Some little girls dream of becoming a ballerina or a fashion designer or a princess. But not all little girls are so starry eyed, thank goodness. Some want to be a scientist or TV producer or famous author. One little girl from Chicago has become all three.
I don’t know if Kathy Reichs actually ever said to her parents, “When I grow up, I want to identify skeletal human remains,” but her sister, Deborah Miner of Houston, told me she remembers bones lying around on their kitchen table at about fourth grade. (She also said they surreptitiously raised bunnies in a closet, but I was afraid to ask for details.)
If you’ve watched the hit Fox TV series Bones then you have a good idea of the life and work of Reichs, the real forensic anthropologist behind the show’s fictional Temperance Brennan. It was Reichs’ best-selling Temperance novels (16 and counting) that inspired the television show, which will begin its eighth season Sept. 17.
I don’t know if Kathy Reichs actually ever said to her parents, “When I grow up, I want to identify skeletal human remains,” but her sister told me she remembers bones lying around on their kitchen table.
Reichs is a producer and writer on the show and really enjoys the collaborative spirit in the writer’s room. Writing a novel, she told me, is such a solitary experience — just her and the computer.
When she’s in Los Angeles, however, working on Bones, she’s one of several writers brainstorming new episodes and working at the white board where the plot is developed. (She says she also spends a lot of time on the set and that actress Emily Deschanel, who plays Temperance Brennan, “Is so wonderful, just the most sweet, nice person. So nice.” I think she really likes her.)
Reichs will be in Houston this week to promote her latest book, Bones Are Forever,” at Murder By The Book Thursday and speak Friday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, home to bones galore in the new Hall of Paleontology. Reichs is donating her speaking time to help raise awareness of the filmmaking and audio recording department at Houston Community College Northwest.
Graduates of this program are working in television and film today and, who knows, maybe on a Bones episode of the future? (Full disclosure: I am privileged to serve as chair of their advisory board and to have orchestrated this event in behalf of HCC as a volunteer.)
Reichs simply amazes me. How can one person excel at so many different things, almost simultaneously? Early on, she was an anthropologist working with prehistoric bones at the Smithsonian (that alone would be enough for most people); then she became a forensic anthropologist, assessing human bodies in various stages of decomposition (sometimes dismembered, mummified, or burned) for age, sex, and to determine the cause of death for legal authorities.
She’s helped identify mysterious remains for a number of institutions including the FBI, Quebec’s Central Crime Lab, and at Ground Zero in New York as part of the Mortuary Operational Response Team assigned to assist after 9/11. She helped exhume a mass grave in Guatemala, and traveled to Rwanda to testify at the UN Tribunal on Genocide. She taught anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
It took two years to create her alter ego, Temperance Brennan, for her first crime novel, Déjà Dead. Her goal was, “To bring forensic anthropology to a broader audience.”
Boy, has she ever.
When that book launched in 1997, it became a New York Times bestseller and won the Canada Crime Writers’ Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. These days, she writes two books a year and has started yet another series, Virals, aimed at young adults in collaboration with her son Brendan Reichs.
In a Smithsonian Magazine interview, Reichs explained how she went from working with dead bodies to writing best sellers.
“In the mid-1990s, when I had a serial murder case. It was before this massive interest in forensics. The time seemed right to combine murder mystery and forensics with a strong female character. I took the approach to write about what I know. I base my books only loosely on real cases.
"The one that triggered Bones to Ashes (2007) was a child skeleton found on the Quebec-New Brunswick border — a child about 5 or 6 years old who has never been identified.”
The impact of forensic novels and TV shows has “made the public a bit more aware of science,” she said. “Especially kids. Especially little girls, which is a good thing. But they've raised the public's expectations higher than is realistic, with juries expecting every single case to get DNA every time. That's not realistic. It's not even smart. You don't do every single test in every single case.”
What’s next for the real Reichs? My bet is on a movie, based on a screenplay that she will write herself, if she hasn’t already. I’m only guessing, but I’m also hoping. A review in the New York Daily News praised her work as “Scary enough to keep the lights on and the dog inside."
And that’s the way I like my books and movies.