Best-selling ‘Rizzoli & Isles’ author comes home to San Diego

She’s received the NERO and the RITA awards, been nominated for the Macavity and the Edgar, and none other than Stephen King has said she is better than Michael Crichton — and invited her to play her fiddle in his Rock Bottom Remainders band.

Her books have been published in 40 countries and sold more than 25 million copies. And her two most famous characters, Rizzoli and Isles, are now the leads in a hit TV show by the same name. Who is she? If you guessed Tess Gerritsen, you are right.

At 2 p.m. Nov. 12, Gerritsen returns to San Diego to speak and sign copies of her new book, “Playing With Fire,” at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla. Join her for a discussion of the book and a performance of the musical piece, “Incendio,” that she wrote to complement the novel.

An old friend of ours who has keynoted and taught at the La Jolla Writers Conference twice, Gerritsen recently sat down to answer a few of our questions.

You are an MD. How and why did you transition into writing?

I knew I was a writer when I was 7 years old, but I come from immigrant Chinese parents who didn’t think that writing was a safe career. I chose my second-favorite career path, into the sciences. While on maternity leave from my work as a doctor, I wrote my first novel. A few novels later, I was published — and decided not to go back to medicine.

There is a story that goes with your transition from romance to suspense. Can you share it, please?

I had dinner with a homicide detective who’d been traveling in Russia. He told me that children were vanishing in Moscow, and Russian police thought the kids were being kidnapped and sacrificed as organ donors for rich patients. I was so horrified by the story that I knew it was my next book — and it was definitely not a romance novel. “Harvest” marked my debut on best-seller lists, and taught me that I really am a thriller writer.

Romance has the biggest market share. Why the transition to suspense/thriller genre?

Even when I was writing romance, there was always a murder or two in my stories, so I know I was meant to write suspense. Also, I found many more readers as a suspense novelist.

The characters in your stand-alone books are often terrifying. What is it like to live with such characters for the months of writing a book?

It’s a bit disconcerting. To understand an evil character, I really have to get inside his head, but that means he also gets into my head. It changes your perspective on the world. When you see it through the eyes of a predator, everything and everyone looks different.

You write both stand-alone novels and your “Rizzoli & Isles” books. What is the primary difference between writing stand-alone and series books?

Now that I’m expected to write the “Rizzoli & Isles” series, my stand-alone books are my personal projects, the stories that I write for myself because they really mean something to me. “Bone Garden” was one story I loved writing, about the history of medicine and what it was like to be a doctor in the brutal era before anesthesia and antibiotics. “Playing With Fire” is another project I had to write, because the story held me captive until I did write it.

Jane and Maura are very real to both your readers and to viewers — and their friendship is a huge part of that. To you, what is the most important aspect of their dynamic?

That they are both strong, capable women who are the best at what they do — and they respect each other.

“Rizzoli & Isles” is now a successful TV series. What makes a writer willing to turn her characters over to others to bring to the screen?

When a producer offers to turn your books into a television series, it’s pretty hard to say no! In my case, the producer (Bill Haber) had a strong respect for the heart of the series: two women professionals who also happen to be friends. There’ve been changes in the characters themselves, but that relationship and that competence has been key.

How much input do you have in the development and writing of the series?

None. While the pilot episode was based on my book “The Apprentice,” the episodes since then are written by their own writing team, and they’ve felt the freedom to veer away from the books.

The premise of your new book is fascinating. Tell our readers a bit about it.

The idea came to me in a nightmare while I was in Venice. I dreamt I was playing my violin while a baby sat nearby. The music was strange and disturbing, and the baby suddenly transformed into a monster! Shaken by the dream, I spent the day walking the narrow streets of Venice and I ended up in the Jewish quarter, where there are memorials to the 246 Jews who were deported to death camps. In a flash, the whole story came to me.

“Playing With Fire” is about Julia, a violinist who buys a yellowed sheet of handwritten music called “Incendio” in a Rome antique store. Back home in Boston, every time she plays it, her 3-year-old daughter goes berserk. Now Julia’s terrified of her own child, and her husband thinks Julia’s going insane. To save her family, Julia must delve into the history of “Incendio.” Where does the music come from? Why does it seem to carry such terrifying power?

Her search takes her to Venice, and to a dark time in Italian history: WWII, when thousands of Italian Jews lost their lives. Woven into the book is the tragic love story of Lorenzo and Laura, who find that history stands between them. It’s the music “Incendio” that links both past and present, and the long-lost secrets Julia uncovers will threaten her life.

A little-known fact about you is that you play the fiddle. Tell us about the music you wrote to go with the new book. It is a compelling piece.

While writing “Playing With Fire,” I described “Incendio” in such great detail that it must have worked its way into my subconscious. I woke up one morning with the melody itself in my head. It took me six weeks to compose the 98-bar piece (for violin and piano). I shared the piece with a London music producer, and he immediately suggested some internationally renowned violinists who would want to record it. Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, prize-winning concert violinist, had both the fire and passion for the project, and she even contributed her own violin cadenza to the composition. The 7-minute recording of “Incendio” is now available on iTunes and Amazon.

What one piece of advice would you share with aspiring authors?

Wait for your characters to speak to you. Sit in a quiet room. When they finally start talking, that’s when you start writing.

What’s next from Tess Gerritsen?

I’m working on the 12th “Rizzoli and Isles” novel. It should be out next year.

Antoinette Kuritz and Jared Kuritz are the team behind both Strategies Public Relations and the La Jolla Writer’s Conference (www.lajollawritersconference.com).

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