Blog – Lisa Unger | New York Times Bestselling Author Lisa Unger | New York Times Bestselling Author Fri, 23 Jun 2017 13:01:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Six Reasons You’re Not as Creative as You Could Be Mon, 12 Jun 2017 20:37:47 +0000 Years ago, I attended a writers’ conference. After my speech was over, I sat in on a talk given by a writing professor. And what she said has stayed with me ever since. A woman in the audience lamented that she wanted to write, really wanted to, but could never find the time. The professor’s answer: Look. If you’re not creative enough to find the time to write, you’re not creative enough to write. Period.

That’s a bit harsh, but there’s more than a kernel of truth to it. As a mother, I know well the gauntlet we all must run to get to that creative zone. With my fifteenth novel about to publish this month, I have had magical days when I couldn’t stop the pages from flowing, and days when I wondered if the muse had abandoned me altogether. There’s nothing easy about writing a novel. But there are many ways to make it harder, and to make that elusive creative zone more distant than it already is. Here are some common pitfalls and mistakes:

  1. You’re precious about when and where you write. There’s a romantic notion about the writer’s space, a quiet aerie with a steaming cup of something, the perfect inky pen, the fresh Moleskine. If you’re waiting for this place in order to be creative, you may wait forever. My first novel started on a napkin pulled from the glove compartment of a car. When my daughter was small and wouldn’t nap, I drove until she drifted off to sleep, then sat in the car and wrote until she woke up, usually in the Target parking lot. Just write.
  2. You wait for inspiration to strike. It’s true that inspiration does strike. Sometimes it’s a veritable lightning bolt. Voices in your head. The narrative problem solved during your workout. But if you’re not available, if you’re not logging the hours with your notebook, or your keyboard, it’s less likely to come. I write daily, am usually at my desk between five and six am. Sometimes inspiration meets me there. Sometimes not. But I’m there writing all the same.
  3. You waste your writing time on social media. Make no mistake that social media is the death of creativity. If you managed to get yourself a few hours to work on your manuscript, and instead you spent it Facebook-stalking your ex, watching funny cat videos, or taking a quiz to find your spirit animal, the simple truth is that you did not care enough to work on your novel.
  4. You’re not honoring your creative goals. Julia Cameron, author of THE ARTIST’S WAY, says: “We treat our unpublished writers as if they have an embarrassing case of unrequited love.” It’s true; you might not get much support from the people in your life for the time you want to spend on your novel. But if you have the writing a bug, a story you want to tell, maybe a lifelong desire to do this writing thing, you owe yourself at least a couple of hours a week toward that goal. Schedule the time and honor it as you would any appointment. Remember all you need to do to be a writer is to write.
  5. You’re not nourishing your inner artist. Nothing nourishes creativity like creativity. Another favorite piece of advice from Cameron in THE ARTIST’S WAY is to take yourself on an artist’s date. Go to a museum, the theater, a gallery opening, anything that exposes you to the work of artists of any medium. A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I visited a glass blowing hot shop and watched artists from Italy create a vase from a single bulb of molten glass. It was fascinating and inspirational to watch these artists at work. The following week was one of my most productive and creative of the month.
  6. You’re obsessed about publishing. Publishing may come. But that’s not why you write. Start thinking of publishing as incidental to becoming a better writer. Because here’s what it takes to get published: write a good book. Even now the thing that fuels me creatively is that I believe I can get up every day and be a better writer than I was yesterday. Publishing is just, if you’re lucky, a gateway to the writing life. And the words on the page never stop being the most important part of the process.

Creativity is a fire inside you, sometimes roaring, sometimes just embers. Ultimately, it’s up to you to stoke it to life, feed it oxygen, give it space — or let it go to ash. It may take a little creativity to find the time to be creative, but it also requires discipline and real desire. So, get to your keyboard, or pick up your pen, and start writing! It’s really that simple.

*Article originally appeared in THE STRAND MAGAZINE on May 14, 2017.

Tough Women Fri, 14 Apr 2017 13:02:53 +0000 Lisa Unger knows a thing or two about strong women, In her new book, THE RED HUNTER, these women are fighters, warriors, and survivors. They’ve been knocked down and pick themselves up again and persevere. So in honor of Women’s History Month this March, Lisa discusses below how these charters came to be and how everyday women influence her characters.

My friend Ace Atkins is an extremely talented, bestselling writer of crime fiction.  Whether he’s writing about the former U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson or ex-football player Nick Travers, or Robert Parker’s iconic Spenser, he explores a slew of very tough characters – from the depraved to the heroic.  So, it was with some trepidation that I sent my new hardcover THE RED HUNTER. Would it be up his alley?

I was thrilled when he had kind words for the book, but it was our email exchange about the characters within that really made my day.  He wrote, “Most men try to be tough – very self-consciously.  But (these characters) are actually tough people.  They’ve been to hell and back.”

It got me thinking about toughness, what it means to be truly strong.  In crime fiction especially there’s this idea of the detective or cop, racing after bad guys, carrying guns, and throwing punches.  There’s an expectation of non-stop action and conflict – fights and chases.  It’s very exciting for the reader – and the writer. But I’m not sure it’s how willing we are to throw a punch or pull a gun that makes us tough.

It might be that true grit comes from surviving pain and growing from it, rather than collapsing under its weight.  Toughness dwells in the moment not when you’ve delivered a blow, but when you’ve taken one and you’re on the ground, bleeding.  Do you get up or stay down?  It’s what we do in that dark moment that is the measure of our strength.

Women might know this better than men. Certainly no one knows this better than psychic Eloise Montgomery, a tiny, somewhat frail, older woman who is probably the strongest of all my characters.  Her fortitude, and her willingness to walk into the fray, is a kind of power that is often overlooked.  Jones Cooper, her very “tough” partner observes: “She was small-boned and skittish but with a curious mettle.  As she climbed the steps without invitation and stood at the door, he thought about how, with enough time and patience a blade of grass could push its way through concrete.”

March is Women’s History Month, a time when we honor the grit and strength of women who endeavored to and often succeeded in changing the world.  From suffragettes to soldiers, from teachers to doctors, from laborers to protestors, we honor the women who refused to sit back and be told what they could and couldn’t do.  In the face of often violent opposition, these women took blows, and stood back up.

But beyond iconic figures in history, in the day-to-day of my own life, the strongest people I know are women – artists, writers, politicians, business leaders, teachers.  And, of course, mothers – the most powerful women of all.  Because to be a mother takes endless patience, the ability to subordinate needs and wants in the interest of our children.  It’s a twenty-four-seven enterprise that often leaves us frazzled and sleep deprived.  There are endless blows – to the heart (it hurts to love so much), to the ego (You don’t work?), to sanity (Mom! I can’t sleep!) – but good moms get up every time.  And let’s not even talk about childbirth.  That’s where we really separate the women from the boys.

When I write about tough women, and I do, they aren’t necessarily carrying guns or getting into fights – though they do all that, too. The women who populate my novels – young, old, writers, psychics, cops, wives, mothers, doctors – are all very different from each other.  Some are powerful, some traumatized.  Some have unexplained gifts.  Some are bent on revenge; some seek peace after pain.  But they all know what it means to take a hard blow, get up bleeding, and start swinging.  They refuse to stay down.  They fight back.  They move on.  They live the Japanese proverb: Knock down seven, stand up eight.

Like all truly tough women in history and fiction, they’re survivors.

Who are your favorite tough women – in life or in novels? How have they inspired you?

*Originally appeared in the March issue of XOXO After Dark

Kate White and Lisa Unger, in Conversation Fri, 24 Mar 2017 21:17:04 +0000 Kate White – wow! Former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine (yes, she knows all your secrets!), bestselling author of thrillers and mysteries, and a business and career expert who travels the country speaking to women. Impossible not to be intimidated by this powerhouse, right? What are the chances that she’s also a lovely, easy-to-talk to, down-to-earth mom? She’s all those things, too! I’m happy to call her my friend, and delighted that she took time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her life, balancing career and family, and of course her rocket-paced, thrill-ride of a new book, THE SECRETS YOU KEEP.

Kate White and Lisa Unger, in Conversation

Lisa Unger: Wonderful Kate! It was the lovely and talented Sally Kim who introduced us — sort of!  She was your editor at Harper, and she sent me your book HUSH for an early read. I loved it and you and I have been in touch ever since.  I’m awed by all that you have accomplished — former editor of Cosmopolitan, stellar thriller writer (six mysteries featuring Bailey Weggins, and five novels of psychological suspense), AND an expert on business with an extensive speaking schedule and bestselling career advice books.  And a mom.  And a wife.  And just someone fun to be around.  I should probably ask you about your next book THE SECRETS YOU KEEP which I’m reading and loving (and I will!) but first —  you seem to so elegantly handle the balancing act that your life must be. Did you know you wanted to write fiction when you were working at Cosmo? What advice would you offer your younger self (not that you’re not young! You ARE!) and other working mothers balancing career and family, as well as other dreams and goals?

Kate White: Oh, thanks for all those nice things you said, Lisa.

Yes, I always did know I wanted to write fiction, but I got a very late start (let that inspire anyone reading who’s still dreaming of doing it). When I was a young, I had this fantasy about moving to New York and becoming a writer, but I naively thought I could become many kinds of writers at the same time: reporter, magazine writer, playwright, novelist. It was only once I got to the city that I realized I had to pick a lane. I picked magazines in part because I’d won the Glamour Magazine Top Ten College Contest. At least as a magazine editor, I was also able to write essays and first-person pieces. Eventually I moved up the ladder and became an editor-in-chief. Deep down, though, I worried that my dream of writing fiction was slipping away, so in my forties I vowed to do it, despite how hard it might be. Not long after I took over Cosmo, I wrote a proposal for my first mystery and showed my agent. I was very fortunate to get a two-book deal.

I wrote on weekends before my kids got up or after they went to bed. I was burning the candle at both ends, I know, but I also was doing something I wanted. Eventually I realized that as much as I loved running Cosmo, I wanted more personal freedom and the chance to write full time. I was able to do it because I’d laid the foundation on all those weekend mornings.

My best advice to working moms? Delegate more. Make time for yourself, including giving yourself permission to sometimes be away from your kids for at least a day to recharge. I never took time away from my kids at night or on weekends, and I know now they would be fine if I’d gone away with my husband for an overnight or two in eighteen years. Give yourself permission, please!!!!

What about you? How do you balance the work/mom thing? I know you’re very good about including Ocean in some things but you don’t seem to force her in any way to be a part of it all. Am I mistaken?

Lisa Unger: How amazing is that?  You had this super-intense job, wrote novels, and still put your kids first. I love that!

I am POSITIVE that your children value and appreciate that you were always there for them; that’s yet another accomplishment in your life!  I say delegate, too — but delegate the things you can, or say no to some of the things that drain your energy. Recharge in little ways throughout the day — by meditating, taking a hot shower, getting off social media and having a walk around the block.  But I feel like we have our kids with us for five minutes! I cherish time with my girl, and want her to know that in the mommy-writer balance, being her mommy always comes first.

It’s true that I’ve brought Ocean with me almost everywhere I’ve traveled.  I’ve been fortunate that my husband Jeff has been able to travel with me. It helped that my parents were willing and able to get up and go wherever I needed them to.  It’s kind of a messy entourage, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way! Now that Ocean is 11 years old, I work during her school and summer day camp schedule.  When she comes home, I try to be done for the day.  And I do still try to take her when I travel, but never to the detriment of school.  And, so far, she still wants to travel with us.  So, if that’s the case, I’d prefer to have her with me. When that changes, we’ll change to accommodate her needs.  No, I’d never force her to be a part of it all. (Though we are putting her to work at Bouchercon 2018 here in St. Petersburg!)

So, I’m deep into your new book THE SECRETS YOU KEEP — don’t tell me anything! Bryn is a self-help writer, recovering from a terrible car accident, and trying desperately to move forward.  She’s struggling with the aftermath of trauma, just drained, so it’s no surprise that she can’t make any headway on her next project — even though her agent is applying pressure.  It all feels so real — her fatigue, that wanting to work, but just not having the energy. And she’s being plagued by horrible (prophetic?) nightmares.  Poor Bryn! I just want to climb into the book and make her some tea.  (Meanwhile, I am NOT feeling good about her husband Guy!) How did you access Bryn’s state of mind?  What about her do relate to most, and how is she most different from you?

Kate White: I hear you about the simple pleasures. I meditate every day no matter what, and that’s become such a small, wonderful pleasure for me.

And I know what you mean, too, about delegating. Delegate the things you can, so you can cherish time with people you care about.  One funny memory about myself as a working mom. I used to leave work at five but then work for a couple of hours after putting the kids to bed at about nine because running a magazine can’t be done in only eight hours a day. When my kids were tweens, my husband worked in another city and we saw him only on weekends. The kids and I would read or talk after dinner and then they’d head up to bed. One night my son said to me, “Mom, gosh, can’t I stay up any later?” And I realized, he was FOURTEEN and I was still in the habit of having him go to bed at 9 so I could work afterwards! Of course, I let him stay up after that.

Thanks for the shout out about my book. For Bryn’s state of mind, I tried to access a period in my life years ago when something traumatic had happened and I was trying to separate fact from fiction. I think we’ve all had periods in our lives when we suddenly find ourselves questioning something, wondering if we have an accurate read on a situation or have failed to see the truth. That can be so scary.

I’m LOVING THE RED HUNTER. I’m so impressed with the different points of view you have in the book. Each character is so well drawn.  I’ve never written from more than one point of view so I’m dazzled when someone does it well. And it adds so much energy. And in the case of THE RED HUNTER, what’s even more impressive is that the characters with these different points of view are connected but we’re not sure how right away. Though I’m starting to have some clues.

Two questions: First, there’s something Claudia thinks early in the book that seems to be based on research but I never heard it before. She’s talking about it in terms of something terrifying that happened in her life (which you write about in a way that takes my breath away). She thinks, “It’s never one thing that leads to a tragic accident, according to people who knew about those things. It’s usually seven things—seven mistakes or errors in judgment, or acts of negligence.” Is that something simply out of your fabulous imagination or is that true?

Secondly, is your book going to get really, really scary? I’m already very nervous. I’m practically closing my eyes in some parts. Though of course, being scared can be delicious! I just need to know so I won’t read the rest of it when I’m home alone.

Lisa Unger: Ha ha! That made me laugh out loud. Poor Ocean still has an 8:30 bedtime — mainly because I’m so exhausted from being up at 4am that I’m usually not far behind her.  I wonder when she’s going to ask to stay up later!

I can relate to that feeling of trying to piece together a traumatic event — in a small way.  I had a minor car accident last year.  Afterwards, I had no idea what had happened, where the other driver had even come from.  He sideswiped me, forcing me off the road — then took off.  For weeks, every time I was at the intersection where it happened, I pressed into my memory, just trying to figure it out.  But it was gone — or maybe it was never there.  It was an odd feeling, and one that stayed with me. You captured it perfectly — though of course Bryn’s trauma is much more severe.

I wish I could exactly document where I gleaned this piece of information!  Maybe I first heard something about it in one of my favorite books: DEEP SURVIVAL by Lawrence Gonzalez.  Then years later, I think I read it again in relation to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (although in this case maybe it was eight factors — according to an article in New Scientist).  Then later I heard something similar relating to a climbing disaster on Mt. Everest.  It kicked around in my brain for a long time, and then surfaced in THE RED HUNTER. I researched around to document it, but couldn’t find a source.  It makes a kind of sense to me, how many things have to go right or wrong for anything to occur.  Probably we could reverse engineer every major event in our lives and find seven factors that led to it.  This is a theme that runs through my work, the idea of choices and chance, and what can happen as the result of a moment, or series of moments.  How the events might be so tiny — you make a wrong turn, you miss your train, you turn back for your umbrella — and the consequences so unforgiving.

Is THE RED HUNTER going to get really scary? Hmm … I don’t know how to answer that.  I sometimes hear from readers how scary, how dark are the books, but I don’t really think of them that way.  I am always so deep into character, so fascinated by what’s happening to the people in my books, and why they do what that do, that I don’t think much about whether it’s scary or not!  I don’t think it’s SO scary.  But if you’re nervous about things like dark, unexplored basements that hide secrets, career criminals stalking your house for something that may or may not be hidden there, or a young woman seeking revenge against men who killed her parents — you might be a LITTLE scared. (But considering that an AXE figures prominently in a murder in your book, I don’t know how scared you can be!)

Bryn comments at one point in the book that she’s a geek for research.  And I think you and I have talked about that, too, how we’re both information junkies. Was Bryn’s comment really you in disguise?  Do you love research? What was your most intriguing research experience?

Meanwhile, I finished THE SECRETS YOU KEEP!  Loved it — twisty, smart, and involving! I won’t give anything away, of course.  But I’m sure your legions of fans are going to get the thrill-ride they’ve come to expect. And — how exciting — your book goes on sale this week!  Where can your readers find you to get their copies signed?

Kate White: Lisa, you gave me a lot to think about with this last letter. I finished THE RED HUNTER, btw, late last night, and I LOVED IT. I didn’t have to go to sleep with the lights on but I was tense reading it, couldn’t stop reading it, and there were a few times when my heart was pounding.  Some surprises I never saw coming, one that knocked my socks off, but made such perfect sense in the end. A great read!!!

I love what you said about choices and chance, and what can happen because of a moment or series of moments. I loved your characters Claudia and Heather and Raven, and Paul, too (and I ached for Josh), and I was trying to will moments to go a certain way for them but knew it wasn’t in my hands. Maybe it wasn’t even in your hands, it was just you letting your characters experience fate. That’s one amazing thing about your writing that just crystallized for me. Your characters are so vivid and never feel manipulated or controlled by you. They always seem to be alive and making their own choices, even if they are dangerous ones.

I also admire how you are always experimenting as a writer, never sticking to the same formula. And can I just say I go nuts for lines like, “The trees punched gold against the gloaming.” Jeez, that’s nice.

In closing, a few words about research. Harlan Coben once told me that he thought research was a form of procrastination. But I like being a research junkie like you. It helps generate ideas and is also damn fun. When I was researching SECRETS in Saratoga, a character I was having trouble creating, just walked into the room I was standing in. Information can be helpful on so many levels. A brilliant consultant I worked with at Cosmo used to say that when you are stumped, it might very well mean you need more information. So go after it.

Incidentally I’m having lunch today with a fantastic forensic expert named Barbara Butcher (true!) who I met years ago and became friends with. Over a delicious lunch, she will give me some grizzly info for the next Bailey Weggins mystery. I can’t wait. Yum!

Lisa Unger: Thanks so much, Kate!

Lucky readers, you’re in for a treat with THE SECRETS YOU KEEP! Suspenseful, intense, twisty and full of surprises you won’t see coming, this is a book that will keep you up past your bedtime turning the pages.

And if you’d like to connect with Kate while she’s on the road, visit

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Heather Gudenkauf and Lisa Unger, in Conversation Thu, 23 Feb 2017 13:37:14 +0000 Kung Fu, Home Renovation, and Nice Places with Dark Secrets

Praised as masterful, intelligent, and terrifyingly real, Heather Gudenkauf’s novels have won awards, raced to the top of bestseller lists, and kept plenty of readers up past their bedtimes – me included.  After reading her upcoming novel NOT A SOUND, I sensed that we were tackling similar themes in our work – trauma, victimhood, redemption – and that we’d have LOTS to talk about.  We did!  Eavesdrop on our chat about everything from complicated, flawed characters, “idyllic towns” with dark underbellies, to how horrible events from childhood worked their way into our stories.

Heather Gudenkauf and Lisa Unger, in Conversation

Lisa Unger:  I think we first met in person at the Tucson Book Festival last spring.  But it seemed as if we were always running past each other, on our separate ways to different panels or talks.  I kept thinking, “Hey, she looks cool.  I wish we could find a minute to grab a coffee!”  Then a couple months later you reached out and sent me a copy of your upcoming novel NOT A SOUND.  Which I loved!  Thank you!  And then you sent me chocolate!  Thank you again!  When I read that you are a homebody, and a dog lover (love your pictures of Lolo), and that you would rather be with your family than anywhere else, I realized that, obviously, we’re soul mates.  We HAD to have a chat.  So, thanks for agreeing to be my pen pal!

In NOT A SOUND, your protagonist Amelia Winn is deaf.  You handle that so well, do such a good job of communicating the silence of her world.  What made you want to explore that in your fiction?  What challenges did it pose in writing?

Heather Gudenkauf:  We did meet at the Tucson Book Festival!  I remember seeing you in the hotel lobby and wishing we had more time to visit.  I’m a big fan of your books and was thrilled when you had such kind words to say about NOT A SOUND.  The character of Amelia is one of my most complicated, endearing characters to-date.  Though I have a profound unilateral hearing loss I can hear and when I decided to write from the perspective of a deaf character I knew I was in for a challenge.  I found myself inadvertently including sounds in the early drafts.  Writing a novel with the absence of sound made me focus more deeply on other aspects of the novel -the relationship between characters, the inner struggles of Amelia.

As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of your writing and am so excited about your upcoming release THE RED HUNTER.  The novel centers around two women who have a chilling connection.  An important element of the novel is the restoration of an old house and martial arts.  I’ve always wanted to restore an old house and am obsessed with HGTV.  Have you ever taken on any restoration projects?  How about martial arts training?

Lisa Unger:  Ah!  I wondered about that, if you had to edit later drafts.  I KNOW that would happen to me. I’m always drawing from all the senses to flesh out scenes and ground the story in the moment.  I’d be editing out birds, and rippling creeks, and the wind!  But I see your point, how eliminating one sense would sharpen the other elements of the novel.

I studied Kung Fu for eight years and gave it up when I became pregnant with my daughter.  Motherhood drained my will to spar, not to mention the fact that I no longer had the time.  But I recently took up kick boxing, and some of that energy returned.  I loved so much about the martial arts when I first started, and some of that fighting spirit came back to me in training.  Reconnecting to that part of myself, remembering that phase in my life, was at least part of the inspiration for THE RED HUNTER.

I have always wanted to restore an old house, too!  We did a big renovation project on our 1968 home a few years ago, but I wasn’t brave enough to take it on myself.  It’s one of those things that channels like HDTV make look so easy, as if anyone can do it!  But the act of tearing a house down to the studs, taking a sledge hammer to what’s there, ripping out old walls, rebuilding, is challenging and unpredictable even for professionals.  Still, my husband and I have done many things ourselves over the years.  And what I know about home repair is, like life, things rarely go as expected and sometimes you must call in the professionals to clean up the mess you’ve made.  Still I was interested in that idea of renovation as reinvention, how Claudia uses the project as a way of starting over and rebuilding her life.  Naturally, things don’t go that way.  At all.

I’m kind of sucker for the flawed, struggling main character.  That’s why I loved Amelia.  She’s had a horrible thing happen to her, and she lets it send her the downward spiral into addiction.  My characters are never based on any one person or idea, so I know it’s a complicated question.  But what was the germ or the inspiration for Amelia?  What were you most interested in about her journey?

Heather Gudenkauf:  I love that you trained in Kung Fu and continue to take part in kick boxing and that you were able to weave those experiences into your novel!  I think I need to take up pilates or fencing or maybe even triathlon training for my next book – great research and I could get in shape too!

Amelia is one of my most complicated characters to date.  As someone who has a profound unilateral hearing loss (a fancy way of saying I’m deaf in one ear) I have wondered what it might be like to lose my hearing completely and I attempted to explore this through writing.  I also wanted to explore a character who must find a way to rebuild her life from the ground up.  Amelia lost her hearing, her job, and her husband and step-daughter.  The breakdown of her life wasn’t due to her deafness but because of the choices she made – turning to alcohol and isolating herself from her husband and others.  I wanted to take Amelia through the journey of rebuilding life and in the process, she finds that she has a big impact on the lives of others.  It sounds like Amelia from NOT A SOUND and Claudia and Zoey from THE RED HUNTER have something in common – reclaiming their lives.

My novels are primarily set in Iowa, the state where I grew up and continue to live – and a reader can often find references to real towns and spots in my fictionalized settings.  It’s always a treat when I hear from readers that they recognize a specific location from my descriptions.  I’m fascinated to learn why other authors choose particular settings for their novels.  I’d love to hear about the setting of THE RED HUNTER.  Did you base it on a real or fictional locale?  What was your inspiration?

Lisa Unger:  Though I have lived in Florida for the last 16 years, I was born and lived much of my childhood, when not living overseas, in the Northeast.  So, I tend to return to the Tri-State Area in my fiction.  Most often lately, I’m dwelling in my fictional town called The Hollows.  But THE RED HUNTER is set in yet another fictional town in New Jersey called Lost Valley.  I grew up in a place called Long Valley, and as a joke my friends and I often referred to it as Lost Valley because as teenagers we found it so stultifying dull.  Like all fictional places, it is its own thing, and wasn’t truly inspired by that place.  But then in ways it is.  That’s the trick of fictional towns — they’re part imagination, part memory.  I like fictional places because I make all the rules.

That said, I’m not sure why I keep winding up back in these isolated, part rural, part suburban areas — especially when I so despised it growing up.  From an early age, I was chomping at the bit to get to New York City, where I went to college and lived for 13 years.

Some dark things happened in the town where I grew up, and those events have stayed with me and even inspired some of my work.  I keep going back to this idea that there are these idyllic every towns, where people think nothing bad can ever happen.  But then bad things happen anyway, because bad things happen everywhere.  It’s part of my obsession with what’s going on beneath the surface of things.

There’s definitely a common theme between THE RED HUNTER and NOT A SOUND.  Amelia, Claudia, and Zoey are all victims of violent crime.  They all chose very different paths forward.  Amelia chooses to let her life spiral into addiction.  Zoey chooses to fight violence with violence.  And Claudia is kind of white-knuckling her way into the light, though her behavior might be self-destructive in some ways, too.  It’s another obsession I have. What happens after the worst day?  What kind of person gets up and finds her way to a new normal?  What kind of person stays down?  Who lets the darkness overtake them?  I think you have a background in social work.  Is that right?  Do you have any insight into what personality traits are most likely to contribute to recovery after violence?  Did you draw on that experience when exploring Amelia?

Heather Gudenkauf:  I can completely relate to the idea that it is often the most idyllic of towns that have this nefarious underbelly – everything looks wonderful on the surface but once you look more closely – not so much.  Like you, I tend to explore what happens when regular, everyday people must face difficult, sometimes unspeakable situations.  I grew up in a mid-size Iowa city called Mason City.  It was a great place to grow up – we were the “big town” surrounded by smaller, rural town.  But I also grew up in the era of the milk carton kids ~ when the faces of missing children were printed on milk cartons and stranger danger was taught in schools.  When I was twelve, Johnny Gosch, also twelve years old, went missing while delivering newspapers early one morning.  He only lived a few hours from where I lived and I think that’s when the carefree childhood I was lucky enough to have was marred.  My first novel, THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE, tackles the topic of missing children and though a very different scenario than the Johnny Gosch case, it certainly brought to mind the emotions I felt decades earlier.

My background is in elementary education.  Over the last twenty-five years I’ve been a classroom teacher, was an instructional coach and am currently my district’s Title I Reading Coordinator and Middle School Language Arts Coordinator.  Just about every novel I’ve written has a child that is somehow integral to the story.  I have always been amazed at the resiliency of children.  Though my novels are not based on real life events, I am definitely inspired by the optimistic and irrepressible nature of children.  Many of my novels deal with a mother’s love – in its many, complicated forms, for their children.  In NOT A SOUND, Amelia is exceptionally close to her step-daughter, Nora, but due to her spiral into alcoholism she jeopardizes this relationship and has to fight harder than she ever imagined in order to re-establish this connection.  As to the question of what personality traits are most likely to contribute to recovery after violence, I’ve found in my work with children and their families, that it’s the feeling of self-worth that can be the driving force to reclaiming their lives.  I’ve also found that children and adults who have some kind of support system in place that are the most successful. That support system can be another family member, a close friend, a teacher, a mentor or a social services organization that can make all the difference.  Amelia, the victim of a hit and run, turns to alcohol to cope with her pain but manages to remember and recognize that she has so much to live for: her step-daughter, her family, her friendships and her desire to work as a nurse again.

As a writer, coming up with the titles for my novels can be so challenging.  Most of the time the working title I choose for a book doesn’t end up as the final title.  I find the titles of your novels so intriguing: INK AND BONE, THE WHISPERING HOLLOWS, and of course THE RED HUNTER.  They make me want to immediately pick them up and start reading.  How do you come up with your titles?  What’s the story behind the THE RED HUNTER?

Lisa Unger:  Ah, elementary school education, that’s right.  What better place to learn about the human condition?

I had a similar experience growing up.  When I was fifteen, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered.  This event, in a town where people moved their families from the city to be safe, changed the way I saw the world.  And it was my novel FRAGILE in which I tackled the emotions, fears, and questions that I had carried since them.  It’s not a retelling of that event, but certainly I brought forth what I had experienced during that sad, dark time.

I have such a hard time with titles!  Titles that I come up with and think are fantastic, my publisher will inevitably hate.  Titles I hate and I’m certain my publisher will change, they usually love!  THE RED HUNTER is one of those rare titles that I knew was perfect, and my publisher liked, too.  It comes from Zoey’s inner life.  She is a student of Kung Fu, and her mentor teaches her the power of meditation, of connecting to the breath.  When she meditates, she enters the watcher mind, the place inside that’s a separate observer of the chaos of our thoughts.  As opposed to the thinker, who chatters and worries.  But inside Zoey, there’s yet another layer which she thinks of The Red Hunter.  But folks will have to read the book to understand who The Red Hunter is, and what she wants.  Buckle up!


THE RED HUNTER by Lisa Unger releases April 25. Visit to learn more.

NOT A SOUND by Heather Gudenkauf releases May 30. Visit for more about Heather and her fantastic books!