ELLEN INTERVIEWS SANDRA SCOPPETTONE
Sandra Scoppettone is one of my favorite writers. From her young adult books, to the award-winning Jack Early mysteries, to the Lauren Laurano series, I've read them all and loved them. I had the good fortune in the early nineties to be sent on tour with Sandra, and that's where we first met and became friends. The big news is: Sandra has just sold a new series to Ballantine. The first one, Quick, will be out in 2005. It takes place in the 1940s and the protagonist is a PI named Faye Quick. The setting is war time New York City. Last year, I did an interview with Sandra. Here are the results:
EH: I often receive letters from people asking me when you'll be doing another Lauren Laurano mystery. Let's talk about that up front. You've written five, and from what you've told me, you don't plan on writing another. Why is that?
SS: I never intended for Laurano to turn into a series. The voice of Lauren came to me one day and I wrote Everything You Have Is Mine. Then the publisher asked for another. And another. By the time I came to the last one I knew I'd said everything I wanted to about the main characters. I was ready to do something else.
EH: Most of us know you as a crime writer. You've been nominated twice for the Edgar, and won the Shamus in 1984 for A Creative Kind of Killer. You've also been called one of the "100 Masters of Crime." But earlier in your career, you wrote a number of young adult books. What drew you to young adult fiction?
SS: Two things. A friend of mine, M.E. Kerr, had written several YAs by then and I'd read and enjoyed them. Then I found myself directing a production of "Anything Goes" for a program called Youth On Stage. Two of the boys in the cast were having a relationship and I found the reactions of the other kids very interesting. So I wrote Trying Hard To Hear You. Then once again, one book led to another.
EH: Trying Hard to Hear You and Happy Endings Are All Alike were gay/lesbian-themed young adult novels. Did you have any trouble getting them published?
SS: No. I sold Trying in a week. I think it was the right book at the right time.
EH: How were they received at the time?
SS: Trying was pretty well-received. It was reviewed everywhere as a breakthrough book on the subject. There had been one or two other books about gay boys but they'd been very oblique. My book was upfront. But it was also misunderstood by some. One of the gay boys dies in the end and some people took this to be punishment for being gay. I'd meant it a completely different way; I had him die because he wasn't being true to himself. I obviously didn't do a good job of making that clear. Happy Endings was an entirely different experience. It barely got reviewed and when it did it wasn't good. I sold very few of this title. I've always believed that it was because it was about girls.
EH: You also wrote a book aimed at an even younger audience -- Suzuki Beane.
SS: Actually, Louise Fitzhugh and I meant it for adults, sort of like the Eloise books. But it crossed over and kids liked it, too.
EH: A reviewer recently suggested that Holden Caulfield might have been a lot like Ms. Beane when he was a child.
SS: Oh, I like that. Used copies, if you can find them, go for hundreds of dollars.
EH: Talk about what motivated you to write the book and what it felt like to create something that became such a huge part of popular culture.
SS: Louise and I wanted to do something together. At that time she hadn't written anything and was strictly an artist. One day she handed me a whole bunch of line drawings for me to play with. I laid them out on my bed. The drawing of the little girl who became Suzuki caught my eye. I got a notebook, attached the drawings and wrote the words underneath. I left some pages blank because I didn't have pictures to go with them. Louise supplied them later. I'm not sure it's a huge part of popular culture, although I still get e-mails about the book. Lots of people don't know that I've done anything since.
EH: Give me your take on the publishing industry today. Has it changed much during the years you've been published?
SS: Yes, I think it's changed a lot. Publishers have always been interested in the "big book" but they used to publish what were known as midlist novels. They are novels that don't fall into any genre. Although some are published today, it's rare. Now it's primarily the blockbuster or first novel. Publishing has always been a business, but it didn't feel that way forty years ago, or even twenty-five. There was a gentility about it all and editors seemed to care. Now they don't edit anymore. They acquire. I think it's the same in the crime genre. Of course there are those, like you, who have ongoing series. But mainly it's the brand name of an author that counts. And the money is ridiculous. But I'm sure if I got the kind of money Cornwell gets, for instance, I wouldn't complain.
EH: Your crime novels seem to be extremely popular in France. Are the French true mystery readers?
SS: Absolutely. They even have a library that's dedicated totally to the crime genre. I was there and it was astonishing. I wish I was as popular here as I am there.
EH: Is gay publishing making steady progress in your opinion?
SS: No, I don't think so. In the early nineties it looked like that was going to happen. My series was published by a mainstream publisher, Little Brown. I think I was one of the first, if not the first, to depict a lesbian couple without the sturm und drang. Portraying them as regular people in a regular relationship and all that goes with that. Others followed and there were lots of gay and lesbian novels out there. But now, with maybe the exception of you and a few others, most gay/lesbian novels are being published by small presses again. I was told that even if I wanted to do a sixth book in my series I would get very little money for it.
But maybe you meant small presses. I don't know what they're doing but I think the closing of certain bookstores devoted to gay/lesbian literature is a good indicator of times going backwards. Well, look who's in the White House.
EH: Will there ever be a gay/lesbian themed novel written by a well-known gay or lesbian writer on the NYT's Bestseller list?
SS: I think there already has been. E. Lynn Harris is an openly gay man and I believe he writes about gay men as well as heterosexuals. I've not read him so I'm not sure. But I don't believe his work is gay themed. As for a lesbian novel on the NYT's Bestseller list I strongly doubt this. We are women, after all, and it's much harder for us to get into the mainstream. I just read about a television show in which gay men makeover a straight man "not to be gay" but to be chic. Can you imagine a lesbian show like this? But you asked "Will there ever be" and who knows what will happen fifty years from now.
EH: As some of your fans may know, you lived in New York for many years in a loft in SoHo. (One of the first Sisters In Crime meetings was held there, right?)
EH: That always seemed incredibly glamorous to me. I remember the story you told me once about Ralph Fiennes coming to your loft looking for a place to sublet while he was doing a play on Broadway. You were going to be gone for a period of time, as I recall. But then, a few years back, you sold your loft and moved out to the tip of Long Island. That must have been a very big change for you. Do you miss New York?
SS: I don't. Sometimes I miss the loft itself, but then I remember the noise and the crowds and I'm glad I made the move. What I miss are people. I miss that ease of seeing someone for a cup of coffee, an hour or two spent that way. Or having coffee myself in a café and listening to conversations at other tables. I can't do that here. Although it's getting more sophisticated all the time. But that doesn't make me happy either because with that come tons of people and the building of mansions that don't fit the area. In the summer it's almost as crowded as the Hamptons. I live on the North Fork which is not the chic Fork.
My tradeoff for leaving NYC was to have a house on the water. I'm very private here but not isolated.I really lucked out when I found this house.
EH: Talk about the book that will be out next September in trade paperback.
SS: It's called Beautiful Rage and it's a stand-alone thriller. It takes place in Virginia and the protagonist is Sheriff Lucia Dove. It's about missing girls who turn up dead. I based it on a real case which still hasn't been solved. I sold it to the French first, then I sold it to Five Star Mysteries.
EH: When did it first occur to you that you wanted to write?
SS: I was five. Really. My father wanted to be a writer and I always heard about the novel he was writing. I guess I wanted to be like him and I was lucky that I had some talent.
EH: Of all your books, do you have a favorite? Which one and why?
SS: Some Unknown Person. That was published in 1977. It's also based on a true case. The victim was named Starr Faithfull. I did a lot of research because the book takes place between 1901 and 1930. This case was never solved and I solve it fictionally. Half the book is based on my father's family, the other half is the Faithfull story. I've never written an autobiographical novel and this was a way to write about my parents and their families without writing about me, although I make a cameo appearance. I'd written some of my Young Adult novels already but this was my first for adults.
EH: You wrote under the name Jack Early. Talk briefly about why you chose to do that. Do you think NY publishing is a somewhat hostile place for women writers?
SS: I published three novels under that name. I guess I'd have to say Donato and Daughter is a favorite, too. I chose to do it because my Scoppettone career had stalled. Couldn't get arrested, as they say! So I reinvented myself. The voice that came to me was of a first person male detective, Fortune Fanelli, and I couldn't see putting a woman's name on it. I had no idea what would happen. I don't think NY publishing is hostile toward women, but I do think reviewers can be. As Jack I got the best reviews of my life and was compared to big name male writers. I don't think this was accidental -- I was still the same person and I wasn't writing any better.
EH: Who do you read?
SS: Whenever I'm asked this question I always say I'm not going to mention any women because I know I'll leave out some of my friends and I don't want to do that. So I'll only tell you about the men I read. Elmore Leonard; Ed Gorman; Dennis Lehane; Stephen White; James W. Hall. They are the genre writers I enjoy the most. Non-genre are: Scott Spencer; Chris Bohjalian; John Dufresne; Richard Russo; Frederich Busch; Kent Haruf. There are lots more and many women.
EH: Like many writers, myself included, you've struggled with depression. How has that affected you as a writer?
SS: I'm clinically depressed which means that it's my chemistry. So the only thing that can help me is medication. This is hard for some people to understand and they try to make helpful suggestions like: do yoga, exercise, do something nice for yourself. What they don't get is that nothing from the outside helps. It can be a rainy day or a bright sunny day. The only thing that helps is the right medication. I was diagnosed with this illness about twenty years ago and over this period many drugs have helped for years at a time. But eventually they've all failed. I've just spent the last year -- and I mean a total year -- working with my doctor (a psychopharmacologist) to try and find the right combination to help me. Once or twice during this year I thought I'd found it only to be disappointed a few weeks later. For about the last six or so weeks I've been on a combo that's working. I think this is going to be okay. But I have no way of knowing if it'll be for a year or five or forever. So I have to take it a day at a time. The main way it's affected me as a writer is that when my medication stops working I can't write. So I've had some long down times. There's no way I can force myself to write when I'm depressed. I've been a very disciplined writer during my career and when I'm well I write five days a week from 9 A.M. to 1 P.M., longer when I'm rewriting.
EH: Any words of wisdom for young writers?
SS: Apply seat of pants to chair in front of notebook, typewriter, computer everyday for at least an hour. Never try to write the type of book you can't read. And read everything you can get your hands on. I don't know how wise that is, but it works.
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