By Brett King
I met Lisa Scottoline back in 1997 when I was first thinking about writing thrillers. She was signing for LEGAL TENDER and I remember a woman in line telling her, “I’ve never heard of you before, Lisa, but if your books are anything like your personality, I’m going to buy everything you’ve written.” If you’ve had the pleasure of meeting Lisa then you know her books are a true reflection of her personality—candid, witty, intelligent, compassionate, articulate, and charming. I’m pretty sure I’ve left out some character traits, but you get the idea.
A former Philadelphia attorney, Lisa has written more than twenty books that have brought her awards and honors and have found secure homes on all major bestseller lists. Her 1994 debut novel, EVERYWHERE THAT MARY WENT, brought to life a complex and compelling protagonist named Mary DiNunzio, an Italian-American lawyer with proud South Philly roots. Nominated for an Edgar Award, the book became the springboard for Lisa’s commercially and critically-praised legal thrillers and also formed the cornerstone for a beloved series featuring the all-female Philadelphia law firm of Rosato & Associates. Along with Mary, the stories revolve around the lives and careers of Benedetta “Bennie” Rosato (the firm’s managing partner), Judy Carrier, and Anne Murphy. Janet Maslin of THE NEW YORK TIMES called the Rosato & Associates series, “one of the best-branded franchise styles in current crime writing” and described Lisa’s “punchy, wisecracking thrillers” as populated with “earthy, fun and self-deprecating” characters.
In news that will thrill her fans, Lisa has promised to deliver a new book in the Rosato series every year. Her latest, ACCUSED, places Mary DiNunzio at the center of the most challenging and dangerous case to face the maverick law firm. Mary and her colleagues offer counsel to a brilliant thirteen-year-old client named Allegra Gardner who is still grieving over the murder of her older sister, Fiona, six years before. Although a man named Lonnie Stall is serving time for the homicide, Allegra is convinced that he has been wrongly imprisoned. In defiance of her wealthy and powerful family, the girl seeks the help of Rosato & Associates in her risky crusade to discover the shocking truth behind her sister’s murder.
As with earlier books in the series, ACCUSED is a spirited novel brimming with razor-sharp dialogue, quirky and heartwarming characterizations, as well as insightful and humorous observations about the psychology of relationships, family, justice, and cultural norms (Lisa’s analysis of Jewish guilt versus Catholic guilt is nothing short of brilliant!). Stacy Alesi of Booklist notes, “Everything Scottoline writes sells big, but her Rosato series leads the way. Fans have been waiting three years for this one and will respond enthusiastically.”
In addition to ACCUSED, Lisa wrote a stand-alone novel in April titled DON’T GO and also edited the 2013 volume of THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES with series editor, Otto Penzler. Along with her prolific output of novels and non-fiction books, she also collaborates with her daughter, Francesca Serritella, on a weekly column called “Chick Wit,” featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Lisa has dedicated ACCUSED to Francesca, a promising young writer who is at work on her first novel.
Always generous, Lisa took time out of her demanding schedule to visit with me about her latest book as well as her thoughts about her characters and writing series fiction.
Mary DiNunzio has come a long way since she was introduced to readers in your debut novel. The events in ACCUSED signal some huge changes in her life, maybe the biggest since the murder of her husband. As a “baby-steps kind of girl,” Mary feels overwhelmed and seems to be reeling for most of the book. Did that character dynamic evolve as you wrote the novel or did you have a sense of it all before you started?
Let’s just say her character evolved, because I’m not the kind of author who plans anything in advance, like life. People ask me how books end and I don’t even know how they middle. To be serious, this is all good, especially when you are writing a thriller. You want the ending to come as a surprise but just not to the author, and sometimes I achieve both.
Mary has a tendency to get emotionally involved in her cases (in your earlier novel, KILLER SMILE, her investigation almost bordered on obsession). In ACCUSED, she becomes deeply engaged in helping her thirteen-year-old client, Allegra Gardner. To what degree does Mary see herself in Allegra?
To be honest, I don’t think Mary sees herself in Allegra, but she does feel for her, which is even better. As a lawyer, I was very involved with my clients’ cases and causes, and I’d like to believe they appreciated my loyalty. You can identify with clients’ wishes even if they are not your own. That’s the job of any novelist, to make the readers understand what the character wants and make the reader care about that, even if it isn’t something the reader wants himself.
Following up on that, Allegra is bit of a social outcast and you excel at bringing to life characters in that mold. I think Allegra works so well because we can all relate to situations where other people misunderstand us. What is the key to writing an “underdog” character?
The key is that often in my life I felt like an underdog. I don’t think I’m especially different from many people that way; I think most of us go through school thinking we are not one of the cool kids, and then when we grow up we find out even the cool kids felt that way. I think what is important to realize about Mary and what makes her so different is that her special brand of being an underdog is feeling insecure in many ways, which isn’t the kind of thing you usually find in the heroine of popular fiction, especially a thriller. But, what’s interesting in ACCUSED, is that Allegra serves as a spoil for Mary, in that Allegra is particularly confident and self-possessed for such a young girl and because she has no self doubt, is relatively fearless, even as compared with her own lawyer. To me the interesting cast in ACCUSED is that both Mary and Allegra have something to learn from each other, as people, regardless of their age or status.
What challenges have you faced in writing series fiction? What do you do to overcome them?
In writing a series, I like the examination of a character over time and I like to observe and understand how characters’ relationships to each other change over time. ACCUSED is a perfect example of that because to a certain extent Rosato & Associates is a family, and as such, each have their defined role in the family, kind of like in the Beatles. Mary always thought of herself as the hard working one in contrast to her best friend Judy, which they all think of as the smart one. So this gives Mary an obvious problem to overcome when she becomes Judy’s boss and Mary will come to understand that she’s the smart one in many ways, too. That’s the kind of good stuff that you get to explore as a writer in a series, and so figuring out these dynamics are sometimes a challenge, but they often yield the greatest reward. The way I deal with these challenges is the same way I deal with any challenge in writing—I keep at it ‘til I get it right.
What is something Judy understands about her friend that Mary doesn’t know about herself?
At risk of telling readers what to think about my book, which is something I usually avoid, I think that Judy very much stands in the position of the reader vis a vis her best friend, Mary. In other words, Judy knows that Mary is stronger, smarter, and braver than she herself knows, and that’s what friends are for.
Mickey Spillane famously wrote that, “Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle…The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.” What do you do to captivate readers in the opening and concluding pages of your novels?
With respect to the opening page, I try to get to the action in the first paragraph if possible and I redraft as often as necessary to make the first third of the book attain lift off. The endings are trickier and that’s more a question of plotting, but I think they are very important. I do get a lot of compliments on the twisty endings of my thrillers which make me really happy, and generally these plotlines or endings suggest themselves, which is proof that there is a God.
Mary is “everybody’s favorite good girl” and describes herself as a “color-within-the-lines kind of girl.” She’s haunted by guilt, doubt and insecurity, so it’s a big challenge when she has to learn to let go and become a badass. How much of Mary’s journey reflect your own life experiences?
All of it.
Let’s talk about awkward social situations for a moment. You really know how to work them—especially with business and family relationships—but what’s cool is how you use awkward situations to reveal compelling facets of your characters. Am I right that you love writing scenes like the early one in ACCUSED when Mary’s parents invade the offices of Rosato & Associates?
Bingo. You are absolutely right. I love it when worlds collide unexpectedly and in my life, it seems to happen all the time. So, I do love doing that, putting all the characters together and seeing how they react to each other. But as a technical matter, it’s always a writer’s nightmare to have too many people in the room.
On that note, I think your readers—like Judy—would love to adopt Mary’s exuberant, force-feeding, love-attacking parents. How deep do the parallels run between the characters Matty and Vita DiNunzio and your mother, Mary, and your later father, Frank?
I plead the fifth.
The physical descriptions of your characters are both vivid and distinctive. What advice would you share with aspiring authors about finding compelling ways to describe people and settings?
I think the most important thing comes before you begin typing—it’s not in how you describe it, it’s in how you imagine it. So if I were going to give advice, I would really suggest that new writers just begin thinking about the characters and have a firm idea of who they are in their mind and then the rest will be easy.
Name a favorite book that you wish that you had written.
I aspire to be the best writer I can be, not to write in someone else’s voice. My mother always taught me to be yourself, and I listen to her.
I feel really proud to have written the books I’ve written. I’ve written 25 books in 20 years and there is no one’s career or books I’d rather have. And I hope that new writers will come along and find their own voices and be as lucky as I have been. There’s always room for more.
Good answer! Your masterful use of humor has become a signature feature of your books, both fiction and non-fiction. The humor can even be a little biting at times, but you always back it up with sweetness and charm. I think that’s a tough one to pull off for many writers. Are lawyers this funny in real life?
I don’t think my sense of humor has anything to do with my being a lawyer but has everything to do with being a human being. I think smart people are really clever and witty and everyone I know is smart. This is especially true of anyone who lives their life around books, because books just make you smarter.
Do you have thoughts about when and how humor should be included in a scene?
I think humor should be included in a scene when it is part of the character’s intellect, furthers the plot, or simply entertains. I try to entertain my readers and humor is essential in life.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the next book in the Rosato series?
Yes, the title is BURIED, and it stars Judy Carrier who has only had one other starring role in the entire series, THE VENDETTA DEFENSE, and I’m excited to tell her backstory.
Thanks, Lisa! It was terrific visiting with you. ACCUSED is available for sale now from St. Martin’s Press.
Lisa Scottoline is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling and Edgar-Award winning author of twenty-one novels. She has served as the President of Mystery Writers of America and her recent novel, LOOK AGAIN, has been optioned for a feature film. She is a weekly columnist for THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER and her columns have been collected in two books and optioned for television. She has 25 million copies of her books in print in the United States, and she has been published in thirty countries. She lives in the Philadelphia area with an array of disobedient pets.
To learn more about Lisa, please visit her website.