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?


28 thoughts on “Questions I’d rather avoid

  1. karen from mentor

    Tess THE HOBBIT is one of the best books of all time. Nothing dorky about that at all.

    My daughter reads me…. if I get an "I liked that" from her I faint from the excess amount of high praise lol ……………So thank you so much for your summing up of the parent child relationship thing as "we’re just mom and dad"….

    PS Do they at least like your cooking?

  2. Alafair Burke

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t have some supersonic answer to the describe-your-day question.

    And the question I could most do without: "What was it like to grow up with your dad?" Um…?

  3. Karen in Ohio

    I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear that someone else’s children do not read their parents’ work. Thanks for making my day, Tess!

  4. Rob Gregory Browne

    Great post, Tess.

    My children read my books, even though I beg them not to bother. Why would I do that? Because, if they don’t love them, I’m afraid they’ll think less of me. And there’s certainly no guarantee that they’ll love them.

    I’m with you on the "who’s your favorite writer" question. I usually name people who influenced me growing up or are dead.

    I’m embarrassed to say I think even I’VE asked you the Stephen King question. I believe I was blurb begging at the time (but let’s face it, everyone knows you were in a band together…).

    The typical workday question, however, is a good one. I’ve always been fascinated by other writers’ rituals and process. I want to know how the magic is made. And even if it seems mundane to you, it gives me a little thrill to take a peek inside your working world. There’s this great series of black and white photos of famous authors by Jill Krementz that beautifully illustrates this. Some of my heroes there.

    Finally, the one question that always kills me is this:

    Why are you so much more handsome in real life than you are in your photos?

    Renders me speechless every time.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Awesome photos from the set, Tess. What an incredible career achievement.
    My second book is also due today, well, four months ago, actually, but today is the day I promised I’d finally get it in. And so it will be.
    Question that drives me nuts: "Now that you’re a rich and famous author, will you still talk to us little people?"
    Uh…rich? Famous? Are you kidding???

  6. Gar Anthony Haywood


    I understand your reluctance to name names when people ask who your favorite author is. Some of my best friends in the business, fine writers that they are, wouldn’t make my list. But would they get their feelings hurt if I answered the question and failed to mention them? I don’t really think so. Most of us understand that we’re not going to be recognized as the best of the best by everybody—different strokes, and all that—and life’s too short to get hurt every time we don’t make the cut with a reader/writer whose opinion we respect. I like to answer the question honestly if only because I think the authors I call out for special praise deserve to know I feel that strongly about their work. And I know what kind of a high it is to receive that kind of recognition. Years ago, Michael Connelly would drop my name on occasion when interviewers asked him The Question and it would make my day for months afterward. Oh, and it might have actually sold a book or two.


  7. Allison Brennan

    Where do you get your ideas. It’s hard to answer because it’s different for every book, and there’s no ONE answer. I can tell people how specific points came to be, but not the story itself. Favorite author is hard because it’s often slanted based on what was the last favorite book I read. But the question that annoys me the most (these days) is how much money did I have to pay to have my book published.

  8. Dana King

    Allison beat me to it, but even I, a pre-published writer, get asked where I get my ideas. (Most recently at my wife’s company Christmas party.)

    The best answer I’ve heard came courtesy of Robert B. Parker at a signing. He and Stephen King were doing one of those morning TV shows, and the hostess asked King where he got his ideas.

    "Utica, New York. There’s a little store there. A lot of writers get their ideas there."

    Unfazed, the woman accepted that at face value and asked Parker where he got his ideas.

    "Same place."

    Then she went on like that was exactly the answer she’d expected.

  9. Michelle Moran

    Great list, Tess. The question I get asked most frequently (so many times, in fact, that I now have a form response for it in my email): Do you think you were Nefertiti in your past life?

    Um… no.

    So far as I can tell, this question is most often asked of writers of Egyptian fiction. I’ve never had an author friend who writes about, say, Queen Victoria, tell me they’ve been asked this question.

  10. JT Ellison

    Awesome post Tess. And congrats on getting that book in! (Because I KNOW you’re not reading Murderati when you should be finishing… ; )

    The question that I get practically daily, that A- blows my mind and B- makes me squirm:

    "So how much money do you make? Are you making a living?"

    I’ve started turning it around on people – "Well, how much did you make last year?" That usually stops them in their tracks and point out how incredibly rude and intrusive the question is. I’m always amazed at how complete strangers will pop out with this. It’s usually followed by a dismissive – I could do that if I had the time. Like writing is just some little hobby we all have, not a gift from God.

    Wow, who peed in my cheerios this morning?

  11. Allison Brennan

    Oh, JT, that has me fuming too!!! Like it’s anyone’s business how much money I make, or don’t make. I do have an answer, though. I make 8% royalties on every book I sell, 10% if I sell more than 150,000 copies in mass market. What’s that, 67 cents to 79 cents on a $7.99 paperback? Hmm. Maybe I’ll just say 67 cents per book.

    Other annoying questions: How do you have the time to write? (Response: How do you have time to commute to work and sit at a desk for 8 hours?)

    Annoying question to husband: So, do you help with research? (nudge nudge, wink wink) (Response: No, I use a professional.)

    Annoying question to husband: So do you and Allison ‘research’ the sex scenes? (Wink) (His response: She hasn’t killed anyone, but writes pretty good murder scenes. My response either, "No, my five children were all virgin births." or "I’ll tell you if you’ll tell me the last time you and your wife had sex and if she enjoyed it as much as you."

    Okay, I’ve never said that, but I’ve really wanted to.

  12. Allison Brennan

    Okay, I just looked at the pictures. Yes, I’m a major fan girl. Korsak, Jane, and Gabriel are so perfectly cast it’s eerie. So close to how I pictured them. I can hardly wait. Finish your book, but when you have time I hope you can answer questions … like is the APPRENTICE the story they’re filming? I know it’s a series and they’ll probably have different cases, but the bleeding guy in his underwear I immediately though apprentice . . . And since Gabriel was there. ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Jill James

    Tess, I’m not published yet and that is the most annoying question, "Why aren’t you published yet?" Because I’m not, people. When I am you will be the second to know. LOL

    Loved the pictures from the set and love your haircut. It is so cute.

  14. toni mcgee causey

    Stephen, I’m with you on that one — I’ve gotten it multiple times and it flummoxes me… And Allison, that’s what I ended up doing–telling them roughly how much I made per book (in trade, I think it was 65ยข

    The one I could live without, though, is the favorite author / favorite book question–there’s no way I could narrow them down and my reading lists have always been too eclectic to describe.

    I love that idea answer King gave. That is perfect.

  15. Gayle Carline

    I just got my very first book published this past August. This is now the official pattern for all questions:

    1. "How is the book selling?" Um, okay, I guess. Some days I reach #56,000 in Amazon ranking.
    2. "Are you writing another book?" No, I only ever wanted to write one. Series, that is.
    3. "When’s the next book coming out?" When I finish it.

    At this point, I ask them what they thought of last night’s Laker’s game, or this week’s Glee, or whether the rain will hurt the rhubarb. Anything to Change. The. Subject.

  16. toni mcgee causey

    Oh, the other favorite… "Why don’t you just get your book on Oprah?"

    I have been asked that too many times to count. I would like to find an answer which isn’t bitchy, because generally, the questioner means well and just doesn’t understand the business. They’re trying to communicate hope for the book, or admiration, or something positive that you could do, so I get that. My answer has mostly been, "Sadly, everyone tries that and she gets thousands of requests a year." [This, after running through a massive amount of smartass options.]

  17. Catherine Shipton

    Tess that set visit looks great. I agree that the casting looks pretty spot on too.

    Toni, your self control is amazing. I’m wondering whether onlookers see the unsaid thoughts ripple across your face though.

    Also authors, people really ask you how much you make? It’s a repeat event…does no one think before speaking anymore?

  18. Jemi Fraser

    I think one of my best Christmas gifts ever was this beautiful boxed and embossed edition of the Hobbit. My folks didn’t get fantasy at all, so it made it all the better that they got how much I loved that book ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Catherine Shipton

    Toni that was mean of me…I could just relate a little too well to people asking me stupid questions and trying to be kind, while inwardly thinking of some fairly lightning fast obnoxious replies…and I for a time I thought my face was like stone…’cept apparently not.

    Good for you spending your toddle years as a cardshark.


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