Writing Novels Can Get You Sued

Tess Gerritsen is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University. Tess went on to medical school at the University of California, San Francisco, and was awarded her M.D. in 1979. After completing her internal medicine residency, she worked as a physician in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1987, Tess’s first novel was published. CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT, a romantic thriller, was soon followed by eight more romantic suspense novels. She also wrote a screenplay, “Adrift,” which aired as a 1993 CBS Movie of the Week starring Kate Jackson. Her thriller, Harvest was released in 1996, and marked Tess’s debut on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. Film rights were sold to Paramount/Dreamworks, and the book was translated into twenty foreign languages. Now retired from medicine, Tess writes full time and lives in Maine.

(Reprinted with permission )
My first medical thriller, Harvest, was about a fictional black market in human organ trafficking, and I based it on rumors that had been circulating for some time. The plot was inspired by a conversation I’d had with a retired policeman who’d been traveling in Russia, and had heard that children were vanishing from Moscow and were being shipped abroad as involuntary organ donors. I was determined to make the story as believable as possible, with enough real medical details to make my audience believe it could be possible — and even probable. To add to the verisimilitude, I used the names of real transplant organizations, including the New England Organ Bank. In no way did NEOB appear as a villain of any kind — in fact they were the good guys in the story.

Harvest was published, became a bestseller, and I began to receive fan mail from transplant patients, doctors, and nurses who told me how much they enjoyed reading a medical thriller with accurate details.

I also received a letter from the New England Organ Bank demanding that the name of their organization be removed from any future editions or their lawyers would contact my publisher’s lawyers, and … well, you get the gist of it. They were going to sue me. (They wrote a similar warning letter to the movie producer who’d bought the feature film rights, demanding that any film of such a story be stopped.) They accused me of spreading malicious rumors about organ trafficking, There is absolutely no black market in human organs, they wrote, and I should know that. I was needlessly upsetting the public, and I was irresponsible to even bring up such a possibility. To make it even worse, I was a physician. Didn’t I have a moral obligation, as a doctor, to stick to the truth?

I wrote back that the book is clearly labeled a novel, and that novels by definition were fiction. I also consulted with my publisher’s legal office, which told me to relax, that they get these sorts of letters all the time, and that since I had not said anything bad about NEOB, there really was no reason they could win a lawsuit. (But they admitted that NEOB could still choose to sue me.)

The paperback edition was released with no changes. The threat of a lawsuit continued to lurk. And I continued to be bothered by that charge of being an irresponsible writer and physician. I kept waiting to receive that letter that yes, I was being sued. But NEOB never wrote me again.

Maybe because they were starting to hear that those “malicious rumors” did in fact have some truth behind them.

Harvest, it seems, wasn’t so far-fetched after all.