Bonnie MacDougal is
a trial lawyer who practiced for sixteen years in major law firms
across the country. Born in suburban Philadelphia, she received
her undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College, magna cum laude
with Honors in English
literature, and her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania
Law School, where she was a moot-court champion and held a fellowship
in legal writing. Her law career took her to Anchorage, Alaska,
and Little Rock, Arkansas (where she was one of the few lawyers
ever to practice law with Bill Clinton), before she returned
to Philadelphia. She joined Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis,
a prestigious law firm with more than 200 lawyers, where she
developed an expertise in complex litigation and tried a number
of high-profile lawsuits. Although her novels are works of fiction,
they were inspired by actual cases in which she was involved.
Bonnie is now engaged as a full-time author, although she remains
involved in litigation on an occasional consulting basis. She
lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband and two daughters.
Her previous novels include Breach of Trust & Angle
of Impact. Out of Order is her latest release.
Pageonelit.com: Where did you grow up and
was reading and writing
a part of your life? Who were your earliest influences and why?
Bonnie MacDougal: I grew up thirty miles
west of Philadelphia, in an area that's now part of the
great suburban sprawl but was then quite rural. My friends were
all farmers' kids, and we attended a one-room schoolhouse --
rather astonishing for the Sixties in an area so close to a major
city. Our culture loves to romanticize this kind of bucolic life,
but the truth is it was provincial and repressive, and I was
always a misfit, always the girl who was considered too smart
for her own good. Books were my escape from that life into a
world of imagination and adventure and endless possibilities.
But our nearest library was seven miles away, and the
Bookmobile came only twice a month, so I often ran out. That
was when I started to write, when I no longer had a good book
to burrow into.My earliest influences were the classics--Stevenson,
Twain, Hugo. Later, when I majored in English in college, I specialized
in the 19th-century English novel. That was when the novel reached
its zenith as an art form. It was the principal form of entertainment
for the common man, essentially the television of today, and
it really flourished. The novels of that era are rich and dense
and multi-layered -- the kind of books you can live inside.
Pageonelit.com: You have been called 'the
female John Grisham' by members of the press. Is this
comparison because of your writing style or because you both
are attorneys turned novelists? Do you like/or not like this
comparison and if so why or why not?
"It's not a title I'm fond of. First, I sense an inherent
sexism in the term; has any man ever been described (favorably)
as the male anything? Second, I really don't see the similarity.
Grisham writes about a world that's black and white, while mine
is all about shades of gray. There are no real villains in my
stories, and no simple formulas for right and wrong. My "good
guys" often make bad choices, with devastating consequences,
while my "bad guys" may do evil, but for reasons I
hope my readers can understand and perhaps even sympathize with.
I like to create complex plots, but even more I like to create
Pageonelit.com: Your latest novel is OUT
OF ORDER -- Can you tell us about how this book came about?
How long did it take you write this book? Did you use outlines
or no outlines?
Bonnie MacDougal: The seeds of OUT OF
ORDER were planted in my mind more than ten years ago, but
I left them alone to germinate while I wrote BREACH OF TRUST
and ANGLE OF IMPACT. After I finished ANGLE, I was casting
about for my next story, when I stumbled
over this old idea. But by then it had grown layers of plot lines
that went far beyond the original concept. And, I'm afraid, far
beyond any easy categorization or labels. Is it a political drama
or a legal thriller? A murder mystery or an espionage tale? A
love story or a study of a wife falling out of love with her
husband? It's all of those, plus, at its heart, a story of parents
and children and betrayal and forgiveness.
It took me two years to write OUT OF ORDER,
and yes, I used outlines! This is my most labyrinthine plot to
date, and I needed multiple outlines to keep all the threads
in place. The principal action takes place from February to November
of 1998, but there are flashbacks to 1968 and to 1984, and I
had to rely on day-by-day calendars to keep track of the various
chronologies. I also used a sort of flow chart to monitor the
interweaving of the different plot lines. But having said this,
I should add that I deviate often from my outlines. A lot of
my best ideas come to me mid-course, and I definitely re-write
to accommodate them.
Pageonelit.com: You have been at this writing
game now for awhile (Three books??).. What kind of writing growth
have you seen in stages and if so could you describe it? What
writing advice can you share with us beginners?
Bonnie MacDougal: It's hard to know whether
"writing growth" is the best term to describe what's
happened to me over these three books. I think each is decidedly
better than the one before it, but each has also become more
difficult to write. With my first, I was more of a spontaneous,
natural storyteller. I wrote it almost straight out (albeit over
a long period of time; I was still a full-time lawyer then),
with very little self-doubt and second-guessing, despite the
fact that as an unpublished author, I should have been full of
doubt. But the one joy of being unpublished was that I was completely
unconscious of , and unconcerned with, readers'
reactions. Perhaps more than at any other stage, I wrote only
to please myself. But after that first book was unleashed, the
reader feedback started to come in; I started to picture actual
human beings reading what I wrote; I would stop, reflect, edit,
delete. I still write to please myself above others (exactly
why I resist the pressure to write easily categorized novels),
but I can't help but be aware of my readers. It's made me hyper-critical
and perhaps a little more cautious. I'm like a high diver who
didn't mind a few belly flops in private practice sessions, but
please, not in front of an audience!
Pageonelit.com: What do you think about
when writing Dialogue? What would your advice be for beginning
novelists in terms of getting their characters to say the right
Bonnie MacDougal: All writers have to be
observers of the world, but dialogue-writers also have to be
eavesdroppers on the world. This is the best way I know to develop
an ear for the way people actually talk to one another. For example,
real people seldom talk in paragraphs; they don't make long speeches
to which their audience listens mutely. A more natural conversation
consists of the give-and-take of a sentence here, a phrase there.
One of the lead characters in Out of Order
is a 13-year-old boy whose diction would of course be quite different
from the 30-something characters who drive most of the book.
So I hung out around young boys and tuned into their conversations
until I felt I had a handle on that character's voice. (This
assignment was easy, since I have two teenaged daughters; if
I were writing a Mafia novel, my research might be more difficult.)
Once I get a lock on the characters' speech patterns,
the next step is to play out the scenes
in my mind, almost cinematically, until I can picture their movements
and expressions as they're speaking. Once I have that down, the
words usually follow.
One caveat: sometimes when I'm out in public, I'll
be running a scene in my mind and apparently my facial expressions
reflect whatever traumatic event's going on in the scene. I've
had people come up to me and say, "My God, what's wrong?!"
Pageonelit.com: What would you hope a reader
after reading OUT OF ORDER and what's next?
Bonnie MacDougal: First, "Wow."
Second, to anyone within earshot, "You gotta read this."
Seriously, I hope readers will close OUT OF ORDER with
a feeling of deep satisfaction, that despite all the corruption
and disorder in our system of justice, the characters have managed
to negotiate their way to a resolution that seems right and honest. I hope readers will
feel that they've learned a little and been both intrigued and
entertained, and I hope a week or two later, they'll recall something
in the book and reflect on it for a minute.What's next? I'm deep
into my fourth novel, about a sensational murder trial in Philadelphia,
involving teenaged lovers and sexual obsession."