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.
Publishers Weekly has not always been kind to me. So happy to see that they like PLAYING WITH FIRE:
On a trip to Rome, violinist Julia Ansdell, the narrator of this haunting standalone from bestseller Gerritsen (The Bone Garden), buys an old music book titled Gypsy from an antique shop. Inside the book, on a loose sheet of paper, is a handwritten waltz, Incendio, by one L. Todesco. Back home in Boston, Julia plays Incendio on her violin, but doing so appears to set off a series of calamities, starting with the death of the family cat, that upset her relationships with her husband, Rob, and their three-year-old daughter, Lily. Julia subsequently travels to Venice, to try to learn more about the music and its Jewish composer, Lorenzo Todesco. Flashbacks spanning 1938 to 1944 chronicle Lorenzo’s tragic story, in particular his romance with Catholic Laura Balboni, as the Fascist regime’s ever harsher anti-Semitic laws tear families and friends apart. Gerritsen movingly depicts Julia’s search, which has some surprising repercussions and builds to a satisfying crescendo.
I’m looking through my late father’s old photos this weekend, and I came across this one of him in Germany, where he served in the US Army during WWII. He appears to be wearing an MP armband. I don’t recall him ever telling me he worked as an MP. There are so many things he never told me about his life, and I’m sad that now I’ll never know, except through his old photos and documents. All the memories he could have shared with me were stolen from him long before he died.
He had Alzheimer’s Disease.
I watch many of my friends now struggling to care for aging parents with Alzheimer’s. I look at the emotional and economic devastation it has wrought on families and on our country as a whole. Over 5 million Americans are now afflicted with Alzheimer’s and by 2025, that number will probably grow to 7 million. By 2050, unless we find a cure, we will be spending over a trillion dollars caring for these patients. This is a disaster rolling toward us, yet our country doesn’t seem mobilized to fight an enemy that at this very moment is killing our loved ones, and is poised to take down my generation next.
As a doctor, I’ve watched how medical science has made enormous improvements in our lives over the last decades. Peptic ulcers, once treated with major surgery, are now cured with a simple course of antibiotics. Timely interventional medicine can now prevent strokes and heart attacks. Medical science has made great strides just during my career, and there’s no reason researchers can’t find a cure for Alzheimer’s. We just need the determination — and the funds — to support our scientists.
That’s why I launched my War on Alzheimer’s a few years ago. I urged my readers to donate to the Scripps Research Institute, internationally known for its biomedical research. Donations would go directly to their Alzheimer’s scientists. To encourage donations, I offered the chance at two grand prizes: the chance to name a character in my next Rizzoli & Isles novel. As little as $5 would enter you into a random drawing to see your name — or the name of a loved one — as a character in my book. I promised to personally match up to $25,000. We raised over $50,000. And the two winning names were characters who worked with Jane and Maura to catch a killer in DIE AGAIN.
The War on Alzheimer’s is an ongoing one, and it’s not over until we find a cure. So I’m doing another fundraiser with my next Rizzoli & Isles book. If someone you love suffers from Alzheimer’s, then you know how high the stakes are. Please join me by spreading the word, and by donating to this vital research. As little as $5 will give you a chance to name a character who might help solve a case — or be a killer!
To donate, visit my GoFundMe page. Let’s fight this war — and win it together.
And if you’re on Twitter, tweet a photo of a loved one before he or she came down with Alzheimer’s. Let’s not forget who they were before. (#BeforeAlzheimers)
It’s always scary sending out a new book for review. You never know if critics will praise it or blast it. The first review for my upcoming novel PLAYING WITH FIRE has just come in, and it’s a lovely one:
PLAYING WITH FIRE [STARRED REVIEW!]
Author: Tess Gerritsen
Review Issue Date: September 1, 2015
Online Publish Date: July 28, 2015
Publication Date: October 27, 2015
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-1-101-88434-8
ISBN ( e-book ): 978-1101-88435-5
A suspenseful thriller about mysterious music and a violinist’s fear of her child. Julia Ansdell is a violinist with a 3-year-old daughter, Lily. While in Italy, Julia buys an old piece of sheet music titled Incendio by an L. Todesco, whom she’s never heard of. When she plays the composition at home in the U.S., Lily appears to go crazy, killing their cat, stabbing Julia in the leg with a shard of glass, and causing her to fall down a flight of stairs. Does the music possess an evil quality? Or does the problem lie within Julia herself, as her husband, Rob, thinks? “I know how absurd I sound,” she says, “claiming that a 3-year-old plotted to kill me.” Afraid Rob wants her committed, she flies to Italy to try to learn more about the music’s origin. In a parallel story, Lorenzo Todesco is a young violinist in 1940s Italy. He practices for a duet competition with 17-year-old cellist Laura Balboni. They play beautifully together and know they will win—perhaps they’ll even marry one day. But this is Mussolini’s Italy, and a brutal war is on. As the plotlines converge, people die, and Julia places herself and others in mortal danger. In fact, the stakes are even higher than she knows. A friend tells Julia, “The seasons don’t care how many corpses lie rotting in the fields; the flowers will still bloom.” This stand-alone novel has no bearing on the author’s Rizzoli & Isles series, but the crafting is equally masterful. For example, the musical descriptions are perfect: “The melody twists and turns, jarred by accidentals.…I feel as if my bow takes off on its own, that it’s moving as if bewitched and I’m just struggling to hang on to it.” Clear your schedule for this one—you won’t want to put it down until you’re finished.
Exciting announcement to come about my musical collaboration with the internationally acclaimed violinist who’s recording the piece “Incendio,” which I composed. PLAYING WITH FIRE is about a haunting waltz — and you’ll be able to hear that waltz. The music will be available on iTunes.