The impulse to sneak up and spy on Lisa Lutz before her reading at University Bookstore was natural. I mean, the woman was reading from her debut comedic novel about a family of private investigators, The Spellman Files. And after living in Los Angeles for years, working as a struggling screenwriter with a slew of odd jobs, she'd just moved to Seattle in September. Who was she, really?
I wanted dirt, but what I got was a petite brunette who waved at kids and insisted that Simon & Schuster have "been so good to me." I got a funny, self-deprecating woman who brought two of her cousins onstage to help present a scene in the book in which Izzy Spellman makes her best friend grill a dentist who "was definitely going to be Ex-boyfriend #9."
Ah, that Izzy. But before I could finish writing "Spellman equals chick lit," a bald and socially awkward man behind me asked Lutz about her main influences—and out came the dirt.
"The Wire on HBO is probably my favorite piece of art," she says. "And not a day goes by that I don't think about Infinite Jest."
The next day, when I met her for coffee at Tully's in Wallingford, she arrived early—with wet hair, no makeup, wearing a brown sweater hoodie and messenger bag. Clearly, this was not a woman fit for L.A. "I felt like a farm girl there," she says.
While one of her screenplays, Plan B, was made into a straight-to-DVD movie starring Diane Keaton, she had her share of various temp jobs, including one at her uncle's accounting firm. She also dabbled in criminology. "I actually tried to become a cop," she laughs, "but they wouldn't take me."
The Spellman family was inspired by one of her employers, a family that owned a private investigation firm. She wrote a Spellman screenplay that didn't sell. But she persisted, living rent-free in a relative's house in upstate New York, and completed The Spellman Files in a year.
It's a bit Harriet the Spy as directed by Wes Anderson. "It's not a mystery," she explains, "but it does exploit conventions of the mystery genre."
She recently finished the second installment, The Curse of the Spellmans. Her agent wants at least four in total—quite possibly because Laura Ziskin, producer of Spider-Man, has optioned movie rights for the first. Her publisher has shown enormous confidence: Full-page ads cover The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, and she's embarking on a two-month book tour.
While she's comfortable in Seattle for now, the itch to move that defined her days in L.A. hasn't fully left, hence her reluctance to commit to so much as pets or plants, though she "did have a poinsettia around the holidays."
Amidst the chaos and change, there's one thing that Lutz is fully committed to. "I cannot be a secretary anymore, so I might have to make the money off of this book last for the rest of my life. I might be living in a log cabin someday!"