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Tess Gerritsen spies literary opportunity in the unexpected

The Maine-based former surgeon turned thriller writer and filmmaker talks about the life of spies, getting older, and the lessons of romance novels

Tess Gerritsen and her book “The Spy Coast”Thomas & Mercer/Josh Gerritsen

Her stories are sharp. Scalpel sharp. Needle sharp. Sharper than “Sharp Objects” sharp. A retired surgeon turned “seat-of-the-pants” writer, Tess Gerritsen has been unafraid to embrace unconventionality by turning the raw stuff of life into narrative. Her most recent “sharp stuff” — “The Spy Coast” — is sculpted from the seaside retirement of a not-so-retired CIA spy, Maggie Bird. An escapade that penetrates the human psyche, Gerritsen’s latest thriller — her 25th so far and the first in her “Martini Club” series — doesn’t sacrifice action for authenticity. Meandering into and out of Bird’s mind, “The Spy Coast” is a reckoning with motivation that moves from Maine to Malta to Thailand to Italy — cutting across time and into place. Gerritsen — who will be celebrating the publication of “The Spy Coast” with mystery writer Hank Phillippi Ryan at Ashland Public Library on Nov. 29 — spoke with the Globe about the evolution of her writing career, her recent filmmaking, and her very own “Maggie Bird.”


Q. As an undergrad, you majored in anthropology at Stanford before venturing into medicine and then into writing. How has this carved your characters, pacing, and plot twists?

A. Anthropology was an excellent foundation for novel writing. I studied primarily cultural anthropology, and it made me consider groups of people as specific cultures: How do rocket scientists differ as a group from, say, chefs? What is their secret language? What type of personality gravitates toward their profession? It offers insight into characters, how they might think, and how they’d approach problems. And of course, it colors their choice of language.

Q. Something that stands out in your career journey is that you didn’t sacrifice your passion in the name of practicality or vice versa. Can you talk about strategies you employed to retain your skill in writing while practicing medicine?


A. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old, so it really was my first choice for a profession. My fiscally conservative father, however, was not at all enthusiastic about that idea. “Writing is no way to make a living,” he told me, and encouraged me to go into the sciences instead. Even though I found medicine fascinating, I never lost my love for telling stories and always knew I would return to it someday. Maternity leave from the hospital was my chance to write. While my sons napped, I wrote my first novel — and I’ve been writing ever since. I didn’t immediately jump straight into full-time novel writing, but started by writing part-time, while also working part-time as a doctor. For about five years, I combined those two professions while also being a mom. What helped immensely was having a working husband to pay the bills! My husband didn’t entirely buy into my dream that I’d ever actually make a living as a writer, but he was supportive enough to let me give it a try. Only after I sold my second book did I decide I was going to leave medicine entirely.

Q. “The Spy Coast” allows readers to live inside the brain of a CIA operative — at least for some chapters. What research did you have to do beyond just living in Maine and using your own imagination to pull that off?

A. I turned to memoirs written by retired spies. My focus wasn’t just on tradecraft, but on the emotional toll of working in intelligence. What is it like to not be able to tell the truth to your friends and family? What does it do to your marriage? How can you make friends when you’re always worried there might be secondary gain to this new relationship? And once you’ve had this challenging career, what’s your second act? How do you settle into retirement, knowing all these secrets that you can’t talk about? It’s an espionage novel, but it really asks the question: What happens next?


Q. Your literary innovation has leaped off the page and onto the TV screen — “Adrift,” “Rizzoli & Isles,” and now “The Spy Coast.” Which of these stories did you treasure most?

A. Of all those projects, “Spy Coast” was the book that felt most personal to write, because the story reflects my own feelings about growing older. I’m far more aware that the world considers older people, especially women, invisible. My heroine, Maggie Bird, is still sharp and capable, and it was fun to see how she uses that invisibility to her advantage.

Q. Aside from writing and medical training, you are also a composer and filmmaker. How have these other artistic pursuits affected your storytelling?

A. Filmmaking is very much like writing novels — you’re just telling a story in a different medium, but with many additional moving parts, and a lot less control when things go wrong! I love both types of storytelling, but there was a special joy in working with my son Josh on our two film projects. “Magnificent Beast,” our feature documentary about the ancient origins of the pork taboo, was especially rewarding because it combined my love of anthropology with the chance to answer a culinary mystery that’s always puzzled me.


Q. I find it interesting that you read romance novels all through residency training as an “escape.” What were you trying to escape from?

A. One of my patients introduced me to the joys of reading romances when she handed me a bag full of paperbacks as she was being discharged from the hospital. I’d planned to donate those books to a charity, but then I read one — and was hooked. In medicine, there aren’t always happy endings, and that’s the joy of romance novels: There’s always a happy ending. Those novels were more than just an escape. They were also a crash course in story structure and character building, because romance novels are really all about character. I was being entertained, but I was also learning how to be a novelist myself.

Tess Gerritsen will be in conversation with Hank Phillippi Ryan at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29, at Ashland Public Library.

Sibani Ram is a recent graduate of Duke University, originally from Iowa City, Iowa.