January 07, 2020

Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

A gory and engaging series debut

Married co-authors Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell first partnered on the New York Times bestselling memoir Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner. Now, they’re back with First Cut, which kicks off a new thriller series. We talked with the duo about how they work together, what makes medical examiners so fascinating, and how to maintain a sense of humor while working an extraordinarily tough job.

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Cool new city (San Francisco), fun new apartment (converted cable car), impressive new job (medical examiner): On paper, Dr. Jessie Teska’s got a lot to look forward to. But in reality, she’s still struggling to move past the painful breakup that prompted her to leave L.A.—and it’s not long before her challenging and interesting new job plops her right in the path of murderous criminals.

Married co-authors Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell first partnered on the New York Times bestselling memoir Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner. Now, they’re back with First Cut, which kicks off a new thriller series. We talked with the duo about how they work together, what makes medical examiners so fascinating and how to maintain a sense of humor while working an extraordinarily tough job.

You’re married, have three children, co-wrote a New York Times bestselling memoir about Dr. Melinek’s training at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City—and now, you’re launching a new thriller series. Congratulations! How do you best work together? Do you, say, collaborate via email, or sit together and take turns talking and typing, or etc.? Can you share a bit about how you get into writerly sync?
We collaborate in a variety of ways. Our first book, the memoir Working Stiff, was nonfiction, and the process of writing it helped us find our voice as co-authors of the detective novel series we are launching with First Cut. Other than that, though, the process of writing that book was entirely different from the process we have adopted when working together on medical-examiner fiction.

When we first start shaping the story for a novel, we go on a lot of walks together and talk out what we know has already happened, what’s going to happen and how we can get there. When it comes time to put things on paper, we sit down together and brainstorm into a long, messy outline.

Then we divide roles for a while. Judy continues her day job as a forensic pathologist, performing autopsy death investigation in the real world, while T.J. molds our story into the beats, scenes and acts that form a detective novel. When he gets stuck, we brainstorm again—at that point, often by email or text. Once the rough draft is on paper, Judy will read it out loud and we will both make changes based on what we hear. Our books are written from a first-person point of view and our protagonist, Dr. Jessie Teska, has a strong personality that is best explored out loud while we’re composing the manuscript.

Dr. Melinek, you’re the forensics expert, and T.J., you’ve worked in the film business as a writer and editor. Do you essentially divide your authorial duties along those lines, too? How would you say your work informs your writing, or vice versa? Do either of you get veto power over particular aspects of character or story?
As co-authors—and married ones—we’re fortunate in this way: We have no overlapping skill set. Judy has, in her 20 years of experience as a forensic pathologist, seen it all. She has the stories about deaths we can fictionalize in the frame of our detective novels. The science you read in our books is real. Dr. Jessie Teska’s investigative methods are as close as you will find in a mystery or thriller to the way real medical examiners work with cops, district attorneys, clinical physicians, lab professionals and the whole range of specialists and experts in the death-investigation system.

Writing fiction is T.J.’s domain. He loves to sit in a room and wrestle with words all day. He loves to agonize over commas. He really does. Judy has the stories and T.J. has the time and the drive to craft them. That’s how we collaborate as co-authors.

Neither of us steps on the other’s toes all that often; not in a way we can’t resolve. When we do come to a storytelling impasse, Judy might declare a veto over a scientific or investigative method, or T.J. might declare one over a structural element of the narrative. Honestly, though, these vetoes are rare.

One of Jessie’s colleagues reminds her that they work within a legal system, not a justice system. It’s a poignant truth that, alas, not every criminal will be jailed, let alone caught or prosecuted. But Jessie tries her hardest, sometimes at great personal cost. Is that something that’s meaningful to you—exploring the conflict that can arise between wanting to excel at a job vs. doing what feels right, or between longing for closure vs. accepting it’s not in the cards?
Jessie’s watchword is integrity. She is a noir detective of the old school, one who pursues the truth about the cases she investigates with a doggedness that steps over into recklessness. The word autopsy means “see for yourself,” and that’s exactly what Dr. Jessie Teska does, no matter the consequences to herself.

But when the consequences of her unrelenting search for the truth start to affect other people in her life? Well, that’s when things get dirty and hard. That’s what we’re here, as storytellers, to give you!

“The real world of forensic pathology can be, at times, fully absurd.”

There’s plenty of funny stuff in your book, not least a memorably and hilariously gross weapon used in a physical fight. It’s got to be a delicate balance—everyone needs humor to cope with the vagaries of work life, but not everyone is doing such difficult work while being held accountable to so many. Did your own personal experience with that push-pull inform your desire/decision to explore it in your novel?
The real world of forensic pathology can be, at times, fully absurd. The truth surely is stranger than fiction, and sometimes the awful, weird and unexpected circumstances of an unforeseen death can be so dark as to become, yes, funny. One thing we hope we never do in the course of our books, though, is the one thing that Dr. Melinek and her colleagues assiduously do not do: We do not mock the dead. The gallows humor you see in TV dramas does not represent the attitude that the best forensic professionals take toward their job in the morgue.

San Francisco serves as the backdrop to Jessie’s new life: She’s got to adjust to the persistent fog, make a home in a converted cable car and go on work calls all over the city. What is it about San Francisco (besides, perhaps, excellent taco places) that made you choose it as the setting for First Cut?
Write what you know! T.J. comes from Nahant, Massachusetts, a fishing town north of Boston (and next door to Lynn, our protagonist’s hometown), and Judy is an immigrant to the United States who grew up in the Bronx. We moved together to California for work a long time ago, and have lived in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond District for 15 years. We fell immediately and passionately in love with the city. Judy held Jessie’s job as an assistant medical examiner at the San Francisco Office of Chief Medical Examiner for nine years, and today works in an adjacent county. Her description of the morgue in the basement of the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street is taken from her own experience. That morgue isn’t there anymore—there’s a brand new facility that forms the backdrop of Dr. Teska’s adventures in the next book in the series, Cross Cut. We’ve fictionalized here and there, but, for the most part, the facilities where Dr. Teska performs death investigation are just like the ones where Dr. Melinek did the same.

Female medical examiners have been the stars of popular book and TV series with beloved characters like Kay Scarpetta, Temperance Brennan, Maura Isles, Jordan Cavanaugh and more. Why, do you think, this particular profession makes for such enduringly appealing material for storytelling? Are there any persistent tropes that you wanted to upend, or have fun with, in First Cut?
Judy has a popular blog post at PathologyExpert.com called 7 CSI Fails. Among them: Don’t wear high heels (Louboutins?!) to a crime scene. Lab tests take time. Someone turn on the lights!

Now, Dr. Teska is not Dr. Melinek. Jessie makes some bad choices that Judy definitely would not, and Judy’s life is nowhere near as convoluted as Jessie’s. We enjoy taking Judy’s real experiences in her work life and twisting them, just enough, to have fun on the page.

The equipment in Jessie’s lab is frustratingly vintage, but your Bitcoin-centric subplot is decidedly of our cultural moment. What about Bitcoin caught your fancy, in terms of making it an element of your novel?
That’s a theme in the book: the disconnect between the high-tech ecosystem of Silicon Valley and the disconcertingly low-tech city morgue. Our fictional medical examiner employs many of the same tools as her professional forebears did a century ago. Like Dr. Melinek, Dr. Teska uses scalpels to slice through tissue, kitchen knives to bread loaf organs and hardware store tree loppers to cut ribs. Modern forensic pathology may require DNA and advanced toxicologic analysis to ensure convictions, but the process starts with basic medicine and very basic tools.

In addition to the outdated equipment, Jessie’s office also suffers from understaffing, underfunding and a lack of oversight. This, of course, increases stress and pressure, opportunities for error, etc. In your experience, are these problems common at M.E. facilities? Over your years in and writing about the forensics field, have you seen potential for improvement, facilities that’ve employed new approaches to temper these issues, that sort of thing?
The understaffing and underfunding of medical examiner and coroner systems is a nationwide problem. Currently only around 1 percent of medical students go into the field of pathology, and fewer still take the additional year of fellowship training to become forensic pathologists. There are only around 500 board-certified forensic pathologists like Dr. Teska in the United States. That’s half the number we need to cover our country’s current death-investigation workload, and that workload is growing.

Funding for forensic services is done on a county level, and the county’s dead don’t vote. So forensic labs and morgues are frequently the victims of government cutbacks during lean times, and rarely the recipient of financial investment in a good economy. In Dr. Melinek’s career she has not seen much improvement in this cycle. Our fiction reflects this funding crisis and its consequences—as bent through a noir lens.

“. . . when your heroine is a medical examiner, your books are chock full of corpses.”

With the intricacies of Jessie’s job and relationships, the complexity of the various crimes and the countless medical details that feel so natural in First Cut, there must’ve been so, so much to keep track of as you created. Did you plan out the story, maybe even the series, before the writing began, or do you employ a more free-flowing approach?
When we start out, we riff—and then we outline. The impetus for First Cut came from a real case that Dr. Melinek investigated in San Francisco. A man is sitting in a cyber café with his laptop in front of him. Another man comes through the door (this is all captured on security cameras), looks around, and then grabs that laptop and runs for the door. The laptop’s owner pulls out a gun and starts shooting while he chases the thief. He corners him, kills him, takes the laptop back . . . and walks away.

When Dr. Melinek arrived at this scene as the on-call medical examiner and was told this story by the investigating homicide detectives while she stood over the dead body, the first thing she thought was, “What the hell is on that laptop that’s worth murdering somebody over?” That was the kernel for our story, the death that sets everything in motion.

In a gripping detective story, that motion necessarily includes a lot of parts. Once we had the rough idea of what the story was and where it would go, we worked up a series of auxiliary documents—a structural outline, a timeline, a character list. These are typical for any novelist. Less typical is our document called Dead Bodies Timeline. We need this last one because, when your heroine is a medical examiner, your books are chock full of corpses. Some of them are central to the mystery, some are incidental and some might even be diversionary. Gotta keep ’em straight!

We do have ideas for a series arc, but it’s highly flexible. That’s one of the perks of working in the death investigation field in real life: There’s no shortage of stories to explore in the realm of fiction.

Can you share anything about what’s coming up next for Jessie and her colleagues (and Bea the beagle)? And what’s coming up next for the two of you?
The second book in the series, Cross Cut is well underway, and will be coming to bookshelves and glow-screens and earphones in 2021. We don’t want to reveal too much, of course. We can tell you that Bea gets to go digging; that we get to listen in to a comically stilted phone call between Jessie and her mother; and that, along the way, people die.

It’s all in a day’s work.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of First Cut.

Author photo © Amal Bisharat.

Get the Book

First Cut

First Cut

By Judy Melinek & T.J. Mitchell
Hanover Square
ISBN 9781335008305

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