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Best-selling author Tess Gerritsen in the backyard of her home in Camden, Massachusetts. Despite her success, as a Chinese-American she still doesn’t feel accepted. Photo: Getty Images

Crime writer Tess Gerritsen on Listen to Me, her new Rizzoli & Isles novel inspired by coronavirus lockdowns, and why, as a Chinese-American, she still doesn’t feel accepted

  • The Chinese-American novelist produced a new Rizzoli & Isles crime story, gothic ghost story Shape of Night and #MeToo thriller Choose Me while in lockdown
  • She’s spread her wings to writing music and producing films, and says ‘I’m more aware that I have a limited number of years to tell the stories I want to tell’

When I first met Tess Gerritsen, back in 2008, she was making a name for herself as one of America’s most promising crime writers. She had built a respectable following among readers and critics with her six novels starring Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles: 2005’s Vanish won the prestigious Nero award; its follow-up, The Mephisto Club (2006), made bestseller lists around the world.

But back then, Rizzoli and Isles were only bit part players in a conversation dominated, firstly, by Gerritsen’s Chinese heritage. “My mother was from Kunming, in Yunnan province. She left mainland China just in time to escape the takeover of communist rule, and came to the US as a foreign student. My father’s family was originally from Guangdong, and they have been in the US for multiple generations.”

Gerritsen credited her mother in particular for her love of books, but said both parents were responsible for her drive and ambition. “Immigrant Asians are very much about hard work, and also a sense that you will never be accepted until you achieve a certain amount of success.”

Our second topic was Gerritsen’s medical background. This was partly because back then her latest novel had been The Bone Garden (2007), a historical story inspired by the extraordinarily high death rate in 19th century Boston’s maternity wards (the culprit turns out to be poor handwashing). But medicine plays a crucial role in Gerritsen’s life and writing.

Persuaded to train as a doctor because her parents believed her early literary ambitions were unrealistic, Gerritsen worked as a physician in Hawaii for 10 years. Following the birth of her first child, however, she entered a local short-story competition and won first prize. The victory encouraged Gerritsen to write her first novel, Adventure’s Mistress (1985), a mixture of romance and suspense.

Fast forward to 2022, and Gerritsen’s life is both the same and entirely different. Two years after our first meeting, an adaptation of her crime novels, Rizzoli & Isles, debuted on American television and ran for seven successful series. Gerritsen was promoted to the big leagues: her books have been published in more than 40 countries, selling in excess of 30 million copies.

Angie Harmon (right) as police detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as medical examiner Dr Maura Isles in the television adaptation of Gerritsen’s crime fiction. Photo: TNT
Not content with conquering television, Gerritsen has made inroads into music and cinema. An accomplished pianist and fiddle player, she composed music to accompany her 2015 novel, Playing with Fire. She has also produced two films in collaboration with her son Joshua: a short horror movie (Island Zero; 2018), and a documentary exploring the relationship between humans and pigs (Magnificent Beast; 2022).

Gerritsen, now 69, has still found time to write fiction, albeit at a reduced pace: Listen to Me, her new Rizzoli and Isles book, is the first since 2017’s I Know a Secret. “I wanted to write other stories that didn’t feature Rizzoli and Isles,” she says. “As I get older, I’m more aware that I have a limited number of years to tell the stories I want to tell, and I have to write them now.”

Recent works include Shape of Night (2019), a “gothic ghost story that was haunting me”, Choose Me (2021), a “#MeToo thriller that had intrigued me” and a television pilot.

The cover of Gerritsen’s new crime novel. Photo: Ballantine Books

All of these projects, and indeed Listen to Me, grew out of the Covid-19 lockdowns. “I found it to be very creative. It forced me to stay home and to cancel all my planned trips. The result? I wrote two books and a screenplay.

“Most writers are solitary anyway, so lockdown did not change our daily work lives. But in our personal lives, it was painful having to isolate from older family members. We tried to enact a ‘pod’ of people we felt safe with, but there was always the question of whether everyone else was as careful as we were.”

Given Gerritsen’s medical background, not to mention the fascination with public health and hygiene that inspired The Bone Garden, it is no surprise to hear her views of how the pandemic was handled.

“The public is far more aware of the microbiological world, and how the most deadly enemies are those we cannot see. What distressed me was that many people refused to believe established science, and instead looked for ‘magical’ cures like hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin.

“They wanted simple answers that did not require them to consider the good of society as a whole. It reminded me that science will always have its deniers.”

Even though my father’s family has been American since the 1800s – longer than Trump’s family – Trump is considered more ‘American’ than I am, just because he is white
Tess Gerritsen

Something of this fractious, paranoid atmosphere seems to have suffused Listen to Me, whose plot is propelled by the suspicion that sinister threats are lurking close to home. Did the novel owe anything to Gerritsen’s experience of quarantine claustrophobia?

“Yes indeed!” she replies. “I started pondering all the things you can deduce about your neighbours just by watching from your own house. Why do perpetually closed curtains make us uneasy? Everyone has secrets, and what if you started to get obsessed about what your neighbours are up to?”

All these questions are embodied by a newly prominent character, Angela Rizzoli. The curious and some might say nosy mother of Jane Rizzoli, Angela suspects her new neighbours have a sinister secret.

“I didn’t even know if I was going to continue the Rizzoli and Isles series until Angela Rizzoli started speaking to me,” Gerritsen says. “Suddenly I had another story in the series to write.” But in case anyone mistakes the meddlesome Angela for Gerritsen herself, she is quick to draw a line.

“I’m very good at minding my own business! Angela is modelled after an auntie I knew as a child, who was always in everyone’s business.”

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The mention of family turns us towards Gerritsen’s recent experiences as an Asian-American. Previously she had spoken passionately about her parents’ experiences of racism in their adopted homeland.

“When my father was a kid, there was an apartheid [in America]. He was not allowed to drink at certain water fountains or swim in the public pools. This was in California. Not the Deep South. He grew up with this real sense that he had to struggle to be accepted. He passed that on to me.”

What has it been like to endure Donald Trump, and to witness the escalating political tensions between China and the US? “It is very worrisome. All Chinese-Americans – in fact, all Asian-Americans in general – know that if conflict breaks out between the US and China, we will suffer from the spillover of racist hatred.

“Even though my father’s family has been American since the 1800s – longer than Trump’s family – Trump is considered more ‘American’ than I am, just because he is white.”

For my last question, I read Gerritsen her own words from 2008 – that “immigrant Asians […] never feel accepted until they achieve a certain amount of success”. Given her many achievements, does Gerritsen finally feel that acceptance?

“No,” she says after a pause. “No one ever does. Those feelings of inadequacy, so ingrained since childhood, never leave you. It’s part of what motivates me to keep working!”