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Book Talk: Tess Gerritsen turns to her Asian-American roots

By Elaine Lies
/ Source: Reuters

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO, July 14 (Reuters Life!) - For 22 books, through romances and thrillers and bestsellers, including the hit series with homicide cop Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles, Tess Gerritsen hid the fact that she was Asian-American.

But for "The Silent Girl," released this month, Gerritsen turned to her Chinese roots, weaving Chinese lore, a mysterious female wushu grandmaster, and the myth of the Monkey King into a tale of murder set in Boston's Chinatown.

Working with Rizzoli and Isles for the first time is Johnny Tam, an ambitious Chinese-American detective with a chip on his shoulder and a secret of his own.

Gerritsen spoke with Reuters about Asian-Americans in fiction and writing a series so successful it has inspired its own TV show, the second series of which has just started.

Q: In this book, the interesting character is Johnny Tam.

A: Yes. You know, I have hidden my race for 22 books. I have hidden behind my married name, which is very Caucasian, because I didn't feel safe coming out with it. I didn't feel that the market would really accept me. I think I felt it's time to start bringing in an Asian-American point of view.

Q: Why did you feel you had to hide your background?

A: Mostly it was the marketplace. I did not feel there was a big market for the Asian-American voice. The other thing that happened was that years ago, when I started writing romantic thrillers, I had an editor tell me that every time they had an Asian-American major character in the book, it didn't do well.

I followed her advice at the time. I also thought that the majority of my readers are white, and I think they want to read about white characters. I was reluctant to hurt my career or in any way get in the way of the sales. I have minor characters who are Asian-American, and I've been using them throughout my career, but they've never taken center stage, they've never been really powerful, they've never expressed some of the experiences I had growing up in the U.S. Johnny Tam is the first one.

Q: Was it set in Chinatown to bring him in?

A: I needed a reason for this young man who is not on Homicide to be brought into the story. They would ask for a translator, even though he speaks Mandarin and doesn't speak Cantonese.

I also wanted a male. My brother often complains to me about the 'angry Asian male' in the United States. As a female, I haven't encountered this, but Asian-American men are angry. They're angry because, for so many years, they've been neglected as sex symbols. Asian women have it much easier, I think, we're accepted into various circles. But my brother has complained that Asian American males don't get respect... on the dating market, anyway. So I wanted to have a sexy Asian male in this story, somebody who would maybe catch Maura's eye, who would be heroic, who would be multi-faceted, and who would have a secret.

Q: But aren't some aspects of this Asian-American setting almost feeding stereotypes, such as the martial arts?

A: I'm glad you mentioned this, because people go 'yeah, right, Asian-American martial arts woman.' It is inspired by a real woman. Her name is Bow-sim Mark. She is a grandmaster in Wushu, and she introduced Wushu to the Boston market, she has her own studio there. She's one of the few female grandmasters in the world. I haven't spoken to her but I've spoken to several students, now men in their 50s, who talk of her as if she is a wizard. There's complete awe and reverence for grandmaster Mark.

I was really inspired by that. Every time we ever hear about a female kung fu or wushu artist it's in movies, it's always in fiction. But here we have a real one in the city of Boston.

I just wanted to start bringing in some Chinese mythology, stuff that I remember from my childhood. Not just the fairytales but the food, the ghosts -- my mother believes in ghosts because she saw them in China. She'll tell you, they're all around us, and the reason we don't see them in the U.S. is because this country is way too young. This is an elementary country, where China is ancient enough and mature enough to have ghosts.

Q: What are the pleasures and pains of writing a series?

A: The real reason I continue to write about these women is that I want to know what's happening to them. I want to know what their love life is like. Every time there's always a complication that comes up in their lives, and I want to resolve them, and see what happens next. So for me, the pleasures are watching these characters change over time.

I just want to see how their lives evolve. More than the stories, it's these two women, who now seem pretty real to me.

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: I would say write what you want to read, write the story that you would love to read, that you just want to get your teeth into. And always write the story that gives you an emotional punch. My most successful books, the ones that I feel the strongest about, are the ones that started with a premise that for me was deeply emotional. I think (this book) is. It's my childhood coming to the forefront, and my experiences of growing up in a white community, coming out of the mouth of Johnny Tam. (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)