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First Person

The Experience Questionnaire: Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen  is the bestselling author of 28 novels. Her detective series, Rizzoli & Isles,” was adapted into the TNT television series of the same name. Her new book, “The Shape of Night,” was released on Oct. 1. Follow her here. 

Where do you come up with your best ideas?  
It could happen anywhere — while traveling or reading a newspaper article or simply in conversation with someone. If something I hear or see sparks a powerful emotion in me, then it’s the beginning of an idea. For instance, while reading the newspaper, I came across an article about a young woman who was declared dead, transported to the morgue — and woke up in the body bag. That gave me an emotional jolt, and led to my novel Vanish. Of course, it’s my job to come up with why she ended up in a body bag, and what happens after she wakes up, but the initial idea was so powerful it propelled the rest of the plot. 

What is the best non-material gift you’ve received? 
Two fig trees for my birthday. Do they qualify as non-material? They have to be hauled into the garage every winter and brought out in the spring, but one day I hope to harvest delicious figs from them. Over the years, I’ve received cuttings and bulbs from other gardeners, and whenever I look at those plants, I remember the people who gave them to me. Many of those people have passed on, but their plants still thrive in my garden. 

What is the best non-material gift you’ve given? 
In anticipation of future music lessons, I’ve given a violin to my 5-year-old granddaughter. She hasn’t started yet, but she’s so excited to start learning. While the instrument may be material, the love of music — and the ability to play an instrument— is the best non-material gift you can give a child, and one she can enjoy for the rest of her life. 

Nothing beats the moment you see your very first novel in a bookshop.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced? 
Motherhood. I’ve worked as an intern in a hospital (80-hour work weeks) but nothing can match the exhaustion of being the mother of a newborn child. And then, to extend that challenge for the 18 years it takes to guide kids to adulthood, through the ups and downs of adolescence, through the sleepless nights of wondering where they are — that’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, and also the one I’m proudest of. 

If you had to choose a different profession, what would you do? 
Botanist. I never get over my wonder of plants. 

What is the most useful mistake you’ve made? 
Following my GPS into a cornfield. I was driving through unfamiliar territory, trying to reach a B&B, and the device sent me down a dirt road right through a farmer’s field. (Eventually I did make it to my destination!) But that mistake gave me the idea for my novel Ice Cold, in which Maura and her friends follow their GPS onto a seasonal road — and get stranded in a deserted village. Too bad every mistake doesn’t end up turning into a novel! 

What’s the strangest experience you’ve had? 
While in Venice for my birthday, I had a nightmare. I dreamt I was playing my violin while a baby sat beside me. The music I played was dark and disturbing and the baby’s eyes suddenly glowed red and she turned into a monster.  That was the inspiration for my novel Playing with Fire, about a woman violinist who discovers a handwritten piece of music in an antique store in Italy. Every time she plays the piece, her three-year-old daughter does something horrifying. The woman wonders if the music is evil, so she returns to Italy to track down its origins. Of course, the music was completely fictional, but in the process of writing the novel, I had to describe it in great detail —   it was a beautiful waltz that became disturbing, that sections of it were almost impossible to play.

About halfway through writing the story, I had another dream — and when I woke up, I could hear the music in my head. I immediately sat down at the piano and played it. It took me about six weeks to complete the composition, and it was later recorded by concert violinist Susanne Hou. So that was the weirdest creative experience I’ve ever had, having both a plot and a musical piece come to me in dreams. 

What opportunity do you regret passing up? 
I was invited to go on an archaeological dig in Mexico while I was a college student. I turned it down to spend the summer with my boyfriend. Biggest mistake I ever made. (The boyfriend was, too.) 

How do you relax? 
I love to garden, to cook, and to travel. I’m also an amateur violinist and I enjoy getting together with friends who are musicians. 

If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go? 
Italy. It seems I always want to return to Italy. 

What is your most indelible childhood memory? 
Roaming with my dog in the canyon behind my house in San Diego. It was a magical place with roadrunners and rattlesnakes and hummingbirds. I’d collect buckets full of lizards. In those days, parents had no anxiety about letting their children be free-range, and I’m so glad I had the freedom to simply wander, unsupervised. 

What’s the most valuable thing you learned in school? 
Turn in your homework on time.  

When you’re stuck how do you get unstuck? 
I take a long boring drive. Something about the automatic nature of driving a familiar road allows my mind to work out puzzles on its own. The harder I concentrate, the less likely I am to solve the problem. When I relax and pay attention to something else, the solution often just pops into my head. 

What is your proudest moment? 
Even though I’ve written 28 novels, nothing beats the moment you see your very first novel in a bookshop. That was in 1987, and the novel was Call After Midnight. 

What would you like to experience before you die?  
Having great-grandchildren! 

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Photo by Ben McCanna/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

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