Interview with Lisa Lutz

March, 2012
Lisa Lutz The crimes investigated in a Lisa Lutz novel tend to be more true to everyday life (no back-alley murders or dead bodies washing ashore here). What Lutz lacks in blood spatter is more than made up for by her unforgettable characters, a family of private investigators named the Spellmans. Lutz introduced her neurotic narrator, Isabel Spellman—"a cross between Dirty Harry and Nancy Drew"—in 2007 with the first book of her comedic crime series, The Spellman Files. With a little sister who has a propensity for surveillance and parents who don't hesitate to run background checks on anyone she dates, Isabel has trouble separating her private life from her sleuthing work. The series' fifth installment, Trail of the Spellmans, now challenges Isabel to a trio of seemingly unrelated cases in San Francisco, all while she tries to dodge her police detective boyfriend's visiting mother. Lutz, a former screenwriter, chatted with Goodreads about her evolving characters and guilty pleasures.

Goodreads: If you had the chance to surveil anyone—dead or alive—whom would you follow?

Lisa Lutz: I don't know where to begin. Marlon Brando? I would have liked to, given the opportunity, surveil him for weeks on end. Who else? Patti Smith. Steve Buscemi. I'm trying to do that now. Do you know where he lives? The filmmaker Samuel Fuller. I would have loved to have observed him on set. There was something about him that really appealed to me. Yeah, I could go on.

GR: For readers jumping into the series with this new book, what do they need to know about Isabel Spellman and her family?

LL: With each book I try to find someone (who I don't know very well) to read the book without having read the others and tell me what it's missing. I think you have to understand that they are a family and they love each other, but they have a history. What I would ask readers to recognize is that you don't know everything, so you can extrapolate what you want and that's fine, but don't assume that you have all the information.

GR: When a character undergoes a major lifestyle change, Isabel often refers to the "Old" and "New" versions of the person. In your first book, The Spellman Files, Old Uncle Ray becomes New Uncle Ray when he starts boozing and gambling after beating cancer. And in your latest book, Trail of the Spellmans, Isabel's brother David has abandoned his high-powered lawyer job to become a stay-at-home dad. Do you find that people tend to make big changes all at once?

LL: I think it depends on the person. The book that I'm writing now, which is a non-Spellman book, is about the rapid transformations that people can make in their lives. In one of the books I argue that people don't change. But I think ultimately that circumstances can shake someone up so much that it's impossible not to change and not seem like a different person. I know it's happened in my life. If I were to look back eight years and see a video of myself then, I don't think I would recognize myself. I've had people point out to me that my transformation has been kind of shocking. It's so gradual when you're experiencing it. Change doesn't happen overnight unless something truly traumatic happens to you. I do think some people are capable of major transformation.

GR: Is there anything that you can reveal about your non-Spellman book at this stage?

LL: It's about characters over [a period of] 20 years. Each chapter is the age that the characters are, but it's not written in a linear form. When we first meet them, they are 18 and in college. They are so full of ambition and life. Then we meet them about 20 years later, and there is this incredible transformation that doesn't make any sense. It's not crime based, but it's about taking someone's life and turning it into a mystery and trying to unravel the details that made that person what they eventually became. It's very non-Spellman.

GR: You have been writing in Isabel Spellman's voice for five years and five books. Do you hear her in your head when going about your normal life, doing nonwriter stuff?

LL: Sometimes I feel like I lose the voice when I'm working on other things. When I had to go back to this Spellman book, it took me a while to get the voice again. It's certainly with me all the time. But I would emphasize that she's not me speaking. There is something happening that we're unconscious of when taking on this role. But I would say that, yes, things bleed together.

GR: Lots of fans are asking how many more Spellman books they can hope for. Do you have a plan for an ending?

LL: I have a contract for two more after I finish this next book. I don't see that end after two. My goal is that I don't write a bad Spellman book, and I have to keep figuring out, "How do I keep it fresh?" When I start to feel like I just don't know how to do it anymore, then I'll wind it down. But the winding down process is about figuring out, "What is the proper place to end this? And how quickly can I do that?" I don't want it to go on forever, but I do feel that given the parameters of the Spellman books I've done my best to keep them as fresh as I can. I'm never going to have a serial killer, but some days I do want to do the jump-the-shark book where it's completely insane. Like, they travel to Europe and they're on the run. Something totally ridiculous. I don't know if I could get away with it.

GR: Goodreads member Frances Yeh asks, "Rae has the same dog-with-a-bone attitude as Izzy. Have you ever considered writing a novel from her point of view?"

LL: People ask that, and they ask for Rae when she was younger, and they want a young adult series. Younger people can read the Spellman books, but I've never really wanted to write for kids. The readings for kids would be less fun; they will never serve booze. It's not a world I'm enmeshed in. I don't know that many teenagers, so I don't fully speak their language. I speak Rae's language; I understand Rae. Yes, Izzy is like a dog with a bone, but she's also filled with self-doubt and isn't quite as confident as Rae. I wanted to show young girls someone who was ridiculously and dangerously confident, and that's her. I don't want to write a book just from Rae's perspective, because I don't think she can tell us as much about the modern woman as Isabel can. Not many people are like Rae.

GR: Goodreads member Dean Jackson asks that you list three guilty pleasures.

LL: I'm a french fry maniac. I have to tell people to take them away from me. I've sunk so low that I've watched Ice Loves Coco. You're watching it, and you're like, "It doesn't get any lower than this, and yet I can't turn away." I will watch any big bubblegum action film out there over an art film any day. I feel really guilty about it, and my friends are like, "Why won't you see that Terrence Malick film [Tree of Life]?" I'm not going to watch that. I asked them, "What happens in it?" And they were like, "There were a bunch of really beautiful images." Then I asked them, "Was there any story?" And they were like, "No." I think I've lost my patience for that sort of thing, which I feel really bad about because I used to have infinite patience for it. I once had a friend say to me, "You have a fear of culture."

GR: Goodreads member Aisha says, "In the Spellman books the characters do things to each other that, in the wrong hands, would seem spiteful or vicious, but it's clear that these characters love each other and do what they do out of love (well, mostly). I don't feel like every author is capable of creating and portraying that balance, and I wonder if it's a conscious struggle to achieve it or if you're just awesome all the time."

LL: That's a really good question. In terms of tone, that is the hardest thing to manage. I want the books to have some humanity, but they have to be comedic. There are times when I want to talk about something very serious. It's a huge struggle, but it's something that in life I'm very conscious of. I'm capable of being very serious and also not taking anything too seriously. I think there is a point you have to be self-aware and not indulge too much in any sentiment and too much in any serious emotion. I always believe that there is comedy behind every door.

GR: Many fans are also curious about the status of the movie adaptation of the Spellmans. The film rights recently reverted back to you. What's next?

LL: I will likely be writing the script with a screenwriter whom I used to babysit for many years ago. That's how the world works. [laughs] We're trying to set it up, and we're going out for actresses, but there is nothing that I can say. All I can say is that we're trying.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

LL: On the best writing day I start immediately, because I'm still in that morning fog and it's easy for me to pretend that it's not work. I usually get distracted by some horrible thing on the Internet like Facebook or Twitter and then, like today, I spend hours trying to diagnose a shoulder pain I have. Then I'll remember, "Oh yeah, I should be writing." I use word quotas when I'm under a deadline and writing a first draft.

I talk to myself so I can't write in cafés. I don't like to have people over, because I realize I can't talk to myself when I'm writing.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

LL: Because I came first from writing screenplays, my influences tend to not be literary. In terms of films, Withnail and I is my favorite film. I saw it when I was 18, and there was something about it that stuck with me: It was so funny and yet so sad at the same time, and about something real. This is what I love about art. You can mix two genres, and it doesn't have to be heavy-handed.

In terms of other influences, Samuel Fuller the filmmaker. He's very funny, and there's no subtlety in what he talks about. I've argued with some friends whom I've made watch his films, like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. They thought he was vulgar, but there is something about the lacking subtlety that I relate to. I don't mind it, and I like where he is coming from—this great heart.

A lot of filmmakers and comedians. I'm always trying to understand what makes something funny. In Mel Brooks's work there is a broadness that I relate to. In literature there aren't many examples of broad comedy. A lot of what is considered good comedic writing tends to be more literary. What people claim as [broad] comedy, especially in the mystery world, never seems funny to me at all. It just seems light. I think there is a huge distinction between a comedic novel and a light mystery novel. I'm more interested in comedians, but that said, ever since I was accused of being a crime writer, which I didn't think I was at first, I tend to read a lot of books in my genre. I just don't tend to read many books that are like my books. I love all of Laura Lippman's books and Tana French. Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply. I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad. I'll read a good quality literary novel and be very happy. Infinite Jest was a book that I truly loved, even though there were so many words I didn't understand and had to look up. It was ridiculous. I just had a dictionary by my side the whole time.

GR: What are you reading now?

LL: Josh Bazell's Wild Thing.


Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

dateDown_arrow    newest »

message 1: by Julie (new)

Julie Love, love, love The Spellman books and Lisa Lutz. If you haven't read them yet, do yourself a favor and start immediately. I can't put them down but then I hate it because I finish them too quickly.


message 2: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Farrell I'm so happy to hear about a new Spellman book. I stumbled on them quite by accident when looking for a book on CD to take on a car trip. LOVE them on CD, possibly more so than in print. Totally hilarious. I can't wait to read the next one and the non-Spellman book too.


message 3: by Richard (last edited Mar 15, 2012 01:27PM) (new)

Richard Reeder I enjoyed reading this new Spellman book by Lisa Lutz. It was my introduction to this zany gumshoe family.It seems that San Francisco private eyes have come along way from the days of Sam Spade! Lisa Lutz's Isabel is one tough gal and it was fun following her around the City on the Bay. I probably will read some of the earlier works in the series.

Richard Reeder


message 4: by Richard (new)

Richard Reeder Richard wrote: "I enjoyed reading this new Spellman book by Lisa Lutz. It was my introduction to this zany gumshoe family.It seems that San Francisco private eyes have come along way from the days of Sam Spade! Li..."


message 5: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca i just finished "Trail of the Spellmans" today, and i was upset, for reasons i wont mention, but a lot of it was because i thought that it was the last book. now that i know that there are going to be more, i am much happier :)


message 6: by Kiaran (new)

Kiaran Johnson-Lew Love, love, love the Spellman family! Can't wait to read this one.


message 7: by Jerry (new)

Jerry This all sounds interesting....I'd like to start reading the Spellmans but where do I start? The newest or at the beginning?


message 8: by CathieSue (new)

CathieSue Andersen Oh, how I love Izzy! But HEADS YOU LOSE was great too. Written by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward. Try it!


message 9: by Ali (new)

Ali Beccaz wrote: "i just finished "Trail of the Spellmans" today, and i was upset, for reasons i wont mention, but a lot of it was because i thought that it was the last book. now that i know that there are going to..."

I know what you're talking about . . .

The upset part, I'm with you. The happiness over more books, again, I'm with you.


message 10: by Jerry (new)

Jerry Should I start reading the newest book or should I begin with the first Spellman book written?


message 11: by Ali (new)

Ali Jerry wrote: "Should I start reading the newest book or should I begin with the first Spellman book written?"

Start at the beginning. You'll love them.


back to top

Author Interviews
Goodreads Voice