Writing novels can get you sued

My first medical thriller, Harvest, was about a fictional black market in human organ trafficking, and I based it on rumors that had been circulating for some time. The plot was inspired by a conversation I’d had with a retired policeman who’d been traveling in Russia, and had heard that children were vanishing from Moscow and were being shipped abroad as involuntary organ donors. I was determined to make the story as believable as possible, with enough real medical details to make my audience believe it could be possible — and even probable. To add to the verisimilitude, I used the names of real transplant organizations, including the New England Organ Bank. In no way did NEOB appear as a villain of any kind — in fact they were the good guys in the story.

Harvest was published, became a bestseller, and I began to receive fan mail from transplant patients, doctors, and nurses who told me how much they enjoyed reading a medical thriller with accurate details.

I also received a letter from the New England Organ Bank demanding that the name of their organization be removed from any future editions or their lawyers would contact my publisher’s lawyers, and … well, you get the gist of it. They were going to sue me. (They wrote a similar warning letter to the movie producer who’d bought the feature film rights, demanding that any film of such a story be stopped.) They accused me of spreading malicious rumors about organ trafficking, There is absolutely no black market in human organs, they wrote, and I should know that. I was needlessly upsetting the public, and I was irresponsible to even bring up such a possibility. To make it even worse, I was a physician. Didn’t I have a moral obligation, as a doctor, to stick to the truth?

I wrote back that the book is clearly labeled a novel, and that novels by definition were fiction. I also consulted with my publisher’s legal office, which told me to relax, that they get these sorts of letters all the time, and that since I had not said anything bad about NEOB, there really was no reason they could win a lawsuit. (But they admitted that NEOB could still choose to sue me.)

The paperback edition was released with no changes. The threat of a lawsuit continued to lurk. And I continued to be bothered by that charge of being an irresponsible writer and physician. I kept waiting to receive that letter that yes, I was being sued. But NEOB never wrote me again.

Maybe because they were starting to hear that those “malicious rumors” did in fact have some truth behind them.

Harvest, it seems, wasn’t so far-fetched after all.

13 replies
  1. JD Rhoades
    JD Rhoades says:

    I’ve had a few folks send me e-mails threatening to sic their lawyers on me for something I’ve written for one reason or another. Since I practically live in a courtroom these days, my usual response is two words: “bring it.”

    Well, actually it’s three words, but the last one is a 12 letter word I won’t use on your blog. As you’ve experienced, the threats are almost always empty.

  2. therese
    therese says:

    The deeper truth behind this blog is that novelists can bring more truth to the reader than they will ever get from the news.

    Readers are more passionate about their favorite novelists, for the truths that make life worth living, than they are about newscasters or even their current employer.

    This is why I write and why I follow your blog. We are all a story in our own right, and truth is a matter to be considered, from our own point of view. Without story, who would humans be? Without authors dedicated to bring us story, would injustice win?

    Damn the torpedoes, Tess. Chance the lawsuits, have fun with your stories and write what you want. Your page in the history of story is already written – and we thank you – as readers who want a truth lawyers haven’t figured out how to make – readable.

    No offense to Mr. King, but the horrors you bring to the surface, are stuff we can do something about. If aware there is a need, which your stories show – there is – and something to do about it. As an author and a physician, you are totally within your oaths and duties to present, what may be there. Only by exposing such, to the sunlight, can change happen.

    I also know, legan crap and attacks, do throw an author of course. Thanks for being true to story and toss all that negative stuff onto someone else’s desk. Keep writing.

  3. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    Welcome to Tess Gerritsen’s Investigative Reporting. (Geraldo Rivera who?) Yes, being a physician gives you a moral right to stick to the truth. Was it any wonder that when Harvest came out in paperback NEOB never sent another notice? I agree with Therese above when she said “We are all a story in our own right, and truth is a matter to be considered, from our own point of view.” You wright what you know, and yes, novels are works of fiction. Isn’t there a disclaimer in the beginning of a book that says that this book is a work of fiction and any resemblence to any person, living, or dead, is strictly coincidental (or of the author’s imagination?) Don’t worry about NEOB. I guess that’s an acronym for Not Everyone Occupies Brains. Keep up the great work, Tess.

  4. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:

    Dr Tess,

    I’m delighted you discovered that your book Harvest was not urban legend, but fact. Credit Newsweek for an excellent story. Too bad they didn’t write it before the lawsuit threats came. If that happens again, I know a good lawyer who once represented the Maine Medical Association.

    Father Daniel

  5. mchastain
    mchastain says:

    So does this mean Harvest isn’t going to be made into a movie? I wish all of your books were made into movies and the Rizzoli/Isles books made into a series.

    I’m sorry you had to deal with this!

  6. Kristy
    Kristy says:

    Illegal organ harvest is doing very well in China. It has been for quite some time. For some reason the medical community / watchdog groups seem to discredit reports coming from there. They are actually harvesting the organs from live politcal prisoners (killing them in the process of course). It is a very frightening situation. For more information go to: http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/824qbcjr.asb or search for china organ harvest and you can find information about it.

  7. MFier
    MFier says:

    I know I’m off topic, but Father Daniel posts to your blog and Gabriel created your website…. Any chance you’ll blog about people in your life who’ve inspired your characters?

    Did anyone else checkout the comments posted on that Newsweek article? Apparently there’s a school of thought that it should be legal to sell your organs – so the poor can profit. I wonder if the people who feel this way have considered how the playing field is going to be kept level for the poor who NEED organs in their scenario.

  8. doomer
    doomer says:

    Hi Tess,

    This blog entry made me think of a couple things. Many of the authors whose works I read are writing about actual events using a fictionalized narrative to convey the story. It’s a very effective way to describe reality while keeping the reader engaged. Harvest is one of my all-time favorite novels, describing what I thought at the time may have actually been happening in a very vivid way. The paddling mass — yeesh 🙂

    Since we seem to be on the cusp of being able to clone humans, we may need to look at organ trafficking in a different light. If we can clone a human with the intent to have him/her act as a spare parts facility, what are the ethical implications? Will clones have a soul? Are we obligated as a society to educate them? What happens if a clone gets sick and needs an organ transplant to survive? Will society treat them as individuals with the same inalienable rights as ‘conventionally-born’ humans, or will they be thought of as we would livestock? Will society decide on minimum quality-of-life standards for them? If we create the spare-parts factory from an animal genetically altered to produce human organs, does that mean the animal should be considered partially human? If so, what are the ethical implications of killing the animal to harvest the organs? What happens if we make an animal/human hybrid that gets really smart, can multiply quickly in the hybrid form and has a serious dislike for ‘full’ humans?

  9. Tess
    Tess says:

    Father Daniel started corresponding with me only after I had created the character with his name. It’s been a point of amusement for both of us. It’s interesting how often I’ll create a character and then come across a real person with the same name!

  10. Tess
    Tess says:

    doomer, the science of cloning has made the whole black-market-organs plot less relevant. When we can start growing organs, we won’t need to be stealing them.

  11. kayra
    kayra says:

    My 2 friends and I just can’t get enough of the complex and oh so well woven threads in the dynamic ever evolving relationships of both the profoundly evil and blessedly beautiful and humane characters in your stories.The haunting beauty that surrounds Maura Isles fascinates me. So does Father Brophy!…please explore deeper their innate connectivenss and the balm of healing and completeness which Father Brophy brings to Maura’s life.

  12. Paul
    Paul says:

    I just finished Harvest. It’s been on my bookshelf at least 10 years. It was funny to read a book that could have been current if not for the absence of cell phones.

    Is there a follow-up?

    What happened to Abby next? Did she go on Oprah? Did she get back in the residency program? Did she adopt Yakov? Did she testify against Voss?

    I want to read about Abby’s “I told you so” moments!

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply