Kathy Reichs: ‘I’ll never put anything in just to be grisly’
After decades as a forensic anthropologist, Kathy Reichs decided to try her hand at fiction. But the woman behind ‘Bones’ has never lost her scientific edge
Bones: Emily Deschanel, as Temperance Brennan, with TJ Thyne in the series based on Kathy Reichs’s novels. Photograph: Fox via Getty
Kathy Reichs: her new heroine, Sunday Night, is a woman as angst-ridden as her name
Kathy Reichs was 49 when she published her first novel. She had until then worked as a forensic anthropologist, and she offers an admirably frank explanation for how her writing career came about: she needed to put her children through college. Money was the muse.
“I started the very first Temperance Brennan book in 1994. I was a university professor at the time, and they’re not overly well paid here, and private university can be quite expensive, so I was starting to think, What could I do on the side, in my free time, to maybe generate a little more income? I had a colleague, an anthropologist in our department, who wrote straight-to-paperback romance novels, mass market. I read one and thought, I think I can do better than this. So that was a kind of a motivator. I had also just worked on a serial-murder case that had some interesting elements.”
Reichs went on to write 18 New York Times bestsellers centred on Brennan, who had a working life based on Reichs’s own, identifying disintegrated bodies and solving crimes. These inspired the long-running television series Bones, on which Reichs worked as a producer, and in which Brennan is played by Emily Deschanel.
In her latest novel, Two Nights, Reichs is starting afresh with a new heroine, Sunday Night, a woman as angst-ridden as her name. She is “a lot less controlled than Temperance Brennan. She doesn’t rely on science.” Night exists in the tradition of the hard-boiled maverick investigators we’ve all come to know. A live-alone ex-cop, she knocks back scotch and shuns intimacy. “Yes, she works that way, but she’s not a PI. She does [an investigation] because of something that’s personally compelling to her, because of her own childhood and the damage that she still carries from that.”
Reichs envies Night’s toughness but identifies more with Brennan. “I’d be more logical. I’m trained in science, and I tend to think along those pathways.”
She is keen to set herself apart from other crime writers. She has the hard-earned, walked-the-walk smarts. In one interview, when comparisons were drawn with Patricia Cornwell, Reichs said, “Patsy Cornwell is a writer, not a scientist.”
The Temperance Brennan books were driven by science, so I think people like to read that and like to learn a bit about DNA or genetics
“The Temperance Brennan books were driven by science rather than just the cop out on the pavement, so I think people like to read that and like to learn a bit about DNA or genetics. I don’t hold back on descriptions of what’s going on in an autopsy, but I’ll never put anything in just to be grisly.”
Reich’s novels have had substantial autobiographical elements. There was a lot of material to draw on. “I did a deployment to Ground Zero, and I testified in the UN tribunal on genocide in Rwanda, and I helped exhume the mass grave in Guatemala.”
But her work has had ramifications for her health and safety. After the trauma of working at Ground Zero she was assigned a psychologist. “In Rwanda I was there under witness protection, and when I was in Guatemala there were threats against the foundation that was full-time recovering victims of the murders, thousands of people that were killed by the government. I’ve had a few individual cases where the defendant didn’t like what I was saying on the stand and threatened to kill me, but I don’t think about that.”
In the new novel, Sunday Night takes on a case because it resonates with her emotionally, something Reichs tries to avoid. “You have to develop the ability to detach and remain the objective scientist, so that you can do the job and determine the cause of death. Maybe later some of them get to you more than others.”
Reichs had the skeleton of a five-year-old girl in her lab for more than 20 years while the death remained unsolved. “Dead kids have always been difficult for me,” she says.
One of her book’s dedications is to those “innocents” in Guatemala and in the United States on September 11th, 2001. She writes, “I have touched their bones. I mourn for them.”
“Some cases are a little harder to shake off,” she says, “but you have to be able to do that if you’re going to get any justice for those victims.”
How does this immersion in violence in both her scientific work and her writing affect her? “When I was working on a child-homicide case I would be a little more restrictive with my own kids.” Otherwise, with violence so prevalent on the television and internet, she thinks she is little different from the rest of us.
In real life it doesn’t always get solved, and it doesn’t always make sense, whereas in reading crime fiction you do usually. Order is restored, and chaos is overcome
She concedes that endless television violence may “blunt the ability to be shocked”, but it has not affected the continued popularity of crime fiction. “I think the appeal of it is that in real life it doesn’t always get solved, and it doesn’t always make sense, and you don’t always get to put all the puzzle pieces together, whereas in reading crime fiction you do usually. Order is restored, and chaos is overcome.”
Do all crime novels have a moral impetus? “I think so. I think also most of us don’t have to deal with violence; most of us don’t have to become engaged in these very dark things. It’s a way to vicariously take a peek into that world.”
Reichs will be in Dublin next weekend, for the Dead in Dún Laoghaire crime writing festival. Much has been written about women dominating the new wave of crime writing, especially “domestic crime fiction” such as Gone Girl. Pulp’s tough guys with dangling cigarettes have largely disappeared. In crime fiction by women the female anti-hero rules the page. I put this to Reichs, who is as efficient in conversation as one imagines she might be in a lab: she has little interest in such wishy-washy theories.
“I’m not sure. Going back, we have Agatha Christie and PD James. We’ve got female crime writers that were right back there at the beginnings of the genre. There are a lot of us lately; Karin Slaughter and Val McDermid would be good examples; Tana French. The boys are still there too, Dennis Lehane and Ian Rankin. I think the boys are holding their own as well.”
Perhaps it is only that now the publishing industry is paying attention, acknowledging that women make up the larger part of the market. I offer the hypothesis that it is a response to women’s growing refusal to be victimised.
“I certainly see that.” Women, she says, may have “more of an inclination to get an explanation for why these things are going on; can we get in someone’s head. And, to some extent, the women can also be the villains, and often there’s also this new narration technique that what the narrator is telling us isn’t necessarily true, which I find interesting. I have mixed feelings about it. It toys with the reader.”
John Banville, working as Benjamin Black, bemoaned the low literary status of crime fiction, relegated “into a ghetto” in the bookshop. Reichs is more predisposed to cataloguing. “It makes it more convenient for the reader, as long as they understand that there is no hard and fast.” That it might not be considered for the biggest literary prizes, she says, is a little annoying. “I think crime writers have come up with so many awards of their own, I’m not sure it matters.
“I’ve read critics who are dismissive of it. They’re entitled to their opinion. I don’t agree with that. There’s some very badly written crime fiction and some brilliantly written crime fiction, as with any other genre.”
I tell her that’s very diplomatic, and in a rare personal reverie she says, “You know, Maeve Binchy was a very dear friend of mine – and the world’s greatest storyteller – and I remember her talking one day about just a devastating review she got. A journalist asked her what she thought of it, and she said, ‘Well, clearly the man didn’t like the book,’ and just let it go. What are you going to say?”
I am opposed to any form of Islamophobia or any form of discrimination, and I think Sunday Night would feel that way as well
A quick trawl through her Twitter account Reichs’s horror at current US politics. I say to her it must be hard to resist inserting these sentiments into her novels, to which she replies that she doesn’t think she did resist. “I am opposed to any form of Islamophobia or any form of discrimination, and I think Sunday Night would feel that way as well. I think she would feel very strongly about individual rights.”
Reichs is in the early stages of talks about a new television show, based on Sunday Night. She found the collaborative writers’-room process for Bones “really stimulating, because it’s very different from just alone by myself at my computer. On the other hand, I wasn’t used to having to answer to a lot of review at multiple levels, senior executive producers, the showrunners . . . When you turn in your finished script you’re done. Beyond that they change it, for economic reasons, for locations . . . lots of reasons that as the writer you don’t think of. That was at first quite startling to me.”
The new novel has nary a whiff of formaldehyde, but Reichs is not letting go of her scientific stronghold on crime fiction: another Bones novel is on the way, with a story driven by science, “but you have to keep it jargon free: that’s challenging. It has to be entertaining as well as informative. Kind of like talking to a jury.”
Most of Reichs’s time is now devoted to writing. She describes a “back-breaking schedule” of a Temperance Brennan novel every year, a young-adult series with her son, and television screenplays, with “no time left for doing forensic casework”.
Does she miss it? “Yes. When I’m home and I don’t get a call from the lab for a long time, I think, What the heck, what’s going on? But then when I do get a call from the lab I think, Well, wait, I don’t have time for this. So there’s no winning.”
Kathy Reichs will appear at the closing event of the Dead in Dún Laoghaire festival on Saturday, July 22nd. Tickets are €12, or €40 for the festival’s four events; paviliontheatre.ie