Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Great American Invasion, Part II

(Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a two-part report from British correspondent Ali Karim. The first part can be found here.)

As Dennis Lehane, seated in an office of the Borders bookstore in London’s Charing Cross Road, finished signing my unbelievably numerous collection of his novels, I switched off my tape machine’s microphone. We talked and drank our coffee, until Tess Gerritsen--who was making a joint appearance at the store that evening with fellow American Lehane--entered the room. She and I had just enough time to talk, before the audience massing outside would call for both authors to making a showing.

I pulled out a second hold-all full of books. Lehane looked over at me, laughed, and said, “Not more books!” But he was obviously relieved, and Gerritsen equally delighted, as both of them recognized that these hefty new piles I was heaving onto the table were Gerritsen’s novels, not more Lehanes.

With no time to waste, I switched on my microphone again as Gerritsen got down to the serious business of signing her books. I’ve followed Gerritsen’s fiction-writing career for many years now, so was looking forward to asking her about her circuitous route to becoming a crime novelist, why she sets most of her novels in Massachusetts’ biggest city, the covers of her books on both sides of the Atlantic, and of course her latest novel, Keeping the Dead (or, as it’s known in the America, The Keepsake).

Ali Karim: You now have a very successful series going, featuring Detective Jane Rizzoli of the Boston Police Department and medical examiner Maura Isles. However, you’ve switched genres several times in the past, starting out writing romantic thrillers, then moving on to techno-medical thrillers [beginning with Harvest in 1996], science fiction, and finally crime novels. How has your readership reacted to these switches?

Tess Gerritsen: They get very confused, very confused. I know that some of my crime readers occasionally come across one of my earlier romance books and they are completely flabbergasted to find out that I used to write romance. On the other hand, some of my crime readers come across Gravity [1999] and are surprised to discover that I wrote science-fiction.

AK: Some of your science fiction was in the mode of the late Michael Crichton, who also liked to move around between the genres, at one point writing mysteries under the nom de plume “John Lange.”

TG: Precisely. I think basically I write whatever I feel like writing, and wherever it takes me.

AK: A novel’s location is so often key to the telling of a tale. You set your 2007 bestseller, The Bone Garden, in historical Boston and your Rizzoli and Isles novels [beginning with The Surgeon in 2001] in that same city, only in modern times. However, you live in Maine. What’s this fascination of yours with Beantown?

TG: Partly because [my books deal with] a couple of characters who are homicide investigators, and quite honestly we have one of the lowest homicide rates in the country in the state of Maine, so it would start to feel rather unrealistic if I were to have serial killers running around rural Maine. So I wanted to set my crime novels in the nearest large city that you could have serial killers operating … and I chose Boston.

AK: Have you ever lived there, or worked in Boston?

TG: No, I haven’t lived there. But I am very familiar with Boston, as I spend a lot of time there doing research in the city.

AK: To what degree do you attribute the success of your books to your characters, Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles? And where did those two players come from?

TG: I attribute a great deal of my success to the characters, particularly Jane Rizzoli, who I think is the character most readers have the most fun with.

AK: That’s interesting, because she has some problems ...

TG: Yes, she’s not a lovey-dovey person. And perhaps to answer [the second part of] your question, I’ll have to reveal something that many of my readers may not be aware of. Jane first appeared in … The Surgeon, and a lot of people told me that “I don’t like her, she is quite a bitch.” And the explanation for her appearing that way was that she was never intended to survive that book--she was going to die. You see, I never planned to write a series. But when I got to the scene where she was supposed to die, she frankly refused to die. So when she survived that book, I became really interested in her and wanted to find out what happened in her life, so then I wrote the second book [The Apprentice, 2002] … and suddenly I had a series. It was totally unplanned.

AK: So is Maura Isles you, Tess?

TG: Very much. We both have backgrounds in science, both studied medicine, and both like to believe that there is a logical explanation to why things happen. So whenever there is any biographical detail required in Maura’s life, like what wine does she drink, what car does she drive? I just take it from my own life.

AK: I’m very interested in the differences between the covers of your U.S. editions and of those published in the UK. I find the ones produced by British publisher Transworld to be much more interesting.

TG: I love my UK covers. They are stark and clean and very distinctive. … I would go as far as to say that [Transworld’s jackets] were revolutionary in their design. I don’t think anyone else was making such minimalist imagery work in the crime-fiction world. As it turned out, it was those covers that really caught people’s eyes …

AK: For instance, the UK cover for The Surgeon is very minimal--just a white sink basin with three drops of blood--whereas your American cover for that same book is far busier and more colorful. What’s your take on cover design?

TG: I think [the differences are] cultural. Americans like more color. We like a lot of sex on our covers--the female form, faces. A lot of this has to do with the art director at the publishing house and their taste; and to be honest I don’t really know what makes a cover work or not work. So I leave it to my publisher. I don’t want to second guess them, as they are usually right.

AK: You have become quite adept at blogging, both at Murderati and in the blog associated with your Web site. Why do you enjoy blogging, and does the exercise have any downsides for you?

TG: I blog because I have a very solitary profession. I sit in my office all day, and something will occur either in the business of writing or in the process of writing that makes want to write about it, and I blab. I like the sense of wanting to share with others what I am dealing with, and I really didn’t think anybody cared, until I discovered that I do indeed have quite a few blog readers--especially a lot of other writers who can identify with what I am talking about.

AK: Your latest work in the UK, Keeping the Dead, is a Rizzoli-Isles thriller. In the States, though, it’s called The Keepsake. How do you feel about your publishers changing your books’ titles for their separate markets?

TG: I always worry about confusion. ... Some [readers] don’t realize that both are the same book, but with different titles. In my latest book, both my U.S. and UK editors had very strong opinions ..., [and] neither liked the other title. So, to make everyone happy we decided to go with the two titles.

AK: On the subject of confusion, I was amused to see that much of your backlist is being reissued by Mira UK, and the covers are similar to the Transworld style. How do you feel, seeing your earlier work re-packaged and back on shelves?

TG: Well, again I’m a little concerned about the confusion this causes. As much as I am very happy to have my early romance novels re-released, what happens is that my current crime-fiction readers think they are crime novels, and I get a lot of angry e-mails from readers.

AK: Really?

TG: Yes, really. I get some upsetting e-mails from people: “What is wrong with you? Your style has changed? I’ll never read your stuff again!” Nasty stuff.

AK: Well, that’s bizarre. Aren’t these people bright enough to read the copyright page?

TG: Well, perhaps not, and I end up responding nicely by telling them that the next time you want to pick up one of my books, you should check the copyright page and date, because if it’s before 1997, it may very well be a romance novel. I am, however, concerned that I may have lost readers who never told me this, who never realized about my backlist being re-released with covers that accentuate the crime-fiction angle, when in reality they are romance novels.

AK: Is this just a UK issue, or are your romance novels also being re-issued in the States to look like crime novels?

TG: It’s all over--not just the U.S. and UK, but all over the world. Mira has re-released my older work in a number of countries.

AK: So what comes next, what’s after Keeping the Dead? A standalone, perhaps, or another Rizzoli-Isles thriller?

TG: Well, my next contract specifies three more Jane and Maura novels. I love doing the standalones, but what I’ve noticed is that they just don’t seem to sell as well as the Jane and Maura series. But saying that, The Bone Garden sold very well. I think readers get very attached to the characters of Jane and Maura, and want more. I have plenty of ideas for standalones, but I’m not sure if I’ll be doing one just yet, as I am working on a Jane and Maura book right now.

AK: In today’s world, how much time do you have to spend away from your garret, working with publishers to promote your books? And what are your feelings about having to take that time way from the actual writing process?

TG: It has become a more and more a critical part of establishing a career as a novelist. I do love going on tour [and] meeting readers ... But the problem is, you do have to turn out a book a year--that’s what my publishers want. So that combination of having to tour, not just in the U.S. but internationally, plus turn in a book a year has made writers’ lives pretty insane. If it was up to me, I’d turn in a book every two years, and do a leisurely tour. ... How much can a writer manage these days, [between] promotion and writing, without going insane?

AK: Finally, given the present tate of the economy and changes in the publishing world, how do you look at all those people who are foolhardy enough to embark on a fiction-writing career nowadays?

TG: From what I understand, it is very hard for a debut author to sell a book, simply because readers don’t know what they will expect from that author in future work. Whereas, if you’re an established author ..., you have a readership. Looking at book sales in late 2008, they have held pretty steady compared to other retailers, so let’s hope this year that book sales are not going to be hit as hard as other sectors, such as general retail, manufacturing, etc.

READ MORE:Dennis Lehane and Tess Gerritsen at Borders, by Ayo Onatade (Shotsmag Confidential).

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