A Conversation with Tess Gerritsen

As I’m about to head off to my adventures with the surgeon’s knife, I thought I’d post, instead of my usual blog entry, a piece that Random House sent out with their publicity packet for VANISH. It’s the sort of creepy backstory that usually serves as the wellspring for my books!————————–

A CONVERSATION WITH TESS GERRITSEN

Q: Your new thriller, VANISH, opens with the corpse of a beautiful woman suddenly waking up in the morgue. Did you just dream up this macabre scenario, or is it based on real events?

A: It was inspired by a true event that happened a few years ago in a Boston suburb. A young woman was found lying in a bathtub of cold water, with empty pill bottles nearby. A fire and rescue team was called to the scene, as well as a state police investigator, and they detected no signs of life. The supposedly dead woman was zipped into a body bag and transported to a funeral home ï¾– where, a few hours later, she woke up.

The idea of being mistaken for dead, and of waking up in a body bag, truly horrified me. When I read that news article, I knew immediately that I wanted to write about just such a scenario ï¾– a young woman, waking up in the morgue. But then, as a novelist, I found myself asking more and more questions about this mysterious woman. Who is she? Why doesnï¾’t anyone know her name? Why is there no record of her existence? Itï¾’s these questions that are the heart of the mystery in VANISH.

Q: How often does that actually happen, that a モcorpseヤ is later found alive? Isnメt it rare?

A: It happens more often than most people realize. There are historical examples of premature burial, of unfortunates waking up in coffins or tombs to find themselves trapped and doomed to a terrible death. Their fates were only discovered much later, when their graves were opened and claw marks were found inside the coffins. In the Victorian era, the fear of being buried alive was so widespread that some coffins came equipped with bells so that the interred モcorpseヤ could alert people above ground that he was still alive. There is even the rather heretical theory that the resurrection of Jesus was, in reality, simply a case of premature burial.

Even today, there are instances of the モdeadï¾” waking up. In a North Carolina morgue just this year, the medical examiner discovered a young man in a body bag was breathing, and transferred him to the hospital. Also this year, in Utah, a 4-year-old boy, presumed dead from drowning, was found alive after his death certificate had already been signed. There are cases of corpses waking up on the embalmerï¾’s table, or during their own funerals. Perhaps the most startling case happened in the 1980’s in New York, when a pathologist was about to slice open a corpse on the autopsy table. The corpse suddenly woke up and grabbed the doctor ï¾– who keeled over, dead. The モcorpseï¾” survived.

Q: Have you, as a physician, ever mistakenly declared a patient dead?

A: Not to my knowledge! But I understand how easily it can happen. And every doctor Iï¾’ve talked to agrees with me that it isnï¾’t difficult to make the mistake. I vividly recall one night while I was on call as a medical resident, and I was awakened by the nurse to come pronounce a patient dead. Itï¾’s not really a formalized process; it simply means you check for vital signs, concur with the nurse that the patient is deceased, and write a note to that effect in the chart. So I stumbled out of bed and headed to the patientï¾’s room. I found the bed surrounded by sobbing relatives, who all stared at me as I examined their loved one. I was so aware of the audience, so anxious to escape that room that I probably didnï¾’t listen as long as I should have for a heartbeat. As I walked out, I suddenly thought: maybe I should have listened a little longer. Maybe I missed something. So when I hear about medical personnel making premature diagnoses of death, I know exactly how it can happen.

Q: Your thrillers dwell on the darkest aspects of human nature, and on some pretty horrifying crimes. Why do you think youï¾’re drawn to such dark themes in your writing?

A: All the credit goes to my mother! Sheメs an immigrant from China, and when she first came to the U.S., her command of English was poor. What she did understand and enjoy, though, was American horror films. You donメt need to understand dialogue when youメre watching monsters wreaking havoc on the screen. It was her introduction to American culture, an introduction that needed no translation. So she dragged me and my brother to some pretty frightening films, and I spent much of my early childhood in movie theaters, cowering in terror ヨ and learning to love it! I still remember many of those films with great fondness: モThe Birds,ヤ モInvasion of the Body Snatchers,ヤ モThem,ヤ and of course the countless versions of モThe Mummyヤ. While other kids watched Disney films, I kept company with Godzilla and Dracula. Horror films taught me to always consider the darkest possibilities, to peek under rocks and look around corners for the monsters I knew had to be there. To this day, thatメs what I do with my fiction. I look under rocks, and wait for terrible things to come slithering out.

Q: Female authors, you among them, seem to be in the forefront when it comes to writing crime novels with graphic forensic details. Why this focus on the gore?

A: I canï¾’t answer for other novelists, only for myself. I write from a point of view thatï¾’s been shaped by my years as a physician. During my training, I saw a man bleed to death in the operating room. Iï¾’ve watched my own patients die, and then had to attend their autopsies. Those are traumatic events for anyone to witness, but itï¾’s what every physician sees in the course of his training. All readers want to learn secrets; they want to be brought into worlds theyï¾’re not privy to. Thatï¾’s what I try to do, tell them the secrets that I happen to know. Bring them into the autopsy room, show them what itï¾’s like to pick up a scalpel and slice skin. If the details arenï¾’t entirely unpleasant, itï¾’s because Iï¾’m trying to be honest, as a writer. Itï¾’s hard to prettify death.

Violence, however, is something I tend to shy away from when I write. Ironically enough, I myself donï¾’t like to read about graphic violence, and I try not to show it on the page. Instead, what I show is the aftermath of violence, when the investigators ï¾– doctors, criminalists, detectives ï¾– walk onto the scene and get to work doing their jobs. When you wear the hat of an investigator, it gives you distance. Focusing on the evidence, and on the science, helps insulate you from the horror of what has just happened.

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