After graduating from , Laura Merz wanted to see the world. But she had no idea her career would take her to such exotic places as Tokyo, Shanghai, Athens, Naples and, especially, Wichita, Kansas.
She writes about her time spent in Wichita as a crime scene investigator in "Bunny Suits of Death: Tales of a CSI," a book published earlier this year. Laura is currently stationed in Naples, Italy (since the writing of the book she has switched careers/TV shows from CSI to NCIS), but will be returning home to visit Nazareth next month.
While back in her old hometown, Laura will be visiting the (where she worked as an NAHS student) to give a talk about her hilarious and touching memoir and the exciting career that inspired it.
The event is scheduled for Oct. 11 at 6:30 p.m. Reserve a space for this book talk by calling the library at (610) 759-4932 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
In advance of her visit, I asked Laura some questions about her book and her life. Read on!
JB: For those who haven't read the book yet, can you quickly explain how you got from Nazareth to Wichita? And then to Italy?
LM: Yikes. Nazareth to Wichita to Italy -- with bits of New York, DC, and Tokyo thrown in. The truth is always much stranger than fiction. I chose my college in New York based of the fact that I enjoyed watching the sparrows playing in the fountains in front of the library. It's true. You can ask my mom, since she was with me that day. I became a forensic science master's student because I took Forensic Anthropology to fulfill the math/science requirement in my undergraduate days and Columbia wouldn't accept AP credit for math. So it was either take differential equations or find a science class that sounded more interesting.
I did a stint at a chemical engineering lab at MIT for a summer, where I successfully melted the core of an argon plasma reactor (luckily they had a spare part). After graduate school, I applied everywhere for a job. Everyone wanted to be CSI New York or CSI Las Vegas. Most places weren't hiring when I finished graduate school, but the midwest still had openings, and I jumped at the chance to be employed. When NCIS called me two years after I first applied and asked if I was still interested in working for them, I was torn, because the people of Wichita really made me love the place. But I knew I needed to grow more professionally, so I moved to California and then applied for positions overseas in Tokyo and Naples.
JB: The book is hilarious, starting with the title. Can you explain what the title means? And also how you're able to find humor in such a serious line of work?
LM: I'm glad you find the book hilarious, since I had a lot of fun writing it. Many people in the CSI world call the white Tyvex suits we wear at scenes with biological hazards "bunny suits." So they really are Bunny Suits of death, since we put them on when we work with scenes with dead bodies. When I was trying to come up with a title, I wanted something that would make someone look twice at the book, or pick it up to read the back, and the image of a crime scene Easter Bunny appealed to me.
You have to find humor in the job, or else you will burn out incredibly quickly. When I first started working as a CSI, I took every case to heart and wanted to help every victim I met. But if you do that, you lose yourself and can become overwhelmed by the human tragedy. To be truly effective at the job, you have to have a little bit of distance, and also really care about the work. Finding humor in those types of situations makes it possible to wake up the next morning and do it all again.
JB: Was there one particular moment when you thought, "I have to write a book about this?"
LM: You know, I blogged about my life back when I was working in Kansas. If you look at TV cop shows, one thing they tend to get right is that members of a police force need an outlet when they finish their job each day. Of course the media will show the stereotypes of hanging out in bars, or having fights with romantic partners and family, but for me, my outlet was and always has been writing. I think my "I have to get the word out" moment came when I attended a training lecture about the "CSI effect" on juries. Everyone expected that "ah ha!" moment where the CSI could look at a glass fragment or a piece of toenail and instantly know how the crime was committed. It's gotten to the point that prosecutors need to educate jury members on what is and is not possible, and the expectations are so high that guilty parties go free because the science isn't the same as what's seen on television. I really wanted people to see how things go when a real CSI enters a scene.
JB: Who are some authors you admire?
LM: Jasper Fforde is my all-time favorite author. He's Welsh and has an amazing imagination and writes books that have been called Harry Potter for English Majors (and since I was an English major, I feel like he's got all these inside jokes for those of us who know Kafka or Austin inside and out. I'm anxiously awaiting the fifth book of Rosemary Kirstein's "Steerswoman" series. She's another author who created a realistic yet entirely fictional world populated with amazing characters. Nancy Turner's "These is My Words" ranks as the book I have read more times than any other -- probably over 100 at this point).
All these authors have very strong believable female characters as the central storyteller and I enjoy reading books centered on women in unconventional careers, probably because I relate to them on a personal level.
JB: Finally, I'd like to thank you for dispelling the myth from TV cop shows that putting Vicks under your nose is the right move if you're in a room with a horribly smelly decomposing corpse. I realize this is not a question and I don't plan on being in a room with a horribly smelly decomposing corpse any time soon, but I just wanted to say thank you.
LM: You're very welcome. Just remember, if you're ever in that situation, you could tilt your head to the side in a scientific manner, think "Huh, so that's what that looks like..." and breathe (through the nose, with no Vicks). But if you are able to leave the room, I'd recommend that as the first course of action.