by Tess Gerritsen
Because the upcoming TV series “Rizzoli & Isles” is based on the characters from my thriller series, the show’s writers have been reading my novels to familiarize themselves with Jane and Maura’s personalities and back-stories. A few weeks ago, they flew out to Boston for a research visit, and I got the chance to meet them. Over dinner, the lead writer turned to me and said, “Maura Isles has Asperger’s, doesn’t she?”
Her insight startled me, because I had no idea it was so obvious. I never set out to make Maura an Aspie. I never even knew that she was an Aspie… until I discovered that I’m one, too.
I’ll admit that Maura reflects some aspects of my own personality. Some of her biographical details come straight from my own life — where she went to school, what car she drives, her taste in music, food, and wine. Also drawn from my own personality is her belief in science and logic and her drive to understand why things happen. Nevertheless, she’s a fictional creation, someone I thought I’d simply made up.
I didn’t realize that it was me emerging on the page.
Those who’ve read the series know that Maura is uncomfortable in crowds. She’s not skillful with small talk, she likes her solitude and she doesn’t have a huge circle of friends. In fact, her friendship with Jane Rizzoli is more a matter of their linked occupations rather than from any interpersonal connections. None of these details struck me as strange, because that’s the way I am too, and I always thought of myself as normal. My father was this way as well, very much a lone wolf who was obsessive about his work as a chef.
Growing up, I was the awkward kid who never said much in class. My few friends were the other awkward kids, the ones who were always last to be chosen for field hockey and volleyball. When an equally geeky boy I liked took me for a ride in his truck, we didn’t go to the movies or lover’s lane or anywhere that other teens might go. We drove to the Salk Institute to ooh and ahh at the cool research buildings, where we fantasized about working someday.
Even though I felt okay about myself, I was always a little envious of people who could walk into a room and circulate and instantly make everyone like them. I’m unable to circulate; I get stuck talking to one person in the room and I have no idea how to move on to anyone else. I marvel at how good others are at small talk, and how easily they make friends. I assumed they just had a gift, that they were special. I never considered the possibility that they were the normal ones.
Then, at a literary dinner last year, I had the privilege of sitting beside a spokesman for an Asperger’s support organization. Neither one of us was any good at small talk, but we were both really good at being obsessive about a particular topic. His topic was Asperger’s. He began to describe the characteristics: Trouble looking people in the eye. Uncomfortable in crowds. Tend to focus on minutiae. Good with numbers.
“This is starting to sound like me,” I said.
“It doesn’t mean you have it,” he said. “Now, if you also had synesthesia…”
“Does it count that I see colors when I hear certain notes played on the piano?”
Now he got interested. “What do you see?”
“If I hear an F, I see yellow. If it’s C, I see orange. If it’s B flat or E flat, I see purple or mauve. That’s been true ever since I was a kid. I assumed that everyone saw those colors.”
“Yep,” he laughed. “You’re an Aspie.”
It was something I hadn’t realized until that conversation. Yet the TV writer, after merely reading my books, immediately saw the diagnosis. She understood something that I myself hadn’t perceived: that Maura Isles has Asperger’s.
Just as Maura’s creator does.
It’s discomfiting to realize how much I’ve unwittingly revealed about myself in my books. I wonder how many other secrets my characters have told about me. It’s inevitable, isn’t it? When we sit down to tell a story, our character’s voice has to come from somewhere. It’s shaped by our own experiences and personalities, by our own perceptions of the world. Without meaning to, we spill ourselves onto the page in so many subtle ways.
It doesn’t mean that mystery writers are all homicidal maniacs and romance writers are lusty women. Our characters are just as likely to be our complete opposites, so readers shouldn’t assume they can psychoanalyze a writer based on how his characters think. But every so often, we writers allow ourselves to walk onto the page. We take a turn in our own story, and speak the truth straight from our hearts.
We just won’t tell you when we’re doing it.