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Interview: April 17, 2009

April 17, 2009

Lisa Scottoline, best known for her series featuring attorney Benedetta Rosato, ventures outside of the courtroom in her most recent release, LOOK AGAIN. In this interview with's Kate Ayers, Scottoline recalls an experience with her daughter that inspired the plot of her latest book, and expresses her hesitation over labeling her novels as legal thrillers. She also discusses how writing a weekly newspaper column has affected her approach to long fiction, muses on the roles women play in mysteries and thrillers, and gives details about her next installment in the Bennie Rosato series. The plot of LOOK AGAIN stems from what one adoptive mother does when she receives one of those ubiquitous missing children notices and notes that one of the faces looks much like that of her son. Did this book get its start when you looked at one of those notices? If not, what gave you the germ of the idea?

Lisa Scottoline: I’m a single mom who can say, without any bias, that I have the most incredible daughter anyone could imagine. I got the idea for the book when I was driving her home from college and we were having a great time in the car (where she was captive) and I realized that this would be one of the few such times we’d have together; that I had to let her go. And that led me to the question of who really owns a child, which is at the core of LOOK AGAIN. It led me to understand that we don’t own our children, they only pass through us, so we have to let them fly, however hard that may be. It’s a hard question for any mom or dad, and I bet that its answer changes over time, too.

BRC: From my recollection, this book appears to be your first non-legal thriller. Were you tiring of courtroom dramas, or why did you decide to switch gears with LOOK AGAIN?

LS: I actually never viewed my books as legal thrillers. In my books, my characters are people first, and then their job. I always thought I wrote about strong, funny women with lots of what we used to call moxie. Their job is beside the point, and their interests are always justice, or the difference between right and wrong, and good and evil. Drama!

I also believe you should write what you know, because it informs the book in a very realistic way. I began working for The Philadelphia Inquirer, writing a Sunday column, “Chick Wit,” before I started writing LOOK AGAIN. It was fascinating for me to discover the behind-the-scenes of the newspaper industry, and I was intrigued by the challenge of producing a great newspaper each day while maintaining the integrity of the stories and remaining current, if not cutting edge. I knew immediately that my next character would be a journalist, intent on getting to the truth of a story, only to be faced with a truth of her own --- that could ultimately be her undoing.

BRC: In LOOK AGAIN, part of the tension comes from planned cuts in staff at the newspaper that employs Ellen Gleeson. All along, Ellen realizes that her job may be in jeopardy, considering that her boss has to make a cut somewhere, yet she risks it for her family and what she believes is right. Given what is going on with newspapers today, this storyline is timely, yet we know the book has been in the works for a while. Are you making a social commentary here, or did Ellen’s personal crisis just work with the plot?

LS: The characters need to be real, which means the situation has to ring true. I didn’t feel like I could write about the newspaper industry without referencing the hard times newspapers are facing today. Also, as with so many of us, when lots of bad things happen, they seem to come at the same time. (When it rains, it pours.) The tension in the book is really ratcheted up by Ellen dealing with the worst possible situation, at the same time she could potentially lose her livelihood.

BRC: Ellen’s compulsion to investigate Tim Braverman’s resemblance to her son becomes almost an obsession. How many mothers in her place do you think would do the same thing? In other words, is Ellen more attracted to the truth than most women in her position would be since she is a journalist?

LS: I do think that a journalist has a natural instinct to find the truth, and isn’t often willing to push suspicions aside. If you take the journalistic instinct and pair it with a mother’s instinct, I don’t think Ellen had a choice but to look for the truth. But it sure is fun to deny it for a time. The denial, she gets from me. I’m divorced twice for a reason.

BRC: All of your characters in LOOK AGAIN have wonderful depth. Does the deeply emotional subject play any part in that, or do you tend to craft strong-minded characters?

LS: Thank you for that. To me, characterization is the most important element of a novel. You can have an incredibly suspenseful book, but if you don’t care about the characters and what happens to them, the book doesn’t work. I try to write characters who are like the women I know --- strong, resourceful and independent, yet soft-hearted and funny. My touchstone is always the great Eleanor Roosevelt quote, "A woman is like tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” That’s my mantra --- in fiction and life.

BRC: Did you personally arrive at an answer to the question posed by LOOK AGAIN: What would you do if confronted with the same dilemma Ellen was confronted with?

LS: It is funny that you should ask me that question. When I first gave my book to my agent, my editor and my assistant, we all had different reactions. Throughout the week we went back and forth, and you could argue both sides. I don’t want to say what I’d do. Because it could change, and I really want readers to come to their own conclusions. That’s why I think this is the perfect book club book.

BRC: You say, “Write what you know.” You have an impressive educational history, culminating in a law degree. You teach. You write a column for a newspaper, which seems to have spawned the idea for LOOK AGAIN. Where else do you draw ideas from?

LS: Truly, I get my ideas from the heart. I know that might sound corny, but I like to write about things that really matter to me --- family, love, truth, right and wrong, and a really great tomato sauce.

BRC: Your book is dedicated to your daughter, which is quite poignant. Did you decide that before you started the book, or did it come to you along the way?

LS: I couldn’t imagine dedicating this book to anyone else. I don’t think I could write a book about the power of a mother’s love and not write it with my amazing daughter in mind.

BRC: Is it difficult for you to write a weekly column, or do you respond well to an ongoing deadline like that?

LS: I love writing the column, and it’s a lot easier for me to write 800 words than the 100,000 it takes for a novel. Each week, I wonder if I’m going to have something to write about, but the column, much like my books, comes from real life. And it’s been a great exercise in getting to the point! The start of LOOK AGAIN is so fast because of the discipline of writing the column, I know it. What a bonus!

BRC: You typically write a book a year. Is that a punishing schedule or one that you have come to work with?

LS: I work all the time, which is not a complaint because I love what I do. It typically takes about a year to complete the book from start to final edit, but the actual first-draft writing time is about six months. I will always do a book a year, but I’m working towards writing the books closer together.

Bottom line, this is the dream job, and it allows me the time to dream. What’s not to like?

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

LS: The next book is a Bennie Rosato book and features the return of her evil twin, Alice Connolly. I get a lot of e-mail requesting the return of Bennie and the girls of Rosato & Associates because people have become attached to them and want to know what happens next with them. It’s wonderful to revisit these familiar characters and have them grow and develop even further, but it is equally exciting to write a brand-new character, like Ellen Gleeson in LOOK AGAIN. I like to change it up. That’s how I think I can keep people excited about me, book to book.

BRC: Somewhere I heard you called “the female John Grisham.” Do you think that stems from your background and experience, or simply that you have written a lot of legal thrillers?

LS: As I said, I don’t view my books as legal thrillers, just books about strong women who happen to be lawyers. When I first started writing, John Grisham had burst onto the scene and had opened the door to writing about lawyers. At the time, I realized that women weren’t well represented in suspense or thriller novels --- we were always the girlfriend, the wife, or the hooker --- and that gets old. Plus I knew it was something I would really enjoy writing.

BRC: “Snickers equals romance”? I love that line. Where did you come up with that, and how do I make that work for me?

LS: Ha! Honey, you can’t ever go wrong with saturated fats.

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