Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lisa Scottoline talks about Every Fifteen Minutes, sociopaths, criminality, writing, and so much more.

I could talk about how kind and funny and warm Lisa Scottoline is. Or how famous. Lisa's books have solidly landed on all the major bestseller lists including The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Publisher's Weekly, Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. One of her novels, Look Again, was named a"One of the Best Novels of the Year" by The Washington Post, and one of the best books in the world as part of World Book Night 2013.

Or I could take about her newest novel, Every Fifteen Minutes.  But how about I let these four starred reviews tell you something about it?
“Nail-biting...heart-pounding climaxes...pulse-racing twists. Scottoline grabs her readers by the jugular and won't let go.” Library Journal (starred review)

 “Scottoline has plenty of tricks up her sleeve.” Booklist (starred review)

“A mounting-stakes actioner” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Scottoline casts an unflinching eye on the damaged world of sociopaths in this exciting thriller” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

I'm so thrilled and honored to have Lisa here. Thank you, thank you, Lisa! 

Q: I always want to know what sparked a particular book. What was the moment when you knew this was the subject you were going to tackle?

A: This book grew out of a very personal part of my life, one so personal that I can't reveal all of it, or I'll be sued - or stalked!  All I can say is that I really do believe that I was very close with a sociopath. This was not a murderous person, but rather a person who just merely used people, without any personal feelings for them. Like everybody else, I look back on my life and think about the mistakes I've made and why I made them, and my relationship with this unnamed person gave me the idea for EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES.  I think it's true that I write what I want to explore, and for some reason, I don't explore it fully unless I find myself with 350 pages to fill.  So I began to wonder if the person in my past was a sociopath and started to explore sociopathy. 

My moment of truth came I interviewed the head of psychiatry at a local suburban hospital, for research for this book, and I asked him, “How can you have a sociopath in your life and not know it, especially if you’re a psychiatrist?”  And he answered, “that's completely possible, because sociopaths are really good at fooling people, even intelligent and trusting people.” 

I thought to myself, I'm intelligent and trusting, at least on a good day, with a fair amount of caffeine.
And I realized, that's what I want to write about, a good and honest person who gets fooled by someone who simply doesn't see him coming.  I bet I’m not the only person this happened to, and by the time I finish this novel, I will have answered a lot of questions about my own life and soul.  And I think it will ring true for a lot of people, as well.

Q: How brave and difficult was it for you to write from the mindset of a sociopath? Was there ever a moment when you thought, "Oh, I can't do this?"  What was your research like?

A: What a kind question, and it doesn't surprise me, coming from you.  I say this because I think it's a new way to think about what is brave, and I feel that so many people, especially women, are braver than they think, especially when they look back at their life and realize what they did that got them to a particular place, whether it's for good or ill.  I really believe the unexamined life isn’t worth living, as you can tell.  So it was a little bit brave for me I guess to look back and really be harder on myself, but truly when I went to write this book, I made a decision that I did not want to spend the majority of the time in the mind of the sociopath.  If you've ever known one, and I believe I have, it's a dark and lonely place.

What I wanted to do instead, I think what I did in EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES, was to write it from the point of view of the sociopath’s victim.  I wanted to be the normal person, like I was, and try to explore in print, why we don't see them coming.  I am reading with fascination the accounts of Robert Durst and I watched HBO's The Jinx, because I think Durst was a classic sociopath.  I'm aware I'm not an expert, but I've done enough research to feel confident about saying it, and what interests me about the Durst story is all the people he fooled along the way. 

And this is a part of the novel that is really a construct because I didn't want to write about myself per se, but I tried to think about what is the perfect antagonist for a sociopath, and the answer is the main character in the book, who is a psychiatrist with a secret anxiety disorder.  As I think I said in the book, hopefully more subtly than this, the brain of a sociopath has an amygdala, which is the brain's emotional center, that is really underactive, and in thermal imaging, it looks black and bottomless.  In contrast, the brain of an anxious person has an overactive amygdala and comes in fiery red colors on thermal imaging.  So I couldn't imagine a better hero for this book than this doctor, and since I think I certainly have levels of anxiety in me, it was like writing what you know.  LOL.  Anybody who writes feels insecure almost all the time! 

Q:You have this rare ability to keep the tension so high that it sometimes becomes unbearable not to rip through the pages (which would ignore the pleasure of your writing). How do you build the suspense? Do you map it out? Do you just have an instinctive ability?

A: Thank you so much for this lovely compliment, and honestly, it's something I really work at and I hope I succeed.  I think the secret, at least for me, is to write without an outline, so I never really know what's going to happen and neither does the character.  We both find it out together.  

Also, and I know a lot of your blog readers are fellow writers, I would add that sometimes I've noticed that I've improved at building suspense when I start to really think hard about what supporting characters would do, and that would include the antagonist as well.  In life and in fiction, all of our actions affect other people, and people are always reacting to us.  And if you really fully think about the ripple affects your character's actions have on the supporting players, then you will start to set things in motion that will build tension.

I've noticed this because frequently, a lot of bad things are happening to my character at the same time, and that is no more true than in EVERY FIFTEEN MINUTES.  Because he's being toyed with by the sociopath, it begins to effect him at work, that it affects his home life and his state of mind; I've actually found this to be true my own life.  For example, there never seems to be anything bad happening in isolation, but something bad impinges on everything else around, and it all goes to hell in a handbasket.  I always think of the Morton's salt saying, “when it rains, it pours.”  I think life is like that, and I think when you have all of these things crashing down in a character's life, the reader will begin to feel very involved and sympathize with him, because I think we've all been there, at one time or another.

Q: I also want to say that I had no idea how this story was going to spin out--the surprises were fast and furious and startling, and you kept the various threads spinning. Did anything in the writing surprise you?

A: Thank you so much for saying so, and the truth is, everything about it surprised me.  I know surprise ending isn't supposed to be a surprise to the author, but this one was!  And so much was happening in the novel, that I thought that this would logically happen.  Also, I've been writing female protagonists for almost 25 years now, so writing male protagonists is new to me.  I'm still trying to figure out the difference between writing women and men, just as I'm trying to figure it out the difference between women and men, and life.

The interesting thing about this novel is that even though this character is a man, he's no action hero.  He's a thinker, not a doer, and in many ways, he overthinks things.  That's a wonderful trait in a psychiatrist, but less so in a man under attack, and so for me I really clued into that aspect of them, since I tend to overthink and edit myself all the time.  I think a lot of women do, and I'm doing less of it as I get older, that's why I'm so honest in writing this now.  (Also caffeine helps).  But bottom line, what I clued into in him was that he needs to make a journey from being too thoughtful and too worried to being more active and impacting his environment more.  As soon as he starts to do this, it causes even more things to happen, which is also to the good.
 Q:What's obsessing you now and why?

A: I'm obsessed right now with mental illness, and the way we treat it and the ways we don't in this country.  It began with this book, and you know when used get interested in something, suddenly you see it everywhere?  That's what's happening to me now.  Not only do I think I'm seeing sociopaths everywhere, but there is a very heartfelt part of this book, which involves our hero the psychiatrist treating a boy who exhibits OCD.  That research for me was so fascinating and so moving, and I've come to dislike the term when people without the disorder say things like, “I'm so OCD about that.”  Because they have no idea how really tormenting OCD can be. 

Similarly, I've become so interested in the intersection between mental illness and criminality.  Because we don't treat mental illness adequately, we end up criminalizing conduct that arises out of mental illness.  There are so many examples of this we can’t even begin to say them.  School shootings are the most heartbreaking example.  And I've also learned, in my research, that the stigma about mental illnesses and emotional illnesses is so real that it prevents people from getting treatment and because we don't want to talk about it, on the macro level, it prevents us from funding it adequately.  There's no reason why everybody shouldn’t get an annual physical and an annual mental health exam.  If we treated it just like any other illness, we could get people to help they need, alleviate suffering, and make us all safer as a society and a country.

Q: What question didn't I ask that I should have?
A: you asked everything, and these are such good questions that my brain is already hurting.  I hope to see you soon, thank you so much for having me on your blog!

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