it would be fun to make just such a film. My son Josh is already a filmmaker (documentaries) and we decided to do one together. I wrote the screenplay, about a group of hardy fishermen on a Maine island who suddenly find themselves cut off from the world when the ferry stops coming. The phones are dead and every boat they send to the mainland fails to return. Then dead bodies start turning up along the shoreline, and they realize they are “ground zero” for something terrible that’s about to happen to mankind. The project is in the capable hands of Josh and his producer, and we’ve got cast and crew from NYC, Boston, and L.A. now at work here in Maine. It’s a SAG production, so the actors are truly impressive. Despite the vagaries of Maine weather, they’re now four days into the shooting schedule, and it all looks fantastic. (And rather, um, gory, thanks to the magic of our special effects guy.)
At the same time, I’m at work on my 12th Rizzoli & Isles novel, STRANGE GIRL. I can’t share tidbits yet because the story keeps changing on me and I never know how it’s going to morph. That’s the trouble with writing by the seat of my pants — I never know where the ride will take me.
Your books are really dark and twisted, yet you’re a perfectly lovely woman — and a mom. How do you answer the question that I’m sure you’ve been asked: what’s WRONG with you, that you write such frightening fiction? Isn’t your husband afraid to come home to you at night? Do your books reflect some pathology in your personality? (Yeah, I get asked the same questions.)
Lisa Unger: There might be something essentially wrong with me! I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve always had this twisted imagination, and have always been fascinated by the dark side. You know when you go to those horror movies that you love so much, and on the screen there’s a girl creeping down the stairs into the basement (from which some eerie noise is emanating) and everyone’s yelling: Don’t go down there! Get out of the house! I’m the girl going down the stairs, just because I want to – no, NEED to – know what’s there. And I don’t remember a time before I was a writer, so I guess these two essential elements of my nature have dovetailed to make me a writer of psychological suspense.
Motherhood has only made my imagination darker. Back to what we discussed earlier, maybe those of us with those kinds of thoughts seek to metabolize them on the page. Looking at INK AND BONE (I agree that you never really understand your book until it’s done) I can see how it addresses some of my most personal, deepest fears – about motherhood, protecting your child and teaching her how to protect herself, trusting yourself and your path, and how sometimes you have to walk the darkest roads to get to the light.
Tess Gerritsen is the acclaimed and New York Times bestselling author of PLAYING WITH FIRE and the upcoming STRANGE GIRL featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles (characters that inspired the TNT television series “Rizzoli and Isles.”) Lisa Unger is the author of fourteen novels of psychological suspense, including her upcoming release INK AND BONE (June 7, 2016), and the paperback release of CRAZY LOVE YOU (March 29, 2016). Her books have sold over 2 million copies worldwide, and have been published in 26 countries. Both authors have dark thoughts and very nice husbands who are never afraid to come home to them at night.
A lovely article in the Portland Press Herald today:
Gerritsen credits her parents for pushing her to be successful and well-rounded. When she was 7 years old Gerritsen told her father, a Chinese-American restaurant cook, that she wanted to be a writer. He told her to study hard and seek out a career that would be more secure, maybe science or medicine. Wanting to please her parents, Gerritsen compromised. She became a doctor, then a writer.
The two disciplines have meshed pretty successfully for Gerritsen. Her medical school lessons and five years as a practitioner have come in handy, helping her create the popular “Rizzoli & Isles” book series about a medical examiner and detective working together. Her characters, Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles, are the basis of the TNT TV series “Rizzoli & Isles.” She’s wrapping up work on the 12th book in that series, “Strange Girl.”
And her musical mastery was crucial in “Playing with Fire.”
“I have to be thankful that I had parents who were very demanding,” said Gerritsen, whose father was born in America while her mother was born in China. “I think it was an immigrant thing, striving to succeed, to push their children to succeed. When people talk today (negatively) about immigration, they forget the great energy added to society because of these strivers.”
International Thriller Writers has nominated my 2015 novel PLAYING WITH FIRE for a “best hardcover” award. The awards ceremony will be held in New York on July 9. Time to break out the formal gown!
A radio interview with Bill Knapik about everything to do with writing.
Los Angeles Times: “Playing With Fire” will make readers drop everything to immerse themselves in its propulsive dual narrative. As beloved as Rizzoli & Isles may be, they can go on sabbatical more often if that gives Gerritsen time to craft terrific thrillers like this.”
Cape Times, South Africa: “A sensitive look into a very painful part of history, and the way that it reaches out to us to this day… a tribute to love that cannot be and love that can be rekindled… A novel that made me cry.”
Lansing State Journal: ” A a well-crafted, carefully plotted, unusual literary thriller… a thought-provoking tale with images likely to linger long after the last page is turned.”
Radio interview recorded recently with KYMN radio, Minnesota. Hear all about how I wrote PLAYING WITH FIRE, composed the music “Incendio,” and collaborated with concert violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou.
When I was young, one of the great pleasures of reading mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie was the challenge of spotting clues and finding the villain before the fictional detective did. It required careful reading, and taking the time to ponder the evidence. I fear readers today don’t have the same patience.
I say this because of comments I’m hearing about my new novel PLAYING WITH FIRE, which has a startling “Sixth Sense” revelation at the end that completely flips the reader’s assumptions upside down. “You pulled a rabbit out of a hat!” “You didn’t play fair!” are some of the reactions. When I point out the numerous clues that are evident throughout the story, clues that should have told them all they needed to know to solve the mystery, their response is: “Oh, I missed that,” or “I didn’t realize that was important.” They had read the story so quickly that they’d simply skimmed right past the half dozen glaring clues without pausing to consider their significance.
A far cry from the days when readers would carefully ponder the evidence the way Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes did.
I don’t think this was true 16 years ago, when I first started writing the Rizzoli and Isles series. Crime readers are a pretty clever bunch, and it used to be a challenge to surprise them. I’d have to carefully disguise every clue. Now I find that more and more readers are missing those clues and even need me to point out where they occur in the story. I don’t think readers are stupider; I think they’re just not reading as attentively as they once did, and the reason may be that many are reading stories in digital format. As a result, they’re doing more skimming and less pondering.
And they skip right past vital information.
PLAYING WITH FIRE is about Julia, a violinist who buys an old handwritten music manuscript in a Rome antique store. It’s a complex piece that accelerates into some high, piercing notes. Whenever she plays it, her 3-year-old daughter Lily seems to turn violent and even stabs Julia. No one else witnesses these attacks, and Julia’s husband doubts they even happened. The search to explain Lily’s behavior leads to a series of doctors and medical tests. But soon it’s Julia’s sanity that’s in doubt.
Although the answer to the mystery may be shocking to some, the evidence is actually there all along, in the form of some pretty obvious clues. Which are….
(more comments below, after the spoiler)
*********SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PAST THE FOLLOWING IF YOU DONT WANT TO SPOIL THE SURPRISE ENDING !!! **************
— Julia has headaches. Several times throughout the story, she complains of them.
— A pediatric neurologist discusses the possibility that Lily suffers from Complex Partial Seizures, where the patient appears to be awake, may perform bizarre behaviors, and is completely unaware this is happening. The patient has no memory of this and experiences only a puzzling gap in time. The doctor also explains that these seizures can be set off by certain high frequency sounds or by flashing lights.
— The doctor also reveals that many patients with CPS are misdiagnosed as having psychiatric problems.
— Julia loses track of a few hours and fails to pick up Lily at daycare. All she knows is that hours have passed and she can’t account for them.
— Her husband complains that lately Julia doesn’t seem to be listening to him and she doesn’t answer his questions.
— Julia later suffers another gap in time after she sees a camera’s flashing “low battery” light.
As I was writing the story, I worried that the clues were TOO obvious. Wouldn’t readers find it too easy to figure out that the problem wasn’t Lily at all, but JULIA, who turns out to be a whoppingly unreliable narrator?
But no. They didn’t see that answer coming at all. They missed the clues, so they think the answer came out of left field. All the signs were there, yet they missed the diagnosis. So they blame the writer.
(Interesting side note — I just heard from a reader who was recently diagnosed with CPS. He recognized what was going on in the story because he’d experienced something very similar.)
******************END SPOILERS *********************
So now we mystery writers face a dilemma. As the percentage of our digital readers climbs, readers who click past pages so quickly they often miss vital details, how do we adjust our stories? Do we label our clues with bright red flags? Do we insert traffic signs warning them “slow down, twists ahead”? Must we consider the shorter attention spans of an audience that seems to revel in reading faster, ever faster?
I don’t know. I just know that I miss the days when we took our time to read — and understand — books.
The full 7-minute recording of my composition “Incendio,” theme music to PLAYING WITH FIRE, is now available for download on:
For non-US listeners, you can purchase the music at:
Performed by the amazing violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou on a 1739 Guarneri violin, it was recorded at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation studio in Toronto. This is our first collaboration, and Susanne truly captured the passion and fire of both the music and the story.
THE STORY BEHIND THE MUSIC:
While in Venice for my birthday, I had a nightmare. I dreamt I was playing my violin while a baby sat beside me. The melody I played was strange and disturbing, and the baby’s eyes suddenly glowed red and she transformed into a monster. That nightmare turned into my novel Playing with Fire. It’s about an obscure piece of handwritten music called “Incendio,” which makes a three-year-old girl go berserk every time she hears her mother play it on the violin. To save her family and perhaps even her own sanity, the violinist searches for the origins of the music. Her search reveals a tragic love story — and a dark time in Italian history.
In the story I describe the music as a mournful waltz which accelerates in tempo and climbs in a series of arpeggios high “into the stratosphere.” Then the melody twists and turns, transforming into a “malevolent” piece, harsh with augmented fourth chords. During the Middle Ages these were called “Devil’s chords” and were actually banned from ecclesiastical music because they were considered evil. Even though “Incendio” didn’t exist outside my story, I needed to describe this fictional piece with enough detail to make my readers understand why the music might make a three-year-old go berserk, yet be beautiful enough to enchant everyone who listens to it.
I was halfway through writing the novel when the music itself came to me in a dream. I think that all those months of writing about “Incendio” had somehow worked its way into my subconscious, and I woke up with the melody in my head: a mournful waltz, just as I’d described in the story. Immediately I sat down at my piano and played the first 16 bars, recording it on my phone so I wouldn’t lose it. Now I had the first motif, which I composed in the key of E minor because of its rich sound on the violin, and because it would simplify the playing of double-stops, which are two strings played simultaneously. The first 42 bars came quickly to me: the opening melody followed by a more complex variation of that melody, then the introduction of a second motif, and then…
That’s where I ran into trouble. As a child, I learned to play both the violin and piano, but I have no formal training in music composition. Over the years, I’ve composed waltzes and jigs for my jam session friends, but never anything classical like this. Here my challenge was to build a quiet waltz into something that grows more and more disturbing and diabolical, something complex enough to challenge even an excellent violinist. I already knew it would end in a series of funereal chords echoing the opening melody. But the crazy, diabolical part in between? I had no idea how to make that happen.
I spent days at the piano, building onto my piece a few measures at a time. I ended up trashing most of the new measures. At the worst possible time, I had to leave on book tour. While traveling, whenever a fragment of music would pop into my head, I’d frantically scribble the notes on manuscript paper, which I carried with me everywhere.
In all, it took me about six weeks to write the entire 98-bar “Incendio”. I shared my piece with two London music producers, and they recommended Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, the international concert violinist, as recording artist. They felt she had the fire and passion to bring “Incendio” to life.
The very first time Susanne and I spoke over the phone, I knew she was the right choice. She was living in Paris at the time, and she described what it was like to practice “Incendio” with her windows open, the music pouring out over the streets of that beautiful city. She’d read the manuscript of Playing with Fire so she knew that the music has a tragic love story behind it, and those emotions come through in every soulful note from her violin. Susanne threw herself so completely into the project that she even contributed her own frantic cadenza toward the end of the recording, to emphasize the heroine’s possible descent into madness.
Creating both the story and the music has been a strange journey for me, one that I never imagined would happen. I think of Playing with Fire and “Incendio” as gifts from the universe, mysteriously handed to me in the form of dreams. It is a shorter novel than I usually write because I wanted it to feel like a fable: “Once upon a time in Venice, a boy loved a girl.” I wanted young adults to read it as well, so they’ll learn about this tragic history — and about the courage of ordinary heroes. I told it simply, because the story itself is what matters, not the storytelling. And the story is simply this:
A boy loved a girl. And the world came between them.
“Incendio”, theme music for Playing with Fire.
Composed by: Tess Gerritsen, with additional cadenza composed by Yi-Jia Susanne Hou
Violin: Yi-Jia Susanne Hou ***
Piano: Peter Longworth
Recorded at: Glenn Gould Studio at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto, Canada
Producers: Dennis Patterson and Yi-Jia Susanne Hou
Sound Engineering & Mastering: Dennis Patterson
Recorded August 25, 2015
Developed together with Original Production Music LLP & Upper Street Production Music Ltd, London
*** Recorded while playing the 1739 Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesu ‘Kortschak’ violin, which Susanne calls “Charlie”
Hear a short sample of the music:
A screenwriter friend of mine, currently involved in a copyright infringement lawsuit against a studio, recently sent me this article written by Steven T. Lowe, a Los Angeles entertainment attorney. It’s a pretty depressing piece. Mr. Lowe explains why writers who’ve had their stories stolen by movie studios face impossible odds finding justice in the courts. Instead of allowing these cases to reach a jury, more and more judges are single-handedly deciding the matter of similarity between stories, and are not even considering the testimony of plaintiffs’ experts.
One of the more astonishing cases Mr. Lowe cites involved the motion picture The Last Samurai. In the late 1990s, established screenwriters Matthew and Aaron Benay, through their literary agent, submitted a screenplay called The Last Samurai to a production company called Bedford Falls. Their screenplay was “about an American war veteran going to Japan to help the Imperial Army by training it in the methods of modern Western warfare for its fight against a samurai uprising.” The producers passed on the project. Years later, the principles of that production company made their film The Last Samurai with a “near-identical (and quite unusual) historical premise with numerous other uncanny commonalities” including shared historical inaccuracies. The Benays sued for copyright infringement and breach of an implied-in-fact contract.
When a writer with as strong a case as the Benays’ can’t find justice, what is going on? Mr. Lowe explains the odds against writers:
“In over 50 such copyright infringement cases against studios and networks decided by courts in the Second and Ninth Circuits between 1990 and 2010, every final decision handed down was in favor of the defendants.”
He also observes: “The determination of each case now rests almost entirely in the unfettered discretion of trial judges, who have consistently dismissed plaintiffs’ claims… While the courts may believe that sheltering studios from suit helps prevent the stifling of their artistic expression, stripping authors of virtually any hope of prevailing on infringement claims is just as chilling to the arts as making it too easy to assert those claims.”
So that’s how it stands for writers today. Even if you can prove earlier access by the producer (as my screenwriter friend did in his lawsuit), even when the two properties have essentially identical titles and uncannily similar plots, the studios will still defeat you. What’s the solution for writers?
I’m sad to say, I don’t think there is one.
This appears in Publishers Weekly (August 7)
It may be something small, but it’s enough to scare you: you misplace your car keys, or you can’t remember the name of the movie you saw last week. Or your mind suddenly goes blank as you try to retrieve a word that hovers maddeningly out of reach. And you think, that’s it, I’m getting Alzheimer’s disease. While most people of a certain age have probably experienced that stab of anxiety, I’m particularly fearful. My father died with Alzheimer’s.
I say he died with it, not of it, because one can live with Alzheimer’s for years until some other illness—a heart attack, a stroke—mercifully ends the agony. For two decades, Alzheimer’s ate away at the man who was once my father, robbing him of speech, leaving him mute through a long, grim twilight.
As a writer, I’m particularly horrified by the prospect of words, the tools of my trade, slipping away from me. Like many of my friends, I’m trying to avoid the disease by staying physically fit and mentally active, but Alzheimer’s remains the only cause of death in the U.S.’s top 10 that can be neither prevented nor cured. It costs the U.S. $226 billion to care for our current five million Alzheimer’s patients, and by 2050, it’s projected that Alzheimer’s will cost our nation a trillion dollars. It destroys many more American lives than terrorism in this country ever has. Isn’t it time we declared war on this devastating enemy?
This war won’t be fought on battlefields but in research facilities, and our soldiers will be scientists. As a medical doctor, I’ve witnessed dramatic changes in medicine over the decades, and I’m certain that a cure for Alzheimer’s is within reach. In 2013, to help fund that research, I began my War on Alzheimer’s fund drive. I chose to work with the nonprofit Scripps Research Institute, an internationally known leader in basic biomedical research, because I knew the money would go straight to their Alzheimer’s research program.
I had noticed the importance of small donations to political campaigns, and I thought that same strategy might work for my campaign. Every $5 given to my cause (managed through GoFundMe) automatically placed the donor in a random drawing for various prizes, including autographed copies of my books; Rizzoli & Isles T-shirts, hats, and DVDs; and two grand prizes: the chance to name a character in my next Rizzoli & Isles novel. The more money you donated, the more chances you had at a prize. I pledged to match donations up to $25,000.
We raised over $50,000 in that first drive two years ago. My campaign wasn’t just about raising money; it was also about sharing personal stories of loved ones we’d lost to Alzheimer’s. On my campaign’s tribute page, donors wrote about their once-vibrant mothers and fathers who had faded into oblivion, just as my own father had. They posted photos and shared their fears that they too would one day succumb. They found comfort in knowing that they were not alone.
When I contacted the two grand-prize winners to ask which names they wanted as characters in my novel, one winner said, “Please use the name of my late mother. She died of Alzheimer’s, and I want to see her live again.”
This, I felt, was a sacred assignment. The character had to be worthy of his mother’s name, someone who wouldn’t simply walk on the page and walk off again. Someone who would have an adventure of her own and would live to tell the tale. And so Millie Jacobson, named after a woman who died of Alzheimer’s, made her entrance on the very first page of Die Again. Stranded in the African bush, Millie falls in love, fights for her life, and nearly loses her sanity. She emerges triumphant, a scrappy survivor who helps Jane Rizzoli catch a killer. Alzheimer’s disease may have killed her namesake, but this Millie Jacobson would live on.
Millie’s fictional adventure may be over, but my War on Alzheimer’s will continue until there’s a cure. I’ve already launched a second fund-raiser on GoFundMe, and once again, two winning donors will have a chance to name a character in my next Rizzoli and Isles novel. I hope other authors will join the fight for more Alzheimer’s research dollars by spreading the word, or by launching their own fund-raisers. There are a number of excellent biomedical research institutes around the country, and they can all use our support. Words are the tools of our trade. Let’s use them now to fund a cure, so those words won’t slip away from us forever.
If you would like to donate — and maybe win the chance to appear in a Rizzoli & Isles novel — visit my GoFundMe page.