Lisa Scottoline is the author of the new novel What Happened to the Bennetts. Her many other books include the historical novel Eternal. She also writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in the Philadelphia area.
Q: What inspired you to write What Happened to the Bennetts?
A: Sometimes a novel arises from “what-if”, and this one specifically began its life on a route through the woods near my house. I was actually being tailgated, which I hate. I was going the speed limit and I couldn't move over to let him pass because the road was too narrow. I wasn't about speed up because I always enjoy the drive through the woods.
And of course, if you're me, you overthink everything, then you're having a moral argument in your mind about speed limits, the social compact, and standing up for what's right.
What you decide to do in that moment, whether to speed up, find a way to move over, or even go slower out of spite shows what kind of person you are or what character you have, and like a novel, provides plot and character both at the same time. (See what I mean about overthinking?)
Anyway, in answer the question, by the end of my vaguely neurotic analysis, I thought to myself, what if this tailgater carjacked me right now? I couldn't stop thinking about it, and by the time I got home, I knew I had the next novel.
Q: The Booklist review of the book says, “Scottoline’s gift for crafting human connections is displayed here in the evocative grief of Veria and the Bennetts, setting this thriller apart from other suburban-hero stories.” What do you think of that assessment?
A: I'm really honored by it and I love Booklist. I really did try to delve into the relationships of the members of the Bennett family in this novel, and flesh out what they do in a crisis, because it can make or break a marriage and a family.
I think my domestic novels have always blended family with some aspect of justice, and I really love doing that because I think it brings into focus the fact that crime, and indeed, any legal question, impact people. The purpose of law is to order our relationships so we don't commit violence against one another.
What Happened to the Bennetts raises the question of how a family reacts when the law fails them, and I think it's timely because so many institutions that we always had faith in have shaken that faith, and I like to try to address that question, writ large.
By the way, that said, I think there are so many excellent domestic thrillers being written these days and in my opinion, we can always use more suburban-hero stories. I love to look at notions of power in popular culture, and in truth, there are far more superhero stories than there are ordinary hero stories. I love both, and the more the merrier.
Q: Your previous novel, Eternal, was your first work of historical fiction. Why did you decide to turn to historical fiction, and how did your writing process compare with writing your contemporary novels?
A: I always wanted to write Eternal, or a story concerning what happened to the Jews of Rome during Mussolini's fascism and eventually Nazi occupation. Honestly, I didn't see writing historical fiction as different from what I've done before, even though it is a different genre.
As I said above, I've always been dealing with questions of family, love, and justice, and to me, it doesn't matter whether those take place in Italy or Delaware, in the 1930s or in present day. It's a distinction without a difference, and the classic form-over-substance dichotomy.
Writing both taught me that the thematic similarities are far more important than genre, and that the fundamentals of the storytelling are the same. And it follows from that, as was true, that my writing process was exactly the same.
Eternal required historical research which wasn't always easy to get, whereas Bennetts required modern-day research into FBI methods, which wasn't always easy to get.
I like to encourage people to write, because I think everybody has a novel in them, but no novel is easier or harder than the next. They’re just hard in different ways, but that's something I love about my job. I've written over 30 novels in thirtysome years, and I've never been bored a single day.
Q: How did you research Eternal, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: I researched Eternal any way imaginable. I did a deep dive into nonfiction about the era, which I cited in the back of the novel, and also read a lot of period fiction to get the flavor of the way people spoke and the way exposition read.
I went to Italy several times, which was awesome and full of carbohydrates. I had source material translated from Italian into English. I did so much research it’s too much to recount here, but people can see it all on my website, including actual videos I made in Rome of locations in the book.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm super excited because I am writing a historical epic entitled Sacred and it’s the story of two brothers and a kidnapped boy during the rise of the Mafia in Sicily in the 1800s.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Most importantly, I'm very grateful to my readers who are so supportive of me over the years. It's always scary to try new things, and is something of a career risk, to be honest with you.
But I am blessed with readers who will give me the chance to extend myself creatively, and I think they know that if I keep it fresh for me, I will keep it fresh for them, and we have an implicit bond between us, that I will deliver and make any book of mine worth their money.
I always think of it that way because I’m always aware that books are bought and sold, and I was broke for so long when I was trying to become a writer that I remember when I could buy only a single book every year, and it was a gift for my father on his birthday.
So my job is to deliver a great story, well told, and I try to do that, every time.
Thank you so much, Deborah!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb