Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Unger, in Conversation

Ghosts, Guns and Dark Places

I am a long-time fan of New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen.  Not just because she’s a superstar writer, but also because she’s a truly lovely and generous person.  She took time out of her crazy busy schedule to spend a week as my pen pal!  What started off as a simple Q&A turned into a really deep conversation about process, psychology, research and the supernatural. Enjoy!

When authors get together there’s no telling what they’ll wind up discussing.  When it’s acclaimed and bestselling thriller writers like Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Unger, you better believe they’re going dark and deep.  From nightmares that turn into novels, to how thriller writers are often metabolizing the things that frighten them on the page, from research war stories, to the conflict between science and the supernatural, this conversation took some wild, twisty roads – just like their novels.

Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Unger

Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Unger at the 2014 Key West Literary Seminar

Lisa Unger:  A couple of years ago, when I was writing FRAGILE, I ran into a character I wasn’t expecting, psychic Eloise Montgomery.  I was excited about her.  I thought: Oh! A psychic! Even if she’s a fraud, that’s still interesting.  My characters have minds of their own, so I was disappointed when she only had a small part to play in that book. But but she stayed with me.  She’s had a couple of books since then, three short stories, and in my upcoming INK AND BONE we meet her granddaughter Finley, who has powers of her own.  Eloise’s story has told itself in a way that I wouldn’t have expected, and it has led me down some roads I didn’t imagine I’d go as a writer.  Which is, of course, the joy and the magic of writing. So I was struck while reading PLAYING WITH FIRE that you, too, had walked into some of the same territory.  Was it a character, or a story, or curiosity about something else that led you there?

Tess Gerritsen:  It was a nightmare!  I was in Venice for my birthday, and after a night drinking a bit too much wine, I had a freaky dream.  I dreamt I was playing my violin. A baby was sitting nearby, and as I played a dark and disturbing melody, the baby’s eyes suddenly glowed red and she turned into a monster.  I woke up wondering what it meant — and knowing there was a story here.  Something about the power of music to haunt and to transform people.  That day I wandered around Venice and ended up in the old Jewish quarter.  There I saw memorial plaques dedicated to the Venice Jews who were deported to death camps during WWII.  That’s when both parts of the novel came to me — a story about a 1930s Jewish composer whose haunting melody will nearly destroy the life of a woman violinist 70 years later.  I’m already a violinist (strictly amateur) with a lifelong love of music, and that knowledge helped inform the musical aspects of the story.

I find that the interests and passions we’ve developed during our lives can both inform and inspire our novel writing.  Was there anything from your own life that worked its way into INK AND BONE?  Some part of yourself that slipped into the character or plot?

Lisa Unger:  I love that, that an intersection of your dream life and your waking one led you to write PLAYING WITH FIRE. It’s so true to the way the process works for me, this blend of waking, dreaming, and imagining.  The musical elements of your story are so rich and alive that I thought you must be a musician, or someone with a deep knowledge of music.  Which is where, I suppose knowledge and passion move in.

There’s some blend of all of that, as well, in INK AND BONE.  I have a fascination with the the idea of psychic phenomena in the Jungian sense, that it might be considered a natural extension of normal human ability.  In my other life in publishing, I had a chance to work with psychic John Edwards.  And I was struck both by his abilities and how normal he was, how he could just be your cousin from Long Island.  In a weird way, though this was many years ago, he was the inspiration for Eloise Montgomery.  The fictional town in which INK AND BONE is set, The Hollows, first showed up in FRAGILE, which was very loosely based on a real event from my past.  Though I didn’t see it at the time, The Hollows shares certain similarities with the place where I grew up.  So, in a lot of ways I suppose I’m dreaming on the page, the real and the imagined get twisted into fiction.

History plays a big role in INK AND BONE, the history of The Hollows and the way the energy of dark deeds has pooled up there.  For me, dark, unresolved histories always bring to mind ghosts and the haunting of the present by the past.  So it’s true with PLAYING WITH FIRE.  Obviously, your medical training has informed many of your fantastic novels, but did that doctor’s mind resist the idea of ghosts and haunting, or inform it any way?

Tess Gerritsen:  I’m afraid my science training prevents me from straying too far into the paranormal.  I always (boringly enough!) want a logical explanation for everything.  In that regard, my character Dr. Maura Isles is very much like me; we both want science to give us all the answers, and we’re bothered when it can’t. Ironically, I love reading paranormal fiction, and wish I could write it, but it’s like I have a form of writer’s block about it.  Just when I’m on the verge of crossing over into a paranormal tale, that nagging scientist in my head yanks me back.

That’s why I’m so impressed by writers who can pull it off, and so convincingly.  Your stories manage to merge the real and the spooky so perfectly, that I sometimes feel like I’m in the middle of a feverish dream when I’m reading them.  I remember racing through CRAZY LOVE YOU and my sense of reality kept shifting in different directions.  It’s as if you opened a psychic curtain and let us peek through into a universe that’s invisible to most of us.

I’m intrigued by the fact your character in INK AND BONE was inspired by your work with psychic John Edwards.  I love hearing about the research that writers must do to make their stories convincing.  In fact, research is the part I enjoy most about writing, because I can delve into new worlds.  As a writer I’ve attended autopsies, watched the CT scan of a mummy, and scouted Boston for the best places to dump a body.  I’m sure you have some interesting tales to tell as well.  What lengths have you gone to to get the details right?

Lisa Unger:  Wait! Don’t give too much away!  I’m deeply engrossed in PLAYING WITH FIRE.  Of course, I had an inkling that your scientist’s mind would resist the supernatural.  But I do sense more than a passing curiosity, Dr. Gerritsen!  Science and the supernatural are not necessarily at odds.  There is so much we don’t know about the universe and the human mind; there are more questions than answers.  I suppose I believe anything is possible, which might be why I’m willing to go into the unexplained with my characters.

I’m always amazed, in all of your books from HARVEST to GRAVITY, to the Rizzoli and Isles series at the depth of your knowledge about so many things.  Most writers are explorers. I like to think of myself as a spelunker, shimming into the dark spaces between things I don’t understand to try find answers.  So, yes, research (and life) are an important part of the process.

I’ve taken a concealed weapons course (and absolutely hated the feeling of firing a gun).  I’ve interviewed a woman who claimed to be a ghost hunter.  One of my closest friends is a retired Federal Agent who, if he doesn’t know the answers to my million questions, can always find someone who does.   I lived with a New York City police officer for eight years – okay, so that was a relationship, and a pretty bad one at that.   So lots of research there in all areas, but in the end I just wound up with a good knowledge of police work and fantastic recipe for roast pork — which I guess is something.  I’ve been lava tubing in Iceland (not sure where that’s going to turn up, but I’m guessing it will).  I spent five weeks in Prague while writing DIE FOR YOU.  Recently, I’ve become obsessed with birds.  I’m an information junkie.  I’m constantly reading non-fiction in all areas with a special focus on psychology, addiction, trauma, biology and the brain.  For me, more than the nuts and bolts of procedure, it’s human nature and the mind, and where those things intersect with nurture and spirituality, that fascinate me.  Much of INK AND BONE is laced through with those themes.

Are there themes that you find come up again and again in your novels?  Have you ever been surprised by a recurring question or idea that surfaces without your realizing it?

Tess Gerritsen:  I love your research tales!  I too hated firing a gun.  I was painfully aware that if I was the slightest bit careless and didn’t stay in control of where it was pointed, someone could die.  I also learned how difficult it is to be accurate with a handgun.  I certainly understand how cops can fire a dozen rounds — and still miss their target.

When I’m writing, I’m thinking primarily about characters and plot, and it’s only in retrospect that I understand what the theme might be.  You asked whether I’ve been surprised by recurring questions that seem to surface in my books, and the answer is: yes, absolutely.  Thriller writer David Morrell once told me that novelists often address their own childhood traumas in their books.  For instance, a writer who never felt his father loved him may write book after book about heroes trying to please authority figures.  When Morrell told me that, a light bulb went on in my head, because I realized it was true for me as well.  When I was a child, I adored a family friend named Uncle Mike, who served very much as a father figure for me.  He was a gentle soul who counseled me about school, life, and love.  Then when I turned eighteen, Uncle Mike was arrested for murdering his sister-in-law.  I was stunned because I never saw that violent side of him, and it led me to question whether anyone is who they seem to be.  That’s the theme I return to again and again — which smiling face hides the monster?  In a way, it’s a universal theme for crime writers, the evil that lurks in the hearts of seemingly ordinary human beings.

Now I’ve reached a point in my career (I’m much older than you!) where I yearn to branch out and try new things in my stories.  I feel the pressure of time, and wonder how many years do I have left to write stories that really matter to me.  Playing With Fire was a departure for me because it isn’t a crime novel, but a book about music, history, and the Holocaust.  For my readers, it was certainly unexpected, but for me as a writer, it was immensely satisfying to write.  I would also love to write more screenplays (we’re in production now with my indie horror film “Island Zero”) as well as try my hand at young adult novels.  Most writers have a secret “book of their heart” they’d like to write.  Do you ever plan to divert from crime novels?  Are there any projects that no one’s expecting from you, but that you’re itching to write?

Lisa Unger:  I felt exactly the same way holding a gun.  I was awed by the experience, the terrible responsibility, the potential to do the ultimate harm.  I was aware already from my years dating a cop what a huge role adrenaline plays in decision making when there’s a gun in your hand, how lucky you are to be anywhere near accurate even with training. Still, experiencing it first hand was eye-opening, even in a controlled environment with no potential threat or danger.  I was also saddened by the thought that here in my hand was something created for the sole purpose of killing another living being.  It was a deeply affecting experience for me.

Very early in my career, I heard David Morrell speak and his wise words struck a chord with me, too.  When I was fifteen, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered.  We lived in a small, supposedly safe town, the kind of place you move to give your kids a happy, suburban upbringing.  And then, on a day like any other day, a girl walking home from school fell victim to a monster.  I never saw the world the same way again.  The theme of the lost girl runs through almost all of my novels in one way or another, never with my intending it and always obvious to me only after the book is done.  I think most of us are metabolizing fear on the page, and looking to put order to the chaos we perceive in the world.  Maybe that’s why people read crime fiction, as well — because there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end where some kind of justice is served. Not always so in the real world.

I’m writing pretty close to the bone.  I follow the voices in my head, and so far they’ve all been pretty dark and twisted, wrestling with questions of identity, struggling with everything from addiction to body dysmorphic disorder to hauntings.  I have a voracious curiosity about people and all the different things that make us who we are.  If someone else turns up with something different to explore, I’ll certainly honor that.  For me that’s the joy of writing, following character voice wherever it takes me.

Wow! I’m excited about your indie horror film ISLAND ZERO.  What a great title! I’m scared already.  Can you tell us a little bit about it?  And I think next up for you is a new Rizzoli and Isles entitled STRANGE GIRL.  Any tidbits you would like to share?

Tess Gerritsen:  I grew up loving horror films, especially those old classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Them,” and I’ve long thought it would be fun to make just such a film.  My son Josh is already a filmmaker (documentaries) and we decided to do one together.  I wrote the screenplay, about a group of hardy fishermen on a Maine island who suddenly find themselves cut off from the world when the ferry stops coming.  The phones are dead and every boat they send to the mainland fails to return.  Then dead bodies start turning up along the shoreline, and they realize they are “ground zero” for something terrible that’s about to happen to mankind.  The project is in the capable hands of Josh and his producer, and we’ve got cast and crew from NYC, Boston, and L.A. now at work here in Maine.  It’s a SAG production, so the actors are truly impressive.  Despite the vagaries of Maine weather, they’re now four days into the shooting schedule, and it all looks fantastic.  (And rather, um, gory, thanks to the magic of our special effects guy.)

At the same time, I’m at work on my 12th Rizzoli & Isles novel, STRANGE GIRL.  I can’t share tidbits yet because the story keeps changing on me and I never know how it’s going to morph.  That’s the trouble with writing by the seat of my pants — I never know where the ride will take me.

Your books are really dark and twisted, yet you’re a perfectly lovely woman — and a mom.  How do you answer the question that I’m sure you’ve been asked: what’s WRONG with you, that you write such frightening fiction?  Isn’t your husband afraid to come home to you at night?  Do your books reflect some pathology in your personality?  (Yeah, I get asked the same questions.)

Lisa Unger:  There might be something essentially wrong with me! I’m not sure.  All I know is that I’ve always had this twisted imagination, and have always been fascinated by the dark side.  You know when you go to those horror movies that you love so much, and on the screen there’s a girl creeping down the stairs into the basement (from which some eerie noise is emanating) and everyone’s yelling: Don’t go down there! Get out of the house!  I’m the girl going down the stairs, just because I want to – no, NEED to – know what’s there.  And I don’t remember a time before I was a writer, so I guess these two essential elements of my nature have dovetailed to make me a writer of psychological suspense.

Motherhood has only made my imagination darker.  Back to what we discussed earlier, maybe those of us with those kinds of thoughts seek to metabolize them on the page.  Looking at INK AND BONE (I agree that you never really understand your book until it’s done) I can see how it addresses some of my most personal, deepest fears – about motherhood, protecting your child and teaching her how to protect herself, trusting yourself and your path, and how sometimes you have to walk the darkest roads to get to the light.


Tess Gerritsen is the acclaimed and New York Times bestselling author of PLAYING WITH FIRE and the upcoming STRANGE GIRL featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles (characters that inspired the TNT television series “Rizzoli and Isles.“)

Lisa Unger is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of fourteen novels of psychological suspense, including her latest release INK AND BONE.

Both Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Unger have dark thoughts and very nice husbands who are never afraid to come home to them at night.