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March 30, 2011

Lisa Scottoline: THINK TWICE

Posted by Stephen

Bestselling author Lisa Scottoline talks about the inspiration behind her "evil twin" novel, Think Twice. Be sure to check out Lisa's next book, Save Me, which will be released April 12.

twice.JPGOn its surface, Think Twice is the story of an evil twin who takes over the life of a good twin, and the question is whether the good or evil twin will survive. But that’s only the surface.

And appearances can be deceiving.

Those of you who are in book clubs like to dig deeper, and I appreciate your reading me, so I’ll take this opportunity to break the wall between us and tell you frankly what inspired this novel, because to me, the surface is only part of what’s going on in Think Twice. But first, some background.

Where did I get the idea for Think Twice?

Believe it or not, I got the original inspiration from my own life --- a decade or so ago, when I learned I had a half sister. I didn’t learn of her existence until I was an adult, and she was a daughter of my father’s, who was put up for adoption at birth. Happily, she had a wonderful adoptive experience, but after the passing of her adoptive father, she came to find her birth father, a difficult journey for her, and one which I honor, so much. But it was difficult for me, too, because when she surfaced, my experience was profoundly odd. I thought I was the only daughter, but I wasn’t. I thought I was the oldest daughter, but I wasn’t. It reconfigured my family, and confused and bewildered me, for a time.

I felt found, when I didn’t know I’d been lost.

And so, a lifelong experiment in nature verses nurture began, in my mind.

But let’s be clear. My half sister is a wonderful person, and not the evil twin herein. On the contrary, she’s really the good twin. She looks uncannily like me, down to the blue eyes we both got from our father, and I’ve come to know and love her. But I knew I’d have to write about my feelings, in a way.

You can’t have this job and ignore an event like that, or you forfeit your laptop.

Though Think Twice stands alone, it is, in fact, the third of three novels that I began after I met my half sister. The first was Mistaken Identity and the second Dead Ringer, which together introduce Alice and her increasingly homicidal actions. And, yes, I always use my real emotions to inform my novels. All fiction writers aspire to write the truth, as paradoxical as that may sound. As Francis Ford Coppola says, "Nothing in my movies happened, but everything is true." And the psychological journey that Bennie Rosato takes over the arc of these three novels was informed by my own feelings and gives Think Twice its emotional truth and power.

Especially because I believe that characterization is the most important part of any novel, what better way to delve deeply into character than through the trope of a good and evil twin? To me, what’s really happening in Think Twice is that after Alice does all those terrible things to Bennie, Bennie finds that evil that lurks inside her own heart. And the real question in the novel is not will Bennie survive her twin, but will Bennie survive herself? Can she overcome the darker impulses for revenge and even murder that are stirred up, or maybe instigated, by Alice and her misconduct? Can Bennie get herself back, after she strays so far across the line between good and evil?

The English majors among you --- and I know you are there, God bless you --- will know that any good-and-evil-twin story inherits a long, rich literary tradition, which even has roots in modern psychology. To be specific, I was thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and his story "William Wilson" when I first found out about my half sister and began to write about Bennie and Alice. If you haven’t read Poe’s stories, you should, and the one that haunted me was "William Wilson," and you’ll see how it feeds into Think Twice.

Read on, as Poe would say.

"William Wilson" is the story of a schoolboy, and at the very outset, his identity is uncertain. In fact, Poe starts the story, "Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation." Think "Call me Ishmael," but more intriguing.

Poe reportedly had an obsession with the color white, but we won’t go into the parallels between him and Melville here. Suffice it to say that what happens in "William Wilson" is as epic a battle as with any white whale, but in Poe’s story, the nemesis is the hero himself. In the story, William Wilson meets a classmate who looks exactly like him. The other boy has the same name and even the same birthday. (Actually, William specifies that their shared birthday is "the nineteenth of January," which is Poe’s own birthday.) He’s the same height, too. They even enter the school on the same day, "by mere accident." The only difference between them is that the other boy has some defect in his throat that prevents him from raising his voice "above a very low whisper." Bottom line, the other boy is the double, or twin, of William Wilson.

The boys start out as uneasy friends, then the double does everything to make himself more like William Wilson, except that he can’t copy his voice completely. William says, "His cue, which was to perfect an imitation of myself, lay both in words and in actions; and most admirably did he play his part. My dress it was an easy matter to copy; my gait and general manner were, without difficulty, appropriated; in spite of his constitutional defect, even my voice did not escape him. My louder tones were, of course, unattempted, but then the key, it was identical; and his singular whisper, it grew the very echo of my own."

And interestingly, instead of the main character being the good one and the double being the bad one, in "William Wilson," the narrator is the bad one, and the double is the good one. It’s so much more interesting, and bolder. Imagine Goofus and Gallant, with Goofus as the storyteller. Isn’t he more fun to listen to than the goody-goody Gallant? Patricia Highsmith, the author of the Ripley series, and Jeff Lindsay, in the Dexter series, would make the same wise choice, though the first writer to do so may have been John Milton. In Paradise Lost, wasn’t Satan more interesting than you-know-who?

But to stay on point, in William Wilson, the title character is witty, naughty, and an effete bully. He drinks too much, uses profanity, and cheats at cards. His double is nicer, kinder, and more considerate in every respect. In time, William Wilson comes to dislike, then hate his double. He leaves school to get away from him, then time passes and he goes to Eton, where one day, he invites "a small part of the most dissolute students" to his room for "a secret carousal." Bam! In walks his double, to spoil the fun. William Wilson says, "I grew perfectly sober in an instant."

The double is the buzzkill of the century.

William flees to Paris, his thoughts haunted by his doppelganger. He says, "again, and again, in secret communion with my own spirit, would I demand the questions ‘Who is he? whence came he? and what are his objects?’ But no answer was there found." At war with itself, William’s psyche begins to disintegrate. He generates into chronic gambling, drinking, and further debauchery until we see him at another card game, with an aristocratic "dupe" he plies with liquor, to cheat him more easily. Suddenly, the double reappears and blows William’s cover, exposing his hidden cards when he says: "Please to examine, at your leisure, the inner linings of the cuff of his left sleeve, and the several little packages which may be found in the somewhat capacious pockets of his embroidered morning wrapper." Busted.

William hurries to Rome, decompensating further, and during a ball at Carnival, his lecherous eye falls upon the beautiful wife of a duke. Out of the blue, the double appears, this time masked and caped, to thwart our hero’s misdeed. The two fall into a swordfight, and…

Well, I can’t give away the surprise ending. But you can read excerpts from the story following this essay.

So why do I think this story is so great, and how does it speak to me and inform Think Twice? I think it’s in the pull of its terrific premise, the doubling between William Wilson and his look-alike. While it’s unclear whether William and his double are two halves of the same whole, or two separate people, the dramatic effect is the same. His fragmented or broken identity terrifies us at a profound level, and when it’s the protagonist who’s having an identity crisis, we’re placed squarely in his very shaky shoes. So it’s impossible to read "William Wilson" and not identify with William, feeling his anguish and his evil, both at once.

And the threat is so much greater when it comes from within, as in this story of psychological horror, than from without, as in a conventional ghost story. Poe knew that no monster is half as scary as the evil within us, and it’s tempting to wonder if he "wrote what he knew," considering his own personal unhappiness and the fact that he assigned William Wilson his own birthday. Read that way, the story is poignant indeed.

Plus, Poe may not have invented the evil twin, but he certainly anticipated it, as well as exploiting the spookiness that comes from the fragmenting or doubling of the self, and the splintering of identity. Sigmund Freud would later explain its psychology in his seminal essays The Uncanny, written in 1919, but there’s no doubt that the concept gives "William Wilson" its dramatic impact.

And the hold that doubling has on our collective psyche is underlined by its more recent examples in popular culture, from benign sitcoms like “The Patty Duke Show” to the comic book conflict of Superman and his evil flip side, Venom. Think, too, of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the man looks like your husband but he’s not your husband. Or vice versa, in The Stepford Wives, when the terrified wife stumbles upon her own replica. Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels trade on the doubling concept, when our hero flashes back on a self he doesn’t know, remember, or even recognize. Bourne’s confusion about his own identity, and whether he is fundamentally good or evil echoes "William Wilson." And there’s even a hint of identity duality, or a split self, in Stephen King’s classic, The Shining, in which a frustrated writer takes a job as a hotel caretaker, loses his mind, and tries to kill his family. Not only is the caretaker a double of a previous caretaker, who had followed the same deranged path, but we see how easily good dad crosses the median to become evil dad, when a hotel and a blank page drive him crazy.

The blank page, I know well.

And the interesting thing is that, as an author, I’ve learned that the page is never really blank. The blank page is full of an author’s life, experience, and even surprise sisters. It’s all there, even before I sit down to write.

After you’ve read Think Twice, do take a second to see if you can find the similarities between my personal story, "William Wilson," and the novel. They’re there.


And thanks again, for taking the time to read me.

I am honored, and very grateful.