What Happens in the Absence of Justice?
By Dawn Ius
Lisa Scottoline knows a little something about justice.
As a former corporate attorney, the pursuit of justice was a part of her day-to-day life. And later, when she turned in her business suits for the more casual attire of full-time writer, “justice”—in all its many facets—began to thread its way through her books.
Thirty-three novels later—many of them debuting on bestseller charts, garnering option deals, or earning coveted awards—justice remains a central theme in Scottoline’s work. But with her latest and perhaps most talked-about thriller SOMEONE KNOWS, it’s the absence of justice that drives the story forward, kicking off at breakneck pace and barreling readers toward a truly shocking end.
There are many success factors at play here, but at the root is the compelling spark of story—a game of Russian roulette among teenagers that goes horribly wrong. Twenty years later, three of the four survivors of that deadly prank reunite, but when one of them commits suicide, the death not only threatens to expose the group’s terrible secret, but sends one of them on a quest to figure out if the suicide somehow connects to the tragic events of that long-ago summer.
In this in-depth Q&A with The Big Thrill, Scottoline shares how writing dark fiction wars with her sunny disposition, the importance of work ethic and genre diversity, and of course, why the idea of “justice” is vital to her writing.
SOMEONE KNOWS is a legit page-turner—so it’s not surprising that it’s garnering so much well-deserved buzz. What do you think is the secret sauce here? Is there something special, in your mind, about SOMEONE KNOWS?
First, thank you so much on all counts. I really do try to change it up each time, and I do think this novel is a bit different. If you look at the throughline for my work or as English majors would say the leitmotif (LOL, but I am an English major nerd so let’s go with it), it’s always about justice. The questions can be: does law lead to justice? Is it simply disconnected from justice? Does it thwart justice? And then there’s this novel, which takes it a step further.
The question here is: what is justice when there is nobody to punish, and more importantly, what is the purpose of justice? You really do see in the novel—though I didn’t intend it this way because I don’t plan these things in advance—that the main character is tormented because there was no justice for that awful event two decades ago, and because there was no punishment levied by the law, she punishes herself, worse than the law ever would have. It really got me thinking about the relationship of justice to peace and to the human psyche, which I think I worked that out through this book [in a way] that makes it a step beyond the others.
SOMEONE KNOWS has an incredibly surprising conclusion. I know you don’t outline by nature, but how much do you generally know about the “end” of your book, and was there anything about this one that was different in the plotting/planning stages?
There is something at the core of this book that is almost nihilistic, and I mean that in the best way, in a Lord of the Flies kind of way. It really stretches a woman to her limits, over time, and unlike my previous novels, even though it spurs her into action, there’s nothing she can really do about it. Her quandary is mental, emotional, and psychological. When I was writing it, I realized I was really in the thicket of this deep stuff, which honestly I loved, and it occurred to me very near the ending of the novel, that a surprise ending would be perfect, and also very apt. It’s just tremendously serendipitous, as my old friend Margaret Maron used to say, and I’m so honored that you appreciate the ending, because I think it was earned, but also surprising.
I recall in a previous interview with you many years ago, that you enjoy research. It’s a rabbit hole I can absolutely get lost in, and a guilty pleasure. What was the most interesting—or challenging—bit of information you learned or had to find while researching SOMEONE KNOWS?
I do love research and this book was a challenge! First there was fun and easy research about housing developments, and I visited a few, and looked at the brochures about upgrades, learning all the lingo. I like house porn as much as the next girl. But secondly, because the novel involves the question of what to do when the law falls short, I found myself researching philosophy and religion, and learning a lot I didn’t know before, which I put in the novel and won’t give away here, in case some of your readers haven’t read it. I love to do research because it really is a way to explore character, but at the same time, it was asking larger questions than I’ve dealt with in previous novels. Go big or go home!
SOMEONE KNOWS has more “point of view” characters than in all of your other books. Is the process for managing the story any different for you? What factors inform your decisions about POV?
The whole question is trying to have different points of view, but also not so many that it becomes unmanageable or hard for the reader to follow. I’m trying to get better at this, after 30-odd novels, and it becomes a balancing act. I think of it as having a lot of plates spinning in the air. I also wanted to look at the differences in these characters and flesh them out in a realistic fashion. I made a few trips to a local high school to help remind me of the complexity, as well as the drama, of adolescence. And of course I drew upon my own experience as a Latin Club geek in high school with glasses and braces…in other words, an outsider.
I’ve always admired the diversity of your career—writing thrillers, articles/essays, as well as humorous pieces with your daughter—which are just fantastic. Why is it important for you to be diverse, and is that advice you would give to aspiring writers?
You are so kind to mention that, and I really appreciate your noticing that, and frankly, taking me seriously. I think every writer, whether published or unpublished, just wants to be taken seriously, and I feel grateful every day for the career that I have and for the readers who have followed me book to book, and beyond that as you point out, genre to genre. It’s really important to keep yourself moving and fresh and original, so that the work doesn’t seem stale or phoned in. I must say I think there are series that succumb to that pitfall and it’s problematic for me, as a reader.
I’ve always been a single mother and I remember very well being broke for a long time, while I was trying to be an author and spending what extra money I had on books, so I was so disappointed when they didn’t deliver. You have to keep challenging yourself to grow and change as a writer and that’s how you keep and grow your audience. Beyond that, it’s just plain fun. I think writing thrillers and mysteries is the most fun ever, but they can be a little dark, and I’m a sunny kind of girl. I like to make people laugh and I like to laugh myself. So writing humor is just another way of looking on the bright side of life, and of family relationships, which is at the core of my novels, whether they’re series or standalones. It’s all of a piece, because thought of one soul. That’s the magic of books.
On the topic of diversity, I read that you are working on a historical book! What can you share about it, and what insight can you give as to why you’re making a bit of a shift at this stage of your career?
I feel like I’m adding another color to my palette in starting to write historical fiction. I’m almost finished with my next novel, which is an epic, multigenerational, and spanning 20 years of Italian fascism. The title is Eternal and it’s a love story, a justice story, and a war story. Honestly, I view it as a domestic thriller set against the backdrop of Italian fascism, as I am really keeping the pacing up, so it reads like a thriller.
I have wanted to write this book since college, where I first was introduced to the incredible writer Primo Levi by another incredible writer, the late author Philip Roth, who was my professor for a year-long seminar at the University of Pennsylvania. The story follows a love triangle between three people and the relationships between their three families, while the justice question in Eternal is what happens when the laws themselves are unjust.
So many successes—bestselling and award-winning books, option deals (congrats on your latest), and millions of copies sold. What is the one career milestone—if any—that has eluded you?
Thank you so much and you are terribly kind, but I think my personal truth is that I wake up every day and I don’t feel particularly successful. I feel grateful and I feel blessed and those are the things I carry with me all day long. It makes me try harder and write more and try to do better, every day and every page. (I know that sounds like a slogan but I just thought of it!) That said, I am proud of the awards I’ve received and that I make the bestseller list, and I’m over the moon when any reader writes me an email or a post on social media saying that they love my book. That is the career milestone that matters the most to me, and it may look like a pebble to other people, but to me it has the weight of the world.
In the same vein, perhaps, with so much success, it might be tempting to “rest on your laurels.” But you have one of the best work ethics in the business—plus, you are the real person behind your social media. Why is that important to you? And in terms of work ethic, how has that served you throughout your career?
I do work pretty hard, but I love what I do, and as I said above, I know how lucky I am in this life. But I’m glad you asked the question because I would like to speak for a moment specifically to your readers who may not be published yet. There are no rules, and every writer follows his or her own rules. In fact, I think it’s essential that they do so because that is the only way to find your authentic voice and shout it at the top of your lungs. The real truth is, everybody has a book in them and everybody has a story to tell, it’s just a matter of sitting down and writing it, day after day.
Personally, I use a quota system. I give myself a 2,000 word quota, which I have to come up with, every day, rain or shine, seven days a week. It’s very behavioral, but also makes a completely daunting task like writing a novel something more manageable and less intimidating. I think that is the surest way to have a work ethic, and by the way, it’s also a way to not become insane. You get to stop at 2,000 words and you feel very accomplished when you do that. You get to have a little success each day, just because you made your goal. New writers or those with less time can make the quota 100 words a day and have the same feeling of accomplishment. It’s hard work, but it’s doable and like anything that’s hard, it’s worth it.
As a fellow Nancy Drew fan, can you recall which of the books inspired you to be a writer?
How great was the girl detective? I loved her so much. Those books made such an impression on me and I couldn’t get enough of them. I devoured them and their soft blue-thatched covers and I now collect them and will look at them from time to time, just for fun. I’m sorry to say that there is no one plotline that stays with me, but for me my inspiration came from that beautifully telling detail of Nancy’s—the blue roadster.
I thought of that blue roadster a lot when I read her, and I thought of it later, when I wrote characters like her, who have adventures based on their own sense of freedom and justice, who are smart and brave, and who drive their own little roadster every day of their lives. Not one of my female characters is a passenger in their lives. They are all firmly in the driver seat, as am I, as well as most of my friends.
That’s how I remember Nancy Drew. My characters embody the strength and the independence of Nancy Drew, an ordinary girl doing extraordinary things. It all comes down to that snazzy little car. Zoom!