Doctor-turned-suspense novelist Tess Gerritsen talks to Craig Sisterson about embracing her heritage and seeing her heroines come alive onscreen.

After 22 successful novels, ranging from romantic suspense to New York Times best-selling medical and crime thrillers, Tess Gerritsen says she realised it had become time to truly embrace her own ethnicity in her work.

While she has drawn on some of her experiences as a physician in her previous books, which have sold more than 20 million copies, it wasn't until The Silent Girl, just released in New Zealand, that she strongly incorporated another important part of herself - her Chinese-American heritage.

"With my mother's health fading, I thought it was time to explore who I am and where I come from," she says. "If not now, then when?"

Gerritsen started writing while on maternity leave from her job as a doctor in Hawaii in the mid-1980s. Her earliest novels were more romantic, and she recalls being advised by editors that books with Asian-American major characters weren't successful, and that there was little marketplace for the Asian-American voice. That stuck with Gerritsen, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant and a Chinese-American, for a long time. Even as she toned down the romance and turned up the thrills as her career flourished, that reticence towards evoking her own culture remained. Until now.

Advertisement

"My books are now popular enough, and my characters beloved enough, that I think I can explore the issue without losing readership," says Gerritsen, who tours New Zealand next week. "I also think readers are now more open-minded to other points of view."

The ninth instalment in Gerritsen's award-winning series starring Boston detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles, The Silent Girl finds the popular pair investigating a murder in Chinatown, a case that incorporates Chinese folklore, a mysterious female wushu grandmaster, and the myth of the Monkey King.

In many ways, addressing aspects of her own Asian heritage made writing The Silent Girl not only more personal but much more challenging, says Gerritsen. "I had so much to say about the Asian-American experience, but I didn't want to overwhelm the story with those details. I didn't want to make the reader feel this was an 'issue' book, in which the message becomes more important than the story. At the same time, I also wanted readers to understand how growing up different or as an outsider can affect the rest of your life, something that non-minorities may not realise."

Rizzoli is "so unlike" Gerritsen in many ways - "she's aggressive, blunt and unafraid" - but the character and her creator share that one important trait: they are both outsiders. "We know what it's like to struggle for acceptance, to feel that we have to work harder for approval that may never come," says Gerritsen. "Her issue is that she's a woman in a man's world, mine is that I'm part of a very visible Asian minority."

The prolific author initially introduced the Boston detective as a supporting character in The Surgeon (2001), not intending to continue Rizzoli beyond one book. In fact, Gerritsen initially planned to kill off the character during that novel, but something changed while she was writing the tale of a top trauma surgeon forced to relive the worst moments of her past when a serial killer with medical knowledge is on the loose.

"By the time I'd finished that first draft of The Surgeon, I understood what made Jane tick. I felt enormous sympathy for her, despite her flaws and her difficult personality. I felt that after all her effort, all her persistence, she deserved to live, and to find success. I wanted to give that to her, and I wanted her to find happiness."

Gerritsen followed up with The Apprentice (2002) which also introduced medical examoner Maura Isles, because Rizzoli "was such an interesing character" that the author wanted to see more of her.

"Would she ever marry? Would she ever be happy? What sort of mother would she be? All these issues led to more stories and more development, until the point where I think of her and Maura Isles as old friends, and I want to keep checking in on them."

Advertisement

While some people think of crime fiction as plot-focused, for Gerritsen it's really the characters, such as Rizzoli and Isles, which keeps her interested.

"The only reason I write this series is to stay in touch with the characters. I want to know what happens next to them, in their professional and personal lives. This universe of characters - Jane, Maura, Frost, Korsak - are like real people to me, and each one of them is having issues and crises, and those crises often determine which plots are most interesting."

Gerritsen's "old friends" are now reaching a whole new audience, thanks to Rizzoli & Isles, a hit TV show starring Angie Harmon (Law & Order) as the tough-as-nails detective and Sasha Alexander (NCIS) as the cool and detached medical examiner. Gerritsen saus she sees the small-screen adaptation - which became a highly rated cable network show in it 2010 début season - as "an amazing gift".

Watching her characters come alive and walk on to television has been a lot of fun, says Gerritsen, who, unlike some authors, has no issues with changes made to her books and characters as they are transferred to the screen.

"The TV show is quite a bit more humorous and glamorous than the books," she says. "On TV, Jane and Maura are both gorgeous and Maura is very fashion-conscious. There's a stronger rapport between the two. I understand why they made the changes, and why it makes better TC, so I'm not terribly bothered by the difference."

Although she's now been a published author for a quarter of a century, Gerritsen says she hasn't lost any of her passion for story-telling.

"Even if I never sold another book, I'd keep writing, because the stories are here, in my head. Stories that just need to be told. I love watching a plot unfold, and feeling the surprise when the unexpected happens."

The Silent Girl (Bantam Press $39.99). Tess Gerritsen will appear at The Women's Bookshop, Ponsonby, at 6pm on August 18. She is also the keynote speaker at Love and Other Crimes, the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Auckland, August 19-21 (see romancewriters.co.nz) and a guest at "Setting the Stage for Murder", a Christchurch Arts Festival event in Hagley Park on August 21, where the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel will be presented.