Books: Anatomy of a Beach Read

Lisa Scottoline is writing her 14th page-turner, so she knows a few tricks, and they aren’t what you think.

After less than three hours of sleep, Lisa Scottoline woke with a start. It was 4:45 a.m. She dragged herself out of bed and into the bathroom with one thought in mind: I can’t disappoint Rick.

She’d been working until 2 a.m. on her next book, Daddy’s Girl. She had to get the manuscript wrapped up by the end of the month, but here it was June 15th, and she was only halfway through her second draft. She had totally cleared her calendar — but today was the one exception. Rick had asked her a year ago to do this, and she’d told him what she always told him: You got it.

Rick Monterosso is like family to Lisa, which is not the way most people regard their bankers. But a decade ago, back when they started working together, Rick had helped her get a mortgage when her credit history was still a mess. The way Lisa talks, it was, like, just yesterday. She’s that loyal. So’s he. Loyal and unpretentious. He’s still with PNC. He’s still a big guy with a big heart and a big Timex watch on his wrist. He’s the Real Deal.

That’s why she was up before the sun on this torrid Thursday. She slipped into a black Prada suit and black Manolo Blahniks, then filled her Court TV mug with decaf coffee. She slid behind the wheel of her big white Mercedes 500 S and flipped on her Sirius radio to see whether Howard Stern would be funny this morning. It was still before 6 a.m. when she barreled down the driveway of her Chester County home. As she wove through the morning mists, she began to think about the 200 lawyers she’d be speaking to in just a few hours, at their retreat on the Eastern Shore. As she sped south on I-95, heading toward Maryland, she worried less and less about what she’d say when she got there — and worried more about just getting there. She was trying to ignore the panic rising inside her. She kept thinking about what one of her characters in Killer Smile said about courage — that whether you’re brave or just determined, you end up in the same place. She would need more than a little determination this morning.

Because she had to get across the Bay Bridge.

THAT OPENING, LADIES and gentlemen, is my attempt to imitate the prose style of Lisa Scottoline’s novels. I thought it would be easy: the open-hearted characters, the telltale clues, the fast-paced action, all in a Philadelphia setting. Plus a zinger of a chapter ending that teases you into reading on. Let’s add to the stew a dollop of intensity, with all emotions kicked up a notch. Like Scottoline herself. “Could I be the most intense person you ever met?” she’ll ask me at one point. Rhetorical question. Anyway, if you didn’t catch on, I don’t blame you. My opening was lame. That’s why I’m still writing magazine articles and she won an Edgar, the highest prize in mystery writing.

My chapter ending, if I may say so, is especially piss-poor. It doesn’t really advance the action. Yes, Scottoline was nervous about having to cross that long, long bridge over the Chesapeake that morning — but to her great delight, her directions turned off Route 301 several miles before the bridge. “So that was good,” she reports. (Yeah, for her.) She got to the conference center in St. Michaels an hour and a half early, washed up, put in her contacts, then sauntered downstairs to sign copies of her latest book, Dirty Blonde, before addressing the 34th Annual Bench Bar Conference of the Delaware County Bar Association.

She wowed them with stories of her life. She was born in South Philly, into a crazy Italian-American family (“The Flying Scottolines”) with one brother and an older half-sister she didn’t know about until the doorbell rang one day, decades later. She grew up in Norwood and Bala Cynwyd, went to Lower Merion High, then to Penn for an English degree, and on to Penn Law. Twenty years ago, she was a young associate at what was then Dechert Price & Rhodes in Philadelphia, got married, had a child, got divorced. (“My marriage broke up about 20 minutes after my kid was born.”) She decided to stay home with her daughter and finally do what she’d been dreaming of since the class she took with Philip Roth in college: be a fiction writer. She’d been reading Grisham, reading Turow — both of them raking it in with this new genre of legal thrillers written by lawyers-turned-writers, just like her. Except for one thing: She was a chick. That would be her hook: Her protagonists would be women. And many of her characters would be Italian-Americans. And the books would be set in Philadelphia. “Write what you know,” she told herself. Five years — that’s how long she’d give herself to write and sell her first book.

Several years later, as her daughter was starting school, Scottoline had a draft — Philadelphia lawyer and new widow Mary DiNunzio gets stalked, almost dies, and eventually solves the crime. But no publishers would take it. One agent wrote her, saying, “We don’t have any time to take any more clients, and if we did, we wouldn’t take you.” What Scottoline did have was over $38,000 in debt, with four credit cards maxed out. She needed cash, so she took a part-time job clerking for a federal appellate judge. A week later, she got the call. It was Carolyn Marino, an editor at HarperCollins. Marino wanted the book. Everywhere That Mary Went was nominated for an Edgar award. Book two, Final Appeal, won an Edgar award. People magazine chose book five, Rough Justice, as its “page-turner of the week.” And then there was book six: Mistaken Identity, published in 1999. Her heroine, lawyer Benedetta Rosato, defends a cop killer who claims she’s Bennie’s long-lost identical twin. And this one did it — made the New York Times best-seller list. Ever since, Scottoline has written a book a year — 13 down and one on the way early next year, all whodunits about women in Philadelphia who spend 400 pages or so getting themselves out of trouble. Every one since 1999 has been a New York Times best-seller.

Scottoline now has 10 million copies of her books in print — and that’s just in the U.S., says her editor at HarperCollins, Carolyn Marino. People magazine dubbed her “the female John Grisham,” and that has become an increasingly appropriate description over time. (He’s had 15 NYT best-sellers; seven were turned into films. She has six; no films. Yet.) On the covers of her last several books, her name is as big as the title. “You probably want to get to the point in your career where what your readers want is The New Scottoline,” says her New York agent, Molly Friedrich. And to the point where Fox plans to turn your stories into TV shows, a deal that was announced at the end of May. If you’re still thinking of Scottoline as that up-and-coming hometown writer, get ready for an update: “She’s in the high-octane real estate of true best-sellerdom,” says Friedrich. Lisa Scottoline is the Queen of the Beach Read.

Any author who offers a free beach tote on her website to anybody who buys two copies of her latest book — that author deserves the title Queen of the Beach Read. “I’m happy to be read on beaches and airplanes,” Scottoline says. “People say to me, ‘Do you mind that you’re an airplane book?’ No. I love that I’m an airplane book.” Of course, the self-appointed defenders of Great Literature sniff at such commercial success. To them, the phrase “beach read” is a term of derision. But not to Scottoline. She loves beach books — and she loves the beach. She can’t swim, but she worships the sun. In fact — you, on the beach in Ventnor right now? Lying back in your chair with your sunglasses on, paging through Scottoline’s latest, Dirty Blonde, thinking to yourself, “I could write this. This isn’t that hard. I could do the same thing with Polish journalists from the Northeast, add a few car chases up the Art Museum steps, throw in a couple of characters wearing Eagles t-shirts. … ”? The author is probably three towels down from you. That’s where she goes on her day trips. She parks on Cambridge Avenue, “because that’s where the vending machines are. I sit mah ass on da beach. I watch the kids surf and get the banana fudge pop.” (This explains why she’s so fearlessly tan.)

Yeah, we may think writing beach reads is so easy, so obvious, so formulaic, but there’s something Scottoline knows that we don’t: “It’s not like in a movie, where it’s all dark, and you’re gonna feel all the emotions you’re supposed to feel, and they’re gonna play a violin just in case you don’t get it — dummy. Right? That atmosphere is so conducive to being lost in a story. The deck is stacked for movies.

“But for books — let’s say you’re sitting on the beach in Ventnor. You have to move every hour because the tide’s coming up. Your kid wants a popsicle. You want a popsicle. You have to pee. You wonder if you have change for the vending machine. There’s a lot of distractions for the person who is foolish enough to try to read a novel. When you’re writing a book for that person, you have to really work very, very hard to engage them.”

AS MUCH AS SHE LOVES the beach, Lisa Scottoline hardly ever leaves her house. That’s how she does it, she says. She just toils in her renovated farmhouse in Chester County, complete with stables and four horses, where the 51-year-old lives alone, now that her only child is in her junior year of college and her second marriage didn’t work out. She sits in her office on the second floor, with the four big windows and shelves of books and her Wall of Ego with her diplomas and articles about her and a framed poster of Elvis — her favorite thing — from the American Library Association that, underneath his picture, says READ. It is here where she “busts my ass seven days a week.” Except in the mornings, when she takes her dogs — three golden retrievers and a corgi named Ruby, who is so beloved that she’s pictured on the back of the book jacket for Dirty Blonde — for a two-mile walk. (“Walking is, like, nice for thinking.”) Or when she schedules an occasional appointment with her “therapist-slash-colorist” at Jay Michael Salon in Bala Cynwyd. Maybe she’ll decide she wants a change of scenery, so she’ll switch to her laptop and go downstairs: “I consider that a vacation.”

That is a vacation when, every year for the past seven, you’ve spent seven months writing a first draft, two or three months revising it (shrinking it down from 120,000 to 90,000 words and, she says, ordering every sentence: “‘Justify yourself.’ Is that stupid? I know. I talk to myself. I do”), and then doing a 20-city tour when the book is done. And those seven months of writing include research. Lots of it, from hanging out in the Philadelphia federal courthouse during a crack cocaine trial (that’s where she got the idea for Devil’s Corner) to traveling to Missoula, Montana, to check out a former WWII internment camp for Italian-Americans (that’s Killer Smile) to spending weeks in the little town of Centralia in the Appalachian mountains in central PA, where there’s an underground mine fire that’s been burning for more than 40 years. (It’s part of the plot of her March 2006 release, a book that started burning in her when she overhead a fellow shopper at the King of Prussia mall make a reference to a “dirty blonde” — bingo.)

All that research is well and good and gives her tons of credibility with her readers who, say, know everything there is to know about underground mine fires. But research alone doesn’t write a book. Research doesn’t make us turn the page. What makes us turn the page are Scottoline’s chapter endings, which she’s been working on lately, trying to perfect those short cliffhanger sentences to make them sufficiently compelling — “Until a suspicion snuck up on her,” or, “But that wasn’t the detective she was thinking of,” or, “And Cate felt a tingle of true fear” — to “keep the pages turning as a physical matter. So the reader says, ‘I’m on for this ride.’” The process of actually writing a book has one simple rule: “You can’t get up. Sit there, and sooner or later, you’ll write.” For Scottoline, that process involves sitting back, watching, and wondering what will happen next.

When her Dirty Blonde heroine, Cate Fante, picks up a guy in a bar in the prologue, Scottoline’s own response, she claims, was, “What’s up with that? Now what?” It’s a perilous, nerve-racking way to write, but it fits Scottoline’s own character. At her talk this morning — sometime in between standing on a chair in front of those 200 lawyers, adjusting her lingerie (“I wore my good bra for you,” she told them) and getting invitations to join foursomes for golf that afternoon — one lawyer asked if she knows how a book will end. She gave her standard response: “I don’t know how it middles.” Then she segued into a laugh line: “I’m not a good planner, anyway. Anyone who gets divorced when they have a new baby isn’t a good planner.” The only thing she does plan is a murder at some point: “For me, if somebody doesn’t die, I’m not paying attention. I mean, that’s what you need to do to get somebody’s attention when the sun’s in their eyes.”
It’s an offhand remark — getting somebody’s attention when the sun’s in their eyes — but it’s the real key to Lisa Scottoline’s reign as the Queen of the Beach Read. Yes, her books are smart and funny. Yes, they’ve been called “fast and furious” (Los Angeles Times Book Review), “cleverly written and deviously plotted” (The Dallas Morning News), “a gavel-to-gavel romp” (People). Yes, Time described Scottoline as “a star.” But when her agent Molly Friedrich says, “Lisa takes the business of being a novelist really seriously. I don’t think anybody works harder than she does,” she’s likely referring to what, precisely, sets Scottoline apart from the Grishams and Turows of the world — her love affair with her readers. This is not to say that Grisham and Turow are boors who ignore the fact that they are where they are because of the millions of us who fork over $29.95 for their newest hardcovers. But Grisham and Turow don’t give out free beach bags on their websites. Or post pictures of themselves with their arms around readers they meet on book tours. Or offer their mom’s secret recipe for ravioli. Or send out a seasonal newsletter, written by them. Or give their personal e-mail addresses without the expected disclaimer, “Due to the large volume of e-mails and his busy schedule, John/Scott may not be able to respond to your message.” (Scottoline’s site says, “If you need advice about writing, or just want to chat about the law, goldens, Italians, family, or anything else that crosses your mind, Lisa is just a click away.”) And, certainly, neither Grisham nor Turow ships boxes of Tastykakes all across the country to hand out to fans who come to hear him read.

This is what Scottoline is getting at when she says, “You have to really work very, very hard to engage them.” She’s not just talking about writing, about the books and the work she puts into them. Clearly, she plays the business. “I’m aware that these things are bought and sold,” she says. “Yes, it’s art, but you don’t give it away.” Except that, brilliant marketeer that she’s become, she does give it away. She runs ads in the New York Times book review section a month before a new book comes out, promising readers that if they buy an advance copy, she’ll send along a free paperback of one of her other books — all on her own dime. Sure, those advance copies help get her on best-seller lists, but they’re also part of her mass wooing of her audience. Even when she taught a course at Penn last spring — “Justice and Fiction,” about how the images of law and lawyers in pop culture affect the way the general public perceives the profession — she closed her course description with a classic Scottoline ending: “Popcorn will be provided.” She treats her audiences personally, the way she’d want to be treated … like a friend who has a great story to tell. She makes her readers feel special. At the end of the day, she’s well aware that her audience is buying “The New Scottoline.” She’s figured out that if they’re going to buy her books, they have to buy her.

The thing is, when they’re buying her books, they really are buying her. There’s some Scottoline in all of her heroines, in these complex broads with histories and troubles and Italian mommas with kitchens that smell like gravy all day long. She brings these women to life — and then, in a curious reversal, she calls on them, channels her own creations, in order to get up the nerve to do things. That was bawdy Cate Fante up onstage in front of that roomful of lawyers, tugging at her bra. And there was timid Mary DiNunzio in Scottoline’s nervousness about having to cross over the Bay Bridge. “Dr. Phil would say it’s behavioral — you’re behaving your way out of a problem,” she says. “I need to behave my way out of lots of things or I get paralyzed.”

Her characters seem so real because they do for her what she hopes they do for her readers: They inspire. That’s the secret the Queen of the Beach Read has learned: We’re all just people trying to get out of a bind, to make it over the bridge, going forward by summoning our inner strength to move on. Scottoline’s heroines always find their way, on their own. That’s why we need The New Scottoline. “If they get out of it,” Scottoline says, “then you can, too.”

Laurence Roy Stains directs the magazine sequence at Temple University’s department of journalism. He last wrote for Philadelphia on putting his house up for sale.