Bringing Death Back to Life
The Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences welcomed Kathy Reichs, Ph.D., to campus on Wednesday, February 6, 2013, as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series. Prior to her talk—titled "Forensic Anthropology: From Crime Lab to Crime Fiction"—Reichs spoke with the college about her experiences as a forensic anthropologist, bestselling novelist, and producer for the television series Bones.
Was forensic anthropology always your passion? Did you explore different majors in college?
"I think I had four majors. I always liked science. Once I finally took a course in physical anthropology, I knew that's what I wanted to do. So, I switched to that major, finished my undergrad degree in anthropology, and went straight into graduate school. My doctorate was in bioarcheology, and I planned to look at ancient skeletons. But, once coroners and cops started bringing me cases, I started doing the coroner work and I really liked that. I retrained, became board certified, and have been doing forensics ever since."
How has technology in forensic anthropology changed over time, and how have those changes affected your work?
"Of course the big development in the last decade or so has been DNA. I don't do DNA testing myself, but I do retain a sample should DNA testing become an issue. We also have immediate X-ray feedback now ... and microscopes are better.
"We [also] now have a forensic anthropology database. For example: if you have an 'unknown,' you can take a battery of measurements on the skull and compare your set of figures to those that are in the database, and see where your 'unknown' falls relative to the whole population. Everyone in the database is an absolutely confirmed identification; the gender, the ancestral background, and the age of that person are accurate, not estimated."
At what point as a forensic anthropologist were you inspired to write novels?
"After I got promoted to full professor [at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte]. I had done textbooks and journal articles, and I wanted to try something new. I had just worked on a serial-murder case that had some very interesting elements, and I thought it would be a way to bring my science to a broader audience. I put all that together in 1994 and started what would become Déjà Dead, which took me two years to write. That was published in 1997."
Question from Reya Hossain, biology major at the college: What do your science colleagues think of your fiction work?
"At the forensic lab, everybody thought it was great. The only people who were annoyed were the people [not featured] in the books; because I draw on people I work with, and then change the details. Now that we're 16 books down the road, I get a lot of feedback from colleagues—both in the medical field and the scientific field—who tell me they really enjoy the books and they really appreciate books in which the science is correct and accurate."
As you just mentioned, you've published more than 15 books. Do they become any "easier" to write as you go?
"I do two books every year: a young-adult book (Virals series) and a Temperance Brennan book. One of the problems you have with any continuing character is aging. Temperance started out in her 40s, and that was about 16 years ago. Do you age her in real time? The same with the kids in Virals. My son and I write those together, and we've been grappling with this. Do they finally graduate high school?
"The other [challenge] is that, in either series, the book someone picks up—it may be the first or the 15th one they've read. For that first-time reader, you have to reintroduce your core characters and your basic premise. Yet, with your returning reader, you don't want to bore them. So, you've got to come up with new and creative ways to say that same thing 15, 16, and 17 times."
Let's talk about Bones. As a producer for the show, how active are you in the creation of each episode?
"I'm not on set for every single shoot because I live on the East Coast. I try to get out [to Hollywood] as much as possible. I'll be heading out there right after I come down to Florida, for an episode I'm going to be writing. Mainly, I read the scripts. I work with the writers if they have questions about the science."
Question from Farah Alli, biology major at the college: How close do you feel the show is to your initial vision of it?
"Very close. I knew we were going to do a character-based show. We didn't just want to do another police procedural. From the beginning, we had this idea, which was pretty new at the time, to put humor into the show, which is tough. It's a balancing act, because we deal every week with violent death, and, yet, we do put some humor in there, which is also what I try to do in the books. They actually coined a [genre] for us: crimedy.
We were only going to create a show based on the concept of a forensic anthropologist named Temperance Brennan. Then it was [Bones creator] Hart Hanson's idea to do this 'flip-around' where [Temperance] is a forensic anthropologist by day, and in her spare time she writes novels about a fictional anthropologist named Kathy Reichs. So, we've had some fun with that."
What advice would you give students who are interested in doing what you do: studying forensic anthropology, writing novels, and working in television?
"All three of those areas are very difficult to 'make it big' in. In forensic anthropology, there are very few full-time jobs. Most of us work at universities or museums, and do consulting on the side. But, there will be jobs for those who rise to the top. You have to get your Ph.D. and your board certification. It's a long, difficult period of study and preparation.
"It's the same in television or in publishing. The big publishing houses are not as willing to take a chance, I think, on unknown writers. But, somebody who has a great idea, and a great product, and a good novel can get published.
"Television writing really is similar. To break into that is very, very difficult. Everyone in Hollywood has a spec script. A lot of it is networking ... and working as producers' assistants or working as the script coordinator for the full-time writing staff of the show, and then working your way up.
So, in all three areas it involves a lot of hard work. Don't expect that it's going to happen overnight."