Interview With Perri O'Shaughnessy

Pamela and Mary O'Shaughnessy Puzzled to see one name but two people? Pamela (right) and Mary (left) O'Shaughnessy are sisters who write together. The name Perri is an amalgam of their names, Pamela and Mary, and an homage to Perry Mason, the popular fictional attorney created by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Mary was born in Northern California, Pamela in Missouri. They grew up and developed a taste for imaginary crime in the suburbs of Los Angeles, including Whittier, Yorba Linda, Placentia, and Redondo Beach. (Coolest of all had to be Redondo, with its glorious sunshine and ocean, the ideal archetypal environment for budding writers.) Pamela attended Whittier College, UCLA and Long Beach State University, eventually graduating with a degree in political science, which she followed up with a law degree from Harvard Law School in Cambridge. Mary also attended Long Beach, finishing her B. A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara magna cum laude with a degree in English literature. After college, she moved to Boston, her home base while she worked on multi-media projects in New York, Washington D. C., and the Virgin Islands.

Mary lives in northern California, Pam in Hawaii. Pamela has a son, and Mary is married with three children. All of their children help to keep this page up and running.

Together, Mary and Pam write novels featuring attorney Nina Reilly, a South Lake Tahoe solo practitioner and short stories featuring whatever mysterious events they happen to be pondering. In their latest novel, Presumption of Death, Mary and Pam O'Shaughnessy delve deeper into the heart and psyche of their popular heroine as Nina journeys back to her hometown to heal old wounds, and instead discovers that old secrets can be the deadliest kind....

Presumption of Death by Perri O'Shaughnessy
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In Unfit to Practice, Nina Reilly faces her own legal troubles. What experiences drove you to write her into that tangle?

Pam's legal career, which went on for sixteen years in various guises, included four years as a sole practitioner at Lake Tahoe. Tahoe is alre ady difficult for a lawyer, with the grand snowy winters making it impossible to get to court sometimes, the added intensity of legal problems of clients caused by the ready access to gambling, alcohol, and a free-wheeling lifestyle, and the isolation of living on a big mountain in the Sierra. Add to that the dangerous practice of law nowadays, especially for sole practitioners. The rules for pursuing lawsuits, handling clients' money and affairs, and taking care of criminal defenses have become tremendously demanding. Any sole practitioner these days has night after night of 3 a.m. wakeups, worrying that she's missed something, worrying that she's not doing enough, worrying about where to find the money for the expert witnesses and how to deal with the overflowing paperwork.

So let's just say that Nina's experience in Unfit to Practice represents one of Pam's worst nightmares.

How did the outcome of Unfit to Practice dovetail with your new novel, Presumption of Death?

We don't want to reveal the ending of Unfit to Practice to readers who haven't read it yet, but we can say that Presumption of Death opens only a few weeks after the ending of Unfit. Nina is in Carmel, California, walking the hills with her dog and taking some time off--and our readers can imagine how long that's going to last!

Many readers wrote us about the ending of Unfit, wondering if Nina would give up the practice of law altogether. We try to make Nina as real as we can, and real people experience periods of doubt, move, and enter and leave relationships. It seems to us that Nina has become, through the tough experiences of the last few years, a pretty good and committed lawyer--and we think that if you've got something to contribute you'll find yourself in the thick of things again soon enough. So in Presumption we let her catch her breath for a short time, but then--well, Carmel and Monterey County turn! out to be as beautiful and deadly as Tahoe...

How did all of this start?

Although it was always our first interest, writing is a second career for both of us. We stole time from our families and professions to get started. When we started writing the Nina Reilly books, we set out first to amuse ourselves. We wanted to write the kind of stories we liked to read. We didn't know much about writing novels, however, and worked on our first Nina novel, which is still in the drawer, for a number of years before giving up. "Let's take the paralegal from that first story and make her a series character," said Mary. And Nina Reilly, hero of seven novels now, graduated into more sophisticated existence as an attorney. So for our first published novel, Motion to Suppress, we created a babe in trouble, mixed her up with Nina, a relatively inexperienced young female attorney, and shook the contents until even we couldn't figure out what was going on. "But this story isn't working," we both said. Then Pam sa! w the solution in a dream. When she woke up the next morning, she called Mary. "I know who did it." She told the story as it had come to her, and we got to work on a fourth draft. So, we can describe how the novels get written: after-the fact analyses sound so coherent on paper. In practice, the books arise like steam out of a messy brew of instinct, craft, good luck, sisterhood and healthy competitiveness. In practice, we work hard on the drafts, then wait for that magic moment when we can both breathe deep without choking and we know we're going to get there; we're going to have a real book.

Who writes first on each book?

We take turns generating what is supposed to be a complete first draft. We didn't start off this way. We used to invent as we went along, one person writing a scene one day, the other the next. Sometimes, we still end up doing that, especially toward the end of the process. What this really comes down to ! is that one person takes charge of each novel, kind of fleshes out the concepts and does final passes on the material. However, before any fingertips begin skittering over keyboards, we create a detailed proposal and outline together. In practice, one person almost never completes a first draft. A stopping point arrives, and the other sister takes over for awhile.

How do you edit one another?

Ruthlessly. We kid around and say we have to bust our egos at the door, but that is essentially the truth. Writing is usually a lonely, egocentric business where the voice is everything and the writer strives for an individual style. What we do isn't much different than what other writers do, because we try to write with one voice, Perri's. In practice, what this means is that every word gets vetted and passed or rewritten by the other person. Because we trust and respect each other as writers, we have found this easier with time. You have to believe the other person isn't killing your brilliant metaphors o! n a whim, but with a purpose: to make way for a smoother story, a more credible character, a less obtrusive turn of phrase.

Is Nina Reilly really Perri O'Shaughnessy?

Perri is a writer and Nina is an attorney, so they've got a different gig entirely. They're both Irish, but poor Perri is just a pseudonym who writes us cryptic messages from time to time. Nina lives a much more exhilarating life. Of course, Nina is like both of us in different ways. Like Pam did for years, she practices law at South Lake Tahoe, lives in a house on Kulow, and works in the Starlake Building. Like Mary and Pam, she is a professional woman with a child working in a world that does not accommodate that very well. Her emotional trials and professional brawls are invented, but arise out of both of our experiences.

What happens when Perri disagrees with Perri? Who wins?

Presumption of Death by Perri O'Shaughnessy
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She who cares most wins, which can mean she who discusses most persistently or she who grinds away most relentlessly on the draft. Our relationship as sisters and friends comes before any disagreement we may have about our work and always will, so ultimately we rely on that to assure a calm and sensible outcome. Most of our disagreements tend to be about small things: a turn of phrase, a bend of character. With big ideas, it's usually obvious right away who's right. When Pam suggested a major character should die in Acts of Malice, Mary concurred instantly even though the concept was bound to alienate a few readers. The drama demanded it, and we could only tune into that demand. No, it's the little things that cause the greatest anguish. Maybe that's a relic of not-quite demolished ego sneaking around.

Do each of you like one part of the writing process more than another? Which? Why?

Mary: My preference is rewriting. I want wit and perfection in a final draft. I want accuracy of emotional content. I love elaborati! on. The hardest part of any novel is the concept, but I enjoy working with Pam on the hunt and the capture, and enjoy watching a new idea mutate many times before it's ready to see paper. What I hate are first drafts. It's a long slog from concept to completion and then what you get is a rough, invariably lousy version of your brilliant new creature. I most like that moment when a novel is like a stinky baby, alive and screaming, ready to be bathed and presented smiling to a doting parent. (That would be Perri.)

Pam: I like thinking up ideas, injecting humor and love, and making the trial scenes blister if at all possible.

Do each of you like one novel better than another? Which one? Why?

Pam: Acts of Malice is my current favorite. I like the characters and the straight-ahead quality of the book. And I like the snowy setting.

Mary: I will always favor Motion to Suppress because it is our first published novel, and because so much hard work and heart went into making what was essentially a labor of love. We had no expectation and only a glimmer of hope that someday Nina Reilly would come to life like Pinocchio. And Motion was the fulfillment of many personal dreams for me. But I do have a second favorite, and maybe it's a peculiar one, Breach of Promise. This book gets down into the grit of the courtroom. There's the jury that breaks all the rules, the couple trying to solve emotional problems by battling over money, the brutal tactics inside and outside of court -- for me, this book had it all.

What's the most exciting part of this collaboration? What's the most difficult?

Ever had to work in a room all day by yourself attempting to generate stories and prose that others will find as amusing as you do? No? Well, we have, and it's much more fun to do it with someone else. Our fellow solitary laborer is right there on the other end of the phone, just waiting to hear how you muc! ked up the latest outline by turning a good character bad. She loves telling you where you went wrong, and getting a good laugh when you pull off something entertaining. She can't wait to get her mitts on your work so the laughs get bigger and the edges get smoother. Nobody else wants to wallow in the daily creative process with you. No one else has the passionate involvement. The most difficult part of our collaboration is relinquishing control over material you have slaved to create, understanding that it has to happen for the good of the work, Perri's will be done.

Posted with permission of the publisher.