“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…

What Happens on a Book Tour?

I’ve been playing hooky for far too long, and now it’s time to tell you what happened on book tour: lots and lots of serious eating! Toad in the hole, bubble and squeak, Cornish pasties, roasted Swedes (translation: rutabagas) — I sampled it all.Well, I never could get myself to order “spotted Dick” but maybe next time.

High points? The spicy fried mackerel at Mela Indian restaurant on Shaftesbury Ave, London. The incredibly fresh grilled plaice at the Lamb Inn in Marlborough. Sipping wine in the cozy Haunch of Venison in Salisbury. Sharing one of my lamb chops with a bookseller at Christopher’s restaurant. (He’s since dubbed me “two-chop Gerritsen”.)

But wait — I was there on business, wasn’t I? So I guess I really should talk about the book tour.

Why do we authors bother to go on the road, anyway? Why do we drag ourselves from city to city, bookstore to bookstore, when only 30 people at a time show up for a signing? (And that’s if we’re lucky; most times the audiences are far smaller. )

The reason we do it is media attention. With one or two good radio shows, you can reach an audience of millions, and in the UK, it’s all made simple because many of the stations are part of the BBC network. You can sit in one building and talk to radio hosts from around the country, without having to leave your chair. And I’ll say this for UK radio — the interviewers have almost all done their homework. They’ve read the book, they ask thoughtful questions, and don’t resort to just parroting the press release, as so many hosts in the US do.

But they can also play a little rough. How’s this for a nightmare scenario? You’re trapped in a studio with three young hotshot reviewers who each proceed to critique your work ON THE AIR. And then they all sit back while you try not to disintegrate into a blubbering mess ON LIVE RADIO. (Now I understand why “The Weakest Link” originated in the UK. Those Brits do seem to love the spectacle of public humiliation.) I spent the show sweating in my chair, obsessing about that scene in “Galaxy Quest” where these cuddly little aliens suddenly sprout fangs and attack. My three reviewers, thank heavens, never showed even a glint of fang.

Then there was a photo shoot for EVE, a UK women’s magazine. The theme was “Secrets of best-selling authors” and there I was, professionally coiffed and made up, posing with three gorgeous women novelists, Joanne Harris and Freya North and Lauren Child, who shared their their own author photo stories. How a photographer once asked Joanne to pose nude in a tub of melted chocolate. How another photographer asked Freya North to pose nude on horseback. (Are you starting to sense a common theme here?) So now I’m wondering why no photographer has ever asked me to pose nude for my author pics. Should I feel miffed about this?

Off to the UK

I’m off to London for my UK book tour, so for the next two weeks, I won’t be able to answer my emails or respond to my guestbook entries for awhile. But I promise — I’ll be answering every one of them when I return.Although authors may tell you that book tours are grueling affairs, I have always enjoyed them. My secret? I try to enjoy at least one great meal every day. This doesn’t mean it has to be expensive or even elaborate. Just a tasty meal, prepared with care. Even something as basic as a piping hot platter of frites can make me deliriously happy. Spoken like the daughter of a restauranteur! (which I am.) I think that people who don’t enjoy their food are probably not very enjoyable company as people, either. If that makes me a superficial bonne vivante, well then — I guess I am!

Maybe this blog is a bad idea

Maybe I shouldn’t be blurting out the truth for everyone to read. Heck, I don’t know if anyone will even be reading this, but for what it’s worth, here it is — the unvarnished truth about what it’s like to be a novelist these days.

To copy a phrase from W., “it’s hard, hard work.”

Right now, I’m finishing up VANISH, my next book in the Jane Rizzoli / Maura Isles series, and I’ll tell you now it’s been a difficult birth. But then, all my books have been difficult. Whenever someone blithely tells me “oh, you just churn them out,” I want to strangle them. No, I do not just churn out these stories. I labor hard over each and every one. I spend many sleepless nights, worrying whether I can pull my characters out of the fire. Since I don’t plot out my books ahead of time, and instead allow each one to organically develop in its own way, I never how they’ll turn out until the words are actually on the page. My method is unpredictable and, in some ways, chaotic. But it’s the way I’ve always worked, and I’m too old a dog to learn new tricks.

I figure, if I’m surprised by the twists and turns, then maybe my readers will be surprised as well.

Do I ever just turn in the books because I’ve run out of time?

No. Never. The endings you read in my stories are precisely the endings I wanted. If all the loose ends aren’t neatly tied up, it’s because I think you the reader are clever enough to figure out what happens next. (Do I REALLY need to show you the wedding of Abby and Katzka? Come on, people. You KNOW they’re gettin’ married, and that they’re gonna adopt Yakov!!!)

A question that I often have to answer in interviews is this: “You seem like such a nice person. Why do you write such horrifying stuff?”

It’s because of my mother. And I say that in the nicest way. Those of you who’ve seen my photos know that I’m Asian American. My mom was an immigrant from China — specifically, Kunming. When she came to the U.S., her command of English was a bit spotty. The one thing she understood, and enjoyed, was American horror films. No need to understand English in a horror film. You see Frankenstein or the Mummy coming after you, and you don’t need English to understand that this is a bad thing.

My mother dragged me and my younger brother to every horror film that came to San Diego. I grew up cowering in fright in movie theaters. My girlhood was fraught with nightmares of “Body Snatchers” and “Them” and those alien ships from “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”. If you want to understand where my books come from, all you need to do is watch a few horror films from the 60’s.

Yeah, Mom, thanks a lot. And I really mean that. Because she awakened my imagination. She (and Hollywood) made me think: “What’s the worst that can happen?” And that’s exactly what goes on in my books. I’m always thinking: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

And then I try to make it happen.

If you have any questions, just email me. I’ll try to address them next time I blog!