Lisa Scottoline on Her Brand-New Novel, Her South Philly Roots, and Growing Up on Nancy Drew
Philly’s most prolific novelist ever just released her 34th work of fiction. She spends most of her life alone on a Chester County horse farm. And she couldn’t be happier.
Born and raised in South Philly and Delco and on the Main Line (a trifecta!), best-selling author Lisa Scottoline is back with yet another thriller, What Happened to the Bennetts. Here, she explains why she’s in a new prime of her life.
Hi! I’m so excited to be doing this, even though you once gave me a “Worst of Philly” award for my “Chick Wit” column in the Inquirer.
I swear: It wasn’t me. Blame one of my colleagues. I’m pretty sure I know which one.
Oh, I know. The funny thing was that when it came out, my dear mother, may she rest in peace, was visiting me. And I used to write about her a lot in my column. So I got a copy of the magazine, and it had its usual snark. I showed it to her, and she said, “Wait, they didn’t mention me?” [laughs] After that, I wrote some columns with my daughter, Francesca. So you’re lucky you did it before my daughter got involved, or I would have burned down somebody’s house.
I’m certainly glad that didn’t happen! How are you these days?
[Sighs] These are dark, dark times, my friend. You have kids, right?
Right. I can’t imagine being a kid today. So much to worry about. Russia/Ukraine. The virus. And all the other things kids already have to worry about.
What were you worried about as a teenager?
Ha! I had braces in high school, and that was the devastation of my life. I was the only one with buck teeth, and I wanted braces. So I got them. And then I was the only one with braces. It was awful.
It’s been a decade since I last interviewed you. What’s changed?
Well, Francesca lives in New York now. We went to see The Music Man there over Christmas. I tweeted something about it and was like, “Oh my God, Hugh Jackman retweeted me?! This is what my life is?”
And what is life now? Good?
I feel so lucky, so happy. I’m really loving this time in my life. I’m extremely, uh, a cappella, which is basically Italian for celibate. [laughs] I feel like now that my daughter is grown, this is my turn. I feel like I have a prime again. You shed the stuff that doesn’t matter and try to get what you want and make yourself happy. And now I can take risks that I would have never taken before.
Well, last year, after 32 thrillers all set in Philadelphia, I published Eternal, my first piece of historical fiction. It’s set in Rome, and my next one, Sacred, will be set in Sicily, all about the birth of the Mafia in the 1800s. That will be in 2023. There was a lot of risk involved in switching from thrillers to historical fiction. You don’t know if your readers are going to come. And they’ve come, and I’m getting the best online ratings of my career.
Tell me you actually look at those.
Oh yeah. I go on Goodreads, Barnes & Noble and all the other sites and read what people say. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t care. I do. I’m real. You’re real, which is why you’re so good at what you do. And it feels real to care. That’s what I love about this city. Philly cares.
I wouldn’t normally go back to a subject like this, but you alluded to it when I interviewed you 10 years ago as well. This celibacy — have you, at age 66, given up on romance?
I haven’t, but I’m not doing anything to make it happen. I also fantasize about winning the lottery, but I don’t buy a ticket. It’s the magical thinking I tend to engage in. A lot of women — I’ll include me in that — have put other people first for a long time. And now I’m first. And I like doing things alone. I like going to the opera alone. When the Eagles won the Super Bowl, I really wanted to experience that myself, without interruption. So yeah, I can do anything I want now. I’m not going to listen to anybody, which probably makes women my age insufferable in some cases. We’re out of the crate, man. We’re going to pee all over the house. I probably shouldn’t say that. [laughs] But I’m talking to you from my hot pink office. Nobody can tell me I can’t make my office hot pink. I just bought a pink bookshelf for it, too.
Tell me about this house of yours.
It’s a big house. A horse farm in Chester County. I have horses and chickens. The cottage is from 1740. The main house is from 1810. It ends up being money pit-y. But I’m working from home. I never, ever go out. Sometimes I write from my pink office, sometimes from my sunroom. And there are two other rooms that I use for writing. There’s a lot of space. And it’s just me.
Sounds like a good place to be if you have to be quarantined.
You know, quarantine actually hasn’t been that much different from the way I live. And writing is a solitary act, for the most part. But I do miss the touring, seeing the people at the bookstores. I do get so much energy from that, but you can’t have everything, I guess.
But your brand-new book, What Happened to the Bennetts, just came out. I assume you’re doing a book tour for that, now that the worst seems to be over.
I’m not. Everyone is making their own choices. I’m making some conservative ones. So I’ll do virtual events. Last year, I did 60 virtual events in six months for Eternal. That’s a lot of events. And I really do stay in touch with my readers. I answer every email I can. I’m the only person who runs my social media. It’s all me.
It must get to be overwhelming keeping up with all those readers. I mean, 30 million books in print in more than 35 countries.
When you get a message from somebody who tells you that they are in chemo and that your book made them laugh or feel better, there’s no substitute for that. It’s the best. And I get those kinds of messages often.
Okay, so we got way ahead of ourselves here. Let’s back up and ask the oh-so-Philly question: What parish are you from?
[Laughs] We were very bad Catholics. For some time, St. Monica’s. At another time, Epiphany. My aunt, Rachel Guglielmo, had Ray’s Luncheonette at 9th and Wolf for decades. I grew up there, with pinball machines and fresh hoagies and cigarette smoke. You cannot ask for a better childhood. You know, in my first novel, I made a rookie mistake and put a pretend church at 9th and Wolf. People in Philly wrote me and were like, “There’s a luncheonette there, and this lady with no teeth came to the door!” I’m like, “That’s my aunt. Back the eff up.”
You obviously have a great admiration for Philly, but why set all of your thrillers here?
I love Philly in novels. It’s the authenticity of it. The grit. The real-dealness of it. This is a city without pretense.
I just recently rewatched Rocky, and I think that’s why that movie was so damn successful. It perfectly captured the grit and authenticity.
I just watched it, too! When he runs through the Italian Market, you just die.
Ah, South Philly. But you left.
We started life there and moved to Norwood, in Delaware County, when I was six, and then to Bala Cynwyd when I was 10. I’ve lived everywhere around Philly. My accent is earned. I say I don’t have one, but …
Oh, you definitely have one!
I’m adorable, Victor. Admit it. If you listen to my audiobooks, you will get a headache in 10 minutes from listening to this voice. You do know I’ve been divorced twice, right? That voice! Put that audiobook on in the car, and you’re done by the second exit of your trip.
All right, so you moved around a lot with your family, and unlike so many successful people, you stayed here. You stayed here for college, getting both your undergrad and law degrees from Penn. You stayed here for work, landing a litigation job at Dechert. And you just kept staying. Why?
I can’t imagine why anybody would ever leave Philadelphia. It’s the best place ever, and I think we’re getting a lot more respect from other cities than we used to. We won the Super Bowl! We have Gritty! It’s just great!
So why did you want to be a lawyer in the first place? Did your parents push you in that direction?
I watched Perry Mason on TV when I was a kid, and I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I did not want to be Della Street, pouring his coffee. My parents never pushed me to do anything. It was perfect, unconditional love. They were worried that I was going to ruin my eyes because I read so much. I would bring home straight A’s, and they would say, “You need to go out and play more.”
Why did you give up on law? I really didn’t do it for long. Five years?
Francesca was born in ’86. I got divorced right after that. And I fell in love with this kid. Lawyer hours are really tough. They were telling women to “dress for success” and wear ties, and it felt like what I was supposed to be was a mom. So I just quit.
Sounds like you weren’t averse to taking risks back then, either.
I was broke. My back was against the wall, financially. And I started writing. Went five years with no health insurance. Nothing. But I got a break and got into paperback. For my first book, I was nominated for an award and lost. Second book, nominated and won, which led to hardcover. I had so much debt on credit cards.
Can you tell me what your first book deal was for?
Thirty-two thousand dollars. I’ve never told anybody that. I owed $29,000 in credit card debt, because I had been supporting myself on Visa at 21 percent. You can get money from the mob cheaper — and don’t ask me how I know that. [laughs] And I just kept writing, saying, “God, I hope this works.” One book a year. Then two. Then three. Wanna be a writer? Great. Write 24/7.
How did you land on mystery as your niche? Was it influenced by what you read as a child?
I started life on Nancy Drew. I know it sounds silly, but that was seminal for me. Let’s be real now. When I was a kid, there weren’t a lot of heroines. We all liked Nancy, in part because there wasn’t a lot else to like, but she also drove a roadster. She drove it. This girl, driving her little ass around, solving crimes. I really think it spoke to me. I collect those books with their blue covers to this day. There’s freedom and boldness and adventure and risk-taking.
Do you write daily?
At least 2,000 words in a day. The most important thing in the world is Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, extra cream, extra sugar. If I have that in the morning, I can write epics, man. What time is it now, four o’clock? I’m still going strong and will be until six, at least. It gives you superpower. And I just get writing. I don’t outline. I don’t know what the story is going to be until I get it down on paper. At the end, hopefully, I see I have a story. And then I’m the happiest person on the planet.
Is there some common theme in all your books, including the historical fiction?
Yes. In Hemingway, it’s hunting, fishing and shooting. For me, it’s family, justice and love. Soul. If you want to know me, read my novels. Setting, place and time are just silly things that don’t matter. Look for the soul.
It sounds like you’re back on the one-or-two-books-a-year path after you didn’t publish a thing in 2020, which was very unusual. What happened there?
I needed more time to work on Eternal. In the end, I could have done it in the regular amount of time, but it took me six months of being nervous, and I finally said: Be not afraid. I just had to go for it. Sheryl Sandberg, who everybody hates now — her book Lean In was important to me. She said women aren’t socialized to take risks. Women won’t say they’re scared. They’ll say they aren’t ready. And that’s what I was saying: I’m not scared to write this book; I’m just not ready. But then I realized what I was doing to myself. You need to get out of your own way. It’s like that Mindy Kaling book: At some point, why not me?
What has changed in your crime thrillers over the years?
The politics and changes in the administration of justice mean you have to be fresh and current, and your writing, even though it is fiction, has to be cognizant of that. Was it an accident that when Americans lost faith in the government after Watergate, the most popular fiction was The Godfather? There are these up-and-down ideas of crime and punishment. We’re rooting for Michael Corleone, this anti-hero. And something is happening now. I can tell you as a lady who writes books in the suburbs of Philadelphia, you cannot write the old story where Perry Mason law leads to justice and everybody behaves the way you’re supposed to. The ideas of law and justice in fiction have to mirror the culture back to itself in a way that’s realistic. It’s hard. We’ve lost confidence in these institutions that administer justice — the FBI, the DOJ, the court system. It’s stressful times. People are not sure justice gets done anymore. That’s bad for human beings. Human beings need to believe there’s a right and a wrong and that right will win. MLK said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” suggesting that in the end, the good guys will win. Eventually. But we’re less sure of that today than we used to be. Sorry, I’m very caffeinated.
No, I love it. My wife says to me all the time, well, you’re not boring. And you, Lisa, are certainly not that. And boring is the last thing you want in the person you’re interviewing, believe me.
So you write prolifically. You ride horses majestically.
But are there any talents we don’t know about? Secret stuff? In my fantasy, you’re a tournament-level Scrabble player.
I’m not bad at Scrabble, but I love, love needlepoint. I could show you lots of pictures of my needlepointed pillows. Lots. The pandemic left lots of time for needlepoint. And I grow vegetables, like every other Italian on the planet.
Your publicist at Penguin probably wants me to get something in here about What Happened to the Bennetts.
Without spoilers, what is it we need to know?
I haven’t talked to anybody about it yet. A suburban family in Chester County are victims of a botched carjacking. They find themselves in witness protection. And it all goes horribly, horribly wrong.
Sounds dark. Good enough for me. I love dark crime shit.
Me too! Have you seen Gomorrah on HBO? So good!
I will add it to the list.
You’ll love it.
Speaking of TV, why isn’t there a Netflix series based on your books?
I do get approached, but nothing has come to fruition. I will say this: With my books, I have control. I have full cover approval. I even pick the typeface. So I’m not sure I would have much of a hand in the screen version. It’s too much. I like the fact that when I get off this call with you, I can putter around downstairs, make some pasta with broccoli rabe, and fart around with the dogs.
Published as “On the Record: Lisa Scottoline” in the April 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.