Tess Gerritsen on The Writer’s Life

As appeared on Novel Rocket in 2012 Our regular columnist for today is teaching at a writers conference. 
Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine. (PHOTO CREDIT: Paul D’Innocenzo)

The amazingly multi-talented Steve Martin (actor/writer/comedian/musician) doesn’t need me to leap to his defense. But that’s what I felt like doing, claws bared, when I read this article in the New York Times. 

In the history of intellectual chatter, the events of Nov. 29, 2010, at the 92nd Street Y will be archived under disaster. Or comedy.

That night, a conversation between Steve Martin, the writer and actor, and Deborah Solomon, who writes a weekly interview column for The New York Times Magazine, resulted in the Y’s sending out a next-day apology, along with a promise of a refund.

Mr. Martin, in Miami for a book event, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that Ms. Solomon “is an outstanding interviewer,” adding that “we have appeared together before in Washington, D.C., in a similar circumstance to great success.”

But Sol Adler, the Y’s executive director, saw it differently. “We acknowledge that last night’s event with Steve Martin did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y,” he wrote in an e-mail to ticket holders. “We planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening. We will be mailing you a $50 certificate for each ticket you purchased to last night’s event. The gift certificate can be used toward future 92Y events, pending availability.”

What was Steve’s big mistake that night? What terrible misbehavior did he engage in to so enrage his fans? Simply this: he had the audacity to be himself and talk about his latest book — which is about art. The audience came expecting to hear the wild and crazy guy they knew from his film and TV career. They wanted to hear tales of glitz and glamor and movie stars. They wanted their trained monkey. They didn’t want the Steve Martin who talks about art, which is what he is clearly passionate about, and what his book is about.

When he didn’t deliver exactly what they expected, this audience was so disappointed, so incensed, that they pitched a tantrum worthy of spoiled brats and demanded their money back.

Now, if this were an audience who paid big bucks to hear Lady Gaga sing in concert, and instead had to watch her read the Manhattan phone book in a monotone, I could understand their disappointment. When you pay for music, you expect music. When you pay for dinner, you expect food.

This audience came to hear an interview with Steve Martin, and they got an interview. But the man is known to have many facets; he is not just a wild and crazy guy, but an author who wanted to talk about his latest book. A book about a serious topic. Over the years, through his comedic movies, Steve Martin has been branded as a funny guy. But that branding has locked him into such a tight cage that if he dares step one foot out of that cage, the public cracks their bullwhip to drive the prisoner back to where he belongs. In the cage for wild and crazy movie stars.

This, fellow authors, is the downside of branding. Every time you write a book that reinforces your brand, you have welded in another bar of your cage. Once that cage is locked and sealed, you’re going to have a hard time getting out of the thing again.

Only a few authors have been able to do it successfully. John Grisham has managed the feat, occasionally releasing a sentimental novel between his usual legal thrillers. Stephen King has escaped branding, too, partly because he has regularly produced non-horror, literary fiction throughout his career.

For most of us, though — writers who aren’t as prolific as King, or who don’t wield the clout of Grisham — a large part of our success is tied up in branding ourselves. We start off wanting readers to think of us as the crime thriller or romance go-to gal. It’s only later, when we get a hankering to try something else, or when our chosen genre starts to lose its audience, that we realize that being branded isn’t always such a good thing.

My own brand has skittered around through my career. First I wrote romantic thrillers, then medical thrillers, then science thrillers, then crime thrillers. With an historical thriller thrown in. The one part of the brand that’s stayed constant is the “thriller” part, and that’s allowed me a bit of leeway. Readers will forgive you for moving between sub-genres. But try making a really big leap — say, from serial killer novel to sweet sentimental novel — and your audience is going to howl. The way they howled at Steve Martin.

If you truly want to slip out of that cage, you may have to do it in disguise with a pseudonym. Which means starting over again as a newbie writer trying to find your first audience. Or you’ll have to find an understanding publisher. Or you’ll have to publish it yourself as an E-book, an option that more and more authors seem to be leaning toward.

Good luck to you. May you escape the wrath of fans who’ll never forgive you for craving a little variety in your art.