An Interview with Sandra Scoppettone
Your earliest novels were for young adults and focused on societal
issues or problems. For over 20 years you've written exclusively about crime.
Explain your transition from one to the other. They seem quite far apart.
It wasn't actually a transition as you'll see. I was known for writing 'hot' topics for YAs. But that was never my intention. I wrote about what interested me. Alcoholism, rape, homosexuality, MS, all for specific reasons. Over the same period when I was writing YAs I wrote three crime novels for adults. One was a private eye novel but it was under a pseudonym. The last YA I wrote was a mystery. It was called Playing Murder. I enjoyed writing this even though after 100 pages I realized I'd killed the wrong person and had to start all over. I think that was the first novel I wrote on a computer. By then I felt I'd said all I wanted to in and to YAs. So having written three crime-related novels already it was a natural progression for me to switch over.
Were you always fascinated by crime? I don't know if fascinated is the right word. I do remember that in the Sunday newspaper every week there was a feature called Justice Triumphs and it presented old crimes, some solved, some not. I did look forward to that.
You began writing as a playwright. What was your subject matter in that arena?
Family. Variations on a theme although I didn't know it was a theme then.
Write what you know -- axiom #1 when it comes to writing. What familiarity did you have with crime before you adopted it as your territory?
I'd pulled off many heists and deep sixed a number of people along the way. Just kidding. The only familiarity is what I'd read. Both fiction and non-fiction.
What particular satisfactions do you find writing about crime? Coming up with the solution? The thrill of the hunt? Interpreting the psyches of your characters? Keeping readers in the dark even as you're laying out the building blocks of that will add up to means, motive, opportunity? Other things I can't even imagine?
Your imagination seems pretty well-honed to me! I do like coming up with the solution because I never know who did it when I start a book. The thrill of the hunt doesn't really happen in writing the book...that would happen more to a real cop or PI. I don't interpret the psyches of my characters. They do that themselves. I'm an innocent bystander. What I like most is seeing what happens next which, of course, can happen in any novel. But if it's a crime novel you know you have to have a plot and you can't be self-indulgent. You have to move the story forward, always.
Have you ever written a character you hated to part with?
Yes. I very much liked a man named Zo in Innocent Bystanders which was a one- shot crime novel. He was a detective on the police force. He was obsessed by a particular case. The book, though published, was a failure and I was sorry I'd used him. But then I resurrected him in a way in Fortune Fanelli. I thought of Fortune as Zo's cousin. I intended to write a series about Fanelli but I wrote my first Lauren Laurano novel and that was the end of Fortune. But Lauren is another cousin to the two men.
What are the perils, the pluses, the pitfalls, of writing a series?
I think if you write a series in third person it has to be easier because you can shift the point of view. In first person, you can't. My Laurano series was first person present tense. I really locked myself in. Although in the last one I went to other points of view anyway. On the plus side is that you get a following. You have fans. People write to you and want you to write the next book lickety-split. When I ended the Laurano series with book five I got many letters requesting a sixth. I couldn't do it. Because, for me, the pitfall was getting very tired of writing about the same people over and over. Of course you bring in new people but the main ones are the same. I've always said no one should write more than four in a series and I believe that even though I did a fifth. I don't know how Sue Grafton does it.
When you're writing in a genre-within-a-genre -- PI, police procedural, noir, etc., do you make a point of observing its conventions? Or do you deliberately depart from those?
I think I observe the conventions. I might put a spin on them, making it very much my own, but basically a PI novel is a PI novel. It's my favorite form because you can comment about the culture and society in a way you can't in other forms. I've written three different PIs. One man and two women. The newest one, debuting in This Dame For Hire, is Faye Quick who lives and works in New York City in the 1940's during the war. This has been my greatest challenge in the PI form. The other two were in NYC also but they were contemporary. The new one called for research, which is fun. But Faye speaks in a particular way and I couldn't use words that might come to me naturally. It was amazing how I had to catch myself sometimes. And giving the book a feeling of the time period was essential. I didn't want research to show and I don't think it does.
Is your most frequent focus who-done-it?
It's turned out that way but I really enjoy the why of it more. I've written a few crime novels that do that. Still, thinking about the books I've written I have to admit it's almost always who-done-it. But I'm always very interested in my protagonist.
You've set many of your books in New York City. Does this make the landscape, customs, ambiance, etc. grow richer and deeper? Or do you have the sense that you're using it up, making it stale?
I don't think I could use NYC again. And the only reason I can use it in my present series is because it's set in the 40's. It was a very different place then.
Do you ever set a book in a location you don't know firsthand?
I've done that twice. Once in Playing Murder which was set in Maine. I'd been there but I didn't know it like I do NYC or the North Fork of Long Island. The other time was in my last published book Beautiful Rage. That's set in Virgini It's based on a real case but I've never done anything more than drive through Virgini The person who put me on to the case was from there so I got some stuff from her. Also, in the course of the book, my protagonist goes to the Florida Keys and I've never been there. Always wanted to but I have a feeling I'm not going to get there.
Within the mystery/crime genre, do you have a favorite, i.e. PI, police procedural, amateur detective, spy, locked room, Gothic, historical, legal, etc.? As a writer and as a reader what do you think of each of these.?
As a writer I like the PI novel the best, as I've said. My next favorite is the police procedural. As a reader I guess it's the same, but I'd add psychological suspense the way Ruth Rendell writes it. And there are others. But I don't like to read amateur detectives because they're always in a small village or an island or something and it seems ridiculous to me. I loathe spy novels. I can't follow them and I don't care. Gothic? Don't know if I've ever read one. Hate historicals. My friend Annette Meyers, who writes historical novels with her husband, Marty, says that I'm writing one now. But the 40's don't seem that to me. In my head historical novels are before 1900. Legal? I like to read some. Scott Turow is a favorite. No. I don't like whathisname. I don't think he's a very good writer.
Who/what did you read growing up?
I read anything I could find. As for mystery/detective novels I don't think I read them.
Are you interested in true crime -- reading and/or writing -- and what part, if any, does this play in the crime fiction you write?
Once upon a time one or two true crime books were published in a given year. I was very interested then because the cases were so interesting. Now there are whole sections in bookstores that are devoted to true crime. There was one real crime that I was very interested in and even went so far as to meet the parents of the victim. But it didn't work out because someone else wrote the story without permission from the parents. I would never have done that. However, I've used some of that experience in This Dame for Hire.
When you begin a new book, what's the minimum you have in mind -- a title? A victim? The perp? The location? A character's voice? Something else?
I sometimes have a title. I always have the victim and the location. In a first person novel I have the character's voice. I never know who did it. Sometimes along the way I decide who it is, and sometimes I'm wrong.
What are the advantages for you of working without a net, so to speak?
I assume you mean not knowing who the killer is. Well, it makes it more fun for me. If I knew everything when I started I'd find it very boring. I couldn't stand to outline a book and know every little plot point or the entire cast of characters. I'd find that stifling. I love it when a character shows up who makes the book turn in a way I'd never imagined. That gets me excited and also challenges me.
You've said that an uncle of yours wrote for the pulps. Do you count him as a major influence? Did you read his stories?
I guess he was an influence. He would often read his stories aloud to me. My father, who wanted to be a writer, looked down on my uncle because he wrote crime. Nevertheless, my uncle K. got published and my father didn't.
What's your attitude about promotional appearances? Do you think they help sales substantially?
I'm not crazy about doing it. I don't give speeches or talks. I'll read from my book and although that scared me to death at the beginning of the Laurano series I got quite good at it. I loved making people laugh. As far as sales are concerned I don't think anyone knows for sure.
Can a writer just say no to such occasions? If so, is there bound to be a downside?
I don't think it would be too smart. If you're P.D. James you can call your own shots but most of us don't have that luxury. The downside would be that your publisher wouldn't put much muscle behind the next book.
Borrowing from the questionnaire that James Lipton uses on his Actor's Studio television interviews ... what profession other than your own would you most like to try?
Something in forensics or computers.
What profession would you least like to try?
If God exists what would you like to hear when you get to the pearly gates?
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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