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Interview: July 12, 2002

July 12, 2002

Kathy Reichs, author of four previous thrillers featuring her fictional counterpart, Dr. Temperance Brennan, has written a heart-wrenching fifth novel, GRAVE SECRETS. In this interview with's Ann Bruns, Dr. Reichs explains the unique profession of forensic anthropology and the emotional toll of her real life experiences that emanates throughout her novels.

BRC: Temperance Brennan, the heroine of your novels, has a very specialized profession: Forensic Anthropology. For readers who may not know the diversity of functions between a state medical examiner and a forensic anthropologist could you explain a little about each, and how the forensic anthropologist fits into a crime scene investigation?

KR: In the jurisdictions in which I work, the forensic anthropologist is asked into a case at the request of a forensic pathologist. Usually, this is due to the fact that the body is too decomposed, burned, mummified, mutilated, or skeletonized for a normal autopsy or for identification by other means (visual, fingerprint, etc.). Forensic anthropologists are also often asked to examine damage in bone, even in fresh bodies, to render opinion as to the cause of injury. Such damage might be due to gunshot, sharp instrument, blunt instrument, or to other forms of trauma. As in DEJA DEAD, an anthropologist might be asked to examine cut marks in bone to determine what type of tool was used to dismember a homicide victim. The common denominator is bone, since forensic anthropologists are specialists in skeletal biology. Many of us are also trained in archaeology, thus making us uniquely suited to processing crime scenes containing skeletonized human remains.

BRC: GRAVE SECRETS is based on your actual experience as part of a forensic team sent to Guatemala. Did you find any of the same reluctance or hostility toward your real life team that was portrayed in the fictional story?

KR: While in Guatemala I worked with the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, a group of individuals keenly devoted to human rights work. Since that time, team members have received threats against themselves and their families. Many have been forced to leave Guatemala. In May, an accountant for the foundation started by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú --- a prominent human rights group in Guatemala --- was shot dead in a cafeteria in the capital.

BRC: Tempe and her teammates determined that some of the same people who committed the atrocities were still in positions of power within Guatemala. Did your team come to the same conclusion? Why would they have allowed a forensic team to examine the crime scene?

KR: Officials claim they don't know who is responsible for the threats against my colleagues who are working to locate and exhume the graves of victims of the mass killings. Rights groups suspect that the threats are coming from former military and intelligence officers involved in atrocities which took place during the civil war.

President Alfonso Portillo has vowed to prosecute those responsible for the threats. But given his government's scarce resources and significant domestic political problems, rights groups say this will be difficult. José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, has met several times with the Guatemalan leader. Vivanco is not optimistic about the state's ability to investigate these crimes and threats.

BRC: In GRAVE SECRETS Tempe is also drawn into another case involving local murders and has to recover body parts from a septic tank. Where did you learn about the complexity of working with those tanks? Have you actually done this?!

KR: The septic tank idea grew out of two experiences. Several years back, the provincial police in Quebec received a tip that a man had been killed, his body deposited in a septic tank. The director of the medico-legal section and I were assigned the job of recovery. I was assigned the task of finding out what type of safety equipment we would need. In the course of that investigation I learned more than I ever wanted to know about septic waste disposal!

Shortly thereafter, I examined the bones of a woman who had gone to Belize as a tourist to visit the Mayan ruins. After a two week stay, she failed to return home on her designated flight, and was never seen again. Nine years later, her skeleton was found in a septic tank behind the hotel in Belize at which she had been staying. I helped with the identification of those bones, and did a full analysis of trauma.

BRC: Did writing a storyline in the first person that mirrored your own troubling experience in Guatemala make it difficult to separate yourself from your character? Were you tempted to write a nonfiction account instead?

KR: While a professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, I spent years writing scientific books and articles. When I first tried fiction, I attempted a third person voice. This didn't work for me. When I switched to first person, and told the story from Tempe's point of view, everything seemed to click. Thus, I have stayed with that voice for all my novels, including Grave Secrets. Tempe is describing the things I saw, heard, smelled, and experienced in Guatemala. She is sharing the emotions I felt.

BRC: Are people in Guatemala still enduring the same deplorable treatment that led to the writing of GRAVE SECRETS?

KR: Guatemala is a spectacular country filled with beautiful, warm, hard working people. Unfortunately, it is a place experiencing many of the problems faced by emerging, third world countries. Although things seem to be much better than they were during the long years of civil war, there is still a great deal of poverty in many areas. The recent signs of renewed repression are not encouraging.

BRC: At one point Tempe gives Ryan a lecture on the beneficial possibilities of stem cell research. Were you deliberately making a point about the US being too cautious in engaging in this research?

KR: I believe that stem cell research holds great promise for an enormous number of people suffering form wide ranging medical problems. While some breakthroughs have occurred since the writing of GRAVE SECRETS, involving adult stem cells derived from skin, my research convinced me that work with the embryonic form should go forward and be funded.

BRC: The repartee between Tempe and Ryan is so engaging. And Detective Galiano, who was teamed with Tempe on the murder investigations, was a fun addition to her already complicated love life. She seems to have a knack for choosing all the right men in all the wrong places. Is she avoiding committing to a relationship?

KR: Tempe was married to Pete a long time. Only recently has she admitted to herself that the marriage is over. She is a bit skittish about jumping into a new relationship. And Ryan does have his reputation! But your question is right on. When we see Tempe she is rather preoccupied by a serial killer (DEJA DEAD), a cult (DEATH DU JOUR), Hells Angels (DEADLY DECISIONS), or an airline crash (FATAL VOYAGE). Sex is not at the forefront of her thoughts (though it pokes its head in there from time to time).

BRC: Even though Detective Ryan would seem to be the chief romantic interest, could we be seeing more of Galiano in the future?

KR: That is an EXCELLENT question!

BRC: You are a forensic anthropologist for the North Carolina Medical Examiners Office and Director of Forensic Anthropology for the province of Quebec. How did you first become involved in this Canadian counterpart?

KR: I first went to Quebec as part of the National Faculty Exchange. This is a program in which professors swap positions for one year. Where there, the Laboratoire de Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale was looking for a board certified forensic anthropologist (ABFA) who could work in French. Not a large pool! At the end of that year, we reached an agreement whereby I would "commute" monthly from North Carolina to Quebec. That has worked for twelve years, now.

BRC: Have all of your novels closely paralleled some real life investigation?

KR: I take the germ of a story idea from a case, or cases on which I have worked. I then change all details: names, places, dates, etc. A serial killer case gave rise to DEJA DEAD. Two investigations triggered DEATH DU JOUR: seeing the victims of a murder-suicide cult, and working on the bones of a woman, dead in 1714, who has been proposed for sainthood. DEADLY DECISIONS grew out of a number of cases I have done involving people killed by outlaw motorcycle gangs. (Major gang war going on in Quebec). FATAL VOYAGE came from my involvement with DMORT. Ironically, it was written the year before 9/11, and before my participation in the recovery effort at the World Trade Center.

BRC: What set of circumstances have provided your greatest challenge as a forensic anthropologist?

KR: Working at the World Trade Center was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. The task was both physically and emotionally draining.

BRC: Are there any situations that you would refuse to investigate because of the potential hazards to you personally?

KR: Possibly, though I have yet to have to face that dilemma.

BRC: Between your dual duties in both the US and Canada, as well as teaching at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, undertaking projects like the one in Guatemala, and working on the National Disaster Medical System team, how do you manage to work in time to write?

KR: Any day on which I do not go to the lab, to court, or on the road promoting my books, I write all day. The chancellor of UNC-Charlotte has been very supportive, and I no longer have the restrictions of teaching on a regular basis.

BRC: Although the graphic details in your novels are always pertinent to the fictional investigation, some readers might find them too much to handle. Are you ever hesitant to include the more gruesome descriptions?

KR: I think my books appeal to readers who want to learn a bit about what it is like to be at a crime scene, at an autopsy, in a forensics lab, etc. Therefore I include as much accurate detail as I feel is necessary to realistically portray a situation. I am very careful to never inject gore or grisly description strictly for sensationalism.

BRC: Other authors have expressed a variety of feelings about seeing their books made into movies. How do you feel about it? Have you ever been approached about a Hollywood version?

KR: I think it would be great fun to see Tempe up on the big screen, or even on the little screen. I have had many offers. However, I am still awaiting the right one.

BRC: Have you already started working on your next novel and, if so, can you tell us anything about it?

KR: I am well into the next Tempe Brennan novel, which will be released in the summer of 2003. All I will say at this point is that this is the first story to take place entirely in Charlotte, NC. Tempe finds that her home town is also home to some rather nasty characters!