A lovely interview with writer Elizabeth Heiter for ITW’s “The Big Thrill.”
Tess Gerritsen is one of my favorite thriller writers — someone who’s been published for nearly thirty years, penning romantic suspense, medical thrillers, a popular crime series that prompted a TV series, as well as screenplays. She’s also extremely generous to other writers, and recently, she answered my questions about writing, research, her process, getting inspired, and much more.
You’ve had eleven novels to date in your popular Rizzoli and Isles series (which was also made into a TV series). When I picked up the first book in the series, I read about half the book and then promptly went out and purchased everything else in the series (something I’ve never done before or since for any author). Can you tell us a bit about writing this series, and how you keep it fresh after so many books?
Keeping a long-running series fresh is a challenge, and my approach has been to allow my characters to change and grow. Since the very first book (THE SURGEON), Jane Rizzoli has evolved into quite a different woman. She wasn’t even supposed to survive that book! She was merely a secondary character, and an annoying one at that, and I had her death planned as part of the finale. But in the course of writing THE SURGEON, Jane the crank began to grow on me, and when her death scene came, I couldn’t finish her off. She’d fought back against her creator and survived, and I wanted to see what happened to her next. Since then she’s gotten married, given birth to a daughter (under the most horrific circumstances), and grown into a happier woman and a far more confident cop.
Her relationship with Maura Isles has also evolved over the series. At first merely colleagues, they’ve grown to know and trust each other. As with real friendships, they have their ups and downs. There are times when they’re barely talking to one another, and also times when they’d risk their lives for each other. The ebb and flow of their friendship, as well as the ups and downs of their lives, is really what has driven this series.
Your recent standalone novel, PLAYING WITH FIRE, was a departure from your normal crime thrillers, and you even wrote a piece of music to go with the book, which sounds like a fascinating challenge. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this new book and about the process of writing the music?
PLAYING WITH FIRE was unlike any book I’ve written because the entire plot revealed itself to me before I even started writing. It was inspired by a nightmare I had while I was in Venice for my birthday. I dreamt I was playing my violin (I’m an amateur musician) while a baby sat beside me. The music was dark and disturbing, and the baby’s eyes suddenly glowed red and she turned into a monster. I knew there was a message in this, something about the power of music to transform lives and awaken evil, but I had no idea what the story might be. That same day, I wandered into the old Jewish quarter in Venice and saw the memorials to the 246 Venice Jews who were deported to death camps in WWII. On one plaque I saw the names of the deportees, and the name “Todesco” transfixed me. It’s as if a voice whispered: “Here is your story. Write about the Todescos.” And so the entire plot was born, about a Jewish Italian composer named Lorenzo Todesco who composes a haunting waltz called “Incendio.” Seventy years later, that handwritten sheet of music is purchased in an antique store by a violinist named Julia, who discovers it has some strange power over her family. Every time she plays the music, her three-year-old daughter goes berserk and does something violent. Julia must track down the origins of “Incendio,” and her search takes her to Italy – and to the story of what happened to the Todesco family. It’s about how music connects us all, and how it can tell a story that’s as powerful a century later as when it was composed.
While writing the book, I had to describe the fictional waltz “Incendio” in great detail, from its haunting opening to the frantic arpeggios to the dissonant chords. All that description somehow worked its way into my subconscious because one night, I actually dreamed the melody. I woke up with the music right there in my head, and that morning I sat down at the piano and played it. It took me about six weeks to fully compose the piece. It has two basic melodic motifs which grow increasingly frantic and dissonant, and it ends in a series of funereal chords. It’s an insanely difficult piece to play on the violin, one I can’t play myself, so it was recorded by a superb concert violinist, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou. Readers can actually hear the music that the story is about.
In case writing books doesn’t keep you busy enough, you’ve also written screenplays. The most recent is a screenplay for Island Zero, which your son is directing. Can you tell us a bit about the movie and about the differences you discovered between writing books and writing a screenplay?
Island Zero started off as a playful conversation I had with my son Josh, who’s a documentary filmmaker. One day while we were both weeding the garden, I told Josh that we should make a low-budget horror movie together. I grew up loving horror films, and I thought it would be a cool and fun family project. What started off as just a lark soon blossomed into a real movie project. I wrote the script in about three months, and Josh brought on board an old high school friend who’s now a producer in Los Angeles. Even with our self-imposed low budget, they gathered together a film crew of 30, plus a crew of terrific SAG actors from NY and L.A. Josh directed, and Island Zerowas filmed over a very cold month in Maine. It’s now in post-production.
Writing for film is in many ways far easier than writing a novel. Dialogue carries the story, and so much can be communicated in an actor’s face. But if you’re writing for a low-budget indie, you have to think of things you’d never have to consider in a novel, primarily regarding the budget. I’ve learned to limit the number of locations (every camera set-up takes time and money!). I’ve learned why filming on the water can suck up a huge part of your budget (insurance!). I’ve learned why kids and dogs shouldn’t appear in scripts.
But indie films can be made for relatively little money if you figure out work-arounds. For instance, our movie ends with a house burning down. Eek – how do we do that without actually burning down a house? Well actually, we did burn down a house, but it was a house that the homeowner wanted demolished anyway. The local fire department came in to practice rescue techniques – just before they started the fire for us. We got the whole dramatic conflagration on camera.
Your first novel was published in 1987, and since then (if my count is correct), you’ve had twenty-five more books released. How has your process evolved over the years since that first book?
My process hasn’t evolved at all. I still go at it in a disorganized, completely unplanned way. With the exception of PLAYING WITH FIRE, whose plot came to me fully formed, my books almost always start with just a premise, and absolutely no roadmap as to the rest of the story. So I spend a lot of time on my first draft, trying to figure out where the story is going. Most of the time, I don’t even know who the villain is until halfway through the draft – or even later. I wish I could be more methodical about it, and I’ve tried plotting things out ahead of time, but I always end up tossing away my outlines.
My other quirk is that I continue to write my first drafts with pen and paper. That’s how attached I am to my tried and true, albeit inefficient, process. I’m just an old dog, and you can’t teach me new tricks.
Your books have featured serial killers, secret societies, ancient Chinese legends, and much more. What’s some of the most interesting research you’ve done for your novels?
My most challenging research project was GRAVITY, which was a thriller set aboard the International Space Station. The heroine is an astronaut-physician, and most of the action takes place in orbit. My goal was to write a book so accurate that even a NASA engineer would find nothing wrong with it. It required about two years to research and write. I visited Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center, interviewed dozens of NASA engineers and program directors, amassed a whole bookcase of textbooks about astronaut training and spacecraft technology, and actually started dreaming of weightlessness every night. That book was both fun and terrifying to write, because I felt the possibility of failure looming over me every step of the way.
Before writing novels, you worked as a physician. How has your medical background played a part in your novels? Besides the medical thrillers, does it still impact how you write certain characters or how you approach the forensic side, for example?
I understand how doctors think and how they approach problems, which helps when I write from the point of view of Maura Isles. I also understand the language of science, which makes it easier for me to research what are sometimes obscure topics.
You’ve used your platform as a bestselling author to bring awareness to the important issue of Alzheimer’s. Can you tell us a bit about that?
My father died with Alzheimer’s. It was a prolonged and terrible end for a man whose whole life was centered around food (he was a cook), and who at the end could not even feed himself. Almost everyone has been touched by Alzheimer’s, whether it’s suffered by a parent or a spouse, and I think it deserves the same national campaign for a cure that we had for sending a man to the moon. This is a crisis that will sap our economy, not to mention destroy countless lives.
Do you have a “book of your heart” that has yet to be written? And what’s coming up next for you?
PLAYING WITH FIRE was definitely a “book of the heart,” as were GRAVITY and THE BONE GARDEN. I don’t know what my next “book of the heart” will be; those stories come to me in unexpected ways. It’s like love at first sight — you know it when you feel it. As for what’s next for me, I’m now finishing up the twelfth Rizzoli and Isles novel. After that, my son and I are thinking of doing another film. Yes, it’ll be horror!
Over nearly thirty years, you’ve written romantic suspense, medical thrillers, and a long-running crime series and hit the New York Times bestseller list repeatedly. What advice would you give a new writer today about longevity in the business?
With indie publishing blossoming, there are a lot of new and exciting ways for writers to maintain a career. I think the important thing is to be quick to adapt and flexible enough to switch gears. When I realized that my romantic suspense career had plateaued, I wrote medical thrillers. When I saw my sales fade in that genre, I moved to crime thrillers. There’ve been several times when I thought my career was in a death spiral, yet I just kept writing. I think that’s the key: just keep writing.
Your books continue to be unique and compelling to readers. How do you keep filling the creativity well year after year, while finding a balance between writing and life?
Stay curious. You never know when some obscure bit of information blooms into the premise for your next novel. I read a lot of nonfiction as well as science magazines and multiple newspapers, and every so often I’ll encounter some oddball fact that launches a “what if.” For instance, some years ago I read about the Dugway Sheep Incident, when thousands of sheep were killed overnight in a valley in Utah because of a military nerve gas accident. I thought: what if it wasn’t just sheep who died; what if they accidentally killed a whole town? How would they cover it up? That turned into my novel, ICE COLD.
It’s also important to travel. Go someplace you’ve never been before. Being in a foreign country makes you see new things, gives you a fresh perspective.
And finally: indulge your hobbies, because they’ll feed that creativity. I could never have written PLAYING WITH FIRE if I weren’t a musician. My longtime interest in Egyptology led to my book THE KEEPSAKE. Try to live a rich, full life, because every new experience adds to the creative well.
Critically acclaimed author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.
To learn about Elizabeth Heiter’s most recent novel, click on the cover below: