How I Write: Lisa Scottoline & Daughter Francesca Serritella

Mother and daughter Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella, coauthors of many essay collections including the new Meet Me at Emotional Baggage Claim, talk about doing a weekly column together, their different writing routines, and Mom’s attempt to get her daughter to wear the same outfit during a book signing.

Lisa, you live near Philadelphia. Aside from cheese steaks, Amish donuts, scrapple, and the usual draws, what do you love about Philadelphia and why do you live there?

Lisa Scottoline: I love everything about Philadelphia, and its food is like the city itself: real-deal, hearty, and without pretension. We’ve always had an underdog vibe as a city, but that just makes us try harder, and I love our scrappiness and scruffiness. I love our history, too, in that the very nation was born here, but our attitude reminds us that we’re a nation formed in a fight. I love the dignity in the name Philadelphia, but at heart, we’re Philly.

Francesca Serritella: While I’ll always have a soft spot for my hometown of Philly, I live in New York City now and I love it. I feel like moving to New York was essential to my becoming an adult. I’m a little risk-averse, a good girl, a homebody, and while those traits have their place, trying to start a career and a life as a 20-something is not it. New York has been the antidote to all that. Everything they say about that city, good and bad, is true. It is too fast, dirty, dangerous, impractical; it is also exciting, creative, inspiring, and wonderful. I’ve been robbed and flashed, but I’ve also written a novel and fallen in love. Having lived there for just three years, I think I’m bolder, hungrier, and more curious about the world around me. I feel like that city has helped raise me.

Describe your morning routine.

LS: This is a great question, because what I want to know from other writers is what their day is like. So, to answer, I get up around 8 o'clock, which gives me enough time to walk dogs and feed chickens and horses. Then I get to work in my home office upstairs, and basically, I don’t stop until I’ve written 2,000 words and/or the Stephen Colbert show is over. Then I wake up and do it all again. I feel lucky, happy, and blessed to live my life.

FS: I’m also up by 7:30 or 8, although my life in New York City is simpler than my mother’s in rural Pennsylvania, ironic as that may sound. I have only one dog! The first thing I do after I walk my dog is read the paper—and I do mean paper—I find I read the newspaper differently in hard copy, so I have it delivered every day. I often find inspiration for my writing in the most unlikely articles, something in the Science section or obituaries. Then I check email and quickly scan my favorite blogs and websites so that I’ll resist checking them during my workday. Finally, I try to work out in the mornings before my limited motivation completely dissipates; it’s nice to move around before a day of sitting in front of the computer. Then I get down to business: 1,000 words a day is my goal.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

LS: I have a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee every morning, because I believe it has magical powers. I have to get it from the store, because it’s not the same if I make it at home. Only the geniuses at Dunkin’ Donuts know what they put in the coffee to power my writing, and mine is not to question why.

FS: I don’t think I have one. Of the two of us, I’m the well-adjusted one.

Together, you write a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Chick Wit.” How does the process of coauthoring work? Do you sit together and talk out what you want to write, or do you take turns with drafts?

LS: We love writing the weekly column together, but we don’t sit down and do it side-by-side. I live outside of Philadelphia, and Francesca lives in New York City, and we come up with our ideas and write our columns completely separately, then send them into our mutual editor. This sounds oddly apart for a mother-daughter team, especially one as tight as ours is, and we talk on the phone about three or four times a day, but we never talk about the column. My sense is this is as it should be. I write in my own voice about subjects that concern my age group, and Francesca does the same. My job as her coauthor, and more importantly, as her mother, is to let her be herself.

FS: Yes, we write them in different states, which is safer for everyone. Joking aside, my mom does a great job giving me the space I need to find my own voice in my writing. And in turn, I make a point not to turn my mother into my editor. I’ll always be able to find a critic, but you only get one mother, and I have a terrific one. I’d rather protect her in that role, so that when I’m having the usual doubts that come with being a young writer, I can call her for comfort, not line edits.

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Your new book is coauthored. What was the process like in book form?

LS: The process is no different in book form than it is for the weekly columns, though we write additional stories for the books, as a bonus to our readers. Just as with the column, we write them separately and compile them at the end.

FS: Yes, and it’s really fun when we first put our columns together in the collections and find similarities or these interesting parallels that we never intended. Like one time I wrote a piece about how I get neurotic reading the wedding announcements in the paper, and my mom wrote a similar one about obsessing over the obituaries. Or if you read our dating ones side by side, it’s hilarious to see our different takes. So even though we don’t write them together, somehow it all works. We are related, after all.

Lisa, does fiction or memoir come more easily to you? Do you enjoy writing one more than the other?

LS: I love writing both fiction and memoir. Both have unique challenges; bottom line, fiction is hard because you have to come up with the credible, twisty plot, and memoir is hard because you have to say something true and profound, albeit in a funny way. Taken together, my fiction and memoir are two halves of the same whole, because one is centered on murder and the other centered on Spanx.

Francesca, how has having a famous author mother affected your decision to become a writer, and your writing itself?

FS: My mother never pressured me to “follow in her footsteps.” I like to say that the fact that I share her passion for writing is coincidence, but that I have the courage to pursue it is all her. What I mean is that I feel incredibly fortunate to have a mother who is so supportive of a creative career. And she was a lawyer when I was born, the writing came later, so I had the privilege of watching her build the career she has now, I got to see the bumps in the road and how her perseverance paid off. So I have no expectation that this should be easy or instantaneous, but I saw firsthand how believing in yourself can make it possible. Watching her has empowered me.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

LS: My writing is like my life, there’s no map. I have an idea, and as you correctly say, I just let it flow. I think this works perfectly for fiction because I’m always asking what the main character would do next, which gives both the action and the characterization a logical narrative drive. It works as well for memoir, because the reader can follow it so easily and it invites lots of funny riffing and places for humor to announce itself.

FS: My pre-writing routine is a little more structured than my mother’s. For the humorous essays, I do traditional outlines; I find a little planning makes the shorter pieces feel tighter, but I write the jokes or riffs spontaneously or they feel flat to me. For the novel I’m working on, I had a rough idea of the beginning and end when I started, but it felt too big to wrangle in a tidy outline. Instead, I did what I inelegantly call a “brain dump,” where I wrote out long rambling notes to myself about what interested me in the idea, what themes I wanted to explore, how I saw each character, etc. I rarely referred to it during writing, but the initial process helped focus my thinking.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? What do you keep on your desk?

LS: I work at a small cherry wood table, which I keep uncluttered, if you don’t count food debris. The table is between two windows, but I don’t look out either window. The only view was a white page. All of this sounds terrible, but is in fact completely and totally awesome.

FS: I used to be a café and restaurant nomad, camping out at various spots in Cambridge to write all day. But two things happened that changed my routine: moving to New York City and getting my dog. First, New Yorkers are so varied and weird and interesting, the people coming in and out of any given Starbucks are much too distracting for anyone with a writer’s curiosity. And, my dog is so wonderful, I hate to leave him. So now I stay in my apartment, orbiting from place to place—the dining table, the desk, the couch, lying on the floor on my stomach. I can’t stay put. As for what’s on my desk, I am a Post-It queen, I jot ideas down on Post-Its and leave them everywhere around the apartment. The entire place is my “desk.” Thank God I live alone.

What is something you always carry with you?

LS: Emotional baggage.

FS: I take my dog everywhere. He’s too big to carry, but if I don’t have his leash in my right hand, I feel like I’m forgetting something.

What phrase do you overuse?

LS: “Carbohydrate trifecta.”

FS: I recently recorded the audiobook of our latest essay collection, and I found myself reading that “my mom and I went back and forth” again and again in my writing. I think I used it so much because it’s my polite way of saying “we fought,” generally over something stupid, and that happens more than I thought!

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

LS: My favorite story is the time that I went to a bookstore for a signing and there was just one person in the audience, an older woman sitting in the front row. I kept my chin up and decided that I would do my entire show for her, which I did, some 25 minutes of stories, jokes, and English-major talk about plot and character. When I was finished, I asked her if she had any questions, and she smiled up at me pleasantly, then answered completely in Polish. She didn’t speak a word of English. She was just using the chairs for a place to rest. I bought her the book.

FS: I was really nervous for our first book tour, and like any girl, I was freaking out that I had nothing to wear. So my mom generously gave me this chic blazer as a gift. She didn’t tell me until later that she also got it for herself. When the tour rolled around, even though she had a closet full of blazers and jackets from decades of signings, the only one she wanted to wear was the one she gave me. I gave in at first, but when she wanted to wear it for the fourth day in a row, I got annoyed. Her solution? Why don’t we both wear it to the signing. “It’ll be cute!” she said. Um, no.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

LS: I love to give advice, and being a mom, I can’t give enough, whether it’s wanted or not. So, in short, my advice would be, like Nike says, “Just do it.” Writing is completely behavioral, in that it requires you just to sit down, get out of your own way, and start writing down what you’re thinking. Don’t second-guess yourself. Don’t be mean to yourself or beat yourself up. Let yourself simply write down the story as you would tell it to someone, and I guarantee by the end of the day you will be on your way to starting a novel. Do it every day, with a word count, and before you know it, you will have written a finished first draft. Now when you’re ready for a second draft, that’s the time to get tough on yourself and your book, and ask yourself if each sentence really justifies its existence. If it doesn’t advance the plot, deepen the characterization, or entertain the reader, you should delete it. If you do that, the pace of the book will be swifter and the story as a whole will move quickly. They say that great books aren’t written, they’re rewritten, and whoever said that was probably drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, because they’re right. So go for it, and good luck.

FS: Some advice I received that set off a lightbulb over my head was this: give yourself permission to take yourself seriously. I think this is especially relevant to aspiring authors, who are often trying to squeeze writing time in around other jobs, kids, significant others, whatever. If you’re going to make time to write and give your career a chance, you’re going to have to say “no” and set limits on the other people and obligations in your life. That’s OK, that’s allowed, your writing dream is as valid and important as anything else in your life. No one will grant you that permission except yourself, and you deserve it.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

LS: “The End.”

FS: Whatever my family wants to say about me, the truth. I feel like my epitaph should be the one thing I don’t have to write. I have to live it and earn it. And if I love the people close to me and love them well, as I try to do every day, then I won’t have to worry about a thing—I can rest easy.

What is your next project?

LS: I just finished my standalone novel Don’t Go, to be published in April 2013, which stars a male protagonist, and as such, is a first for me. I already have a major crush on him, which is tragic, as he is completely fictional. I’m about to start writing the next installment of Rosato & Associates, entitled Accused, which will be out July 2013. This will be the first year in which I have written two novels and one nonfiction memoir with Francesca, and I feel happily energized and lucky in my publisher, my agent, my readers, and my amazing daughter.

FS: I just finished my first draft of a novel I’ve been working on for the last few years. The working title is Ghosts of Harvard, it’s about a young woman grappling with her older brother’s suicide and in the process, losing her grip on reality herself. I put my heart into this project, and I’m excited to see where it can go from here.