Category Archives: Tess Gerritsen

Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas!



We’re going to be on a minimal posting schedule through the New Year. Not a complete hiatus, but semi-regular postings, since many of us are traveling and trying to get a real break from the Interwebs. We’ll be back at full force January 2.

We truly appreciate that you take the time to stop by, to participate, to be a part of this fabulous community all year long. We value your input so much that we thought we’d throw the field open to you.

If you comment over the next week, you’ll be entered into our Festivus Contest!

And what, pray tell, may the glorious prize be for commenting? Why, a package of signed Murderati books, of course!

14 books from 14 authors.

Now that’s a deal.

Here’s what we want to know:

(answer as many as you wish, but only one answer is necessary to be included in the contest.)

 What are you doing for the holidays?

What are you reading?

What topics would you like us to cover in the New Year?

What questions do you have for any or all of us?

 We wish you and your families the very best of holiday joy!

Questions I’d rather avoid

by Tess Gerritsen

(I’m staring into the jaws of a deadline — my book’s due TODAY!!! — so this will be a short entry.  And if you’re wondering how my adventure in Hollywood went, check out the photos from the set of “Rizzoli”, over on my own website, to see what it’s like hanging out with the film crew.)

Like many authors, I get asked a lot of questions.  Sometimes it’s an emailed interview.  Sometimes it’s at a bookstore or library presentation, when I invite the audience to ask me anything. For the most part, I enjoy answering those questions.  But there are a few that I’d be happy to never hear again. And here they are:

What’s your normal writing day like?

 I know that everyone probably thinks this is a perfectly straightforward, inoffensive little question, and it is.  But I often get the feeling that people ask it only because they feel that someone should ask it, if only out of politeness.  Like so many questions asked for that reason, the answer is seldom interesting. At least, my answer is. Does anyone really want to know that I start off my day with breakfast and coffee? That I sit down at my desk and turn out four pages? That I break for lunch and end at dinner?  The truth is, a writer’s job, for the most part, pretty much involves just sitting in a chair.  And when you ask me that question, you force me to confess just how boring my day really is.

Who’s your favorite writer?  

This question makes me squirm every time, because I never know how to answer it. If I name specific names, it means leaving someone out and possibly hurting feelings.  My favorite authors change, depending on whose books I’ve read lately.  And after a lifetime of being a reader, I find that my favorite-favorite books, the ones that forever hold a cherished place in my heart, are books from my youth  It’s the same phenomenon that makes us remember childhood fruits as the sweetest and childhood winters the coldest. But it feels so dorky to admit that, no matter how many glorious new novels I’ve read this year, nothing will ever beat The Hobbit

Do your children read your books?

Again, another seemingly unobtrusive question.  But ah, it’s one that makes me wince just a little.  Because no, my grown sons do not read my books.  They’re really not interested in reading my books — a sad fact of life that I suspect may be true for other writers as well.  Because let’s face it, we’re just Mom or Dad.  What could we possibly do that would make us cool?  I remember reading an interview with Billy Joel, who sighed that his own kid doesn’t bother to listen to his music.  Because it’s just Dad’s stuff, so it can’t be a big deal, can it?  

Which of your own books is your favorite?

I can tell you which of my books sold the most copies.  I can tell you which ones got starred reviews.  But which one do I love the most?  That question ties me in knots, because it means choosing from among my twenty one titles.  I have heard authors say that the books that gave them the most trouble often turn out to be their favorites, and there’s some truth to that.  I sweated hardest over Gravity and The Bone Garden — and both would be among my favorites.  But they weren’t my biggest bestsellers.  They’re just the books that stuck with me the longest.  Probably because they caused me the most agony.

Do you know Stephen King?

Everyone who lives in Maine gets asked that question.  Because only about seventeen people live in this entire state, so of course we all know each other.

I’m sure other authors have heard questions that made them sigh inwardly.  How about it, writers?  Are there any questions you’d like never to be asked again?


The road to Hollywood

by Tess Gerritsen

By the time you read this, I will be in Los Angeles.  I’m going there to watch the filming of the pilot TV episode of “Rizzoli”, which is based on characters from my crime series.  Even now, as I pack my suitcase, I’m marveling that it’s all actually happening. I don’t quite believe it.  I keep expecting to get a call from my agent telling me, “Never mind.  It’s all fallen apart.”  Because that’s the way it almost always goes.

 I should know, because I’ve been down this road of dreams before. And the one lesson I learned a long, long time ago is that Hollywood will break your heart.

It’s not that I haven’t had something produced before.  Back in 1993, CBS aired a TV movie of the week called “Adrift,” starring Kate Jackson and Bruce Greenwood.  The TV movie was based on a screenplay I’d written.  Although the script was changed, and two other writers were listed first as writers, I still got the “Story by” credit, and shared the screenplay credit.  The movie was filmed in New Zealand, and I didn’t have the money to fly down there and watch the production. But it was quite a thrill sitting in front of the TV some months later, seeing my name pop up on the credits, and watching scenes that I had dreamed up play out on the screen.  

And that was my lone success in Hollywood.  After that came sixteen years of disappointments.  

My first thriller, HARVEST, was bought outright by Paramount for a generous purchase price.  A screenplay was written, changing pretty much everything about the story.  The project died.

BLOODSTREAM was optioned.  Twice, I think.  Nothing happened. Project dead.

Feature film rights for GRAVITY were bought outright by New Line Cinema in a very major deal that showed up on the front page of Daily Variety.  Three different screenplay versions were completed, including one by the very talented Michael Goldenberg.  The film rights were later transferred to 20th Century Fox.  And there the project died.  Of course.

THE SURGEON was optioned twice.  And died.

THE APPRENTICE was optioned once.  And died.

I grew so jaded by the whole disappointing process that when my agent called to say that Bill Haber of Ostar Enterprises wanted an option to develop a TV series based on my characters, I didn’t see the point of celebrating.  I had no illusions that anything would come of this deal, either.  I had stopped paying attention to Hollywood.  My job was to write books, and that’s what I stayed focused on.

Then I began to notice that there was something a little different about this particular option deal.  For one thing, soon after the agreement was made, I got a call from the delightful Bill Haber himself.  He wanted to tell me how much he loved the characters of Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles.  He promised me they would make it to the screen exactly the way I’d created them.  He told me he was going to find just the right writer for the script, and that he believed this project was actually going to happen.

I thought he was funny, charming, and a bit deluded.  I knew how Hollywood worked.  It’s all about promises and bluster which, 99.9% of the time, never delivers.

A year went by.  

To my surprise, Ostar Enterprises renewed the option for yet another year.  Every few months, Haber would call just to say hello, and I loved hearing the enthusiasm and pure joie de vivre in his voice. He told me that he had convinced a writer named Janet Tamaro to tackle the pilot script. With writing credits on “Bones,” “Lost,” “CSI,” and “Sleeper Cell,” she is definitely a go-to writer for crime dramas.  I was delighted to be kept in the loop on all these developments. But I still didn’t let myself get excited.  I knew it just wasn’t going to happen.

Months went by.  

Then another call from Haber, happily announcing that after several revisions, Tamaro’s script was wonderful.  And they were sending it over to TNT’s director of programming for approval.  Fingers crossed!

Yeah, right, I thought.  My fingers are permanently crooked from staying crossed for sixteen years.  Come on, Hollywood, break my heart again. You know you’re going to.

I packed my bags and left for a long-planned trip to Turkey.  While there, I got a two-line email from my CAA film rights agent:  “Good news.  TNT has issued a cast-contingent production order for ‘Rizzoli.'” So there I am, on a sailboat off the Turkish coast, wondering whether it’s worth celebrating yet. I don’t like that word “contingent.”  To me, that’s just legalese for “we’re prepared to break your heart again.” 

When I get home, I call Bill Haber.  He says they’re preparing a list of actresses they want to approach for the part of Jane Rizzoli.  Without just the right actress, the whole deal would fall apart.  (Which is what I’m sort of expecting, anyway.)  My CAA agent assures me that they’ve landed a terrific director, and everything is moving in the right direction. I’ve heard that before.  I put the whole thing out of my mind, and get back to the manuscript that’s due in a few months.  

I leave for Connecticut, to speak to a library.  I wake up in my hotel room to find an alert on my Blackberry.  It’s an article from the Hollywood Reporter, announcing that Actress Angie Harmon has been cast in the lead role as Jane Rizzoli.

Suddenly, everything has changed.  This much I understand about Hollywood: once the star talent has signed on, the deal comes together fast.  And it does.  

Within the next few weeks, other actors sign on.  Sasha Alexander as Maura Isles.  Lorraine Bracco as Jane’s mother, Angela.  Bruce McGill as Detective Korsak.  Lee Thompson Young as Barry Frost.  Jordan Bridges as Frankie Rizzoli.  And Billy Burke as the all-important romantic lead, Gabriel Dean.

A month before production is scheduled to start, Janet Tamaro, who is now co-executive producer, calls to invite me to watch the filming.  

That’s when I really, really knew it was going to happen.

They’ve already started production. The shoot will last about 2 1/2 weeks, and I’ll be there during the second week of filming.  I’m fully aware that this is just the pilot, and TNT may choose not to pick it up as a weekly series.  But this is way, way beyond anything I ever expected. I assumed it would fall apart, as every film deal before it has.  I didn’t even bother to hope.  

Maybe it’s like finding true love.  The harder you look for it, hope for it, hunger for it, the less likely it is to happen.  But if you turn your back and just get on with your life — and your writing — suddenly, there it is. 

For once, Hollywood didn’t break my heart.


Will you read my manuscript?

by Tess Gerritsen

It finally happened to me. Last week, while my husband and I were dining out at a restaurant, a complete stranger approached and handed me his manuscript.

I should have known something was up when the chocolate cheesecake appeared at our table.  I don’t normally eat sweets, yet here was this luscious dessert that neither of us had ordered.  The waitress smiled and said, “That’s for you, courtesy of the gentleman at the bar.”  Turning, I saw a man waving at me.  About halfway through our meal, I had noticed him walk into the restaurant, carrying a briefcase, and had been vaguely aware that he’d been watching us. Since I have a horrible memory for faces, I assumed this was someone I knew — or at least should recognize — so I smiled as he came over to our table.

Then he pulled a manuscript out of his briefcase and said, “I know you’re probably really, really busy.  But I was hoping I could give you my manuscript.”

At which point I glanced across at my husband, who had that oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-the-nerve look on his face. But there was that chocolate cheesecake, already half-eaten on our table.  And there was that hopeful smile on the man’s face.  And then there’s me, Tess Gerritsen, the wuss, who always wants to be polite and cooperative.

So I took his manuscript. 

As my husband said on the way home, “I guess this means you’ve really and truly made it.” And we came to the rather unsettling realization that the man had to know I was already there before he even walked into the place.  Who walks around everywhere with a manuscript, expecting to run into some random writer? We had walked into that restaurant without reservations, so someone there must have spotted me, called the writer to tell him I was dining there that night, and he grabbed his manuscript and rushed over to find me.  Does that sound paranoid?  Okay, so it does.  But I don’t know how else to explain it.  

I’m sure other published authors have encountered similar situations.  Most of the time it happens at book-signings, when some stranger approaches your table, and instead of wanting you to sign a copy of your latest book, he wants you to take his manuscript.  I’m pretty good at saying no in that situation, because I’m ready for it.  My guard is up.  But other times, we’re just not expecting it.  When a friend slips you his unpublished novel at a cocktail party, for instance.  Or you get an email from an old classmate you haven’t heard from in years. Or your dentist says, while he’s drilling your root canal, “Would you mind looking at my novel?”

I’m reminded of one of the funniest scenes from the film “Shakespeare in Love,” where Will Shakespeare is being rowed across the river by a hired boatman.  And as Will climbs out, the boatman calls out: “Will you read my manuscript?” There isn’t a writer alive who didn’t roar with laughter at that, because it probably happens to all of us.

And I understand why it happens.  Breaking into this business is a tough, tough thing.  Aspiring authors are desperate.  They think that if they just knew the right person, got their work into just the right hands, success would smile upon them.  And so they shove manuscripts at us in restaurants, under restroom stalls, toss them over our gates, slip them into our mailboxes.  

The problem is, this almost never gets them any closer to success.  I try to explain to them that I’m not being a meanie, it’s just that I’m not the one who makes the decision to publish a novel.  I’m just a writer.  I’m not an agent or editor.  They’re the ones with the power.

Agents and editors don’t necessarily listen to our opinions anyway.  There’ve been only two instances where I came across writers of real talent, whose work really impressed me.  Both times, it happened at writing workshops.  I loved what they’d done, and I asked my agent to give them a little attention.

She declined to represent either one of them.  She just wasn’t excited about their manuscripts. (And that’s how much influence I have.)

Handing over your manuscript to a mere writer isn’t getting it into the hands of the people who really matter.  It’s agents and editors who need to read and love your work.  If you read the dedications in my books, you’ll know who my literary agent is.  So submit your manuscript to her, not to me.  (Sorry, Meg.)  

As for that manuscript I got in the restaurant, it’s still sitting here in my office, on top of a stack of galleys.  Will I read it?  Maybe.  But I’m already pretty sure it’s not going to float my boat.  Whenever manuscripts come to me via some wacky, unofficial route, they are almost guaranteed to be unimpressive.  




who are your readers?

by Tess Gerritsen

Last weekend, Michael Palmer and I taught a writing workshop in Cape Cod.  One of the participants asked a question: “Who are your readers?” It’s a very good question, but it’s one for which authors have only a hazy answer.  Because, for the most part, we’re not certain.  We get a general idea based on the fan mail we receive, and we see who turns out at book signings, but as for real statistics?  For the most part, we’re just guessing.  I suspected that my readership reflected the general readership of fiction readers in the country: 75% female, on the older side.  And the audiences at my book signings tend to support that general female/male ratio.  But these are just spot samplings, and I had no hard numbers.

Then I got back a survey of readers around the country, which checked the demographics of my readership.  And what I’d suspected to be true has turned out to be pretty accurate.  

— Women were four times more likely than men to rate me as one of their favorite authors.  (Which is actually not all that different from other female mystery writers.)

— My readership tends to be on the older side, with the percentage peaking in the 45 – 54 age group.  Again, this is probably right in line with other authors.

— My readership tends to also like mystery, thrillers, horror — and romance.  But I have very few readers who also favor graphic novels, manga, and science fiction.

— My book THE KEEPSAKE was most popular among two groups:  those under 18, and those between 55-64.  

— No surprise, many of my readers work in the healthcare industry.

These results are just for the U.S.  I have a feeling that those numbers might be slightly different outside the country, just based on who attends my signings overseas.  At some of my UK and German booksignings, the male/female ratio has been close to 1:1.  And the only time I’ve ever had a man approach me in a hotel lobby to ask if I was Tess Gerritsen, it happened in Berlin.  

My reader demographics are probably similar to those of other female mystery authors.  What can we all gather from this?  

Our readers are primarily female, and older.  I also have a fan base that’s under 18, but once a reader hits their twenties, it seems their novel reading slows down for a few decades. They’re busy with college,  marriage, motherhood, and careers, so it’s not surprising they might cut down on their pleasure reading.  But once the kids are raised, and they have more control over their lives, women seem to go back to reading again.  I’m not sure there’s much we can do to snag more of those 18 – 40 year-old women readers.  

As for the male readers, obviously I have a ways to go.  But then, so do we all.  How do we get more men to read us? How do we convince them that, yes, a woman writer can tell a story they’d enjoy?  That’s the challenge.  



You’re bound to offend someone

by Tess Gerritsen

If you want the whole world to like you, becoming a writer is not the way to do it. 

I was reminded of that a few weeks ago when I received a number of emails from readers who had just read THE KEEPSAKE, and they had a bone to pick with me.  They were all miffed because of a scene where my heroine must fight off a ferocious pit bull, which is defending the bad guy’s lair.  How dare you malign pit bulls, the readers said.  You’ve slandered an entire breed of dog!  Pit bulls are as gentle as any other breed, and you are perpetuating a harmful myth.  Because of this, you have lost our respect, etc., etc., etc. These complaints all came in within days of each other, so I think I must be on the fecal roster of a pit bull club, whose members decided to simultaneously flagellate the author for her crimes. 

Now, it’s true that they do have a point. Pit bulls are no more likely to attack a human than is any other breed. And the pit bulls I know personally are all disarmingly sweet and utterly harmless.  So why did I choose to identify the vicious dog as a pit bull when, statistically speaking, you’re far more likely to be bitten by a chihuahua?

Because, quite frankly, “vicious guard chihuahua” just doesn’t do it for me.  

I wrote back to these readers and apologized for maligning their beloved breed, and promised to do better by pit bulls next time.  But honestly.  If I write about vicious German Shepherds or poodles or schnauzers in my next book, I’m bound to get complaints about that as well. I guess I could just describe the dog as “enormous, with razor-sharp teeth” and avoid singling out any breed. But then some dog lover, somewhere, would be offended that I made the vicious animal a dog to begin with. “Why couldn’t you have made it a chained leopard or something?” they’ll suggest.  

The point is, with every book you write, you are bound to offend someone, somewhere.  And chances are, they will write you about it.  Like the hospital laboratory tech who read THE SURGEON, and was spitting mad at me because my villain was — you guessed it — a hospital lab tech.  “Do you really think I sit in my laboratory, dreaming up ways to torture women?” he asked.  “You’ve maligned lab techs everywhere!” 

As a novelist, you are forced to make choices in every scene you write, and those choices mean you will occasionally cast some profession, some hobby, some product, even some dog breed, in a bad light. And readers will assume that you are revealing your own personal bias.

Men have written accusing me of being a man-hater, because my villains are so often men.  Nurses have written accusing me of disrespect for their profession because one of my fictional doctors was brusque with a fictional nurse.  Hunters are angry at me for writing about a clueless hunter who shoots himself in the foot.  (As we all know, hunters never shoot themselves, doctors are never brusque with nurses, and serial killers are never men.) 

What’s a writer to do?

Consider disabling the email feature on your website. (I’m thinking about it.)  Or learn to ignore the upsetting ones. If a reader has a politely worded criticism, that’s one thing.  But when you open an email and see it turning angry, just hit delete. Don’t let it ruin your day. Such people don’t deserve a response.  They’re probably not even expecting a response.  They just want to scream at you, and as we’ve all learned from watching those angry town hall meetings, it’s the red-faced screamers who come off looking bad. There are a lot of angry people out there, and their hair triggers are set to go off at the slightest provocation. That provocation may be as minor as you writing about a forgetful octogenarian (you’re showing your ageism!) or an overweight girl (what do you have against hefty folk?) If we live in fear of all the people who might get angry at us because of something we’ve written, we won’t dare to write another word.




The man who hates libraries

What the …..???


From a suburban Chicago newspaper comes this startling story, about a library under fire, and certain well-to-do citizens who simply don’t see the point of publicly funded libraries:

Telling her mother that she wanted to come to the aid of a library under attack, 11-year-old Sydney Sabbagha stood at the podium before the Oak Brook village board.

“I used to go to the library knowing there were people there to help me find a book. Now there is no one to help me,” Sydney said solemnly. “It will never be the same without the people you fired.”

Sydney nestled back into her seat, but that didn’t stop 69-year-old criminal attorney Constantine “Connie” Xinos from boldly putting her in her place.

“Those who come up here with tears in their eyes talking about the library, put your money where your mouth is,” Xinos shot back. He told Sydney and others who spoke against the layoffs of the three full-time staffers (including the head librarian and children’s librarian) and two part-timers to stop “whining” and raise the money themselves.

“I don’t care that you guys miss the librarian, and she was nice, and she helped you find books,” Xinos told them.

“Don’t cry crocodile tears about people who are making $100,000 a year wiping tables and putting the books back on the shelves,” Xinos smirked, apparently referencing the fired head librarian, who has advanced degrees and made $98,676 a year. He said Oak Brook had to “stop indulging people in their hobbies” and “their little, personal, private wants.”

Leave aside the fact this man Xinos sounds like a rather unpleasant fellow who gets a kick out of making little girls cry.  Leave aside, too, the debate over how a community should spend its tax dollars.  What struck me, while reading this article (and a few of the comments that follow it) is how little some people value the public library  — or even the idea of a public library.  One person in the comments section feels that kids hardly need libraries these days:

It seems that this library is more of a social gathering place than a source of knowledge. Who here thinks that there are even 20 homes in OakBrook without the Internet, which is what most students and individuals use now for research?

Would you be so upset if the town decided not to have public tennis courts and swimming pool? Most people in OB who want those facilities can pay for their own, or join a club. Why not make libraries prove their own worth in the same way health clubs do? Why force people who don’t use it to pay for it?  (from “City Resident”)

And another person chimes in:

With the internet along with every school having a library, is there really the need for libraries anymore? At least, does EVERY town need one? Can’t one library serve a handful of towns.  (from “rightwinger”)

Libraries, according to these folks, are a waste of public resources.  Why, they’re just like country clubs, and only the folks who actually use them should have to pay for them.  Make every kid who wants to borrow a book from the library dig the money out of his own pocket. And if they don’t want to pay up, then they should just go online, because everything you’ll ever need to know (whether true, false, or just plain worthless) is available on the internet.  And if you’re too poor to own a computer or have internet access, tough luck. Where in the Constitution does it list the “right to information”? 

Good god, how our values as a country have changed when people today, in all seriousness, can equate kids using a public library with rich folks belonging to a tennis club. The idea of a library as merely a place to indulge one’s hobbies or one’s “little, personal, private wants” is not something I would have heard when I was a kid growing up in California. That was the post-Sputnik era, when educating American children became our national mission, when a President could announce, “We’re going to put a man on the moon” — and it would happen.  In those days, libraries weren’t considered amusement halls for hobbyists.  They were outposts of knowledge, accessible by anyone regardless of age, wealth, or race.  

And access it I did.  Some of my best childhood memories are of combing the stacks at the Serra Mesa branch of the Public Library in San Diego, searching for the latest Nancy Drew mysteries. Twice a week, my mom would drop me off there, and I’d come home with a fresh armload of books.  I brought home mysteries and adventure novels, science books about dinosaurs and space travel.  I felt welcomed there, by ladies (back then, all the librarians seemed to be ladies) who always seemed delighted that I was back for more.  In those days, America didn’t consider public libraries a luxury; they were considered a national necessity, for feeding our brains, educating the populace, and moving the country forward.  We all seemed to agree that knowledge is power, and knowledge was how America would discover new cures and put a man on the moon. 

The ancient world certainly understood the importance of libraries.  The great library of Alexandria was not just a repository of scrolls and historical documents; it was also a place where thinking men gathered to exchange ideas and test theories, a center of scholarship for mathematics, physics, and the natural sciences.  

Fast forward to today, when some American communities — even affluent ones — now question the need for public libraries at all.  Rich people don’t need them because they can just drive to Barnes and Noble and buy the latest Dan Brown novel.  Poor people don’t pay taxes, so why should they benefit from a library that they don’t contribute money to? Wouldn’t our tax dollars be better spent on a new sports stadium that everyone can benefit from? (Except for those aforementioned poor people who can’t afford the price of a ticket.)

When I read articles like the above, I feel sick.  I feel that the values I grew up with — a respect for education and knowledge and science — is quickly vanishing from this country.  If we shut out brilliant but impoverished children from access to information, where will our future NASA engineers like Homer Hickam come from? Are we writing off the future of another budding scientist from a poor coal mining town?  

Those of us who love books, whose lives are enriched by books, know that the internet is no substitute as a source of information.  Only a fool would claim otherwise.

Alas, the fools seem to be taking over.


Book-selling and the Sufi master

by Tess Gerritsen

I’ve just returned from a three-week trip to Turkey.  One thing I love about foreign travel are the lively and impromptu conversations I have with people abroad, and during my ramblings in Istanbul, Cappadocia, and the Aegean coast, I chatted with Turks about a wide range of topics.  A coffee shop employee and I bemoaned the difficulties of successful cross-cultural romances.  A jewelry store owner told me in great detail about his sick niece and sang the praises of Turkey’s socialized health-care system for keeping her alive. Several times, I heard about the deep and enduring affection that many Turkish men feel for their mothers.  “You always remember your own mother’s scent,” one man said wistfully.  “And all your life, you miss it.” It was a touching reminder of the universality of love, and how alike we humans really are.

While I was crossing a public square in Istanbul, I encountered another startling reminder that some experiences are universal.  It was a book signing booth promoting a Turkish author named Serdar Ozkan, whose Istanbul-set novel THE MISSING ROSE, was available for sale in numerous foreign languages.  Naturally, I stopped to buy a signed copy of the English edition, but the author had left to take a break.  Manning the booth in his absence were a man and two women (posing with me below) who were passing out flyers to passers-by, encouraging everyone within earshot to take a look.  I assumed they were bookstore employees.

Until I started chatting with them. 


It turned out they weren’t bookstore employees at all.  Two of them (the man and the woman standing beside him) are physicians at the American Hospital in Istanbul, and they’d taken the day off to help their friend — the author — sell his books.  To their dismay, passersby were pretty much ignoring them, or waving off the flyers, and these three were getting a humiliating taste of what it’s like to be a salesman. 

“You must be really good friends of the author,” I said. “If you’re going through all this for him.”

The man smiled serenely and asked me, “Do you know anything about Sufism?”

Baffled by his question, I admitted that I knew very little. 

“Then let me tell you a story about a Sufi master,” he said.

Once long ago, there was a wealthy, well-respected judge who decided he wanted to be schooled in Sufi mystical traditions.  He went in search of a famous Sufi master and found him wearing rags and living in an impoverished village.  “I want to be your student,” the judge announced.

The Sufi master looked the judge up and down, and said: “You are not ready to be my student.”

The judge was outraged that this beggarly man would reject him. “What do I have to do to be your student?” he asked.

“You must sell meat in the market,” the master replied.  

The judge was appalled that anyone would see him, a respected judge, working like a common butcher.  So he lurked in the shadows, rolling his meat cart through side streets where he wouldn’t be noticed.  

But again, the Sufi master rejected him.  “You must sell your meat where everyone can see you,” he said.  “And you must wear your judge’s robes, so everyone will know who you are.”

So the judge rolled his meat cart into the full glare of the public eye.  No one bought his meat. Instead he was jeered at and humiliated until every ounce of his pride was destroyed.

And the Sufi master finally said, “Now you are ready to be my student.”

“That’s why I’m here today, helping my friend sell his books,” the doctor told me. “I wanted the full Sufi experience.”

“You wanted to experience humiliation?” I said.

He gave me a sly wink.  “It’s working, isn’t it?”

That’s when we both laughed at just how right he was.  Here was this medical doctor, shilling in a busy public square, facing rejection from passers-by who rudely waved away his flyers.  As I watched him cheerfully persevere, I remembered all the booksignings I’d endured over the years, all the bookstores where I would feel humiliated, begging for customers’ attention, pleading with someone, anyone, to come and take a look at my latest novel.  Whether you’re in Istanbul or Indiana, book-selling is a humbling experience. Perhaps it would be easier to stomach if we all adopt a bit of Sufi wisdom.  Perhaps we should embrace the ordeal as the path to enlightenment.

Later that evening, on my way to dinner, I walked across that same Istanbul square and saw that the author was now back in the booth.


 I stopped to say hello and told him that I’d bought his book earlier that day. Serdar Ozkan was gorgeous and charming, and he had a long line of customers waiting to buy his book.  He was definitely not having the Sufi experience.

I guess he’ll have to wait for enlightenment another day.  


They’ll try to talk you out of it

Tess Gerritsen

I’m often asked why I decided to leave a secure career in medicine and become a writer.  My answer is: way before I became a doctor, I was a writer.  Writing was, in fact, my very first career choice, and when I left medicine, I was simply returning to what I’d always wanted to be.

I first knew I was a writer when I was about seven years old.  Age seven, in fact, seems to be when many of us first self-identify as writers.  By age seven, we know how to read, and we’ve acquired the skills to set complete sentences to paper, although those sentences may be rudimentary and the words charmingly misspelled.

While cleaning out my mother’s old house, I came across one of the very first books I ever wrote: Jungle Journey.  I’d bound it with needle and thread, and illustrated it with pictures of a blue zebra.  (Why is the zebra blue?  I have no idea.) 

Micky the zebra decided to go on a walk through the jungle.  He knew he wasn’t supposed to, but he didn’t know why.  His mother told him never to go into the jungle alone…

Yes, even eight year olds know about foreshadowing.

Micky came to a big tree.  There was a parrot in it.  “Don’t go into the jungle,” he said…

Two pages in, and you can already guess what’s coming next: Something Really Bad. Is this kid destined to be a thriller writer, or what?

All through my childhood, I wrote.  Short stories.  Poems.  Novellas.  I wrote and produced plays and musicals, composed the songs, and was editor of my high school newspaper.  One evening, after a school assembly, my high school English teacher pulled my parents aside and told them: “I’ve never met any student who was more clearly destined to be a writer.”  She knew what I was.  I knew what I was.  

But I had no idea how one actually made a career as a writer.  I’d never met a real, live writer, so I had no one to turn to for advice.  And then there was the question of practicality, uttered by father: “How are you ever going to make a living at it?”  He was the son of Chinese immigrants, an ethnic group known for its practicality and focus on economic security.  Did you ever wonder why so many Chinese Americans end up in medicine, engineering, and computer sciences?  Because that’s where the jobs are.  So that’s where our parents push us.

I dutifully listened to my father, set aside my dreams of being a writer and became a pre-med student instead.  But I never did let go of the dream.  And when I returned to it a decade later, I was all the better prepared, and more determined than ever, to be a writer. 

I’m not the only kid who was almost talked out of a career in the arts, usually by well-meaning parents.  I sometimes hear from other Asian Americans who are miserable in their jobs, and wish they’d followed their hearts.  One computer engineer confessed to me that since he was a child, he’d wanted to be a fashion designer, but his parents pushed him into the sciences instead.  “Now I’m too old to chase my dream,” he said.  “Who’s going to hire a 45-year-old rookie fashion designer?”  One Korean American actor who did follow his dream, and now regularly lands roles in both TV and feature films, complained that his mother still asks him when he’s going to give up that Hollywood nonsense and apply to medical school.  

Well-meaning parents everywhere, of every color, have probably offered a variation of the same advice I heard from my dad.  “I know it’s what you love to do, son, but will you be able to to pay the bills?” Countless budding careers of artists and writers have probably been snuffed out by that common-sense voice of responsibility.  You can’t really blame parents, who are simply doing what parents through the ages have always done: ensured the survival of their offspring.  

Sometimes that advice to “choose a more practical career” is exactly what an aspiring writer needs to hear.  It prepares him for the harsh reality of this business.  It forces him to think about whether he truly is committed to his art. It winnows out those whose writing aspirations are wobbly or fleeting. The truth is, many authors won’t be able to support their families on their writing. They’ll wake up years later, with five or ten published novels under their belt and a stack of unpaid bills on the dining table, and they’ll think: “Dad was right.  I should have been a proctologist.”  If that prospect unnerves you and stops you from following your dream, then maybe you don’t have the drive, the passion, the sheer stubbornness, to be a writer.  Maybe your dream was never meant to be.    

But if you push ahead despite warnings from your parents, your wife, and your accountant, maybe you’re just insane enough to make it in this business.  

writing through distractions

Let me tell you about what my week looks like.

Saturday: my brother and family arrive from Texas, and stay with us.  I love having them here, and we’re having a great time.  Saturday night, cook dinner for five.  

Sunday: Mom joins us and we all go sailing for the day.  Cook dinner for six.

Monday: take Mom to doctor’s appointment.  She’s having problems, and needs more tests.  Cook dinner for six.

Tuesday: both sons arrive with significant others to stay with us for a week.  Have to remake beds.  Mom needs to be driven to hospital for x-rays and blood tests.  Will cook dinner for ten.

Wednesday: brother scheduled to leave.  Will be down to only four house guests. Mom needs to go to hospital for M.R.I.  Mom needs prescriptions refilled.  Dinner for nine.

Thursday: Birthday party for younger son, with grandparents invited.  Son wants tacos with hand-made tortillas.  Cook dinner for nine.

Friday: drive Mom to Portland (hour and a half each way) for her ophthalmology appointment.  Take her shopping for summer clothes.  Home in time for dinner with sons.

Monday: sons scheduled to leave.  Guest beds need to be stripped, sheets washed.  Now it’s my turn to go to doctor for medical tests.  (Having upset stomach for past month — wonder why?!!)

Tuesday: Frantically pack for three-week trip to Turkey.  

Wednesday: Catch flight for Istanbul.

Am I getting any writing done?  What do you think?  Even though I have the uncomplaining help and support of a wonderful spouse, life is full of so many distractions that sometimes writing is impossible.  It takes time to get into the creative zone you need to write a new scene.  It takes time to hear those voices, visualize the action, hone the words.  I can’t do it in ten-minute snatches. And as I get older, I’m finding it even harder to write through distractions.  

When I was a twenty-something medical resident, working 80-hour weeks, somehow I managed to fit in some writing when I had a spare moment.  On nights when I’d be on-call, or when I’d get an hour’s breathing space for lunch, I could produce at least a few paragraphs.  But I was writing short stories and articles then, not novels, and I can get focused much more quickly when the piece is compact and the story is less complicated, with fewer plot and character issues to juggle.

After my sons were born, I dropped back to working part-time, but with both a toddler and a baby in the house, I had a whole new set of distractions.  I juggled two feeding schedules, tried to synchronize nap times, felt my IQ melting away as I shuffled around in a sleep-deprived state, the “ABC song” continuously playing in my head.  And yet, amazingly, I managed to write.  I completed my very first novel (albeit not a very good one) when my sons were only two and four years old.

I still don’t know how I did it.  I’m sure there were times when someone’s diaper didn’t get changed in a timely fashion, or someone had to yell “Mommy” a few too many times before I heard him. I feel guilty about not being totally, mentally there for them when my mind was far, far away.  I wonder if they incurred some lasting emotional trauma, being the children of a writer.  Then I look at these sons of mine, and I see two wonderful, independent and self-sufficient young men who grew up washing their own clothes, changing their own sheets, and cooking their own breakfasts.  

I think there’s something to be said for laissez-faire parenting.

I hear from many aspiring writers who haven’t managed to actually write anything yet because their lives are too busy.  “When I retire, I’ll write that book,” they say.  Or when the children are out of the house.”  And to a certain extent, I can sympathize with them.  It’s impossible to write when your kids are tugging and whining at your feet.  Or when your elderly mom needs your constant attention.  Or when your job leaves you so exhausted at the end of the day, you can barely rustle up the energy to eat dinner.  

I used to believe that if a writer really wants to write, he will — no excuses allowed.  But my position has mellowed over the years, because the pace of life in America has sped up so much over the past few decades.  Kids now have to be driven to countless after-school activities. Employers and customers demand instant turnarounds. The ailing economy means many people have to work far too many hours.  

So for those writers who are feeling guilty that they aren’t writing because life has overwhelmed them, I absolve you of that guilt.  Sometimes it truly is impossible to write.  Maybe you have to wait five years until the kid heads off to kindergarten, or figure out a way to unburden your packed schedule, or ask your spouse to shoulder some of the load. Maybe you need to start saying no more often, to tasks you don’t really feel committed to.

If you’re not actively writing, take comfort in the fact that, on some level, you’re still working.  Even while your kids are screaming or you’re stuck in traffic, somewhere in your brain, some writing gear is probably turning. Maybe that red-faced, tear-streaked toddler will be perfect as a character in your next scene.  Maybe the traffic gives you time to mull over a plot point.

And when you finally do get back to your desk, you’ll be all the more ready to write.