Q & A: Alumnus Levine pens new book in 'Solomon vs. Lord' series

February 20, 2006

One of the original Penn State Newswire subscribers -- and University alumnus -- Paul Levine has produced another book in his "Solomon vs. Lord" series. With the publication of "The Deep Blue Alibi" (Bantam Books) this month, Newswire decided to sit down with Levine over laptops and have an Internet chat, during which he revealed how he finds humor in court and gave advice to aspiring writers.

In December, in anticipation of thousands of Penn Staters heading to the Orange Bowl game, Levine contributed to Newswire with an inside look at life in southern Florida. That story can be viewed at http://live.psu.edu/story/15073

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Newswire: You write legal thrillers, but your lawyer-protagonists, Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord, don't spend that much time in court. Why is that?

Levine: Where would you rather be, in a stuffy courtroom, or on a beach in Key West?

Newswire: Which brings us to "The Deep Blue Alibi." A yacht crashes onto a beach, one man has a spear in his chest, the other is a shady real estate developer. Solomon and Lord have a tough murder trial to defend, but they seem to argue as much with each other as the prosecutor.

Levine: My wife Renée is a trial lawyer; I used to be a trial lawyer. It's very easy for me to write bickering and bantering. Hopefully, the scenes I write are as funny as the ones I live.

Newswire: So Solomon and Lord are Paul and Renée, not Tracy and Hepburn?

Levine: There are a lot of antecedents in this genre. Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate." Hammett's "The Thin Man." TV's "Moonlighting." On old-time radio, "The Bickersons." It's an irresistible setup. Two people love each other, but they also love to argue.

Newswire: One reviewer called your books: "Carl Hiaasen meets John Grisham in the court of last retort." Fair assessment?

Levine: Maybe. I bring humor to the legal system because I see so much that's absolutely nutty there.

Newswire: In "The Deep Blue Alibi," there's a chapter at a Florida nudist resort. Is it fair to ask how you researched the scene?

Levine: Like Jackie Chan, I do my own stunts.

Newswire: Is the title of the book an homage John D. MacDonald's "The Deep Blue Good-Bye?"

Levine: "Homage?" That's French for "cheese", isn't it?

Newswire: Now, you're being facetious.

Levine: That's what they pay me for. But yes, I moved to Florida right after graduating from Penn State in 1969, and I read all of MacDonald's Travis McGee novels. When I wrote my first Jake Lassiter novel ("To Speak for the Dead"), one of my first fan letters was from Maynard MacDonald, John's son. I think JDM nailed both Florida's weirdness and corruption.

Newswire: Is that why the judges in your books all seem a little wacky and the lawyers crooked, or at least somewhat flexible in their ethics?

Levine: Even though "The Deep Blue Alibi" and "Solomon vs. Lord" are fiction, real events and real people inspire the work. I practiced law in front of curmudgeonly judges, and I knew lawyers who could shake your hand and pick your pocket at the same time. There were also judges who were absolutely hilarious, some without meaning to be.

Newswire: Tell us about your education.

Levine: At Penn State, I majored in journalism. At the University of Miami Law School, I majored in the swimming pool.

Newswire: Any suggestions for students who want writing careers?

Levine: Take a wide spectrum of liberal arts courses. One of the great things about Penn State is that the university is so strong across so many disciplines. Study history and literature and the social sciences. And read! Read a newspaper every day. Read magazines. And read both fiction and non-fiction.

Newswire: When Penn State and Miami played for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl, who were you rooting for?

Levine: I was hoping Penn State would win by say, 14 to 10.

Newswire: Good call. You also wrote more than 20 episodes of the CBS show "JAG." [A show created by another Penn State alumnus, Donald Bellisario].

Levine: True. I figure I spent more time in the military than President Bush.

Newswire: Does writing for television present different problems than writing books?

Levine: I had to learn how to steer a submarine. Seriously, the U.S. Navy took the JAG writers aboard a Los Angeles class attack sub, and they let me drive the thing. To the best of my knowledge, we didn't fire any missiles or start a war. The great difficulty in TV writing is the time constraint. Forty-three minutes to tell a main story and a B-story. You have to "write tight" and use the visual aspect of the medium.

Newswire: What advice would you give any young grads who want to break into Hollywood?

Levine: Marry a blood relative of Jerry Bruckheimer.

Newswire: Lacking that, when aspiring authors or screenwriters sit down at the computer, what should they be writing?

Levine: Ransom notes, maybe. Look, it's really hard to break into the business. Some people suggest writing a spec script. I think that's a useful exercise for polishing your craft. Be advised, though, how difficult it is to sell a script. Years ago, Elmore Leonard said, "Writing a script and sending it to Hollywood is like drawing a picture of a car and sending it to Detroit." It's still true today, except you'd send the picture of the car to Tokyo. There are entry level positions as assistants or script readers. In the television business, assistants - they used to be called secretaries - sometimes manage to sell a script to the show they're working on.

Newswire: Any last words of advice?

Levine: Some people say to "write what you know." But what you know might be boring. You can always research something new. You can always travel to a new place. My advice is to "write what you love." Don't worry about the marketplace. Don't say, "I've got to write science fiction" because that's what's hot this year. Whether it's a book, a play, a song, or a script...write what you love. Because if you don't love it, no one else will.

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More about Paul Levine and "The Deep Blue Alibi" at http://www.paul-levine.com.

  • 'The Deep Blue Alibi' is Penn State alumnus Paul Levine's latest book in his 'Solomon vs. Lord' series.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010