August 2002

Perri O’Shaughnessy

Sisters in crime: Career crossroads turned siblings into co-authors
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Some say that the practice of law is the art of compromise. Crafting a successful legal thriller involves a similar process of discovery, rebuttal and the occasional 11th-hour revelation for Mary and Pamela O'Shaughnessy. Eight years ago, the two sisters invented fictitious Lake Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly, who summarily argued her way onto the bestseller lists. They chose the pen name Perri by combining their first names, with a nod to a certain fictional barrister.

"We were inspired by the Perry Mason series to have a lawyer who continued through a lot of different cases," Mary says. "But he never changed; he was suave, urbane, he had his little martinis and his calm relationships that were just suggested and never really fulfilled. Nina's not like that; she's much more a character in transition." Indeed. Between running her business, juggling her love life with Carmel private investigator Paul van Wagoner, keeping her teenage son Bob out of trouble with his cyber-punk girlfriend Nikki and maintaining ties to her ex-husband, San Francisco attorney Jack McIntyre, Nina is one lawyer who has little time for happy hour.

In the new thriller Unfit to Practice, Nina's career takes a dramatic turn when her truck is stolen with three sensitive case files inside. Slowly and with sinister intent, someone begins to leak information from the confidential files to sabotage Nina's cases. When her own clients complain to the California State Bar, Nina faces disbarment and turns to the best defense lawyer she knows, ex-husband Jack. The O'Shaughnessys grew up imagining gripping crime scenarios together as kids in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Pam went on to earn a law degree from Harvard and worked for 16 years as a trial lawyer in private practice in the very Lake Tahoe Starlake Building where Counselor Reilly now resides. Mary took her English degree east to Boston, where she worked on multimedia projects in New York, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands.

Somewhere in mid-career, each reached a personal crossroads. For Pam, raising a toddler sparked dreams of a more creative life. For Mary, the prospect of returning to work with three children under the age of five seemed unimaginable.

Both had been writing independently, pecking away late at night after the kids were in bed. Mary had a book with no plot, Pam a plot with no ending. Why not try collaborating and see what might happen? The idea was terrific, but the collaborative process proved a bit more challenging than it had in childhood, particularly since the two now live in different states. Pam has homes in Hawaii and Lake Tahoe, while Mary lives south of San Francisco. Eight books into their long-distance partnership, they're still working out the kinks of their admittedly idiosyncratic method of writing together.

As a rule, the one who comes up with the premise takes the lead role for that book; the two tend to alternate. The arrangement serves to break creative deadlocks.

"It doesn't mean that we don't each put in equal amounts of work on the draft, we do," says Mary. "But one person has the ultimate say. What that means is they get to do the final draft, so at a certain point you just have to let go, there's no point in arguing." The title comes early on in the story's development, and yes, as a matter of fact, it's getting harder and harder to find suitable three-word legal terms. (Previous titles in the series include Writ of Execution, Invasion of Privacy and Obstruction of Justice.) "We try to choose a legal term that says something about the plot," says Pam. "We seem to be locked into three words, and we're trying to convey some movement, some force of action. It's really difficult." "We look them up to make sure they haven't been used, at least in the last five minutes!" Mary adds.

Next, the sisters draft and submit a detailed outline to their publishers. No problem there? "Just that we throw it out after about the first eight chapters!" quips Pam. In their 1995 debut, Motion to Suppress, they even changed the killer in the fourth draft.

Each writer enjoys the surprises she has come to expect from the other.

"Actually, we're usually very amused," says Mary. "We both love seeing the characters brought to life again. Certainly, the first time you read what the other person has written it's a thrill. Then you begin to look at the nitty gritty and see all of the horrible things they've done, all the mistakes they've made. I think that's just part of the process, to build it up and then tear it down again." The two take turns with the actual writing; generally they will draft eight chapters then pass it to the other to draft the next eight and so on. Pam is the procrastinator, Mary the voice on the phone barking for pages.

"We are real perfectionists and we do have different styles so the book has to go back and forth quite a bit before we're both satisfied," says Mary.

In subsequent drafts (they generally do three complete rewrites before submitting the manuscript to their publisher), the two have learned to correct for each other's blind spots: Pam tends to slip into a passive voice, while Mary's more intricate style and fondness for compound sentences sometimes gets her "buried in language." The O'Shaughnessys say their decision to stay away from graphic sex and violence has been key to the success of the series. "We have some strict standards because we are mothers," says Pam. "We see the books as entertainment, something fun for people, excitement, vicarious adventure. It's important for us to keep the books fun." To keep the writing fun, they've allowed their central character wide berth.

"We're not sure even to this day who that character is in many ways," Mary admits. "She's a little mysterious; she's very impulsive and does things that we did not put in the proposal at any point. She's always changing and always growing, kind of like a real person to us. I'm not sure we always know what she's going to do, and that's always a lot of fun."

Jay Lee MacDonald is a freelance writer in Naples, Florida.

Get the Book

Unfit to Practice

Unfit to Practice

By Perri O'Shaughnessy
ISBN 9780385334846

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