stanford medicine


Tess Gerritsen

The doctor will scare you now

A Q&A with Tess Gerritsen, medical mystery writer

Darkness pervades the pages of Tess Gerritsen’s novels. There, serial killers lurk in bedrooms, bones are uncovered in flower gardens and the dead come alive at the morgue. An inveterate storyteller even as a child, Gerritsen didn’t see writing medical thrillers as a career until much later in life.

The UCSF-trained internist with an undergraduate degree from Stanford got started writing romantic thrillers while on maternity leave from her physician work. Then slowly but surely, she transformed the blood, guts and gore so familiar to her from medicine into a career as a New York Times best-selling author. While she readily admits to taking great pleasure in scaring the wits out of her readers, the self-described scaredy cat says she wouldn’t fare so well if she were thrown into any of the dire situations that confront her characters. Stanford Medicine’s executive editor, Paul Costello, tracked down Gerritsen at her home in Maine as she was working on her latest novel. It was there, we presume, that she was looking under rocks and waiting, as she says, for “something horrible” to creep out.

Costello: You started writing when you were 7 years old, I understand. What were your first pieces of fiction?

Gerritsen: They were about my pets. I think the first book I wrote was about the death of my cat, and I ended up binding that book myself with a needle and thread.

Costello: Did others say at that point, “You need to follow this. This is a career”?

Gerritsen: My parents always knew I was a storyteller. I grew up in a house where, even though my mother was an immigrant from China, she truly valued literature and books. We had huge volumes of Reader’s Digest condensed books in our library. So, she very much encouraged me.

Costello: I read that your mother loved horror films. Did she take you to them as a child?

Gerritsen: She did. Practically every single horror film that was made. I spent a lot of my young childhood screaming in dark movie theaters. But, I learned so much from Hollywood. I think that was almost the perfect background for someone who wants to write suspense.

Costello: What did you learn from Hollywood?

Gerritsen: They schooled me in the principles of a suspense story. You start off with a normal day, which could end up being the worst or the last day of your life. You lift up a rock and something horrible is going to creep out from underneath it, and you know that the locked door is locked for a reason. Those are all things that we thriller writers end up using in one way or another.

Costello: It struck me when reading your novels that as a physician you have to calm people down, and as a mystery writer you have to scare the heck out of people. What’s more comfortable for you?

Gerritsen:Scaring people is a lot easier because when you’re trying to calm people, very often it’s because there’s a reason for them to be scared. They can see it in your face. They can tell that you’re trying to be calming, but there will be bad news around the corner. That’s real life. Real life can be very disturbing. I think that’s one reason why so many of us who write thrillers, write thrillers! It’s because it gives us a way to express our interior anxiety.

Costello: Do you also like scaring people?

Gerritsen: I do get a thrill out of it. When I hear from somebody that they could not go to sleep that night, I think, “I did my job right!”

Costello: Why do you think medical mystery thrillers are so successful?

Gerritsen: I think medicine in general is universal. We all see the doctor. We’re all terrified of physicians and we’re all terrified of hospitals for very good reasons. Most of us will probably go there to die. So, I think that we always want to address our fears.

Costello: Are there characters of yours that have stayed with you and perhaps still haunt you?

Gerritsen: I often wonder what they’re up to later on. There was one character who stuck with me in a most frightening way. And that was the villain who first appeared in The Surgeon. When I finished that book, he was in prison. He was no longer somebody to worry about, and yet I could not stop hearing his voice. It’s never happened to me before, where a character would actually ... I could hear his voice whispering to me.

And every time I wrote a scene from his point of view it was effortless. It was almost as if I were taking dictation. He was so real to me that my husband and I used to talk about him as if he were somebody we knew.

Costello: Besides blood, guts and gore, which you have a lot of in your novels, what else do physicians and mystery writers share?

Gerritsen: I’ll tell you something about physicians as writers: They are actually handicapped when they write fiction. I teach a course once a year with thriller novelist Michael Palmer for doctors who want to become novelists. We all have a strong background in science, and in a way science kind of beats out the fiction writer in you. It forces you to think in a very objective way. You’re not supposed to make stuff up as a doctor.

Costello: How do you go about building a mystery?

Gerritsen: It’s necessary for me to begin a book with a very strong emotional reaction to a situation that I’ve heard about. The premise has to really, really be what I call the punch in the gut. If I have that strong emotion, that keeps me going ahead because I want to find out how this situation arose.

One example is a news article in the Boston Globe about a young woman who was found dead in a bathtub. The investigators came, thought it was an overdose and zipped her into a body bag, and a couple of hours later she woke up in the morgue.

I was quite taken with that idea of being mistaken for dead, waking up in a body bag — and I knew that that was where the book was going to start. But I didn’t know where it was going to go, and that was my real reason to write the story.

Costello: If you were in one of these precarious situations that you present for your characters, do you think you would have better survival skills because you’re a writer or a physician?

Gerritsen: I’m afraid I would be a total wimp. I would probably just roll over and die.


This interview was condensed and edited by Rosanne Spector

extras headline
Tess Gerritsen
audio icon

Q&A with Tess Gerritsen

Listen to an interview with Tess Gerritsen.





©2009 Stanford University  |  Terms of Use  |  About Us