Nebraska Author Tosca Lee's Pandemic VisionNov 01, 2021 10:54AM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
A pandemic causes global sickness and mass death with rapid tests administered to find out who’s infected. Power grid failures put scores of people at risk and plunge the country into chaos.
That’s the basis for Tosca Lee’s bestselling The Line Between duology. It sounds like the Nebraska-based author was piggybacking off the COVID-19 pandemic, however, she published the first book in 2019, when most would have found the plot far-fetched.
But Lee, born in Roanoke, Virginia, and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, has always had a vivid imagination, and it’s something that’s launched her to the New York Times bestseller list. From the biblically based Iscariot to thrillers such as Forbidden, Lee writes gripping books that have cultivated a loyal fanbase.
Named after the Puccini opera by her father, Sang Lee, an opera-loving emeritus business professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lee, 51, has a rich background. She’s a classically trained pianist and ballet dancer, and almost became a ballerina until injury sidelined her. She then went to Smith College and studied economics at Oxford University.
Reading, though, was always her first love. She adored getting lost in books like The Mists of Avalon. Lee often compares novels to roller coasters, and said a conversation with her father changed her career trajectory. In summer 1989, she was supposed to start working as a bank teller. Talking to her father about how great novels were like roller coasters with their twists and turns, she said. “I think I’d like to write one. Maybe I could build a roller coaster for someone else to enjoy.”
Her father made her a deal: if she treated writing a book like a full-time job, he would pay her the same amount she would have made at the bank.
Lee jumped at the chance and wrote her first novel, which was immediately rejected by literary agents. One labeled it “strangely reminiscent of The Clan of the Cave Bear,” a comparison that thrilled her. “I failed miserably,” she laughed. “That book will never see the light of day, but the only way to learn something is to do it.”
She kept learning. After graduating from college, she wrote for SmartComputing magazine, co-authored two computer books, and did other freelancing. She worked on another novel for nine years, although she never finished it. She also took an unexpected detour. During her first marriage in the 1990s, she competed on the beauty pageant circuit. She became Mrs. Nebraska America in 1996 and Mrs. Nebraska United States—and the first runner-up to Mrs. United States—in 1998. “It was a really cool experience,” she said. “I learned so much.”
Around the same time, she got the idea for the book that launched her career: Demon, the story of a fallen angel, which was published in 2007. “I was driving on long straight roads where your mind just wanders. ‘What would it be like to tell your story as a demon?’ I ended up writing it in about six weeks, mostly in a notebook, but it took six years to find a publisher.”
She spent that time continuing to write while working as a senior consultant at Gallup, where she conducted workshops and speaking engagements from 2003 to 2011. The job involved a great deal of travel, which meant ample time for writing. Since that first book, she’s written 10 more and is currently working on her 12th.
Lee has also had time to focus on her personal life. She divorced her first husband in 2006 and didn’t plan on remarrying. Then she met Bryan Ritthaler, a farmer south of Fremont, in 2013. She saw him while at a restaurant with a friend and slipped him her business card. “He was the most handsome man I had ever seen, and I thought it was the dumbest plan I’d ever had. He asked, ‘Is this how people are dating now?’”
Her “dumb” plan worked. They married three years later, and Lee is now stepmother to three sons and a daughter.
Her new life isn’t slowing her down. Several of her books have been optioned for television and films. “It’s a little weird,” Lee confessed.
Michael Napoliello, a producer with Radar Pictures, is excited to showcase Lee’s work. “She reminds me of authors of previous centuries. It’s heady stuff and heads and heels above other books.”
Radar is currently working on the TV pilot script for Lee's The Progeny, with two other books deep in development. Napoliello feels they tap into the current zeitgeist. “Tosca writes incredible characters on a hero’s journey set in a world rich in history and detail.”
Fellow writer Nicole Baart, author of Little Broken Things, first met Lee about 14 years ago at a book expo. She said she understands why the author is enjoying such success. “Tosca is brilliant and writes breathtaking prose. She has snappy, exciting plots that are just riveting,” Baart said. “I’d have to hate her a little if I didn’t love her so much.”
Baart added that even though Lee is established as a writer, readers can expect more great works. “I don’t know how she’ll top her last one, but she always does. Tosca is a classic—and she’s someone to watch.”
Lee was flattered. “I’ve been really fortunate. I’m incredibly grateful I get to do this for a living.”
For more information about Lee and her books, visit toscalee.com.