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Monday 3 August 2015

Kathy Reichs


Lynne Patrick talks with Kathy Reichs

Kathy Reichs needs no introduction. Her gripping series featuring forensic
anthropologist Temperance Brennan has consistently made the bestseller list ever since the first one,
Déjà Dead, won Canada’s premier crime fiction award for a
first novel in 1997.
Temperance Brennan shares her creator’s CV, in that Kathy herself is a leading
forensic anthropologist in both Canada and the USA.  In her professional capacity, Kathy has been involved in a number of high-profile  forensic investigations,
including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Rwandan massacres.
Lynne:  Kathy, I’ve always found your books intriguing, and one of the things that particularly interests me is the kinds of real-life mysteries that lie behind the fiction. So my first question has to be, to what extent do you draw on your work as a forensic anthropologist for your novels, and how much of it is pure imagination? Leaving aside the obvious issue of ensuring the science is right?
Kathy:  I would say that it is a mix of both. I start with a case or situation and think ‘what if...?’  Déjà Dead is based on my first serial murder investigation. I was able to determine that the perpetrator had knowledge of anatomy and was skilled in dismemberment. I suspected he had some sort of training in that area, and the killer turned out to be a butcher. Death Du Jour derives from work I performed for the Catholic Church, and from the Solar Temple cult mass murder-suicides. Fatal Voyage is based on mass disaster recovery work. Grave Secrets was inspired by my participation in the exhumation of a Guatemalan mass grave. 

Lynne:  What is the most difficult case you’ve ever been faced with? Would you use it– or have you used it – in fiction? Have you ever encountered something so horrifying that you couldn’t use it in fiction?
Kathy:  I was privileged to work at Ground Zero following 9/11. It was physically demanding and psychologically draining. I had to stay focused on the work or my heart would break a million times a day.  Ironically, I spent the immediate period prior to the attack on the Twin Towers researching and writing about disaster recovery. My book Fatal Voyage came out one month before the World Trade Center terrorist attack.  I have never encountered something so horrifying that I couldn’t use, but I always change names, places and dates for ethical and legal reasons, and use the core idea. 

Lynne:  Do you take a scientific approach to writing? Meticulous planning and preparation? Or is writing a way of stepping aside from your other work and taking an entirely different approach?
Kathy: I use different approaches depending on what I am writing. When I am writing with Brendan Reichs on the Virals series, I work from a detailed outline. If I am working on my Temperance Brennan novels, I start with a chapter by chapter outline of the story, then write in a linear fashion moving from beginning to end. When I stumble upon a plot twist I will just go back and add the ideas midstream. If I am writing for the TV series, Bones, the writing is a bit more complex. I co-write these episodes with Kerry Reichs and it is a collaborative process. All of the writers sit in the writer’s room and brainstorm for a storyline. Then you have to pitch that story, and if the idea is approved, you are sent home to write a detailed outline, eventually the script. 

Lynne:  Do some cases haunt you and refuse to let you move on and leave them in the past? Is there one in particular?
Kathy:  Children. I met Neely Smith in 1981 and she was the same age as my daughter. The difference was that Neely was a skull, ribcage, and lower jaw on a steel gurney and it was my job to confirm her identity as the young girl snatched from her east Charlotte neighbourhood two months earlier. In fiction, the murders get solved. In reality, not every case gets solved. There is a child’s skeleton found in Quebec in the early nineties, a 6-year-old, that is still in my lab. That skeleton is the inspiration for Bones to Ashes. Anyone who has come from a town that harboured such a crime will remember the name of the child and carry it with them. My work is filled with these names. While I strive to keep personal and professional separate it is never entirely possible. There will always be another unsolved child murder. There will always be more work to do.

Lynne:  What brought you to fiction? Have you always been a writer of stories?
Kathy:  I was promoted to full professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I had written textbooks and journal articles and I wanted to try something new. In the mid-1990s, I was working on a serial murder case; this was before the massive interest in forensics. The time seemed right to combine murder mystery and forensics with a strong female character. I took the approach to write about what I know. I wanted to use forensic science and introduce forensic anthropology to a wider audience.

Lynne:  I understand you’re doing less scientific work these days, but it must still absorb a lot of both time and energy. Also, writers have to work hard these days to promote each book as it comes out. Do you find you have to set time aside for writing, consciously and deliberately?
Kathy:  I don’t have the luxury of being a full-time writer, so I have to write every single day. I write all day if I am home and not on the road or in the lab. It takes organization. I think I’m disciplined. I have a lot on my plate. There are days I’d rather sit by the pool, but I sit in front of the computer instead. 

Lynne:  A few years ago your writing took a relatively new direction: a Young Adult series with a fantasy element. What made you decide to take up such a big challenge when your Temperance Brennan series was so successful?
Kathy:  It was Brendan’s idea. [The Virals series is co-written with Kathy’s son.] He disliked practising law and thought he’d like to have a go at writing. There was a lot of interest in forensics from kids, but the Temperance Brennan series was not appropriate. We proposed the idea of kids using forensic science to a publisher, and they liked it, but wanted vampire characters. Instead we came up with the idea of mutated parvovirus because our puppy, Turk, had been sick. I’d never heard of parvovirus, but quickly learned how deadly an illness it can be for a puppy. Thankfully, Turk pulled through. We’d frantically tried to learn everything we could about the virus and the idea for the series sprang from there. What if humans could contract canine parvovirus? What if it altered their DNA, giving them special sensory abilities? The rest is history. 

Lynne:  Your books are sometimes quite graphic, with descriptions of scenes that would turn the stomach of a lot of people who aren’t inured as you are. Is there anything you wouldn’t write? Any line you wouldn’t cross?
Kathy:  I will not use anything for sensationalism, or add gratuitous gore. The scene has to advance the story.  I do use real detail because readers who are drawn to forensic thrillers want a true glimpse into a world that few have the opportunity to enter.

Lynne:  Who do you feel you are writing for? Is there a reader in your mind when you begin to write any new novel?
Kathy:  I write for the reader that wants to learn something. DNA, ballistics, blood spatter pattern analysis, these are all fascinating topics. I think my readers want a good old-fashioned murder mystery that gallops along, but one whose solution is science-driven, not just intuitive.

Lynne:  If you had to choose between writing and forensic anthropology, and only pursue one for the rest of your life, which would it be?
Kathy:  I couldn’t choose. I’ve always liked having my foot in more than one arena. Motherhood, academia, the crime lab, literature and TV. I want it all.

Lynne:  Is there a writing project you would like to tackle – perhaps something quite different from anything you’ve done before?
Kathy:  Actually, next year’s book will be an off-series story. Brand new, not Temperance Brennan. New character, new setting, new premise… but no more spoilers!

Lynne:  How do you feel about the TV version of your books? Are you comfortable with the rather different way Temperance Brennan is portrayed?
Kathy:  I like that TV Tempe is different from book Tempe. When I write I am not impacted by TV Tempe.  Her years at the Jeffersonian are an earlier point in her life with a wee bit of difference in the backstory. I think of TV Tempe as a kind of prequel to the books. When we cast Emily Deschanel in the role of Tempe
for Bones, she brought her own style to the part. I’ve been very pleased with the show, and I think Emily has been a wonderful Tempe. 

Lynne:  And finally – it’s often said that writers start out as readers, and never lose that. What do you read for pleasure? Do you have a favourite author?
Kathy:  There are just too many to choose one. I read lots of thrillers. I like darker novels with more realism.  PD James, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly are a few of my many favourites. I also love British humourists, Douglas Adams (Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Terry Pratchett (Discworld series).

Lynne:  Kathy, thanks so much for taking time for this.

Kathy Reichs’s Temperance Brennan series now runs to eighteen titles:
                       Déjà Dead                                            Death du Jour
                       Deadly Decisions                                 Fatal Voyage
                       Grave Secrets                                       Bare Bones
                       Monday Morning                                 Cross Bones
                       Break No Bones                                   Bones to Ashes
                       Devil Bones                                         206 Bones
                                       Flash and Bones Spider Bones
                                       Bones are Forever Bones of the Lost
                                       Bones Never Lie Speaking in Bones
                         The Virals series, co-written with Brendan Reichs
                                                  Virals Seizure 

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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