Interview #1: The Interrogation
Lisa Lutz and J. Rentilly of Pages Magazine
J: You burst onto the writing scene in your early 20's, penning a screenplay. From what I gather, that didn't go so well. Fill me in . . .
LL: I wouldn't say "burst"—more like stumbled. Eyes were on me for a brief, awkward moment and then they returned to whatever they were previously doing. There was certainly no fanfare involved in my long and unsuccessful screenwriting “career.” I wrote many screenplays over that ten year period, but only Plan B got any real interest. During that time I mostly made my living doing odd jobs or office work. Plan B was optioned in 1997 and it was finally bought and made in 2000.
The resulting film, based on what I've read on the IMDB database, is unwatchable. My so-called screenwriting career was over at that point, but I didn't realize it at the time and continued to write screenplays, because that's just what I did. As each one was finished, the rejections came quickly and without any signs of hope. The last screenplay I wrote was THE SPELLMAN FILES. I couldn't get anyone to read it —and that's when I decided to write it as a novel. It was a total act of desperation, but as I worked on it, I realized that the story really needed more space to be told properly.
J: Did you write when you were a child? Did you grow up an avid reader?
LL: My memory of childhood is a bit sketchy. I don't remember writing or reading all that much—maybe more than some, but definitely not as much as the reader types. A while back I was talking to a friend who was/is a very avid reader and she was telling me about how, as a child, she always used her sick days to read a book. I remember laughing at her like she was an alien. “You read a book? The whole point of being home sick is watching T.V.” So, frankly, I remember a lot more television than books.
J: I understand you worked a few years for a private detective agency. This, no doubt, informed SPELLMAN. Tell me what you took from that experience, and how it informed the novel.
LL: A retired FBI agent and his wife started that agency over twenty years ago. It had an extremely family-like atmosphere (the wife's sister also worked there). They are all remarkably warm people, but the job carries with it a certain element of suspicion. I suppose it was the contrast between the affection and suspicion that provided the basic idea behind SPELLMAN.
Besides that, there are very few similarities. Ten years later, I remember the job as basically me in the basement shredding old files, a lot of invoicing and paying bills, and maybe five days of doing fun investigative work. Certainly a few of the things I learned on the job made it into the book, but the characters share almost no resemblance to the team at the PI firm. Frankly, my colleagues at the Desvernine Associates were far too eccentric for me to provide fictional counterparts that would actually read as true.
The one thing from the real job that I wanted to convey in the book is that the kinds of mysteries represented in most detective novels have absolutely NOTHING to do with real PI work. Cases aren't solved with all loose ends neatly tied up; cases are closed. Surveillance is seriously dull work—you're usually sitting in a car for hours at a time. I have yet to read a novel about a PI that expresses that very real sentiment. Of course, it's almost impossible to write a PI novel without using some of those conventions, but I really wanted to keep my distance from the traditional mystery.
J: Tell me about the process of writing SPELLMAN. Is this really your first novel, or the first that was published?
LL: As I mentioned before, SPELLMAN was first a screenplay. And when I couldn't sell it or face a future as an administrative assistant, I decided that I had to try one last time. At this point I was thirty-five, depressed, broke, and had very limited job skills. I was at an all time low. Then one night I remembered that my aunt and uncle who live in St. Louis have a second house in central New York which they've had since my aunt's mother died. No one lives there, and they just visit it two to three times a year to fix things that have gone wrong in their absence. Within an hour of thinking about the place, I called them up and asked if I could move there for a while. I saved money for four months by moving out of my apartment and couch hopping throughout the summer. I knew I could live there on next to nothing, so it didn't require too much cash. Anyway, I drove across the country in the fall.
SPELLMAN was definitely my first novel or even attempt at a novel and this is very very obvious in the first draft. I did many revisions before I even began looking for an agent. I was really good about getting lots of reads and taking advice. Later, my editor at Simon & Schuster and I did a lot of work on it as well. So, yes it was my first novel, but I don't want it to seem easy or that I accomplished this on my own. First drafts are a solo endeavor, after that I see writing as more of a collaboration.
J: It's ironic that for whatever your previous misadventures in Hollywood may have been, SPELLMAN has made you a Hollywood favorite. Tell me your thoughts on this, and how writing SPELLMAN felt like exactly the right thing for you to write.
LL: Yes, it is ironic. For years I felt like I was at the mercy of that Hollywood machine and now it has no power over me whatsoever. It's very satisfying. I wish every failed screenwriter could feel what I'm feeling now.
Of all the things I've ever written, SPELLMAN had an entirely different feeling. I never had to force anything—the story, characters, dialogue—everything just came to me. The creative process had never been so easy. I think that's why I felt like I had to write it, that's why it was important to really take the time and do it right. I wouldn't have moved to the middle of nowhere to write just any old story.
J: What's next for you?
LL: I'm currently working on the second SPELLMAN book. After that, I'd like to start on a non-SPELLMAN book that's been loitering in my brain for a year or so. But I'm extremely single-task oriented, so SPELLMAN II is my primary focus these days. I definitely have fallen in love with the novel form. So I hope to keep writing them.
J: What would you like a reader to take away from THE SPELLMAN FILES?
LL: If my book gets someone through a dreadful plane ride, then I've done my job. If it encourages people to overthrow a government, that's just icing on the cake.