photo of Bonnie MacDougal

The write path

Bonnie MacDougal '75 tends to pursue one project to the exclusion of others.

Perhaps that's the Mawrter in her, leading her to success in two professions: her current one as a novelist, and her previous, 16-year stint as a corporate trial lawyer.

MacDougal is the author of Out of Order, Breach of Trust and Angle of Impactólegal thrillers centering on a fictitious law firm in Philadelphia.

Critics and fans praise her stories' legal accuracy, which she attributes to her past years specializing in complex civil and commercial cases: securities fraud, product liability, trademark infringement, and so on. MacDougal calls the experience "a blessing and a curse"-a blessing for generating an abundance of story ideas, a curse because she's "constantly running reality checks" as she writes.

In the early 1990s, MacDougal was a member of the litigation team representing the owner of the helicopter that had crashed into a plane in midair, killing seven people. "It gave me a front-row seat on an amazing effort by the lawyers and forensic experts to determine the cause of the accident and attempt to defend against the onslaught of lawsuits that followed it." Even so, when fictionalizing the account in her second book, Angle of Impact, MacDougal enrolled in flight school to learn about the principles of flight and "researched and wrote on the assumption that every aviation lawyer in America was going to read it."

So how does she strike a balance between entertainment and legal accuracy? "I always ask myself: Would this ever really happen? Sometimes my answer is, Yes, it could and it does happen. Sometimes my answer is, No, I'd better rewrite that. But sometimes, as long as the legal elements are correct, I decide: Maybe not, but it makes for a great story!"

MacDougal says her main protagonists bear "at least a passing resemblance" to her during her lawyering days. They struggle with the same pressures and conflicts that eventually led MacDougal out of lawyering and onto the writing path several years ago. And though she misses the "teamwork" and "synergy" of practicing law, she maintains: "My worst day as a novelist is better than my best day as a lawyer."

This makes sense for someone to whom "fiction came first," claims MacDougal. An English major, she did her senior honors thesis on Wuthering Heights, which remains her favorite novel. These days, as a member of a book club, she is reminded of her cherished Bryn Mawr English classes and able to "get back into the spirit of reading a book and then sitting around and talking about it."

She decided not to pursue fiction writing full time during her senior year, when "reality-itis" set in, she says. She went to law school, and after practicing in Anchorage, Little Rock and Philadelphia, her "writing urge returned with a vengeance."

Though critics have hailed MacDougal as the "female John Grisham," she rejects the title. "First, I sense an inherent sexism in the term," she says. "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."

MacDougal's fourth book, a work-in-progress, concerns a celebrity murder trial.

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