In the time it will take to read this story, Kathy Reichs could probably solve a murder, learn another language and map out the plot of yet another novel.
Reichs is the force of nature behind 16 bestselling mysteries on the New York Times list, all of them featuring forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan; the Fox TV show “Bones,” which is based on those novels; and the young-adult series Virals, which she co-writes with her son, Brendan.
Reichs, too, is a forensic anthropologist, as well as a university professor and a consultant on murder cases in the United States and Canada. She has helped exhume mass graves and identify bodies in Guatemala and Rwanda, helped identify remains at ground zero, and learned enough French on her lunch hour to take a job teaching at McGill University in Montreal. (To be clear, it took more than one lunch hour.)
If we’ve missed anything, she will have to forgive us.
She and Brendan are currently touring to promote the fourth novel in their Virals series, “Exposure,” which was published last week. They will be in the Twin Cities on Wednesday to speak to classes at South View Middle School in Edina and to sign books at Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis.
Reichs and her family lived in South St. Paul from the time she was 11 until she was in high school. Her father was an executive with the Union Stock Yards, and Reichs remembers ice skating in winter and attending the State Fair at the end of summer. “I clearly, clearly remember living there,” she said in a joint telephone interview last week with Brendan. “I remember the snow and cold. Which is why I live here now.”
“Here” is Charlotte, N.C., where at the time of this interview it was 50 degrees. (It was 2 degrees in the Twin Cities, Kathy and Brendan noted nervously, wondering aloud if they had the right clothes for a visit.)
In college, Kathy Reichs drifted from major to major until she found herself in a physical anthropology class, “and bang!, I knew what I wanted to do.”
Over time, investigators began seeking her help when they found skeletal remains. “The very first case I did was a child. It was a tough one,” she said. “I remember hearing news reports about a missing child. I remember there was a big thunderstorm, and wondering if she was out there in it. And three months later the little skeleton was found.
“Those are the toughest ones, the child homicide cases.”
Reichs began writing fiction while teaching at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. (She remains on faculty there, but no longer teaches.) “I’d already done textbooks and scientific articles, and I wanted to start something new. I had just finished working on a serial murder case — I always change the names and all the details, but I had a good basis for a story.”
She had never studied writing, so she just tried to write the kind of book she liked to read. That approach worked pretty well: “Déjà Dead” sold to the first publisher who read it, shot to the New York Times bestselling list and won the Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel.
No sex, little violence
Son Brendan spent three years working as a lawyer, work that he found, he says, “just abysmal.” He hated every billable minute of it. When a friend in publishing suggested that Kathy branch out into young-adult fiction, Brendan got involved.
He hoped to manage the project, but somewhere along the line it was proposed that he and his mother write the books together. “That came out of nowhere,” he said. “But I decided this was something I would jump on.” He quit the law firm the next day.
The result is the Virals series about Tempe Brennan’s grandniece, 14-year-old Tory, and her three best friends. The four teens have all been infected with a virus that gives them super-canine powers — enhanced strength, speed, vision, smell and instinct.
Like her great-aunt, Tory is a sassy, smart character, the alpha of her pack, not very interested in clothes or crushes. While there are hints of an attraction between her and her friend Ben, they are only hints. Romance is not what these books are about.
“I write these books with my mother,” Brendan joked. “There can’t be any sex!”
Kathy and Brendan agreed they didn’t want to focus on the romantic aspect of the teen years — “we think there’s already plenty of that out there,” Brendan said. And while they do place characters in danger — in “Exposure” there are kidnappings, and Tory is attacked on a beach — they avoid brutal violence. “We definitely do try to make it scary,” Brendan said. “But there are boundaries that we would not go over.”
The series’ success depends on interwoven story lines, a fast-moving plot with plenty of twists, and true-to-life characters. “They’re equally as complicated as any Tempe Brennan novel,” Kathy said. “We outline, chapter by chapter. Basically, Brendan takes large chunks and writes them, and then periodically we have editorial meetings and go over things, where I edit and destroy his art.” (To this, Brendan responds with a chuckle.)
Brendan generally defers to Kathy’s suggestions. “It’s interesting, writing works of fiction with your bestselling mother,” he said. “She’ll point out her 16 New York Times bestsellers and say, ‘Oh, yeah, you disagree?’ ” But Brendan draws the line at her tampering with the character of Hi, Tory’s wisecracking buddy. “Hi is me,” Brendan said. “That’s my character. I don’t allow anything that Hi says to be edited.”
When they visit schools, Kathy and Brendan nicely defy gender stereotypes: Kathy is a girl who excels in science, and Brendan is a boy who likes to read. “Teachers tell me, ‘Please talk to our boy students. Tell them reading isn’t just for girls,’ ” Brendan said. “We have a presentation, a PowerPoint talk where Kathy will discuss forensic science and how she uses her technical ability to make fiction, and then I sort of discuss the Virals series and how we use scientific principles in the series.
“Teachers like us because we actually give a pretty solid forensic science lesson, and the kids like us because we’re talking about murder.”