Best-selling novelist Kathy Reichs shared with Western Carolina University students on Tuesday, Nov. 18, highlights of a career that has taken her from behind the scenes in crime laboratories to in front of the cameras in a cameo role in “Bones,” the popular television show inspired by her books.
Reichs, visiting WCU as part of the 2008-09 Chancellor’s Speaker Series, took part in an informal question-and-answer session with a group consisting primarily of students majoring in anthropology, forensic science, English and criminal justice.
Reichs told the students that the field of forensic anthropology – the study of the human skeleton and human remains for legal purposes – is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.
“Not everyone can do it. Not everyone can deal with the decomposing bodies, the maggots, and the smells and the sights of an autopsy room,” she said. “It is important to remember that you are working with the dead, but you are working for the living, for those family members seeking answers about a loved one.”
One student asked Reichs how she is able to separate herself emotionally from such gruesome work. “It’s hard to tell how we do it, but it is absolutely necessary that we do do it,” she responded. “On the one hand, you have to keep in mind that it is a person on the autopsy table. On the other hand, you have to put up some barriers and you have to have some distance so that you can do your job. If you don’t, you’ll suffer from burnout.”
A member of the forensic anthropology faculty at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, she began writing fiction at the suggestion of friends who thought that her work on criminal cases would make for interesting reading.
“I had finally made full professor, and I didn’t want to write another textbook or another journal article,” she said. “I decided to write the kind of books I like to read – thrillers.”
Reichs’ debut novel, “Deja Dead,” became a New York Times bestseller and won the 1997 Ellis Award for Best First Novel. Her other fiction works, which chronicle the adventures of forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, include “ “Fatal Voyage,” set in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and her latest thriller, “Devil Bones,” released earlier this year.
Reichs’ novels provided the foundation for the hit Fox TV series “Bones,” a show on which she serves as scientific consultant – and, in one episode, nabbed a cameo role as a forensic anthropology professor.
While on campus, she also delivered an evening public presentation titled “”Forensic Anthropology: From Crime Lab to Crime Fiction” to a packed house in Western’s Fine and Performing Arts Center.
Reichs is one of only 77 forensic anthropologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Her visit to Western brought her to a campus where another board-certified forensic anthropologist, John Williams, directs the academic program in forensic anthropology, which began in 2004.
“I bet that 10 years ago, none of our students majoring in this field had ever even heard of forensic anthropology,” Wendy Ford, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said in introducing Reichs during the evening program. “Kathy Reichs’ writing has introduced a whole new generation of students to the forensic sciences.”
Williams and his colleague, Cheryl Johnston, operate the Western Carolina Human Identification Laboratory and an outdoor decomposition research facility (commonly referred to as a body farm) that is only the second of its kind in the nation.
The Chancellor’s Speaker Series is designed to bring significant national and international leaders to campus to discuss major issues of the day, and to provide Western students with an opportunity to interact with some of the people who shape and influence the world. Past speakers have included former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole; presidential candidate John Edwards; former U.S. Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders; Nobel Peace Prize-winning Polish leader Lech Walesa; actor Danny Glover; Gen. Richard B. Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Cynthia Cooper, the whistleblower who exposed corporate fraud at WorldCom.