Prolific novelist Lisa Scottoline (16 books and counting) has been called "the female John Grisham." Like Grisham, Scottoline is a lawyer, and her best-selling thrillers star a number of memorable legal eagles as heroines. In Scottoline's new novel, Look Again, however, protagonist Ellen Gleeson is a reporter, not an attorney. And after Gleeson spots a "Have you seen this child?" notice about a boy who looks uncannily like her own adopted three-year-old son, the race is on. (That's only Page 1!) TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Scottoline (pronounced Scot-oh-lee-nee) at her home in Philadelphia. (See the top 10 fiction books of 2008.)
How did you come up with plot for your new book?
The idea came to me when I was driving my kid home from college. We were on I-95 and it was late in the day. The sun is coming through the car window and it's on her and I'm looking at this beautiful child whom I just adore and I thought, "I have to let her go now." That's gut-wrenching, but it's really an important realization and I think parenthood ends up being little periods of letting go. But the big letting go that question necessarily involves [asking], "Do I own my child?" And that's Ellen Gleeson's quandary. (See the top 10 graphic novels.)
Tell me about her.
Ellen Gleeson is like a lot of my heroines. She is very ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. I picture her as everywoman and a lot like me. If anyone were to ask me, "What is your defining characteristic?" it's that I'm a mom. And in my case, and her case too, [it's that we're] single moms. So even though she works outside the home, her child is the most important thing in her life and the day she adopts him she feels that her life has become complete.
Of course, I love that she is a reporter, but why isn't she a lawyer, like many of your other heroines?
You know why she isn't a lawyer? Truly I never thought of myself as writing legal thrillers, and I still don't think I do. I write stories about women. Everybody has called them legal thrillers because I always had a lawyer or a judge or somebody in the legal profession in the lead. I thought, "I have to change this perception and the only way to do it is from the inside out." But the fact is, I'm not work-identified. I'm not a lawyer or a writer. I'm a mom, and I'm a woman, and that's the kind of people I want to see in books in the starring role.
She's a reporter because I started to write a column I guess I'm going into my third year for the Philadelphia Inquirer and I've learned so much about the business. As you know, it's a really interesting business, particularly in these times. The code word is challenging but it's really gut-wrenching, and those of us who love the printed word wherever it appears worry for its future. So it was interesting to have a heroine who is under a great deal of personal pressure at the same time she is under a great deal of professional pressure. (Read "Law-School Grads See Promised Jobs Put On Hold.")
Why do you always set your novels in Philly, your hometown.
You can really help support a character if you understand the setting. So for that reason I generally write about Philadelphia. My experience is that people extrapolate it. If you write specifically enough, they extrapolate it to their hometown, wherever that is, even if it's Amsterdam. By the same token, if you don't write specifically enough and you have generic Anywhere U.S.A., then nobody feels anything. The whole bottom drops out of the story.
How is it that you have avoided joining the stampede of writers to New York? Did you ever consider that?
Yes, but I really just like being home. I'm a huge homebody and I just love it here. New York is great to visit, but I just would never dream of moving anywhere. Anywhere. If it weren't for book tours, I would never leave my house.
You studied English at the University of Pennsylvania and Philip Roth was one of your professors. Wasn't law school a snore after that?
No, law school was fantastic! I loved law school. I teach law now at Penn; I teach a course that I developed called Justice and Fiction. Law school is the most academically rigorous environment I've ever been in, and I just love that. The bottom line is, what you're talking about in law school is "What is justice?" That's what I'm writing about, too. What is right and wrong? What I like about this book is that it has an emotional quandary at its center. What should she do? If this kid on this card turns out to be her child, does she want to know the truth? ... A lot of books have a child in jeopardy, but this is a different kind of book. It's really about motherhood in jeopardy.
You've been compared to John Grisham. Do you know him?
No. I don't know any of the cool kids. I live in Philly, remember? (Laughs).