Lisa Lutz never anticipated writing a book. An aspiring screenwriter, she began the script for a mob farce in 1991 at age 21, and quit her day job the moment Hollywood producers came calling. But it was more than a decade and 25 revisions later that the film, Plan B, starring Diane Keaton, Paul Sorvino and Natasha Lyonne, was actually made. Following a West Coast premiere set for September 11, 2001, the movie had a week-long limited release after which with the exception of a few small film festivals it was rarely shown in the United States.
But that's OK, because Lutz herself gives two thumbs down to the final product. "I don't recommend anyone watching the version that is out right now," she says. "I enjoyed to an extent how funny and silly it was. But [for this] to be my life's work? That felt so insane." Her dream of writing a Hollywood movie had been realized, but Lutz was smarting from her bumpy road to the big screen. "Nothing went well," she says of the process. "We started to call the production 'the curse of Plan B.' " Somewhere around rewrite number six, the producers decided to cut a secondary character on which a major plot point hung, and Lutz's story caved in on itself. The finale of the writing process was a fax from the producers demanding that a lead character die by being eaten by an alligator. Lutz made the change, but was distraught that the story was no longer hers. "It's really hard to have something you worked that hard on be massacred," she says.
Soured on Tinseltown, Lutz vowed never to write a script again, instead holing up in a relative's 200-year-old house in upstate New York in the dead of winter in 2004. Six months later, she emerged from hibernation with a first draft of what was to become her first novel.
"I think I wrote a better novel than I ever wrote a screenplay," she says. The first in a planned series, The Spellman Files tells the story of Isabelle Spellman, a tough-talking 28-year-old (described by another character as "Dirty Harry meets Nancy Drew") who works for her eccentric family's P.I. business. Investigating others is their formal objective, but the family including alcoholic gambler Uncle Ray and Izzy's 14-year-old sister Rae (who is known to snap incriminating photos of family members to use as blackmail) regularly probe each other's lives as well. This comes to a head when Izzy starts dating nice-guy dentist Daniel and can't go on a date without turning around to find her mother hot on her tail.
"The truth was, I never doubted for a moment that my parents loved me," Izzy says of this parental over-involvement. "But love in my family has a bite to it and sometimes you get tired of icing all those tooth marks." To save her sanity, Izzy wants out of the P.I. dynasty. Her parents agree to let her go, as long as she completes a final assignment. As Izzy tries to solve the near-impossible 12-year-old missing persons case, Rae suddenly disappears, leading Izzy to reevaluate her priorities and put her skills to the ultimate test: finding her little sister.
Lutz didn't have to look far for research. While writing Plan B, she did a two-year stint working for a private investigator, and the tricks of the trade she picked up (such as smashing the taillights of car you're following to make it easier to spot a tactic Izzy employs on a regular basis) populate the novel. Though these details are drawn from real life, Lutz is adamant that her family is nothing like the meddlesome Spellmans. And as for Izzy? "Izzy has my sense of humor, because I don't think I could write in a totally different sense of humor," Lutz says. "But I'm no taillight-smashing vandal."
The Spellman Files has been optioned by Paramount, but Lutz swears she won't play a major role in the film's production. Instead, she's wrapping up the Spellman sequel, planning her next novel, thinking about writing a play and reflecting on the lessons she learned from her ill-fated Hollywood foray.
"People think you can get what you want if you just keep trying. But the moment I tried something different and approached it from a different way, I got what I wanted," she says of her open-mindedness about writing form.
Then she pauses for a moment. "I think it's luck, too," she says. "I do think I got very lucky this time around."