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Motherhood Spawns Scottoline's Career and Latest Novel

September 13, 2011

Lisa Scottoline C'77, L'81 speaks about her work as an author and as a mother.

By Dana Vogel
Excerpt from
Penn Law Journal Fall 2011 Volume 46, Number 2 

Lisa Scottoline
Lisa Scottoline C’77, L’81

When Lisa Scottoline C’77, L’81 sold her first novel to a publishing house, she was a single mother trying to feed herself and her young daughter. Twenty years later, Scottoline, a best-selling author, has published two nonfiction books, writes a weekly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is president of the Mystery Writers of America, and just released her 18th novel. With more than 25 million books in print in over 25 countries, she has earned the title of the “female John Grisham.”

Save Me, her most recent novel, tells the story of Rose McKenna, who volunteers in the lunchroom of her daughter’s school. She is motivated by a desire to watch over her daughter, Melly, whose birthmark on her face makes her a target of lunchroom bullies. When an explosion rocks the school, Rose must decide whether to save the bullies or abandon them to rescue her own child. Her decision ultimately leaves Rose with both civil and criminal charges against her.

Although Save Me is different from many of her other novels which tend to be classified as legal thrillers and feature female lawyers in the role of protagonist, Scottoline said the novel is not that different at all. “I write stories about really strong and interesting women. Because many of them have been lawyers, they got pitched as legal thrillers. I write about women who are interested in the difference between right and wrong,” says Scottoline, explaining that her main characters don’t have to be lawyers to be interesting.

Personal experience has always played an important role in Scottoline’s works. “All of my novels are really personal. To be successful, you need to reach the readers on a personal level. The most compelling stories are those with an emotional truth,” she says.

Scottoline explains that in recent years, she has returned to her “mom roots” as her now-grown daughter has moved out of the house. This change put into perspective the relationship between mother and child, which, in part, inspired Save Me. “You love your child and would do anything for that child. The question in Save Me is ‘Do you love your child enough to sacrifice someone else’s child?’”

As it turns out, Penn Law School has also served as an inspiration to Scottoline. “I thought law school was a gas. I loved it,” she says.

Scottoline has featured Penn Law in her works a number of times, whether a character was a fellow alumni or wearing a Penn Law sweatshirt. In her 2007 novel, Daddy’s Girl, she took the influence further, featuring a main character who was also a Penn Law professor.

Scottoline, herself, developed and taught a class at Penn Law titled “Justice and Fiction.” Part of her motivation to teach, she says, came from a desire to give back to the Law School. “Life is long — giving back gives it more depth,” she says.

This desire to give back is also what motivated Scottoline to accept the position of president of the Mystery Writers of America. She said early in her writing career she was nominated for two Edgar awards — an award given by the Mystery Writers of America to recognize the best of the genre — and won once. That recognition helped propel her career, she says. Serving as president is a “way of helping new young writers get into print,” says Scottoline.

Scottoline’s literary interest, however, extends well beyond the mystery and legal thriller genre. She says she opposes the classification of literature into genres because she feels that they are limiting. She doesn’t even like to place a label on her two nonfiction works. Like her novels, she says, “They’re the story of a woman’s life, and that happens to be me.”

Both books are based on her column “Chick Wit,” which appears in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer and which she coauthors with her daughter Francesca Serritella.

“Chick Wit” was born of Scottoline’s love of newspapers and her belief that there are not enough female voices or humor in the paper. Scottoline pitched the idea for her column to the Inquirer, promising that it would be funny and appeal to her local fan base. The column yielded two books, Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog and My Nest Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space. Her third nonfiction book, Best Friends and Occasional Enemies, written with her daughter is set for release this fall. She also has a new novel, Come Home, slated for release in April 2012.

Scottoline left a successful career as a trial lawyer to raise her daughter. She turned to writing as a way to balance a career and single-motherhood. Scottoline admits that she still doesn’t “have it down 100 percent of the time,” although it’s easier now that her daughter is grown and out of the house.

“I don’t take this job lightly. I like to put a lot of time in,” Scottoline says. “I feel lucky to have this as a job.”