An award-winning suspense series set in an all-female law firm. A library of bestselling book club picks. A humor column in the tradition of Erma Bombeck. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Lisa Scottoline is not your average lawyer-turned-author.
Lisa Scottoline doesn’t like labels. But she does classify herself as a People Person—and about 30 seconds into any conversation with her, it’s easy to see why. Just as the bestseller’s 22 novels are cross-shelved as Crime Fiction, Legal Thrillers and Women’s Fiction, she herself could be cross-categorized as both a Readers Person and a Writers Person. She opens her home to hundreds of book club members every year; she has served as president of the Mystery Writers of America; she exudes gratitude for her success, having begun her keynote at this year’s 2014 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop by calling thank you “the two most important words in the English language.” All of which is to say that if she isn’t already one of your favorite authors, she probably will be if you ever meet her.
It didn’t take long after her 1993 debut, Everywhere That Mary Went, for Scottoline to be dubbed “the female John Grisham,” as the lawyer-turned-author made her own name writing a series of legal thrillers centered on an all-female law firm, Rosato & Associates. (The 13th installment, Betrayed, is due out this November.) Yet as she has expanded her body of work to include stand-alone bestsellers—most recently, her April release Keep Quiet, about a suburban father who makes a split-second decision to leave the scene of a fatal hit-and-run after letting his teenage son take the wheel—her books have become known above all for their emotionality and real, down-to-earth characters (yes, even the lawyers!) facing moral and ethical questions.
The quick-witted author also pens a Philadelphia Inquirer humor column with her daughter, Francesca Serritella. Their essays have been collected in several books, the latest of which, Have a Nice Guilt Trip, hit shelves in July.
If you’re keeping track, that’s three new books out this year alone—a pace she has no intention of slowing. Her work ethic is a product of a writing career that began when she was an in-debt, newly divorced mom struggling to provide for the infant Francesca. Scottoline has won awards ranging from the Edgar for excellence in crime fiction to the Fun Fearless Female title from Cosmopolitan. She studied under Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania, where she graduated magna cum laude in three years with a concentration in Contemporary American Fiction before going on to law school at her alma mater, where in recent years she developed and taught a course called “Justice and Fiction.” She has 25 million books in print, in more than 30 countries.
I first met Scottoline at ThrillerFest several years ago, where she told a riveted audience that with her writing, she still follows a rule she learned in law school: “Milk the facts.” The facts of your story, she says, will yield incredible possibilities if you let them.
The full WD Interview with Lisa Scottoline appears in the October 2014 Writer’s Digest. In these online exclusive outtakes, she talks more about “Justice and Fiction,” the emotion that drives her writing, the importance of connecting with readers and her best advice to writers everywhere.
You’ve developed and taught a course called “Justice and Fiction” at The University of Pennsylvania Law School. What a testament to the power of fiction—I’ve heard of people teaching law to fiction writers, but never the other way around. If our readers were to enroll in that class, what would be the most important thing they’d learn?
That’s true, that’s true. They would learn that fiction about justice changes with a number of factors, like: the law at the time, the politics at the time, and the social morays at the time. What I did was I started to look at, why was The Godfather so popular, or why was To Kill a Mockingbird so popular? The Godfather in particular, because it’s more recent, and it’s not looked at as much as a book like To Kill a Mockingbird. But The Godfather comes in time after the upheaval of the ’60s—so there’s a social revolution, then the Vietnam War and Watergate. All of a sudden, the government lies to you, the politicians are crooks, the attorney general went to jail, I mean, it’s kind of incredible… And when you have that environment, where there’s a total topsy-turvy in politics, in law, in society, then you understand completely why The Godfather is going to be the bestselling post-war book trilogy ever. Right? Because in The Godfather, the protagonist goes from honest war hero and ascends to power through corruption. And it’s so topsy-turvy—the cops are the crooks; you’re rooting for the Corleone family.
You know, people say that I’m a crime writer. You’re always writing at a point in time, and none of us think that we’re a category. In truth, I don’t think I’m writing about crime. I’m writing about people, and secondly I’m writing about justice. So when I developed the course, it really helped me understand my stuff better. It’s really good, I think, for people who are writing to see their work in context. And that’s what the course was about. It’s almost like a cultural history of the U.S. with respect to fiction.
Maybe this is just my own bias as a parent, but many of your stand-alone stories seem to focus on a parent’s worst nightmare. You’re so good at drawing on the fears and insecurities that we all share—
That sounds bad, doesn’t it? But thank you!
Does your process start with a fear?
I start with an emotion. Like the emotion [that triggered the idea for my novel] Look Again was, my daughter was growing up, and I’m going to have to let her go.
When I started writing a long time ago, I really wanted to see more women protagonists in crime fiction. I was a woman lawyer, and I’m a crazy reader, read everything, and I was so tired of reading only about men lawyers.
My focus a little bit was on the domestic detail—I didn’t think of it then, but now I see it—partly from being so involved with my daughter. We write at home, so raising my daughter was very much integrated into my [writing] life. And I really felt, and I kind of secretly still feel, that domestic life gets devalued. You know, we give a lot of lip service to parenting, and motherhood, and fatherhood, but we don’t really think it. If we really thought it, we’d do a lot of things differently in our culture. And we don’t.
So I wanted to elevate that stuff. Because even though I got published and eventually started to do better and better, the thing you secretly care the most about is who’s across the breakfast table from you, and that’s the stuff that affects you [and what you write].
If you really feel emotionally what you’re writing about, it really communicates, it connects. But it connects only if it’s true. And that’s why books are great.
A lot of writers don’t like to talk about branding, but you’ve talked about changing tact with your writing, and I think your publishers did with your marketing, too. Your early books looked very much like what you would expect a thriller to look like. Now, your books look more character driven.
You’re right, and you’re right to notice it, and I think it’s important to talk about. Everybody has to think about it, whether you’re self-published or published by legacy publishers. I think that stuff really matters. It was a change when I changed publishers, and you know, we still work on the covers. We’ve talked about, should the April stand-alones look different than [the Rosato series books]? I have a wonderful editor in Jen Enderlin [at St. Martin’s Press], and she said, you know what, these distinctions we’re making are not really meaningful ones. People are coming to you for a family story and a crime story. Whether one is the plot or the subplot—lawyers say it’s a “distinction without a difference.” So I think Rosato is going to start to look more like the stand-alones, because to me, that resonates. I’m writing stories about people. They’re character driven, and they always will be. I think character and voice and plot are all the same thing. It is about branding, and it helps the book find its audience—conversely, it also makes sure you put a book in somebody’s hands and it’s what they expect. …
I’ve been very lucky to be very involved. They listen to me, but I think they know a lot—I think a lot of times they know better. But they’re a great publisher in that they are open enough to go, “Hey, what do you think about this?” And it does matter, because it’s not a fun feeling to have a book out there that somehow you can’t relate to. I think everything matters with a book, and I try so hard to get these books read, and so I’m very happy to be involved in those parts. I’m involved in the flap copy, I get the blurbs, and I’m happy to do that too, I feel lucky. And it seems like it’s really working.
I saw an interview where Francesca said the most valuable thing you taught her was to give herself permission to take her writing seriously—to take herself seriously. Why do you think that is so hard for us, and so important for us to overcome?
It really is hard, and there are a million reasons. The first reason is really self-doubt. And the problem is that it’s a solitary activity. I love my job, but the only aspect of it I don’t like is that you’re so alone. And the world doesn’t really support that. The world wants you to answer the door, answer the phone, text back, write back, answer the email.
Part of the reason I go to [the Book Expo America industry event every year] is to see an agent who rejected me, because his rejection was so mean. He said, “We don’t have any time to take any more authors, and if we did, we wouldn’t take you.” The world is really tough on people who want to be writers, and there’s precious little support for it. And if you’re a good person, and most people are, and if you’re an adult, you have a lot of responsibilities. And we are so good that we put them first, and we lose ourselves. And I think it’s a little bit about [being] an adult who has a dream. Like, little kids, when you go, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” you think that when you’re 30, you should have answered that question and you should be it already. But that’s really not fair. In my case, it didn’t work out. I was a lawyer, and when I got divorced and my daughter was born, I wanted to be something else. You have to nurture this little dream.
I visualize it as a candle. You’re the person walking around in the dark scary house, and you have the candle in the little dish, and you have to protect it with your hand. And the candle is your wish to be a writer. It can blow out very easily. And the world is not going to help you hold the candle. You never see a movie where somebody protects your candle—it’s not going to happen! And it’s so important, I feel it so strongly. I feel it everyday myself.
You’ve got to protect the candle. You’ve got to go, “No, I can’t come into work on the weekends, because the weekend is when I work on my novel.” Or, “Yes, I need to take vacation, because on the vacation I’m actually going to try to write.” People deserve those dreams, and they deserve to follow them through, and they have to fight for them. I’ve heard people say protect the work, but I think of it as a candle, because it’s so fragile. And you don’t want to be at the end of your life, or even a year later, and go, “Oh, I met all the obligations that all the people had for me.”
You have to have hope as an unpublished author. You have to believe that it actually can happen, and nobody tells you that. Yes, it can happen! I had five years of rejection. I had the worst rejection letter ever. But it happened to me. And I didn’t get the big book contract to start with. I was in horrible debt, and I built it up over 20 years. So it happened to me, it can happen to you. But you have to protect the candle. You have to give yourself permission, say to yourself, I’m not foolish for wanting this.
I feel very much like I stand in the shoes of a lot of people who are starting to write. Even though I have a career now, I think all writers have to fight the same fight. I haven’t really gotten started yet today, and at some point around 4:00 I’m going to make a pot of coffee, and I have to write 2,000 words today, no matter what. That’s my discipline, and that’s me protecting the work. Luckily I have the whole day to do it and I even have the whole night, and I know it will get done. That’s the discipline of this job.
If you enjoyed these outtakes with bestselling novelist Lisa Scottoline, be sure to check out the feature-length interview—full of valuable insights about pulling off plot twists, changing directions with your writing, and much more—in the October 2014 Writer’s Digest.