“Your English is so good!”

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

Not the face one automatically identifies as AMERICAN.

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

Well, a sort of English.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I listened.

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

A sad, but not sharking, truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no way to get past that prejudice.

Unless I change my name to Terence.

Guten tag!

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

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

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

“What did you eat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paranoia and pity

That’s what I felt as I walked the aisles of Book Expo America last weekend in New York City. Well okay, maybe I shouldn’t use such extreme words — maybe what I actually felt was anxiety and sympathy, seeing the hundreds of publishers and the thousands and thousands of books on display. So much competition, so many titles vying for attention, and there was my upcoming book, VANISH, up against the many books being hawked. Attending a huge trade convention like BEA is a stark reminder to any author that publishing is a seriously competitive business, and that any author is lucky just to make a living at a job that everyone and his cousin seems to want to be doing, the wonderful job of, as my hero Lawrence Block puts it, “telling lies for fun and profit.” That’s what I do, folks. I tell lies. And I get paid for it.

Is there any better job in the world?

The trouble is, everyone else wants to do it, too.

For those who are interested in what authors do at an event like BEA, here’s the honest truth: We’re there to beg for attention. We hawk our wares. We sit at booths signing our books for anyone interested enough to want to snag a free copy. (Did I mention these copies are FREE? That attendees could get a copy WITHOUT PAYING A CENT?) Despite that most tempting offer, there were many forlorn authors sitting ignored at booths with piles of their books in front of them, unwanted by anyone. (FREE books!)

Here’s where the emotion “pity” comes in.

I was cruising by the author signing booths and saw huge lines of fans wanting books from the big names like Lisa Scottoline and Douglas Preston — and my heart bled for the authors with no lines. The authors whose books no one wanted. Even though the copies were free. If it weren’t for the fact my suitcase was already full and I couldn’t possibly fit in another book, I would have stepped up to their booths, just to make them feel less forlorn. Because I know what they’re feeling; I’ve been there, felt that.

That’s the advantage of having worked my way up from the bottom in the publishing world. I didn’t start off from day one as a successful author. I’m one of those 10-year overnight successes, having first hit the New York Times bestseller list not with my first book, but with my tenth. I know what it’s like to desperately want recognition, to want someone, anyone, to read one of my books.

So to all you authors who are just starting out, to all you authors who couldn’t even GIVE AWAY your books at BEA: Hang in there. My heart’s with you.

Years ago, I attended a bookseller’s trade show in northern California. Now, any of you who’ve been to San Francisco know that it is a seriously literary town. A town where authors of popular fiction are sometimes made to feel like… well, the visiting whore. So there I was, with copies of my suspense novel, and none of the local booksellers even gave me a second glance. They all rushed for the booth where the latest Hot New Author was selling his Hot New Literary Novel. You probably know what I’m talking about — the book with the sepia cover and the great Kirkus quote. Booksellers lined up for half a mile to get a copy of his book.

I think I gave away (with a lot cajoling) about twelve of mine.

Fast forward to six years later. That Hot New Author has since vanished from the face of the earth. That Hot New Literary Masterpiece was his one and only novel.

Meanwhile, the reliable old workhorse author (me) is still turning out books. Starting to sell pretty well. And every year I see another crop of Hot New Authors with long lines of booksellers anxious to pick up the latest Hot-New-Sepia-Book-With-Great-Kirkus-Quotes.

Some things never change.

I’ve been in this business long enough to understand that what really matters in publishing success is longevity and consistency. That real writers, the true professionals, are the ones who write book after book, year after year. The buzz isn’t ever about the old reliables. The buzz is always about the new kid on the block.

The rest of us just, well, do our jobs and write.

But back to BEA — so what else does an author do there?

If we’re lucky, and we behave ourselves, and we clean up well, they let us out to talk to the media. The most fun I had was being interviewed for “Book Look TV” by actor James Michael Tyler (who — hurray for him! — had actually read VANISH and knew what he was talking about!) I think I might have freaked him out a little with my true stories of corpses waking up from the dead, but he handled his disgust with the aplomb of a true professional.

What else did we do? Well, we’re WRITERS! We know how to toss down a few drinks and party.

One of the BEA highlights was attending the launch cocktail party of a brand new organization, International Thriller Writers, which was held at the Algonquin Hotel on Saturday night. The place was so packed with luminaries you could hardly move. I had my photo taken with Kathy Reichs and Heather Graham. I hung out with old pals Gary Braver and Michael Palmer and Gregg Hurwitz and Gayle Lynds. I made new pals like David Morrell, JA Konrath and MJ Rose. All of them are successful authors.

Yet I wonder how many of them felt the same thing I did, walking through the vast BEA exhibit hall: MY GOD LOOK AT ALL THESE OTHER AUTHORS’ BOOKS! I’M AN INSIGNIFICANT ANT!

“So… what’s with the romance novels?”

Yes, it’s true. It sometimes astonishes my thriller readers, but I started off my writing career, years ago, as a romance author. At bookstore talks, when I happen to mention my early years as a Harlequin Intrigue writer, I sometimes hear giggles in the audience, as though I should be embarrassed about my sordid secret. But romance writing has its own challenges, its own difficulties, and anyone who thinks that they can make a quick buck writing one of those “little paperback romances” doesn”t know the first thing about the genre.

How did I end up writing romances in the first place?

I owe it all to one of my patients. I was a medical resident at the time, working eighty hours a week on a cardiac care rotation. My patient was a woman with chest pain, and she spent two days in the CCU while we ruled out a heart attack. On the day she left the hospital, she handed me a large paper sack and said, “I’ve finished reading all these. Maybe you’d like them.”

I looked in the bag. Inside were a dozen romance novels. Never in my life had I read a romance, and I planned to drop them off at my local Goodwill store. But during one of my spare moments on the ward, I happened to fish out one of the books and read the first few pages. Then I read a few more pages. Then I couldn’t put the damn thing down.

A week later, I’d read every book in that sack. Soon I found myself slipping romance novels into my grocery cart, along with the milk and eggs. Exhausted though I was by the demands of medical training, I became a voracious romance reader … all the time feeling slightly sheepish about my secret addiction. Wait, I was a medical doctor! A Stanford graduate! Why wasn’t I reading, oh … Proust instead?

Then one night, while on Intensive Care rotation, I happened to glance around at the ICU nurses who were taking their coffee breaks, and I realized that they were all reading romance novels. They were doing it happily and unashamedly. If you’ve ever worked in a hospital, then you know that the smartest people in the building are probably the ICU nurses. I thought: if these women aren’t embarrassed by their reading material, why should I be?

Indeed, why should anyone be embarrassed by what they read?

That was when I finally gave myself permission to read for pleasure. To read what enthralled me, excited me, entertained me. Too many people feel forced to read what I call “legume literature” — books that are supposed to be “good” for you, the way broccoli is good for you. Snooty minds must have no candy! No cake-and-ice-cream books! You must read books that make you struggle and work, or you are a — a —

A what? A reader who actually enjoys books?

Once, at a signing, a woman came up to me and told me, quietly: “Thank you for making me enjoy reading again.” I looked up at her in astonishment. “Why didn’t you enjoy it before?” I asked her. “Because I belonged to this book group,” she said. “And all they read was serious literature. And I found the books they chose so depressing and difficult that reading became painful. PAINFUL! I became afraid of picking up any books at all. Then, on vacation, I read one of your thrillers, and I remembered something I’d forgotten since my childhood: That books are supposed to be fun!”

Now, that is just sad. A reader who was scared away from books by the tyranny of the Book Group.

Which is the point I really want to make: that there is nothing wrong with what you enjoy reading, including genre fiction. There is nothing wrong with romance novels or science fiction or books about cowboys. There is nothing wrong with enjoying what’s printed on the back of the cereal box. Maybe your Book Group will turn up their noses, but why should you have to make excuses for your reading choices?

Nor should writers ever have to make excuses for the genre in which they choose to write. One thing I’ve learned, after all my years is a novelist, is that EVERY book is difficult to write. Since romances focus on characters and relationships — vital elements in any novel — romance novelists actually have an advantage when they move into other genres. I’ve read too many thrillers that may be well-plotted and full of action, but they are lacking the very elements romance novelists are expert in: characters we care about, characters who are human enough to feel and fall in love.

I now write thrillers with graphic forensic and medical details, drawing from my own years as a physician. I don’t flinch from addressing what are sometimes painful current events. Mystery readers praise me for being dark and ruthless with some of my plots. Then, those same readers will happen across one of my early romance novels (now published under the Mira imprint) and let out a howl of “What the heck is THIS fluffy thing?”

Answer: it’s a romance novel, dears. Yes, there’s a love story in there — that’s what a romance novel is supposed to have. Criticizing a romance novel for being about love is like criticizing a cat for having whiskers. If you detest whiskers, then don’t play with the cat. And if you detest love stories, then don’t read romance novels, and later complain they’re … romance novels.

Everybody’s a critic

Imagine this scenario. You have just given birth to a brand new baby, and it has been a long, difficult labor. For a year you’ve thought of little else. You’ve lost sleep over it, obsessed over it, tortured yourself over it, and at last you proudly carry your baby out of the hospital.

Then a complete stranger comes up to you and says, “That’s a really ugly kid.” Or: “It’s deformed!” Or: “People like you shouldn’t even have babies.”

That’s what it’s like to get a bad review. I’m not talking about the ho-hum “coulda been better” reviews. I’m talking about a really, really nasty one where the reviewer comes after your baby with an ice pick. I doubt there’s an author alive with skin thick enough to be able to just brush these off. After all these years as a novelist, truly cruel reviews still make me double over in pain and make me want to crawl into bed and pull the sheets over my head. They make me want to never write another word. Writers may tell you that they don’t care about reviews, but they do. Every artist does. We all remember our truly awful reviews. We remember who wrote them. And we never, ever forgive or forget.

What do I mean by an “ice-pick” review? Herewith some of the winners that I’ve picked up over the years:

about HARVEST: “Will surprise only readers who move their lips.” (Publishers Weekly)

about BLOODSTREAM: “(Gerritsen’s) success is a sorry indicator of how far the book-buying public’s standards have sunk.” (Albany Times-Union)

about THE SURGEON: “Abusive garbage … The world would be a better place if she had stuck to her medical practice.” (Maine Times)

Whoa. Do ya think they hated the books? (Ironically enough, these three books all made the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list.) These are reviews that saw print in legitimate publications. We’re not talking about the occasional off-the-wall reader reviews on Amazon.com (and believe me, I’ve received a few of those too. Including from a reader who couldnt get past the fact she “hated” the name of Jane Rizzoli. Imagine that! A complete stranger comes up to you and tells you that not only does she hate your baby, she hates your baby’s name!)

How many of you have jobs where strangers feel completely free to tell you how incompetent you are? Strangers who have never even tried to perform your job themselves? That’s what it’s like to be an artist or a performer. We spend months or years toiling over the work of our heart, and anyone — anyone at all — feels free to take an ice-pick to it.

That’s how it goes. Bad reviews come with the territory. But boy, it sure would feel good to walk up to a nasty reviewer one of these days and tell him: “You know what? You’ve got a really ugly baby.”

“Of all the books you’ve written, which one is your favorite?”

Readers sometimes ask me “Of all the books you’ve written, which one is your favorite?” And, oddly enough, the book I think is my best is the one that sold the fewest copies:GRAVITY.

I’ve puzzled over just why this book sold so poorly. I’ve heard criticism from some readers that it was simply too technical, or that the topic of space travel didn’t appeal to them. I guess not everyone’s an old Trekkie like me. But every time I look up at the sky, I feel both a great sense of wonder and a deep sense of dread about what’s up there — and whether it wants to exterminate us. I just had to explore that issue of doom falling upon us from space, because it’s a recurrent nightmare of mine, and one that I still haven’t shaken.

Readers who happen to be big fans of GRAVITY often write to ask me why I don’t write more books like it. The truth is, I want to! I wish there was a market for it. Unfortunately, there isn’t — at least, that was my disappointing experience. The author is willing; the market isn’t.

“What is the order in which I should read your books?”

Here’s a very, very Freqeuently Asked Question: “What is the order in which I should read your books?”

Actually, there are only four books which need to be read in order, and they’re in the Jane Rizzoli/ Maura Isles series. They were first published in the following order:

THE SURGEON (2001) THE APPRENTICE (2002 THE SINNER (2003) BODY DOUBLE (2004) (and coming August 2005: VANISH)

My medical suspense novels are all stand-alones, however, and can be read in any order:

HARVEST (1996) LIFE SUPPORT (1997) BLOODSTREAM (1998) GRAVITY (1999)

And finally, just in case you happen to enjoy romance novels, I thought I’d also let you in on the fact that — yes, I used to write romances! Something that surprises readers when they suddenly come across one of my early paperbacks, and wonder when I switched to romance. Here are those titles:

CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT (1987) UNDER THE KNIFE (1990) NEVER SAY DIE (1992) WHISTLEBLOWER (1992) PRESUMED GUILTY (1993) PEGGY SUE GOT MURDERED (1993) IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS (1994) THIEF OF HEARTS (1995) KEEPER OF THE BRIDE (1996)

Okay, it’s back to work!

“The Ultra Gory Writer”

Sometimes I run across a reference to me as “that ultra gory writer” and I can’t help but think: “Who, moi?!” Because, to tell the truth, I don’t think of myself that way. A confession here: I hate gory movies. I hate watching violence on film, or reading it on the page. I don’t think of my own books as particularly upsetting, though, because when I write about autopsies or operating rooms, I’m just writing about … well, work. The things I’ve seen as a doctor, which — taken in the context of the autopsy room or the OR — are all about doing your job. Once you put on that hat of doctor or medical examiner, you are not focused on the horror of what you’re seeing. You’re there to do a job, and you just want to do the best you can. You shut out the horror.So please don’t think of me as that “ultra gory writer.” Think of me as that author who’s just telling you what she’s seen as a doctor.

And on another subject:

Things that readers/reviewers say that make me scratch my head.

I got this in an email: “I work in a medical laboratory, and I have NEVER done the things that Warren Hoyt does! I never uncap blood tubes and sniff them! You have done my profession a terrible disservice with this book!”

Um, okay. I’m really glad you don’t do the things that Warren Hoyt does.

Pedal-to-the-metal

Okay, what’s happening is this: I am pedal-to-the-metal trying to finish VANISH! That’s the reason for this long silence. That plus we had a huge snowstorm up here in Maine a few days ago, which knocked out my power and internet for about four days. It was fun to finally get back online and find all the nice notes some of you have left in the guestbook. Now back to banging my head on the keyboard as I try to figure out how to pull Jane Rizzoli out of the fire yet again…