On paper, Lisa Scottoline is a little intimidating.
She's got more than 30 million copies in print of her books, including 20 best-selling novels. She writes a weekly column, with her daughter, for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She's a graduate of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and taught a class at the latter called "Justice and Fiction."
But ask her about any connections she might have to Baltimore, where she'll be visiting May 20 as a featured author in the Baltimore Sun Book Club, and you'll quickly discover her self-deprecating sense of humor.
"I was crazy in love with a man from Baltimore. Does that count?" Scottoline writes in an email. "It does to me, but I'm Italian. Either way, I love Baltimore and always will. ... I used to take my daughter Francesca to the Aquarium all the time when she was growing up, and we used to finish off the day eating crabs."
Scottoline will be in town to talk about her newest novel, "Don't Go," a thriller that starts with a woman swimming in blood on her kitchen floor. Her husband, Army doctor Mike Scanlon, comes home to find that the orderly life he thought he was returning to with his newborn daughter is spiraling out of control. The plot twists and secrets are uncovered as Mike discovers his friends and associates may or may not be worthy of his trust.
We asked Scottoline to share some thoughts about the book, parenthood and what life is like as a powerhouse author. Below is a condensed version of the interview.
Why did you decide to go with a male protagonist for this novel?
After 20 years and 20 novels featuring women as the main characters, I decided to try to write a man, frankly, because I wanted to see if I could. I'm divorced twice, so this prospect was more daunting to me than perhaps it should have been. The differences between men and women had always been a subtext in my novels, which are generally about crime and family, and in part, I think I had examined that question from the female perspective, but now I was going to try to imagine from the male's. I also think it's important to keep stretching and growing as a writer; even though all of my previous novels had starred women and some had been a series about a female law firm, each book was very different from the next.
How did you do your research about Mike's experiences as a podiatrist in Afghanistan?
I actually found a doctor who had served as an Army surgeon in Afghanistan and picked his brain relentlessly, as well as having had him read the manuscript to correct any of the errors. I also read almost everything written on the subject of the war, both fiction and nonfiction.
That said, the podiatry research came about in a much more mundane way — I had bunion surgery! I learned a lot about what it's like to be a podiatrist, as well as how they are viewed in the profession. I instantly liked the idea that although podiatry wasn't necessarily a prestigious specialty on the homefront, the tables would be turned in Afghanistan and Iraq, where so many of the wounds were tragically the result of IED's and injuries to the lower extremities. Mike Scanlon is the beating heart of this book, and the fact that he's a podiatrist says everything about him — he's smart, hard-working, and completely dedicated, but he feels like a second banana. He has to overcome that, and everything he goes through in the novel actually ends up being a blessing.
Mike's situation spirals ever-downward from the moment he gets back home. While Mike is certainly the victim of some horrific circumstances, he also makes some bad decisions and as a reader, you might find yourself yelling at him, as I did: "Oh, dearlord, pull yourself together, Mike!" When you're creating a flawed character like Mike, how do you know how far you can take him in terms of his own mistakes? How do you keep the balance and retain his likeability?
Mike makes some terrible decisions when he comes home, but I think it's understandable. First, he's grieving so many losses, and as anybody who has gone through the death of a loved one can tell you, grief does funny things to people, me included. Secondly things happen very quickly in his life, as they would, because without giving anything away, there are forces beyond his control who have interests opposed to his. I have found that in my own life, that when things go wrong, they seem to go wrong in multiples, and I found that lots of my friends too, who will have a kid having trouble in school at the same time their husband loses his job — and that will be the day when they find a breast lump. All of us have trials that we endure and overcome, and they don't appear in a neat package, or separated out in a way that makes them easy to digest, like bite-size. Finally, Mike is above all a human being. All my characters feel real to me, in fact if I am known for anything, it is probably the realism in my characterization. So that means they're going to make mistakes, just like I do. Did I mention I was divorced twice?
When you're planning a suspense novel, do you have the plot completely laid out in advance, or do you just have a general idea of where things will go and then create the plot twists as you write?
I don't plan anything in advance; it's just not my nature, and if I did, I think the actual writing of the novel would feel like filling in the blanks were some literary version of Mad Libs. I actually just write the first chapter and see what would logically happen next, and that question carries me through the writing of the novel. I like doing that this way, because I think it works for me and makes it smoother, a more readable novel, with a logical and organic narrative flow, which is essential if you're going to write a page-turner. The only downside is that writing without an outline throws the author into a constant state of anxiety, because you never really know if you have an entire novel that will work. The surprise endings of my novels always come as a surprise to me. It's a fun, but also terrifying, way to live and write.
What's your writing process like? Do you have, say, giant timelines of the plotline across your walls?
I probably should have giant timelines on the walls, but what I really have is everything in my head. I think the trick as a writer, and this is going to sound crazy but it's true, is to simply apprehend everything all at the same time. You're very much like a juggler, with all the balls in the air, and you have to really be on your toes when you write. This might sound strange, but I always make sure I get enough sleep, exercise and eat well. I tolerate no interruptions. I work every day, 7 days a week, for much of the day and the night. In first draft, I produce 2000 words a day at a minimum. I used to be a jock in school, and I'm used to training and discipline. I often think that writers need to do the same thing, at least I do. So if you're properly worked-out and caffeinated, you can keep everything in your head, as a sort of this synthesis, as you tell the story, not only to your readers, but to yourself.
What advice do you have for someone who is trying to get that first novel published?
I really would urge anybody who's writing to go for it. My personal mantra, as unliterary as it is, is Just Do It, like Nike. I thought about it for 10 years before I actually did it, and my only regret is that I didn't try sooner.
The heart of this book is a dad's love for his daughter. As a single mom, you raised your own daughter, who is now a Harvard grad. How has being a parent influenced you in terms of being able to write about emotion and love, which are always an important part of your novels?
This is such a profound question that I practically cried when I read it! I think my early novels boiled down to the question "What is a woman?" And then more recently they began to be about "What is a mother?" It was only a logical step from there to be writing a book like "Don't Go," which is really about "What is a father? What is a man? What is a hero?" I think being a parent changed everything about my life and the way I view the world, and still does. As you may know, my daughter Francesca and I write a humor column for the Philadelphia Inquirer every Sunday, entitled Chick Wit. And it has been collected in a series of nonfiction memoirs, starting with Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog. It's about our lives together and apart, with me as a middle-age mom living with way too many dogs in the suburbs, and her, 20something in New York City, striking out on her own. We bring in for comic relief my mother Mary, Francesca's grandmother, who speaks for herself. Always.
If you weren't a writer, or for some insane reason had to go to a Plan B in life, what would you be?
I love being a writer and I feel completely blessed and lucky everyday of my life to have this job. I actually thank God for it, every day. If I had to have a Plan B and not be a writer, it would be to be a reader. Do you think I can make a living just reading books all day long? I also love eating, and if I could get a job eating all day, I might be in pig heaven. And if I could get a job reading while I ate, then I would be the luckiest of all.
If you go
What: Lisa Scottoline will speak about "Don't Go" as part of the 2013 Baltimore Sun Book Club series.
When: 7 p.m. May 20
Where: The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore
Future: Other authors in the series include Jane Green on Sept. 23 and Vaddey Ratner on Oct. 21.
Details: baltimoresun.com/bookclub or 410-332-6431