By Dawn Ius
Dr. Kathy Reichs is one of those rare people with the ability to do it all. Mother of highly successful children. World-renowned forensic anthropologist. Bestselling author of an adult and YA series. Producer, writer, and consultant for a hit television show.
Yet, for someone so accomplished, Reichs seemed remarkably down-to-earth when we spoke recently about her life, her career, and her latest blockbuster in the Temperance Brennan series, BONES NEVER LIE.
Reichs was in a somewhat reflective mood, perhaps in part because it was ten years ago when she sat at a table with a small group of writers tossing around the idea of starting a new organization specifically for the thriller genre. That organization, of course, was the International Thriller Writers. And while Reichs says her cohorts really took the reigns on the initiative, she looks back on that day fondly to reflect upon the amazing resources available to authors today, and how much the industry has changed.
But perhaps Reichs’s cause for reflection also had something to do with the latest novel.
BONES NEVER LIE picks up on a story from MONDAY MOURNING, a book she wrote a decade ago, and the only novel in the series where the case is resolved—but the bad guy gets away.
Readers never questioned Reichs on this intentional anomaly, but the story stuck in her head and she always knew she would eventually revisit this villain.
“I enjoyed going back and picking up on many of the old threads from that story,” she says, noting that as with real life, much has changed for Tempe in the ten years since MONDAY MOURNING. “One of the things Tempe has to do is find [Andrew] Ryan—and he’s in a really bad place at the start of this book. Of course, this brings up a lot of emotions for her, because she’s vowed not to let him hurt her again.”
BONES NEVER LIE begins when Tempe is unexpectedly called in to the Charlotte PD’s Cold Case Unit to consult on a file. Two child murders, separated by thousands of miles, have one thing in common—the killer. One both Tempe and Ryan know all too well.
As with the previous novels in the series, new characters—and new conflicts—bring new insight to Tempe and the demons she faces “as she stalks the deadliest of predators into the darkest depths of madness.”
How does Reichs maintain the success of the series seventeen books later?
“Pacing is so important when you’re writing a series,” Reichs says. “The character has to keep evolving or readers will become disinterested. One good way to do that is to reveal something about the character from the past.”
Without giving up spoilers, Reichs says BONES NEVER LIE (finally!) dishes out the goods on Tempe’s elusive mother. Plus it provides “some tantalizing hints about the future.”
Fitting perhaps, since the character’s future is very much on Reichs’s mind these days.
Currently under contract for just two more novels in the series, Reichs has begun to ponder the “what next” of her adult-writing career.
“I have lots of ideas for new things,” she says. “And I haven’t made any decisions yet—though I expect I will have to soon. We’ll see how things pan out.”
In the meantime, she continues to collaborate with her son, Brendan, on VIRALS, a young adult series featuring Tory Brennan, Tempe’s great niece. The fifth book in that series launches in March 2015.
“I’m always surprised so many adults read young adult stories,” she says. “The Tory Brennan books are equally complex and they are grounded in science. The difference is in the dialogue and the voice.”
Which is where Brendan comes in. As the second of Reichs’s children to abandon law in favor of more creative pursuits, Reichs admits she wasn’t completely surprised when her son pitched the idea for a Tempe spin-off.
“I did have some reservations, though,” she says. “Writing can be hard work. Law school is a different kind of writing, but it does teach discipline. He was committed to the idea and so I thought, ‘why not?’”
While Reichs admits they both can hash out a good story line, their collaboration works best when she sticks to the science, and her son taps into the interests of the younger market.
“We realized a lot of kids were watching Bones,” she says. “And some of them wanted to read my adult books. Kids really like seeing kids use science to solve a mystery. So far, the series is working out really well.”
That doesn’t mean their partnership is always easy.
“When we’re working, we’re careful to take off the mother/son hats,” she says. “Some of our editorial meetings can get pretty heated, especially when, as Brendan says, I destroy his art.”
This kind of writing structure is more in line with how the TV world works. As a producer for Bones, the show inspired by the Temperance Brennan character, Reichs is in constant collaboration mode. Despite the differences between how Tempe is portrayed in the books and on TV, Reichs maintains an active role on the show, most notably ensuring that the “science is right.”
With this focus in mind, Reichs reads and comments on each script. In addition, she once had a cameo on the show, and penned two episodes, one in season five and one last year.
“Writing for TV is vastly different than writing books,” she says. “With novels, it’s very much the classic image of the lone author. But with TV, it’s a collaborative process. All of the writers sit in the writer’s room and brainstorm a storyline. Then you have to pitch that story, and if the idea is approved, then you are sent home to write the script. I like the whole process—but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we have an amazing showrunner and an incredibly congenial cast.”
These factors, along with the creation of a world-renowned character, have given the show its ten-season staying power, and a loyal legion of fans made up of those already familiar with Reichs’s books—and those whose first introduction to Tempe was on the small screen.
Similar to the novels, every episode of the show features a grisly murder, and, as loyal viewers know, great humor.
“We never wanted a straight police procedural,” she says. “We always wanted to do something different. We were actually one of the first to put humor in this kind of show.”
The element of comedy sheds some light on the darkness that envelopes Tempe both in the novels and on the screen.
“Thrillers take readers into a world we don’t normally visit,” she says. “But even though dark mysteries take you to dark places, I love that the main characters still want to see justice.”
As a forensic anthropologist, Tempe’s justice is served through often-complex scientific exploration.
“I think my readers are interested in the science,” she says. “The key is to keep the science brief, accurate, entertaining, and jargon free. And, I don’t use grisly sensationalism. When I read a book with a lot of gore that has no point, I stop reading. I don’t find that appealing.”
Which is saying something, since throughout her long and impressive career, Reichs has consulted on a number of gruesome and life-changing cases.
She has travelled to Rwanda to testify at the UN Tribunal of Genocide, helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala, aided in the identification of the bodies from World War II, Korea, and Southeast Asia, and assisted with identifying remains found at ground zero of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks—just to name a handful.
“Everything you do changes you,” she says. “I went to Afghanistan as part of the ITW-USO initiative to thank the troops for their service, and that was a very impactful experience.”
These days, Reichs spends less time consulting.
“It has to be something really compelling for me,” she says. “Taking on a case is a big commitment—it doesn’t end when you identify the bones.”
That doesn’t mean Reichs doesn’t sometimes miss working full time in the field. Although she always loved reading mystery stories, Reichs’s love of science came before her passion for writing.
At university, Reichs avoided literary classes unless mandated otherwise, preferring to spend her time in the science lab. It wasn’t until she made full professor that she had the time—and inspiration—to pen her first novel, DEJA DEAD.
“I had three kids going to university in the not too distant future, and the position of professor doesn’t pay much,” she says. “I had a colleague who was writing novels on the side and thought I’d give it a try.”
DEJA DEAD sold to the first publisher she pitched.
Reichs admits she’s reluctant to share that story—the industry is an ever-evolving, vastly complex and difficult beast to crack. At the core, though, solid writing and a great story are what matters, important advice Reichs passes on to new authors.
“Traditional publishing isn’t the only route anymore,” she says. “I haven’t self published anything, but the industry is so stressed and competitive right now, I’d rather go the tried and true way.”
Regardless of your path, Reichs advises aspiring scribes to, “write. Write and rewrite, and when you think it’s your best, then you can take the next step.”
For Reichs, that next step is to keep on doing what she loves—writing fiction that merges her passion for science with her desire to tell the kind of stories her millions of readers across the globe adore.
Photography credit: Marie-Reine Mattera