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Doctor/novelist delves deeply with ‘Surgeon’

SHARE Doctor/novelist delves deeply with ‘Surgeon’

In recent years, medical school has become a productive if unlikely path to writing success.

Take Tess Gerritsen, for instance. Born and raised in San Diego, she obtained a degree in anthropology from Stanford University, then an M.D. from the University of California, San Francisco. For five years, she successfully practiced as an internist. But she became worried about the time she was not spending with her two small children.

So she became a novelist of medical suspense.

Her first novel, "Harvest," about organ donation, was a New York Times best-seller. She followed that one with "Life Support," "Bloodstream" and "Gravity," all national best-sellers.

But this is not as drastic a change as it seems. In a telephone interview from her home in Maine, Gerritsen explained that she has always loved writing. Even while practicing medicine, she engaged in writing during cracks in her tight schedule. And she is not bothered by her lack of formal training in a writing program.

"People are either storytellers or they're not," she said. "If you're not a reader, you can never be a writer."

Gerritsen's intensive, gut-wrenching medical thriller "The Surgeon" leaves no doubt that she is a storyteller. In this case, the term "surgeon" refers to a psychopathic killer who murders with medical precision.

"He was the core of the book for me. My research was mostly geared to him. I found myself reading about the bloody history of sacrifice. It's very frightening what people have done to other people."

The lead female character, Dr. Catherine Cordell, is a brilliant physician who has been demoralized by rape. "She is the most remote character from me I've ever written — so damaged, so self-protective, a victim of horrifying things.

"I have had an uneventful life, but I don't think you have to experience horrible things to write about them."

Gerritsen believes the story ideas are easy to come up with. "But the writing is mostly sweat. You have to be a good actor to be a good writer. You inhabit these characters. You live and breathe them for a while. So, when I write, I'm moody. I've been living for a year inside a killer's head."

The killer in her book is "a combination of every serial killer I've ever read about. He is closest to Ted Bundy, who was the most normal of serial killers. Everyone else I write about from imagination. When I start to write, I can usually see a third of the way ahead of me. If I were to plot things too carefully, it would take away the surprise for me.

"So I just write and see what happens. It's more difficult that way because sometimes I write myself into a dead end and have go back and start over. I like to surprise myself."

Gerritsen also has a short attention span. "If a TV show doesn't get me right away, I change channels. I need something to take my breath away. My No. 1 rule is to never bore the reader."

She reads a lot of forensic literature, finding interesting cases with occasional clues she likes well enough to insert into her books. "I put it in, but I don't know how I'll use it until later. I didn't know initially, for instance, how 'the surgeon' was choosing his victims. When I found out, it became completely different.

"I was completely ignorant of the effect of rape on victims — the trauma and how many years it can cripple women. I hadn't known any rape victims. I realized I could teach with this book and talk about how to handle difficult issues responsibly."

Although she was dealing with horrible crimes, Gerritsen thought it "important to include sympathetic men to represent the vast majority of men who do not rape. I based the character of Detective Thomas Moore on my husband. I'm married to a very sensitive man."

To help herself and her readers understand the killer, she wrote italicized "stream-of-consciousness" essays that are sprinkled through the book. "I wanted to understand this killer and wanted him to be literate and educated. This is where method acting comes in. I'm channeling evil here."

It was her first experience with evil. "But there is no way to know what people are really thinking. How many cases have we had in which doctors or nurses kill their patients? There's something scary about the medical profession. It has an enormous power over us. The killer in the book knows things about people because of their blood. It's creepy to think of strangers handling your blood — and enjoying it, reveling in what a marvelous substance it is."

The love story between the detective and the doctor was difficult to write, said Gerritsen, "because she was so damaged. How does a woman go back to being a sexual creature after a horrible, violent experience? How do I go about writing a love scene without seeming crass? . . . The best love scenes in a book are not included for prurient interest — they tell us who these people are. In this case, it tells us that Thomas Moore was a very good human being."

Gerritsen is already half-way through a sequel to "The Surgeon" — called "The Apprentice." The main character is a spin-off of Moore's female partner, 33-year-old Detective Jane Rizzoli, a very smart detective who is determined to go to the top of her profession — like Gerritsen herself.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com