I recently had the honor of interviewing Lisa Scottoline, the author of the wonderful novel Don’t Go, available April 9. As you’ll see below, her answers were a compelling and insightful look into the life of a bestselling author. I hope you enjoy the following Q&A.
Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit” while Ray Bradbury felt, “Digression is the soul of wit.” When setting out to write engaging dialogue for your characters, what do you find works best?
What a great question! First, I never forget that the Shakespeare quote was in fact by Polonius, who is a bit of a fool, but he was definitely on the right track with his observation. I think I side with him more than Ray Bradbury, as great as Bradbury was. I say this because the governing principle of writing any novel, regardless of genre, is to get to the point. You really want to keep the reader engaged and turning the pages. That only happens if pace is paramount. Therefore nothing should be extraneous or extra. If you’ve made the point, you don’t need to make it again. Like I am now, in fact!
Some authors outline books ahead of time, like James Patterson, while others, like Lee Child, just sit down and write without planning ahead. How do you approach writing a story? Do you know exactly what’s going to happen and when, or do you let the characters lead the way?
I admire James Patterson, but I’m not as smart as he is, and I have much more in common with the wonderful Lee Child, in that I just sit down and write without planning ahead. I always say that not only do I not know how the book ends, I don’t even know how it middles. The great thing about writing is that there’s no correct answer and you get to do whatever works best for you. This works best for me because I like the spontaneity and excitement that not knowing what’s going to happen brings to me as a writer; I think if I planned it all out in advance in an outline, I would feel like the writing of it afterwards was like filling in the blanks, or playing Mad Libs. Also, the way I do it is unfortunately the kind of thing that leads to a constant state of anxiety, because I don’t know if I have a successful plot line at all, but part of me rationalizes even that. I think that being hyper-aware when you’re writing finds its way into the book and keeps the tension and excitement high, leading to that page-turner goal I always try to meet.
Ian Fleming wrote 2,000 words a day by sitting down at his desk and typing non-stop for hours at a time. Do you have a strict writing schedule to which you adhere?
This is amazing, because I never thought I had anything in common with the great Ian Fleming, but evidently I do. I actually sit down every day, 7 days a week, and meet a word count of 2000. I think that’s the perfect number because it takes the entire day and sometimes most of the night, but it seems to be about 9 pages and therefore enough to get out a single scene or plot element in a 1st draft. The good thing about having a word limit is not only does it enable you to get the words down the paper, which you absolutely must do in the end, but it also permits you a stopping point, in the event that you reach your 2000 word goal early. This happens to me a lot, and I like that very much. Mainly because, as anybody who works at home will tell you, it’s hard to turn work off when it’s just upstairs. If I meet my 2000 word goal at 7 o’clock, I can watch television or read without guilt, and that’s something to rejoice over.
Many bestselling authors have started to co-author books. You’ve collaborated with your daughter and contributed to The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet. Would you ever consider working with another author on one of your novels?
I have cooperated and contributed to serial anthologies or chapter books for charitable reasons, like the ones you just mentioned, and I’m proud of my work in those things, but I never collaborated per se with another author in the actual writing of each sentence. I have already collaborated with my amazing daughter Francesca Serritella on the nonfiction humor books, but even there, she writes her own stories and I write mine, and we combine them in one volume. It’s hard for me to imagine a true joint production on something as personal and voice-laden as a novel, but I often think about writing a children’s book or something later with someone else. For that, we’ll have to stay tuned.
I was really honored to win the Edgar award because it’s given by the Mystery Writers of America, which is our oldest professional organization, and I was even lucky enough to be nominated for the award the year before that, though I didn’t win it. I actually think that loss was an equally important accomplishment, because the ultimate lesson in writing is to write the absolute best you can for yourself, and not for any extrinsic reward, whether it’s a wonderful award like the Edgar, or even a newspaper or blog review. I read all of those things and I care very much about them, but I don’t write for anyone else but me, and my assumption is always that if I think something is wonderful, my readers will too. They are my highest and best award ever.
Instead of the massive text and trite visuals most book covers are known for, your most recent novel covers have featured interactions between real people. Don’t Go has a beautiful orange glow to it and it features the book’s main character, Dr. Mike Scanlon and his daughter in a loving embrace. What led to this change in artistic direction a few years ago and what kind of feedback have you received from your fans?
Another excellent question! This is a completely accurate observation and I have a wonderful publisher in St. Martin’s and a great editor in Jennifer Enderlin, and we have together come up with these new covers, which I love. At the macro level, I’m writing 3 books years these days; two novels – one of which is a standalone and the other is the next installment of the Rosato & Associates series – and a humor memoir. Our little team wanted to figure out a way to differentiate these books, so that readers could easily see which was a standalone, which was a Rosato, and which was the nonfiction humor. I think the covers accurately capture that, and at the same time they share a common font and typeface which ties them all together, since they’re all books by me. In my heart, I believe that if you like one type of book by me, you’ll like the other type, because the voice always remains the same, and I work hard on that. But I’m aware that some people will read only Rosato and some people will read only the standalones, and so I feel really happy that we are always accurately representing my work and positioning it in a way in which it reaches the most number of readers.
Don’t Go focuses on the tumultuous life of a Doctor serving in the military. What was your inspiration for this novel?
There were so many inspirations for this book that is hard to pick just one, but the bottom line is that like any American citizen, I have been following with great absorption and concern the progress of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I am overwhelmingly grateful to the men and women who fight them on our behalf, as well as to the families and friends on the homefront, who make their own sacrifices, though not the ultimate sacrifice made by the soldiers. I’d also read a lot about the effects of wartime on custody arrangements in general, and this idea came to me and so I went with it. More and more I think the standalone novels, and even the ones that feature Rosato & Associates, as a blend of love story, family story, and crime story. I have educated myself on the development of the mystery and thriller genre in general, and I think this is a natural direction for it to take, because it’s not just a few writers that transcend genre but in fact, all of us are transcending genre these days.
I did so much research for this book it’s not even funny. I don’t think I have ever spent so much time researching a novel except for Killer Smile, which as you may know, involves the internment of Italian-Americans during World War II. The research in Don’t Go was for much of the same reason, too; wartime is a grave and dramatic time in the history of a nation, if not globally, and attention must be paid to the details. Everything has to be right, because real lives are being sacrificed in real time. I interviewed an Army surgeon who served in Afghanistan and he read everything in the manuscript to make sure it was accurate, which I think is the best you can do when you’re writing about an Army surgeon who served in Afghanistan. It’s straight out of the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I also read widely and extensively on the subject, both fiction and nonfiction accounts of both wars, I listed all of those books in the Acknowledgements. While none of them gave me specific ideas, because that comes only from my head and heart, they certainly help form a backdrop that would help me get the details right.
Don’t Go is your 20th novel – a monumental accomplishment for any writer. Looking back, what’s your proudest professional accomplishment?
Aren’t you so nice to say so, and I am very proud of producing a really fine body of work over the past 20 years. I really want the name Scottoline to be synonymous with quality fiction, whether it’s humor, crime, love story, or family story. But of course, I have to tell you that my proudest accomplishment is raising a wonderful and amazing daughter in Francesca.
When I met you last year, at your book signing at Barnes & Noble on Rittenhouse Square, I was blown away by the fact that you remembered your fans’ first names upon seeing them. It was as if they were part of your extended family. After your first novel was published, how did it feel when people started to notice you and praise your work?
I do tend to remember people because I am such a people person, and of course my favorite people in the world are my fans, because they support me, both literally and figuratively. There is absolutely no feeling as good as walking into a room full of people who read a novel written by you and therefore know your heart, the way you think, the way you express yourself, the values you value as important, and all of the other things that any good novel contains, which is some amalgam of heart, brain, and human soul. I remember my readers because I love them. It’s as simple as that. And going to any signing is like a homecoming, even though we’ve never met. That is proof positive of the magic of fiction, because it brings people together at a soul level. And I feel so lucky to be a part of that partnership with my readers, forever.
And the interesting part about your question about when my 1st novel was published, how did it feel when people started to notice and praise my work, is that it doesn’t feel any different today than it did then. I still feel lucky and happy and surprised and blessed. I work very very hard, but I have a wonderful job, and I always endeavor to keep my side of my compact with the reader, which is to tell them a wonderful story, that even though it’s fiction, will contain an emotional truth that will resonate with them, and maybe help them deal with the ups and downs of their own lives, or maybe even encourage them through the tougher moments. Books do that for all of us, and I know it’s not only literally true, but that is a point worth making, because I get lots of e-mail from people who are actually convalescing or recovering from surgeries, were going through chemotherapy, or have just had a mastectomy, and all of them tell me that they managed to lose themselves in one of my mysteries or were laughing really hard at the humorous memoirs. Nothing can make me happier, and there is no greater purpose to fiction, or any form of writing, than to heal the human heart.