Lisa Lutz: Author of the Spellman series

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image-lisalutz200Lisa Lutz is the author of the Spellman series, the latest of which, Revenge of the Spellmans, has just been released. Other books in the series are The Spellman Files and The Curse of the Spellmans. The books are about a family of private investigators and have sold in over 22 countries. Film rights to The Spellman Files have also been optioned.

Lisa began working on her first novel in 2004. In 2000 her screenplay, Plan B, was made – and she vowed never to write another screenplay again! She also worked for many years for a private detective agency.

Click play to listen. Running time: 20.05

Revenge of the Spellmans

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Lisa thanks for joining us today.

Lisa
It‘s great to be here.

Valerie
Now you worked for many years in a private detective agency and then you have written a screenplay. You’ve got such a varied background. How did you get into writing?

Lisa
I wrote my first screenplay when I was 21 and I think the second that I was done I thought, “Oh, this is for me.” then 10 years later my first and only film was made and I realized, “Oh, it’s not for me.”

It was a long arduous process and I just kept trying and failing and then when it was finally made the film was so bad even my mother after I screened it for her said, “Wow, that was annoying.”

Valerie
Oh, dear.

Lisa
Yes. So then I moved on.

Valerie
Fair enough. So how did you get into writing screenplays in the first place? What attracted you to it when you first enjoyed it?

Lisa
I think there are a lot of things. I think that the idea to write a screenplay came from reading a friend’s short script. I had a friend, this was many, many years ago, who was making a film and I read his screenplay for it and I thought, “Oh, I can do this.” and then I started a few weeks later.

During the time that I wrote screenplays I probably wrote about seven or eight of them. Only one of them got any real interest and that was Plan B, which was eventually made with Diane Keaton and Paul Sorvino. But I think that film is a language that everyone understands and on some level you could tell anyone to write a scene from a movie and they could probably do it. It’s part of our culture now.

Valerie
Tell us about your work in a private detective agency. How did that come about?

Lisa
They advertised I think. I was in college at the time so it was a part-time job, which ended up lasting about two years. And they advertised. I can’t remember where and the pay was really low but when I saw it was for a private investigative agency I couldn’t resist.

So I got the job and years later the job gave me the idea for the Spellmans. But basically it was a family-run office. It was a very intimate environment. They were the warmest people that I had ever worked for in my life. To put it in perspective, years later I worked for my uncle and it was nowhere near as much affection in that office as there was in this one.

They are lovely people. They still come to my readings in San Francisco. The boss parks himself in the front row and usually interrupts me and starts shouting how proud they are. They are really lovely people. But they were also paranoid people because the job, you have to be cautious with that kind of job.

Valerie
Yeah, for sure. After not such a great experience with your screenplay what prompted you then to write your first novel in 2004?

Lisa
What happened was I wrote the Spellmans first as a screenplay and this was after the failure of the film I wrote. Basically no one wanted to read anything that I had to write in Hollywood at that point. I didn’t really know what to do so for about four years in between the failure of the film and starting to write the novel I would struggle. I would write but basically I had a day job working at my uncle’s CPA practice. I was bored and I was miserable and I felt like that the one skill I had learned didn’t translate into anything.

I learned how to write comedic stories and it doesn’t work. I’m not a copy editor or anything like that. After ten years of trying, actually much longer than that, I felt like I couldn’t quite give up. So I decided one last time to give it a go. And that’s when I envisioned up The Spellman Files as a novel in part because as a screenplay it felt really truncated.

So I had relatives who kept an empty house in central New York and I asked them if I could move in. I saved as much money as I could and I lived there for about nine months. That’s when I wrote the novel and fortunately it worked out.

Valerie
Writing a novel is very different to writing a film script. Did you find the transition or hard or challenging or what?

Lisa
It was incredibly challenging and to be perfectly honest it wasn’t like I thought it was going to work out. I just did it because this is what I was used to doing like I just kept trying because I didn’t know any other way. But I had never written a novel before because I thought that I couldn’t.

But what I did when I decided to write a novel was I decided that there were no rules. With screenplays there are so many rules and so many limitations and I had to admit that I was tired of them. Then way that I approached the novel was as long as I could keep people reading it didn’t matter how I did it.

If I was going to draw pictures I would have done that if I could draw. Fortunately I think that it’s for the best that I didn’t. But that was how I approached it and then I basically scrapped the screenplay and thought about the Spellmans in a whole new light because I knew that I had the room to tell any story that I wanted to tell.

Valerie
At the end of that nine months what did you do to get people interested in it?

Lisa
After the nine months we are talking about just a first draft pretty much. I revised for four or five months after I returned home to help out with some family matters. Then after the revisions I had people read it and I kept revising some more and some more. And then eventually it was time to do the agent hunt.

Everything I did after that was very literally by the book. When I talked to my agent she said she usually gets her clients through referrals. But I bought a book on how to find a literary agent which is very different from a film agent. I wrote query letters and I probably got about 50 rejections before I found my agent.

But it can be done. You can know no one in the business and still sell a book. That’s really what happened. I like to tell people that because I knew no one and so I just followed the instructions in several books.

Valerie
When you were getting the 50 rejections what kept you going?

Lisa
I had been reading a lot of blogs. There was an agent who wrote an anonymous blog. Her name was Miss Snark and so she gave you advice on how to do these things and how to navigate the world of books. And one of the things was until you get 100 rejections, don’t worry about it.

Obviously you have to think about what you are doing. When you query and agent it needs to be specific to the agent. You can’t just send the same letter to 30 people. You need to do it slowly. I respected that process very much and knew that I only had one shot with each agent so I was cautious.

Valerie
How did you keep the faith? Did you have a lot of confidence in your novel or how did you not get despondent?

Lisa
When I set out to write this book and everything that I had written in my life I write to make a living as a writer. While I indulge myself in some ways I’ve always been aware of the fact that what I write has to be entertaining. I knew that I had written something that was fun. I didn’t know if it was perfect. I didn’t know if it was sellable. A lot of work was done on the book after we sold it as much as beforehand.

But I did really feel like I had something there. So the one problem that I had was that it didn’t fit specifically into any genre so I knew that I was going to have a bit of a problem with that. Because it isn’t a traditional detective novel. There’s no dead body. The mysteries are secondary to the struggles that go on within the family.

Valerie
Now you have written now three Spellman books and have a fourth on the way. Tell us about your latest one. What’s that about and how did that get inspired?

Lisa
Revenge of the Spellmans is the one that’s currently out in Australia and that’s the most recent. The way that I look at all of the books is that they are about the evolution of a family. The family happens to be private investigators but everything that influences the books is about what would realistically would happen next in their life. So Isabel Spellman is my narrator and in the first book I think of it as sort of like a story about a family at war. The second book is about Isabel figuring out who she is and how to deal with her propensity with investigating beyond what is reasonable. In the third book she is sort of coming back into the fold and realizing that she can be part of the family.

Valerie
I understand that film rights to The Spellman Files have now been optioned. It’s almost come full circle. Will you be writing a screenplay again?

Lisa
No actually what happened was we went out to publishers with the first book the film rights were optioned that same week. It was ironic but no, I won’t be writing the script because I felt like I had already written the script. I really loved writing novels at that point and I continue to feel that way. You have the space to tell the story that you need to tell and with screenplays you have to deal with notes from people who have no business giving you notes. It’s writing by committee.

Valerie
Now that you are well on your way, you have written your fourth novel. Tell us about your typical writing day. Do you have a routine? Presumably now you don’t need to work at your uncle’s CPA practice.

Lisa
Nope.

Valerie
Is there a certain thing that you go through each day when you are in the middle of writing to get the creative writing process out there?

Lisa
Yeah, I’m very scheduled, which is funny because in the rest of my life I’m not. I’m not a very organized person in general but when it comes to writing it took so long to get to this point that I’ve been very responsible about at least this. Everything else can sort of fall apart but the writing has to stay.

So during the process of writing a first draft, which usually takes four to five months, I write mostly every day. Obviously there are some days in which things happen and you don’t but I use word quotas just because I know approximately how many words my books are supposed to be. I stick to the word quota and if I write more, that’s great but I generally don’t let myself write less. And I write in the morning only.

Valerie
Oh, why is that?

Lisa
I am freshest then. By the afternoon I just feel, I don’t know, I can’t focus.

Valerie
Is there any particular routine that you do or get into? Some writers say that they have to have their cup of tea first or they have to watch an episode of Law and Order first or I don’t know.

Lisa
Coffee is essential. Nothing happens with me before coffee.

Valerie
Fair enough. Have you considered writing other genres or other books that are not about the Spellmans?

Lisa
Absolutely. In fact I have finished my contract with the Spellmans. So four books are done and I’ve already started two other writing projects that are very different. I’ve always said that I would not spell the alphabet in Spellman books.

Valerie
Can you tell us what your two writing projects are about yet?

Lisa
Sure, one is a little hard to explain but its really just straight fiction. That’s an interesting process because its not a comedic novel either. It’s really just sort of trying to write a novel about a person and how it unfolds like a mystery but its not a mystery. Because I think what keeps people reading is the same with everything. It’s a question. You leave questions unanswered and people keep reading. I’m sort of trying to navigate that process.

Then the other project is a collaboration of a crime novel and I’m not going to say more on that just because we are working on how to do that now. Because I haven’t collaborated with anyone before.

Valerie
I’m sure that it will be a very different process.

Lisa
Very different, yes. We have a lot of rules that we make with each other.

Valerie
Sure. Now you worked at that detective agency quite some years ago now and it was for a couple of years so obviously you must need to do quite a bit of additional research for your novels now. What do you do? Where do you go for that?

Lisa
I’m fortunate that the private investigative agency is literally like a few blocks from where I live so when I have questions I can just go over there.

Valerie
Oh, great. No lack of inspiration then around the corner?

Lisa
No they love to tell me stories and because of that its hard to get them to focus on the question that I have. Because I have an idea about where I want to go with it and then they have all these stories that they want to tell me.

Valerie
What sort of cases do you find most intriguing in a private detective agency?

Lisa
One of the things that I wanted to show with the Spellmans books was about detective work is not how we perceive it in film and books. It’s just this isn’t what they do. What they do is they sit in a car and they watch someone and usually that person isn’t doing that much.

Think about what you do during your day. If someone were following you he or she would probably be sitting around a lot because you have a job. Detectives don’t solve murders. They don’t break into people’s homes. They don’t get into fistfights too often as far as I’ve heard.

I wanted to show the more mundane side of detective work because for me mysteries aren’t about big crimes and conspiracies but they are about smaller things. What does a person doing and why is a person doing that?

Valerie
If your Spellmans were cast in Hollywood do you have an idea who you would like to see in the lead as Isabel?

Lisa
You know I don’t because Isabel to me was always just someone in my head and so it always felt sort of wrong to put a face on her that wasn’t that vague face that I’ve always had of her. I don’t do that and I think that a lot of writers would have a hard time casting the leads. Unfortunately I’m not very good at that. Then they could be getting close to casting and I don’t want to step on any toes.

Valerie
Sure, right. That’s diplomatic. Now obviously this is about private detectives and you are collaborating on a crime novel. Were you always interested in crime and mystery and that sort of thing?

Lisa
No, when I think about what I used to read before I became labelled a crime novelist no, I didn’t. I read more literary fiction probably which I think helped when I set out to write a novel because I knew I wasn’t going to write anything high-end. So I didn’t try to emulate anyone. Everything was just sort of how can I tell this the best.

Valerie
What’s the most challenging thing for you as a writer?

Lisa
The most challenging part for the Spellmans was how do you write a mystery that is not really a mystery and have a series that stays fresh. Because I’ve seen these series writers just become so stale and really sort of disrespect their audience by not trying and not coming up with something new. I just really didn’t want to do that. The challenge has been figuring out a way to not write the same book over and over again.

Valerie
I guess when you’ve got the dynamics of a family there are all sorts of things that you can draw in as well.

Lisa
Exactly.

Valerie
It’s like Six Feet Under in a detective agency.

Lisa
Thank you. I love that show.

Valerie
Finally what would your advice be to aspiring writers who want to write their first novel or are in the middle of writing their first novel and they are just thinking, “Am I going to get somewhere?”

Lisa
Two things, one, I would suggest that people keep in mind that someone is going to be reading it and you have to give them a reason to keep reading. Also I’d say don’t emulate other writers. Figure out what you do best and do that.

Valerie
That’s good advice.

Lisa
Thank you.

Valerie
On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Lisa.

Lisa
Thanks for having me.


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