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About William Lashner

Q & A

Lisa Scottoline interviews William Lashner


The following interrogation of WILLIAM LASHNER was performed in the basement of the Roundhouse, Philadelphia Police Headquarters. As per police regulations, the room was dank, full of shadows, and the single light in the room was focused on the subject's face. The subject was read his rights and declined representation of counsel, but he did ask for a pair of sunglasses and a cruller.

Q. Do you know why you're here?
A. Because I have a book coming out in May called PAST DUE? Could that be it?

Q. Don't be smart with us, smart guy. We're trying to get a lowdown on some bird name of Victor Carl. You know him?
A. Sure I do. A Philadelphia lawyer, strictly low rent, always looking to make a dishonest dime.

Q. A real ambulance chaser, huh?.
A. Victor chases ambulances with the same devotion and enthusiasm as dogs chase cars. Whenever an ambulance stops short he cracks a tooth. But he also handles the occasional high profile murder case when it falls into his lap, like in FATAL FLAW. Or now and again a wrongful death suit, like in BITTER TRUTH. Or, just recently, the investigation of a murder as recounted in PAST DUE, when a client, a career criminal named Joey Cheaps, gets his throat slit on some pier down by the waterfront. Victor decides he owes it to his client to find out why he was killed. It is sort of a moral decision, to find the killer, and it has nothing to do with the pictures of the naked woman he finds and obsesses over, or with the suitcase full of money that is out there, waiting to be snatched. Really, it isn't those things at all. Victor is just trying to do the right thing.

Q. And we're supposed to believe that?
A. Well, no. But as his partner says, Victor usually does the right thing, just for the wrong reasons.

Q. So how does it turn out?
A. Not so well. Victor stumbles on the remnants of a drug ring, decades old, and that leads to a sitting Supreme Court justice who might be involved in Joey's murder and another murder that happened twenty years before. As soon as the justice gets involved the law seems to turn against Victor. The DA starts giving him a hard time, a client gets unfairly slammed in court, and a routine appearance in Traffic Court ends with Victor behind bars. I mean, he was speeding and he ran a stop sign but still.

Q. A jailbird, is he? That figures. He must have had a tough time, a lawyer behind bars.
A. Not really. It turns out Victor is able to drum up quite a bit of business. You would be surprised how many people in prison are having legal troubles. Can I have another cruller?

Q. No, but this is police headquarters so there are always donuts.
A. No thank you, the jelly might stain my tie.

Q. And that would be a problem how?
A. Is that part of your bad cop routine?

Q. So what are you, some kind of writer?
A. Some kind, yeah. I write novels with a lawyer as the hero, no matter how oxymoronic that might sound. I try to write stories that are thrilling and full of mystery and funny all at the same time, stories that raise moral questions but come up with very few moral answers, stories that emotionally touch readers through the characters. And the law is merely one of the tools my protagonist, who happens to be the Victor Carl you're so interested in, uses to find out what's going on and to try find a resolution that makes some sort of moral sense. He's not so much a reflection of me as he is a reflection of the type of lawyer I might have been had things gone very differently in my life. I like to think I'm writing in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, although I don't ape his style.

Q. So this Victor Carl, is he some hero type, like Chandler's Marlowe? Is he a hard guy?
A. Oh no, he's a pussycat. The only thing he knows about guns is that he's afraid of them. And he's also very polite. He says please and thank you even when he's picking your pocket. Except in court, he's not polite in court. In court he's a tiger. Trust me, you don't want to meet up with him in court. But outside, he's got all the fighting instincts of a pill bug. And sure, maybe he drinks too much, and maybe he's a little too clever, a little too glib, but basically he's a coward. In fact, he's proud of his cowardice. He thinks it's one of his finer traits, along with his unbridled venality and the horniness of a horned toad.

Q. He likes the ladies, huh?
A. Oh yes, but unfortunately more than they like him. He's hung up on beautiful sad-eyed women who refuse to give him the time of day. In fact, in PAST DUE he finally meets a normal, well adjusted woman. She's pretty, young, and a doctor -- a doctor! -- which, because he is Jewish, Victor finds especially appealing. She's perfect for him in every way except that she is very sincere, which he has trouble with, and she's a vegetarian. It's at a Chinese restaurant, while the two of are sharing a plate of tofu, while platters heaped with beef and chicken and shrimp pass him by, that he realizes it won't work with the doctor. "This is what I have learned of life from eating in Chinese restaurants," he writes, "the meal that would make me most perfectly happy is always being served at the table next to mine."

Q. A pathetic loner, is that it?
A. Not at all. He's got a partner, Beth Derringer, who is his best friend, and a private investigator named Phil Skink, who is just as ethically challenged as Victor so they get along perfectly. And then, in PAST DUE, there is Kimberly Blue, who is astonishingly beautiful and astonishingly young and yet is already a vice president at some shady corporation that, for some strange reason, is also keenly interested in Joey Cheap's murder. Kimberly reminds me of my middle school daughter -- in fact, amazingly, some of the expressions they use are identical, how did that happen? - and that might explain why Victor is not so interested in making her as in saving her. (Beth opines that it's because she's not sad enough for Victor and Victor, always as self-aware as a moth, wonders what the heck she's talking about.) Anyway, it turns out that however vulnerable Kimberly might appear, she is absolutely able to take care of herself, which, come to think about it, is a lot like my daughter too. And then of course there is Victor's father.

Q. How is Victor's father doing? I heard he was sick.
A. He's in the hospital actually, which is pretty convenient for Victor because Victor's cable's out, due to his inability to pay that pesky little bill which comes every month, and so having a father in the hospital gives him a chance to watch the Sixers play on ESPN. But it's not all good. His father is actually dying, and his dying father feels compelled to tell his only son about the true love of his life, the girl who got away, the girl in the pleated skirt. It's a story Victor doesn't want to hear - who does want to hear the details of his father's failed love life - but a story that turns out to have had a huge impact on Victor's life. It's a story of love, of sex, of greed and murder and betrayal, all fun father-and-son-bonding stuff which, through the telling of it, strangely heals the relationship between Victor and his dad.

Q. Aw, that almost sounds sweet.
A. Not too sweet, because Victor's father is a grumpy old pessimist and Victor does everything he can to avoid opening up to the dying man. As Victor says in the book, "The unexamined life might not be worth living, but the examined life is pure murder."

Q. Is there a point to all this?
A. Gosh, I hope not. I don't trust novels with points, do you? If a novel is only about a point, the writer should just say it in as few words as possible so we can take it in and go back to watching 'The Bachelor' on television. But PAST DUE is a story about dealing with the past, the price of burying it, the futility of trying to cure it as if it were a disease, and the value of embracing it and learning from it before moving on. Or maybe it's just a fun story of murder and revenge with a swordfight at the end, sort of like Hamlet without the tights. Which is too bad, actually, because Victor would look good in tights, like an albino flamingo with a thyroid condition.

Q. This Victor creep, are we going to see him again or is he gone for good?
A. No, he'll be back. Victor is like the piece of gum that sticks to your shoe, then to your thumb, then to your other thumb, then to your palm, then to your nose, the piece gum you just can't get rid of and that ruins your day. Yeah, Victor's just like that. But in the next book he'll be battling an enemy so fearsome, so brutal and sadistic, that it makes my skin crawl just thinking about. He makes Dr. No look like a yes man. He makes Dr. Strangelove look like a missionary. The most savage of all professionals.

Q. You don't mean . . .
A. That's right. In the next book, Victor goes up against a dentist.

Lisa Scottoline interviews William Lashner

April 11, 2003

In this special interview for Bookreporter.com's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight, bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, author of COURTING TROUBLE and the upcoming book DEAD RINGER (due in stores in May 2003), talks to William Lashner about his new book FATAL FLAW (due in stores May 9th) setting books in Philadephia, femme fatales and the word love.

Lisa Scottoline: You look great. Have you been working out?
William Lashner: Absolutely, Lisa, and thank you for noticing. Basically every day I do the fifteen reps, two sets each arm, of cheese curls and then I press my pants. Doesn't do much for my body, but my creases are impeccable.

Lisa Scottoline: Victor Carl, the lawyer hero of your books, is unusual in that he follows his own brand of ethics, which turns out to be rather twisted. Who were you thinking of when you created him?
William Lashner: My lawyer heroes are Clarence Darrow and Thurgood Marshall, men of unquestioned integrity and strong moral beliefs, and so of course they were not the models for Victor Carl. Instead, in fashioning Victor, I harkened back to the old pulp detective novels I still love. I wanted a character that believed the rules didn't apply to him, but who, in the end, wouldn't violate some internal code of honor, a code that is completely opaque to the rest of the world and not quite clear to him, either. The major difference between these old pulp detectives and Victor is that Victor never ever uses a gun.

Lisa Scottoline: Is there anything similar between you and Victor in the way you practiced law?
William Lashner: We both believed in getting the retainer up front.

Lisa Scottoline: The first time we see Hailey Prouix in FATAL FLAW she's a corpse, but she ends up taking over the book. Was that intended from the start?
William Lashner: I think you're right that she steals the story. At the start, I was more interested in Guy Forrest, the man who leaves his wife and children for the other woman, and Hailey was simply his bad choice. But as I wrote the book, and as the stories about Hailey started pouring forth from the other characters, she became more complex and more interesting than I had originally thought. By the time I reached the end of the first draft I realized it was her book and that every secret, every mystery, every explanation of motive came out of her past. I was surprised and then pleased and then I went about tearing the thing apart and rewriting the story with her in the forefront.

Lisa Scottoline: You seem to have a thing for femmes fatales. What's that all about and are you seeing someone about it?
William Lashner: I've always been a sucker for a dangerous woman, which is why I admire you so much. A femme fatale is mysterious and frightening and she quickens the blood and leads you to do all these things you would never do without her but with her you can't stop yourself from doing with her. In that way she's all about sex, I suppose, but I'm not talking about the act, more like the way sex lives like a dangerous spark in our consciousness, waiting for something to set on fire. The interesting thing about a femme fatale is that she is a femme fatale only in the warped consciousness of the man heading down the dangerous road with her. To herself, she's just a woman trying to get by. That was what surprised me about Hailey. She can't help herself when it comes to manipulating the men with whom she becomes involved, but in her heart she's only doing the best she can with the rotten hand she was dealt.

Lisa Scottoline: Victor says in the book that while Eskimos have all their different words for snow because they understand snow, we only have one word for love because, basically, we are clueless about what it really is. Do you really think that's true?
William Lashner: Absolutely. We love our kids, our spouses, our parents, our friends, our favorite books and each is very very different. And sometimes we give up all that we profess to love for something that we also call love, something inescapable and powerful and transforming in both positive and negative ways and that in the end can either deliver us or destroy us.

Lisa Scottoline: The defendant in the book, who is accused of Hailey's murder, seems to have given up everything for love. It clearly worked out badly for him, but do you think he was he a hero or a fool?
William Lashner: That's the question isn't it? Whenever I start a novel I begin with two contradictory ideas, which I write out and on a note card and tape to the wall, and then I let those ideas fight it out for supremacy over the course of the book. For FATAL FLAW the contradictory ideas were about love and whether or not there was a price too high to pay for finding and pursuing it. Usually in my books one or the other idea comes out the victor but in FATAL FLAW I think they slugged it out to a draw. The idea that love can save you is very dangerous and can lead to desperation and obsession and brutal disappointment, because it places on another person responsibility that really belongs to the self. On the other hand, of course, life without love is not something I would want to live. In that way, I suppose, love is a lot like air-conditioning and the remote control.

Lisa Scottoline: We're both Philly guys, setting our books right here. What role does Philadelphia play in your writing?
William Lashner: Not only is Philadelphia my home, it was my father's home and my grandfather's home, so it has a place deep in my heart. Its language is my language, its baseball team is my baseball team, its geography is hardwired in my brain. The great thing about these pulp detectives I was talking about before is that they are perennial outsiders, which makes them perfect explorers of all the differing strata of society, which Philly has in abundance, the rich, with their locked jaws, the poor, with their missing teeth, the powerful and put upon, and the guys on the corner who don't give a damn about any of it. Victor moves easily among all the differing levels, which lets him see so much of the city's character. And of course there's no shortage of sordid stories in the newspaper to feed the imagination.

Lisa Scottoline: Part of the book takes place in Las Vegas. Was that necessary for the story or a cheap ploy to send you to the Strip for research?
William Lashner: Let me just say that the sweetest words a man can ever say to his wife is, "Dear, I have to go to Vegas for business." Actually, I read that Henderson, Nevada was the fastest growing town in America, an honest-to-goodness boomtown, and I thought that would be an interesting place to set a scene. Just imagine my delight when I looked on the map and I found it was fifteen miles from the Vegas Strip. Just imagine. "Dear, I have to go to some place called Henderson, Nevada for business. " She felt sorry for me until she looked at the map too.

Lisa Scottoline: Your detective in the story says he has a system for playing craps. Care to share it?
William Lashner: It's a little technical. If you know something about craps my system might make sense, if not, you'd be better off reading Dostoyevski in the original Russian.

Lisa Scottoline: Does it work?
William Lashner: Not really, but the advantage of this system is that when you lose money, by the end of the session you have such a headache you don't care any more.

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