Monday 13 June 2011

Sandra Scoppettone interview: A Creative Kind of Killer

A Creative Kind of Killer by Sandra Scoppettone
Amazon UK, Amazon US

Sandra's bio: I was born in South Orange, New Jersey, an only child, and moved to NYC as fast as I could. Life was very crazy there because a lot of drinking took place. I always wanted to be a writer and my first book, Suzuki Beane, illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh, was published when I was 25.  I’ve written 19 books, including Young Adult novels. I live in Southold, New York with my partner, Linda Crawford and our dog, Hammett. Life is not very crazy here because there’s no drinking by me.

Can you sum up A Creative Kind of Killer in no more than 25 words?

Fortune Fanelli, ex-cop, is a PI who lives in New York’s SoHo.  A dead girl, posed as a mannequin in a shop window, starts this case.

That’s hard. Not the case, reducing my book to 25 words.

What was your motivation for writing it?

I’d been writing for years as Sandra Scoppettone, both YAs and adult novels.  My career had come to a standstill.  As they say, I couldn’t get arrested. So I went into a funk and lay on the couch reading one crime novel after another, mostly PIs.  After about a month of this a male voice started talking in my head.   I thought that either I was going crazy or he was my next protagonist.  I decided on the latter.  Since I found myself writing in the first person voice of a man I felt I should change my writing name and came up with Jack Early.  Also, it was better for me at the time since no one was knocking on the door for Scoppettone.

When the book was published no one knew it was me except my agent and editor.  It got great reviews, was nominated for an Edgar and won the Shamus.  I don’t think that would’ve happened to Sandra Scoppettone at that time in history.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

I write dialogue best.  I started off as a playwright so maybe that’s the reason.  But, of course, I had to be good at dialogue to be a playwright, so that’s not the reason. I’m simply good at it.  I listen to people when they’re speaking.  Really listen. And then my characters tell me how they want to say something.

My weakness is plot.  I never know who the killer is until the end and that can create some anxiety for me.  On the other hand it’s more fun not to know.

From an artistic rather than financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?

I’ve often said that I wish I’d written this or that but the only two that come to mind are GET SHORTY by Elmore Leonard and DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT by Anne Tyler.  GET SHORTY because it’s quintessential Leonard and no one should ever write another book about Hollywood.  There’s no need for one.

The question asked is for one book, but I have to add DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT because to me it’s a perfect novel. Perfect.

Do you enjoy writing?

It depends on the book. I very much enjoyed writing as Early. It gave me a freedom I’d never had before because no one was going to know who I was. And I didn’t have a contract ahead of time based on a few chapters which is what I’d done before.  It was an entirely new experience.

Also, writing directly for the crime genre was new to me.  The novels I’d written before had crimes in them but I never felt I was writing a crime novel.  This book was a PI novel and though I’d read them I didn’t think I could write one.

Lying on that couch reading one book after another was like taking a course.  I figured out what to do and what not to do. 

However, after writing eight more novels after that one (not all Jack Earlys) I wrote two hundred page starts then stopped.  I realized I wasn’t enjoying it.  In fact, I actively felt sick when I even thought about writing.  I retired.

It’s only now that I’ve come to understand that facing an agent and an editor and all the possible rejections in between, then doing publicity is a big part of me feeling sick about writing.  Why now?  Because while putting my backlist online I realized that I could write a new book and do the same.  No agent, no editor, etc.  At this point I don’t know if I will or not, but the thought doesn’t make me sick.

Ever tried your hand at screen writing?

Yes.  When I was twenty-seven I wrote an original screenplay.  The dialogue thing again.  Amazingly, a Hollywood producer was interested and took out an option on it. I flew out there. I didn’t know anyone in the business. 

The whole thing was scary to me.  I had to meet with the producer and he wanted to change so many things I knew it was never going to happen.

And it didn’t.  Somehow he ended up owning the screenplay.  I had a bad contract.  It infuriated me for years.  Of course now I don’t think about it except when asked for something like this.

I did have a movie made.  It was a crazy thing with Holly Woodlawn, who is a transvestite, Bette Midler singing, but not seen (very early in her career) and Lily Tomlin doing a voice over.  And a lot of weird actors.

It was shot in NYC and I’d write a page and the director would grab it out of my typewriter as we went along.  That was an insane but fun experience.  I wish I could get a copy, but I can’t find the director.  The title was  A Scarecrow In a Garden of Cucumbers.  Don’t ask!

I was a playwright before becoming a novelist and had a few productions Off Off Broadway.  Also, I wrote for television.  One drama and three soaps.

How important is a book’s central character?

The central character is everything, I think.  Both writer and reader have to like him or her. 

Fortune Fanelli is completely likeable.  He’s attractive, charming, smart, and funny.  He’s also a single parent of two children.  Larry Block said: "Fortune Fanelli is thoughtful and sensitive and a welcome addition to private eye literature."

After three Jack Early novels I wrote a series with a female private eye under my own name.  She’s Lauren Laurano.  People like her a lot.  So do I.  But I would because she’s based on me.  Notice I said, based.

People who write criminals as their protagonist have to make them really charming.  Elmore Leonard is a master at this.

I’ve put down books that are well-written and have a good plot if I don’t like the main character.

Unlike most people I don’t like Lisbeth Salander of the Stieg Larsson novels.  Therefore when I finished the first (I did read all of this one) I knew I wasn’t going to read the other two.  So sue me, I can’t help it, I don’t like her!

Jason Starr and Charlie Huston have managed the trick of making a main character who isn’t so nice, palatable. Even likeable.  And we can’t forget Ruth Rendell.  A virtuoso at this.

What’s the best piece of craft advice you’ve been given?

Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied"


Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

But we’ve all been given that advice because it’s one of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing.

Do you have any other projects on the go?

For the last five months I’ve been putting my OOP backlist on Amazon as eBooks.  It sounds simple but it’s not. I started this project determined to not spend a cent to do it, but that proved impossible.

If you don’t still have your old computer, you probably can’t use the backups you made on floppies.

Not having them required a scanning process.  Finding a good inexpensive place to do the work took time. I finally found one.  But it cost me. And then I discovered the books I had were my only copies!  So I had to go online to buy used copies.  I was able to find all of them at reasonable prices.  Still, that was more money.

When the scans finally came back to me I had to begin the process of proofing.  After setting up the required format, the process was exactly the same as going over your book in galleys.

And there was the cover issue.  The original jacket design is not allowed.  More money.  I checked around and it was prohibitive.  I guess it wouldn’t be if you were going to do one book, but I planned on eight. My three Jack Earlys and my Lauren Laurano series.  Then I lucked out.  My cousin agreed to do them.  He did the first three and then a fan in France wrote me and offered her services for free.  She’s a graphic designer which my cousin wasn’t.  She’s been wonderful.  No, I’m not going to tell you her name.

There’s a process to get a book online at Amazon. A few days go by and there it is ready for sale. I have two left to do. At this point I’ve made back the money I laid out to do this project.  I urge anyone with a backlist to do this…and perhaps with a new book.

A Creative Kind of Killer by Sandra Scoppettone
Amazon UK, Amazon US


  1. This is one of the most intelligent and informative interviews I've read in a long time. Although I'm a fan of Ms. Scoppettone, there was a lot about her that I didn't know. Also, I learned a thing or two about the writing process.

  2. a very useful and informative interview, Sandra, thanks.
    glad you lucked out on the covers (people get the luck they deserve, quite often)otherwise you may have had to put up with some well-meaning nutter with big boots sending you mock-ups of, say, bloody canvases and palette knives.

  3. I linked to this today in a discussion of "perfect books." Hope that's okay.

  4. Praise indeed, Patti. I can think of very few of those.

  5. Hi Sandra,
    Good to know that you are alive and well with a
    partner and a dawg! I will be amazoning Jack Early.
    I wish you would get yourself to a '54 reunion
    if we live long enough for another one.
    Dottie Roscoe Brattstrom throws a good party.
    Has turning 80 made you wiser? Me neither.
    best regards,
    Pat Grant Porter