BRASH, bold, intelligent, loyal, impetuous, tall, blond, Italian-American and Philadelphian. Those are the descriptors one could use in depicting Bennie Rosato, protagonist of the sixth and latest legal thriller by Lisa Scottoline C’77 L’81, Mistaken Identity. Ask any of her legions of avid fans, and you will find that many of the same adjectives come to mind as they describe Scottoline herself.
It is a resemblance not lost on the author–even if she can’t quite explain it. “The creative process as it applies to me is a complete mystery,” she says. “I can’t really explain how things that are in your real life through some alchemical reaction bubble up to the surface in some other form. On the surface, I write what I know–so I know Italian-American, I know women, I know law, I know Philly, I know Penn. I draw on what I live, but a lot of times I don’t realize I’m doing that until a reader points it out to me.” Whatever happens in that interplay of imagination and reality, it is a chemistry that has worked well for the former English major, earning her rave reviews, placements on the New York Times bestseller list and an Edgar Allan Poe Award in suspense fiction.
Not a bad showing for someone who had embarked on a legal career only to discover that with a child and a divorce, “I really had to find another way to make a living.” And with characteristic aplomb, she decided, having majored in the contemporary American novel at Penn and studied with Philip Roth, who was then in residence at the University, that, “I should be able to write one of these suckers,” she recalls. At that time, “John Grisham was just starting to become a huge success, and all these male trial lawyers were writing these books. I said, ‘Girls should be able to play at this game.’ And so I gave it a try.” And try she did, for three years, running five credit cards up to their astral limits, trying to write her very own contemporary American novel while her child slept. “The baby didn’t sleep much.”
Despite her success, Scottoline has not forgotten her alma mater or her native Philadelphia, wearing her heritage proudly. From Locust Walk to the Italian Market and on up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum (recalling Rocky’s improbable run), aspects of Penn and the city crop up casually enough in her writing and in conversation to establish her as a legitimate and loyal Philadelphian and Penn Quaker. Often, however, as she freely admits, it is the people at Penn who made the difference. Clearly, Philip Roth made a lasting impression, a role model as a first-rate fiction writer and as a persona in the classroom. Other teachers like Dr. Peter Conn, the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English, who recently had a book-signing with her, come to mind as people who were generous and open. “They made me think that someday, when I got up the nerve, I could try.”
Writing fiction that is at once entertaining, accessible and popular is not a facile craft–especially with readers like Scottoline’s, who are increasingly knowledgeable about the law and legal procedure. “So, now, I have to write better; I think of it as entertainment for smart people.”
Entertaining enough for the writer to be approached by the Coca-Cola Company and asked, “Would you agree to have the first chapter of your next book included in like nine million packages of Diet Coke?” Though some reviewers accused Scottoline and other authors of selling out for participating in the nationwide promotion, she says, “I loved the idea of their giving away part of a book; it was the right cultural message.” It also introduced her work to numerous new readers.
Unlike male counterparts such as Martin Amis and John Updike who have lamented with much ceremony and ink the oft-maligned book tour, she has enjoyed the privilege and pampering that comes with her measure of literary success. Scottoline’s recent 22-city tour contrasts starkly with her first novel’s three-city tour–which included Philly and Camden. “Let me tell you how great a book tour is. Two and a half months, I’m on tour. You get on a plane to a great place. At the great place a car picks you up and takes you to a great hotel, then you go to a great bookstore where people are waiting to clap for you. You tell them about your book and you talk about books in general with them.”
But before we get the wrong impression, writing at even this level of success calls for unrelenting discipline. She starts writing at five in the morning, and the entire day for the six months it usually takes to generate a first draft is consumed with a marathoner’s perseverance. Currently, she is hunkered down to meet her editor’s deadline for her seventh novel. For loyal Scottoline readers, here’s a clue about her next book. In seven words or less, the plot line is: Man frames self for murder, protecting daughter. An intriguing story idea, and one worth waiting for.