It takes discipline,” bestselling crime writer Kathy Reichs says. “Any time that I'm not at my lab or testifying or traveling, I write all day.” Reichs, 57, embodies the age-old adage of writing what you know: she is a board-certified forensic anthropologist who divides her time between working for the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina and the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale in Quebec, just like her series heroine, Dr. Temperance “Tempe” Brennan. Reichs's 11th Brennan novel, Devil Bones (Scribner), finds Brennan back in her (and Reichs's) hometown of Charlotte, N.C., examining recently uncovered remains and artifacts that could point to human sacrifice.
It's no coincidence that doctors Reichs and Brennan share so many traits. “I based her on myself because it just seemed easier to model her on somebody I knew,” says Reichs, “though I gave her some flaws, like the alcoholism, that are strictly her own.” She admits that Brennan's younger sister, Harry, is “definitely based on my baby sister, except for the part about getting caught up in a cult.” Reichs's daughter, Kerry, who's lent her home in Washington, D.C., for the interview, chimes in and adds that the same sister inspired a character in her own debut novel, The Best Day of Someone Else's Life, just out from Avon.
Each of Reichs's books is based on a specific case or experience that she's had in the field. A serial murder investigation she worked on in Montreal inspired her 1997 debut, Déjà Dead; and a Montreal biker war served as the launching point for 2000's Deadly Decisions. “Some of my novels are more theme-based,” says Reichs, citing 2003's Bare Bones, which focused on the trafficking of endangered species. Setting is a key factor in all of her work, and Reichs strives to use as much detail as possible. “I never write about [a place] unless I've been there,” she explains. She traveled to Guatemala to work excavating mass graves just as Brennan did in Grave Secrets (2002), and an assignment in Israel inspired 2005's Cross Bones.
Her own scientific work is the key reason that Reichs has found it easy to sustain one character for 11 books. “I do think there's a time that you retire every character,” Reichs concedes, “but I don't think that's true yet for Brennan. She still has global appeal: she's translated in 34 languages. And I'm still enjoying writing about her.” Forensic science is a hot commodity in crime fiction, and Reichs says she does her best to keep up with what's out there. Not many authors in this popular subgenre have Reichs's real-world experience, so there are, according to Reichs, “inevitably mistakes.” For scientific detail in her own work, Reichs has three rules: it has to be brief, jargon-free and, most of all, entertaining. “It's the huge advantage of working in a lab,” says Reichs. “I can just go over to our DNA guy and say, 'Explain this to me.' ”
In 2005, Reichs made the leap to television with the hit Fox series Bones, which features Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel) working at the fictional Jeffersonian Institute in Washington, D.C., with her team of “Squints” in the lab and her FBI partner, Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), in the field. Reichs reads every script, works with Bones's nine full-time writers and is pleased with the scientific accuracy of the show. “Does any lab actually have all the wonderful technology that the 'Squints' use at the Jeffersonian? No, of course not,” says Reichs, “and that's a funding issue. But everything we use on Bones exists.” The agreement between Reichs and the show's producers is that she “keeps the science honest and the producers handle the characterization.” Washington, D.C., is an appropriate setting: the first bones Reichs ever handled were at the Smithsonian, the basis for the show's Jeffersonian Institute.
When I ask what's next for Brennan, Reichs divulges that she's currently writing the 12th Brennan installment and that she is under contract for 14. She mentions her involvement with a team that's supposed to dig up famed magician Harry Houdini, though there are “still legal issues to work through.” There are conspiracy theories that Houdini was murdered, says Reichs, “and of course we want to see if he's still there.”
She'd love to work on a joint project with her daughter, but doesn't see that happening until she persuades Kerry to sprinkle in a few dead bodies. “Then,” says Reichs, “maybe I could have some input.”
|Jordan Foster is a freelance writer, completing her M.F.A. in Fiction Writing at Columbia University.