“We have plenty of superheroes in fiction. What we need are more Italian girls.”
Scottoline briefed Mystery Scene in 2003 on matters literary and lawyerly. Don't miss Come Home (April 2012), the latest from this powerhouse thriller writer.
Photo: April Narby
Philadelphia lawyer Lisa Scottoline’s first two novels, Everywhere that Mary Went (1993) and Final Appeal (1994), were both nominated for Edgar Awards in the paperback original category, and the latter was a winner. Moving to hardcover with her third book, she has become one of the most commercially and critically successful writers of legal thrillers. Now a full-time writer, Lisa Scottoline regularly appears on bestseller lists with her novels about the all-female Philadelphia law firm of Rosato & Associates.
The novels shift the focus among the lawyers of the Rosato firm, each of them a distinct and vividly realized character. Benedetta “Bennie” Rosato herself, introduced in Legal Tender (1996), is the central character of Mistaken Identity (1999), in which she is surprised to learn the client she has been engaged to defend on a murder charge is her twin sister. Rosato plays a secondary role in subsequent books, including Moment of Truth (2000), featuring Mary DiNunzio of Scottoline’s first novel; The Vendetta Defense (2001), centered on Judy Carrier; and Courting Trouble (2002), featuring Anne Murphy.
In the latest book, Dead Ringer (HarperCollins), all of these women contribute their humor and expertise, but the focus returns to Bennie. Rosato & Associates is in financial trouble, and a venture into the unfamiliar, cutthroat world of class-action law looks like a possible way out. Then to add to Bennie’s headaches, her bad-news twin sister reappears. Not only is Alice physically identical to Bennie, she is every bit as savvy and resilient. Alice proves to be a formidable and even ruthless enemy, motivated by evil, jealousy, and a nasty case of sibling rivalry.
MYSTERY SCENE: Some popular writers, like Stephen King, are instinctive, beginning the story without knowing exactly where it’s going or what will happen next. Others, like Dean Koontz, plan every move carefully in advance. I have the impression you’re more in the Stephen King category. Is that true?
SCOTTOLINE: Yes, you're right. I don't generally write with an outline, but rather make it up as I go. Besides the fact that I’m just not organized enough to put everything into an outline, I think it helps keep the writing process fun, and I hope that translates into my books. It also provides the flexibility to let the action mold the characters as I go, and it assures that all of the action will flow logically (essential in a wannabe page-turner) because the book is built by asking what would happen next after each event, or chapter. Of course, it also means that I don’t know how the book ends until it is actually finished, and sometimes, even I am surprised. Not the best admission, but it’s the truth.
You seem to solicit and consider reader feedback more than most writers. When you put a first chapter on your website and invited your fans to play editor, what kinds of responses did you receive? Can you give any specific examples of advice that you did or did not take?
Being a writer is a very solitary profession, but I am a real people person, which sounds corny but is true. I like having company (even imagined company) when I write and I became determined at some point to make the whole writing process more interactive. I appreciate each and every reader, and I want to know what they think. In my mind, that’s an important part of learning, improving, and growing as an author (and person). Readers are smart, and I learn a whole lot from them. They also keep me on my toes. I work hard to make my books as accurate as possible, but if I make a mistake, the readers will let me know, which I appreciate. I normally don’t share any of my book until I feel it is almost ready for publication, but with Mistaken Identity, I decided to just let it rip. So I posted the first chapter on my site and solicited comments. The response was incredible, and there were many great suggestions. I did incorporate several of them, and readers really took the challenge seriously and worked hard on their suggestions. For example, a sentence I was proudest of in the draft of that first chapter—“a prison term is a childhood”—went down the tubes because so few readers understood it. While I liked the drama of equating prisons and childhood (referring to the fact that so many women inmates are mothers), I changed the sentence to read, "a prison term lasts a childhood." I like it less, because it lacks the equation of these two opposed ideas, but ultimately, what matters is to be understood. After two divorces, I am learning to listen....
For me, there can never be too much trial action in a legal novel, which is why I enjoy books like Mistaken Identity and The Vendetta Defense that carry the case from arraignment to verdict. But I realize others glaze over when a book enters the courtroom. Do you get a lot of pro and con arguments on this point from your readers, and what do you feel is the best balance of in-court and out-of-court action?
My biggest concern with writing a book is making sure it is fast-paced, and so I do worry about the amount of time spent in the courtroom, especially because legal proceedings can be so slow in reality. So I edit or usually only show a slice so that readers get a real-time sense but don’t have to sit through an entire proceeding (after all, they’re not billing for it...). And I rely greatly on my wonderful editor Carolyn Marino to let me know if I’m going on too long in the courtroom.
Of course, I’m writing about a law firm, so there are legal issues at the heart of every book, but I don’t force a courtroom scene just for the sake of having it. It needs to be appropriate to the book, and needs to maintain the pace of the book. As for my readers, I really only get positive notes about my courtroom scenes. Probably, people self-select for this; only people interested in courtroom stuff buy legal thrillers. I think what happens is that when people pick up one of my books—even if they've never heard of my books—they know from the flap copy and author bio that they’re in for some lawyer stuff, and they want to see me talk the talk and walk the walk.
Some compromise with reality is inevitable in a fictional trial (or a fictional anything), but at least lawyer novelists are harder for the lay reader to nitpick. Still, I wondered how Bennie Rosato could get away with what she does in her closing argument in Mistaken Identity, continuing her inflammatory accusations even after the judge tells her she must stop on pain of contempt. Are there elements in fictional trials that seem exaggerated but really aren’t, and where do you draw the line on “artistic license” in a fictional trial scene?
I believe in accuracy, and I think that people who enjoy legal thrillers learn about the legal system from my books. A lot of crazy things happen in courtrooms, and many times what may seem exaggerated isn’t far from the truth. In fact, in Courting Trouble, there is a naked man in court in the opening scene. As far-fetched as that may seem, several months later I read an article online from the BBC about a naked man in a courtroom during trial.
As for Bennie in Mistaken Identity, she did push to the limits, and with some judges she may not have gotten away with it. But in my practice, I saw that certain lawyers really did push the envelope, and they were given certain leeway by the bench. In Philadelphia, as in most cities, you tend to see the same judges over and over again, and we come to know each other and have certain expectations. Just like in real life, there are some judges who are stricter than others. I think that Bennie has been litigating for quite some time, and would know with which judges she could get away with it, and which she could not. And you would not believe the lengths that some of the best trial lawyers go to, especially in front of juries. It’s even cooler than fiction.
There’s a fascinating line on page two of your new book, Dead Ringer: “Only Americans tolerate law without justice.” What do you mean by that?
I thought very hard about that sentence, and of course, that’s Bennie speaking. But I agree with her (there’s a surprise). The American legal system is wonderful, and it does serve to protect our rights and our freedoms, in the main. But sometimes there is a price to pay for freedom and protection, and the price is often justice. The O.J. trial is a perfect example. In my opinion, a really poor prosecution enabled a guilty man to go free. The law was followed, but justice got lost in the process.
One radio talk-show host contends that law school makes people worse, because they think in terms of right and wrong going in but legal and illegal coming out. Is there any validity to this?
Is this host Howard Stern?
Actually, it was Dennis Prager.
I loved law school, just as a discipline for analysis and logic, and I don’t think law school can make anybody better or worse. The notion of right and wrong is inherent within each individual, hopefully instilled before age three, and we all bring that notion to whatever profession we practice. Of course there is lots of room for debate about right and wrong, and plenty of gray area. But for a justice system to work, even the gray areas need to be dealt with, and boundaries need to be drawn. Therefore, when it comes to the law there needs to be a legal and illegal or lawful and unlawful, and the guidelines need to be as straightforward as possible, eliminating guesswork or nuances.
I actually dealt with the reverse situation in The Vendetta Defense. Judy has a very strong moral base and also believes in the letter of the law. In The Vendetta Defense, before she can defend her client, she must redefine her ideas of justice and accept that when it comes to morality, there can be a gray area. I like to think about these ideas; I think everyone does.
There is a continuing theme in your novels of the ambivalence of criminal defense. A public defender from Washington, DC, told me the lawyers in her office cheered the O.J. Simpson verdict, not because they thought he was innocent but because they automatically root for the defense side. While I couldn’t root along with them, I think it was wrong to castigate the defense team for the bad verdict—it seemed more logical to blame the judge or the prosecution or the jury rather than a group who did their job too well. How much of the blame for problems in the criminal justice system can or should we put on the defense bar?
None, frankly. I think the prosecution failed in O.J., as I said, and the real issue is that we have a misconception about the relative roles of the players in the criminal justice system. The prosecution and the defense are not equal and opposite forces: the prosecution is supposed to seek justice, and the defense is supposed to get the guy off. That’s it. Any fault people find is with that system, not with the individuals, and I think the system works, because it does compensate for the prosecution’s having so many advantages over the defendant. O.J. distorts the system because people saw a wealthy, famous defendant, and he walked. In reality, most criminal defendants bear little resemblance to Heisman Trophy winners.
From the 87th Precinct on, several writers have made a “series character” of a group rather than an individual, but no one has done it more successfully than you. The lawyers at Rosato and Associates are so vividly realized, they feel like old friends. The longest-standing and maybe the most endearing is Mary DiNunzio, who figured in your first novel Everywhere That Mary Went. How does Mary manage to stay so fresh and (sometimes) naïve after all she’s been through?
I love Ed McBain, so I appreciate the comparison. I appreciate, too, what you said about my characters. My hope is that people who read my books come to feel like my characters are old friends. As for Mary, she grew up in an incredibly loving and overly protective household, with a stable (if not a little wacky) family, and a strong religious foundation. She ultimately believes that people are good, and is not willing to forgo that belief because of some bad characters she encounters. She is also a very sensitive person. The combination may make her naïve, but ultimately it makes her very likable, and very human. I think, like a lot of people, even though she wants to make great strides and be tough, it’s sometimes a process of two steps forward, one step back. And I like to see her take those very tentative steps. We have plenty of superheroes in fiction. What we need are more Italian girls.
I felt like cheering when Bennie Rosato expressed her qualms about bankruptcy in Dead Ringer. Is that necessary last-resort safeguard taken too lightly in our society?
The true test of a person is how he or she reacts when the chips are down. There are different kinds of people in the world. There are those who can walk away with no regrets, no sense of responsibility, and no guilt. Bennie is not that kind of person—in fact, she’s quite the opposite. She feels personally responsible for all of her debts, and for the livelihoods of those she has hired into her firm. She built the firm, and won’t abandon ship if it starts to sink. It is definitely a financial risk, but for Bennie there is no other choice, even if every accountant out there is shaking his or her head in disbelief.
And yes, I think that kind of person (and I, too) doesn’t like it very much when someone doesn’t accept responsibilities for debts to others, and by that I mean all sorts of debts—familial, emotional, and the like. I think that is the core of Bennie’s response, even manifesting itself in this way, about the bankruptcy system. She is over-responsible if anything, and I love that. You don’t want to know the under-responsible, do you? They’re selfish.
Dead Ringer marks the return of Bennie's twin sister, first met in Mistaken Identity. Why do you think this character struck such a responsive chord with your readers?
The idea of a twin is a fascinating notion. A lot of people think they have a twin out there. People are also trying to discover what is at the core of their own identity and question nature versus nurture. This is the same question that Alice's presence creates for Bennie. She has the identical DNA to Alice, yet they turned out completely different. Bennie wonders whether this is because of the different choices they have made in life, or if they are just hard-wired that way. I think this is a question many people struggle to determine about themselves.
Though you don’t write comic novels per se, your sense of humor always shines through. (I loved the way Bennie gave more dignity to her poor math skills by raising them to the level of a disability.) Are you increasing the quotient of humor in your recent books, or am I imagining it?
My style of writing is just an extension of my personality, so I don’t necessarily set out to be funny, but I want to have fun when I write and most any time. And more importantly, I also want to establish that these characters have some wit (I can be very witty in 372,543 drafts). I think it’s just more entertaining for the reader. However, I can make a distinction between writing a serious book, The Vendetta Defense, and a much lighter book, Courting Trouble. I think right now, the world can use a bit of comic relief, and I mainly use it to diffuse tension in the book. I just want people to have fun when they are reading.
A friend of mine who lives and works in the Philadelphia area loves your books because they capture the city so well. Apart from references to specific landmarks, institutions, and traditional foods like cheesesteaks, what in your novels is distinctively Philadelphian? Is there anything that could not have taken place in any other large city?
My home has always been in the Philadelphia area, so naturally I made it the home of my books. Living somewhere is very different from just visiting. When I write about Philadelphia, I want people to feel as if they are part of the city. One of the things that I think is distinct about Philadelphia is the sense of neighborhood. For instance, South Philly. Although people there haven’t grown up with a lot of money or in the most luxurious area, they have a steadfast sense of pride. Grit. Hard work, hard knocks, all that. It’s truly home, and even if they move away, they take a part of South Philly with them. Also, since I know the city so well, I can let my characters speak about it with the same authenticity, and what it (secretly) does is inform the character and underline her authority with the reader. You can tell when someone knows what she’s talking about. And when I talk about Philly, it’s one of those rare times when I know what I’m talking about, and it shows in the characters. In a paradoxical way, because Philly isn’t New York or L.A., most readers identify it with their own cities and extrapolate the details. I see this over and over again in my reader email.
And last—the amazing historical significance makes Philly a great city. I mean, the law was born here. How can you not use it as a setting for legal thrillers?
Do you still read other legal thriller writers, and if so, do you read them in a different way than you did before you joined their ranks? Which ones do you most enjoy? (If you’d care to tell us which ones are terrible, that’s okay, too.)
I love them all. I like David Baldacci and Richard North Patterson and John Grisham, William Bernhardt, Bill Lashner, and James Grippando, and Linda Fairstein, but I don’t limit my reading to legal thrillers. I’m a huge Evanovich fan. I like to laugh!
The label People magazine gave you, “the female John Grisham,” is undoubtedly valuable commercially, but I think it sells you short.
You are too kind. I was thrilled when People magazine called me “the female John Grisham,” and I’m grateful for the comparison. (I still think it’s cool to be in People magazine at all and last year my dogs were in, so they can call me anything they want.) Grisham opened the door to legal thrillers and showed that lawyers can have lives outside the courtroom, at least in fiction, and that’s what I’m doing, too. And frankly, my goal is to be read, and certainly being compared to John Grisham has brought me more readers. However, I don’t think anyone would mistake one of Grisham’s books for mine. Our voices are very different, and besides, he lacks golden retrievers!
If I were looking for a “male Lisa Scottoline,” I might plant the tag on William Bernhardt for his combination of humor, serious legal and ethical issues, and great storytelling. What do you think?
I am a friend and fan of William Bernhardt, and I love his work. It is always flattering to be compared with terrific writers and wonderful storytellers.
You’ve done very few short stories, though I’m sure you get asked a lot. How do you like the short story form, and do you expect to do more in the future?
I have done a few short stories for charitable causes, and really enjoyed writing them. It would seem like writing short stories should be the same as writing a novel, only a lot less words, but it is a completely different kind of writing. It is tough. I need about 95,000 words to make my point and I never shut up. In a short story, you need to get in and out of the story quickly, and you don’t have a lot of time for character development. It is a good exercise, however, in learning how to make the best use of every word you put on the page. It reminds me a little of writing briefs. Every sentence needs to further your cause. I apply the same technique to my fiction writing. Each sentence needs to be relevant and drive the plot. I’m sure I will do more short stories in the future, but they will be limited since I am writing a book a year.
Do you ever get useful input from critics?
All the time. What my readers think is important to me, and critics are readers just like the rest of us, only they get paid to give their opinion. I take every review seriously, just like I take every reader email seriously, and I try to learn from them. Thankfully, the majority of my reviews from both critics and readers have been positive, but I have certainly learned and made adjustments based on the feedback that I have received. It really is gratifying when somebody actually "gets" something you’re trying to do, whether with plot twist or a character, even the smallest thing. That’s when there’s a real connection between reader and writer and that’s what so great about books, how they connect us, one to the other. So I love when they get me, and I try not to cry too long or too hard when they don’t. But I am the softest author on the planet.
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
I’m very excited about the book I’m working on now, and I’ve been spending a lot of time on the research. The title is Lying in Wait and Mary DiNunzio will be the star. She follows up on the case she started in Dead Ringer and to say more would make me nervous.
Anything you’d like to be asked that I haven’t asked?
My favorite color is hot pink.
A Lisa Scottoline Reading List
Everywhere that Mary Went (1993)
Final Appeal (1994)*
Running From the Law (1995)
Legal Tender (1996)
Rough Justice (1997)
Mistaken Identity (1998)
Moment of Truth (2000)
The Vendetta Defense (2001)
Courting Trouble (2002)
Dead Ringer (2003)
Killer Smile (2004)
Lady Killer (2008)
Daddy's Girl (2007)
Think Twice (2010)
*Edgar Award Winner
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #80.