For 16 years, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan has been digging in the dirt, solving mysteries and getting into scrapes in North Carolina and Quebec. Her creator, Kathy Reichs, has enjoyed success in tandem, ever since her first mystery, Déjà Dead, hit the bestseller lists. In the wake of her new release, Bones of the Lost, we ask Reichs about the influences that shaped her as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
I was always a big fan of fast-paced crime friction and suspense thrillers. Elmore Leonard. Raymond Chandler. Agatha Christie. P.D. James. I loved how they assembled a plot and then took it apart logically, but always kept you guessing. I wanted to write like they did.
Did you imitate any of them?
I try not to. I think that if you strive to create a copy of someone else’s work, then that’s what you’ll end up with, but the readers will notice and be bored by you. When I began the Temperance Brennan series, Tempe was simply a voice in my head that I wanted to get down on paper. I wanted her story to move fast, and keep the reader engaged. In the end, I just wrote what felt natural to me. I think that that’s all any aspiring writer can do.
How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?
I created an entirely fictional personal life for Tempe, but her professional self is a replica of my own experience. I think that, in the end, her internal voice is simply my voice. Or at least the voice I wish I had, if were a little bolder and more daring. I guess that’s the fun part about writing. I can have my fictional self take leaps and know that it’ll all turn out okay, usually. After all, I get to write the ending.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
I think young writers need to be careful about falling in love with their own pet devices. Editors are important, and should be heeded. I also think that more long-winded, prosier writers don’t necessarily make the best influences. Those are masters of the craft, and should be treated with awe and respect, but imitation often results in tedium. Odds are, you can’t write like Stephen King, and I’d advise you not to try.
Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality with your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?
This book is unique in my series, in that it involves active military aspects that I’ve never used before. If we’re talking about literary cousins among my other Temperance Brennan stories, then I’d have to say Spider Bones. That book is based on consulting I did for JPAC, the Joint POW Mia Accounting Command, the military’s central identification laboratory in Hawaii. But I based this book on my recent personal USO tour visiting our troops in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, so this Tempe adventure largely derives from that life experience, and not from something about which I read.
Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?
I think dystopian and fantasy writers are wildly influential today, and I don’t really have a problem with that. Those areas are literally limitless, in terms of subject matter to work with, so it’s not likely to be a trend that dissipates any time soon, but it’s also not likely to become dull. Creating new worlds and then setting stories within them seems to have boundless potential.
Who do you wish were more influential?
Crime writers, obviously! But I don’t think the forensic thriller is an endangered species. At the end of the day, everyone still loves a good whodunit. It’s just harder to get a movie deal.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
Short ones that don’t duplicate words. I’m borderline obsessed with brevity in my prose. In my novels, I want things to move, move, move. Period.
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
I try not to read much fiction when I’m writing. It’s too easy to see something and want to emulate it, and then you get sucked down the wormhole of losing your own voice. But I make up for it when I’m done!
This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.