Strand Magazine Interview with Lisa Unger

The following is my in-depth interview with The Strand Magazine, published in the Strand Magazine Issue 42: Spring 2014:

STRAND MAGAZINE: So what is new from Lisa Unger this year?

This year, my twelfth novel IN THE BLOOD released on January 7th. I have been on the road visiting with booksellers and fans from Key West to San Francisco since the release day. Meanwhile, I am working on line edits for my 2015 release CRAZY LOVE YOU. And I am deep into my first young adult novel, slated for summer 2015. So, you know, not too much.

STRAND MAGAZINE: Tell us about your experiences growing up? You grew up partly in Holland and England.

I was born in New Haven, Connecticut and moved around quite a bit. I lived in the Netherlands, the UK, and then finally my family settled back in the US. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey called Long Valley until I left at 18 for New York City where I went to college and lived for the next 13 years.

The moving around was challenging at times; I remember a semi-permanent sense of disconnection. But I had a sense even at a fairly young age that it was cool and unusual to see so much of the world. It made me quite self-reliant and led to my discovery of books, and eventually my identity as a writer. If I was perpetually the new kid, then at least I was at home on the page.

Moreover, this feeling of being on the sideline of things led me to become a keen observer. And that’s the first thing a writer needs to be. Maybe we can’t observe as carefully unless we’re standing a little bit outside the fray.

STRAND MAGAZINE: When did you first know you were going to become a writer?

I don’t remember a time before I defined myself this way.  Naturally, I fell in love with story as a reader. But I was writing in elementary school, middle school, high school and college – short stories, plays, some very maudlin poetry. It took me a long time to find my way to publishing my first novel. But I never wanted to do anything else with my life.

STRAND MAGAZINE: What was the inspiration for IN THE BLOOD?

The germ for a novel can come from almost anything – a news story, a line of poetry, even a photograph. IN THE BLOOD was inspired by an article I read in The New York Times Magazine about how certain doctors think they can see early signs of psychopathic behavior in children as young as five. This idea ignited my imagination and led me to do a great deal of research on the topic. And while I was reading, I started to hear the voice of Lana Granger. The only thing I knew about her was that she was hiding something big. But I didn’t know what. I also knew I had to tell her story.

Like most of my novels, IN THE BLOOD is my delving into the question of what makes us who we are, and what power do we have to change ourselves. My father used to recite this poem for me when I was a kid.  You cannot hide in snow/ no matter where you go/ you leave a trail behind/ that anyone can find.  It sounds a little creepy, doesn’t it?  He didn’t mean it to be; he’s just into the sound of words.  It stayed with me and comes back at weird moments.  And over the course of my life, its meaning has evolved as an allegory for the self.  You cannot hide from yourself.  The psyche won’t allow it.  You must embrace everything, even the darkest and most unpleasant things within you.  That’s the major theme of IN THE BLOOD.

STRAND MAGAZINE: What writers would you say influenced you the most?

I’ve been a voracious reader all my life and I’ve always read widely across genre, only caring about big, character rich stories.   Truman Capote was an early influence. In his stories, I fell in love with prose. IN COLD BLOOD taught me that one could write about the most horrible events and do that with great beauty and deep compassion. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Steven King. I was reading him long before it was age-appropriate for me to be reading his novels. I have been influenced by all my literary loves – from Sydney Sheldon to the Bronte sisters, from V.C. Andrews to J.R.R. Tolkien, from Robert Heinlein to Jane Austen. I don’t discriminate!

STRAND MAGAZINE: You worked in publishing before you were published—please tell our readers how publishing is not the glamorous sexy business that the media portrays…

Oh, my goodness, but it IS terribly sexy and glamorous! How could you suggest otherwise??? Of course, publishing is just a business like any other but I can’t imagine a better one. I loved my years working as a book publicist. And although it doesn’t compare to the images we see in film and television, it was pretty exciting and fun.

What I love about publishing is that it is a business motivated by love of story. Everyone who comes to publishing comes because they really love and care about books. And I think that’s a unique and wonderful thing. I’ve been in this industry in one way or another since I was 22 years old. It’s a strange one – quirky, unpredictable, ever-changing. But I feel blessed to be a part of it.

STRAND MAGAZINE: You are the type of author who could have easily be a huge literary author, why did you choose crime a means to tell a story?

Hmmm … I’m not sure how to answer that. I don’t think I chose to write about crime anymore than I chose to write in the first place. I have always had a dark and twisted imagination, and have been drawn to things that are strange and unexplainable. What could be more strange and unexplainable than human nature? I find people endlessly fascinating. And most of my novels are my attempt to answer the questions I have about them. Crime is a crucible. When people are under terrible pressure, they reveal their true nature. It’s an idea that I keep coming back to – the ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances.   What will she do? How will she react and change? Will she adapt or crumble? I never get tired of asking and answering that question.

I also care deeply about my writing, and I strive to be better with every book. Each sentence is important to me. I dig deep every day to hone my craft, to say things with more efficiency, more beauty, and more honesty. I don’t believe my subject matter impacts my goals as a writer, or that I am a lesser writer because I choose to write about dark matters. All great novels, literary or otherwise, have a mystery at their center, have something about them that thrills the reader – otherwise they wouldn’t be “great” stories.

I am not sure what it means to be a “huge literary author.” I can only tell the stories I am inspired to tell and be the best writer I can be.

STRAND MAGAZINE: What book would you describe as your breakout book?

I’m still waiting for my breakout book! Can you let me know when I’ve had it?

STRAND MAGAZINE: Has your success meant you feel more pressure to deliver with each book?

I feel a lot of internal pressure. But then again, I always have. It has nothing to do with wanting more or sustained success.  I want the books to be better each time. I hope each outing brings more people to my work. I work very hard towards those goals, so of course I feel pressure. But it’s more a striving for personal best than anything else.

I try to stay centered and to keep my nose to the keyboard, living as much as possible in my creative space. There is very little in the publishing process that we as writers can control. The only thing I do control is that I am writing the best novels I can write. And as long as I feel good about my work, I am a happy girl. Maybe it’s naïve to think that this will be enough.

STRAND MAGAZINE: Your novels have themes often of past events haunting your characters—tell us more about that.

Yes, it’s a theme I have explored a number of times in my work. Most people aren’t living in the present tense. If they are not worrying about the future, they are dwelling in the past, examining old wrongs, or wallowing in regret, wishing that things had been different. And so much of who we are today has to do with where we came from, our past experiences, even our biology. It’s all impossibly twisted and wrapped up – the past, the present and the future, experiences, and genetics. It’s almost impossible to be a wholly realized person without examining and accepting the past.

I am a spelunker, shimmying into the dark crevices and shadowy spaces because I want to know what’s there.  Are we products of nature or nurture, or some impossibly complex combination?  How much control do we have over our lives? Is it possible to escape what we came from and be someone totally new? So yes, my characters are often either hiding terrible secrets, or trying to overcome trauma, or running from a dark past. But it’s all about how exploring those dark places may help them to move into the light.

STRAND MAGAZINE: How have you managed to escape the pressure of writing about a series character when most authors find that that’s the only way to keep on top of the bestseller lists?

Hmm, this might explain why I’m not at the top of the bestseller lists! I wish someone had mentioned this earlier!

I do actually have a couple of series characters. There’s Lydia Strong, Ridley Jones, Jones Cooper, and now The Hollows, the town that has become a sort of series character. But I have to honor the voices in my head, and there hasn’t been one person who has stayed with me through all thirteen novels, though several characters pop up in different books. I can’t write stories that don’t organically come from an interior place. I can’t write based on what I think might sell, because that’s very hard to predict. And I feel like that would kill my creativity. Luckily, I have never been pressured to do that.

STRAND MAGAZINE: In your free time when you’re not writing what do you enjoy doing?

We live a real Florida lifestyle, spending as much time as possible on the water as avid boaters and beach goers.  We love kayaking, tennis and yoga.  My husband Jeff and I really enjoy cooking, entertaining friends.  Naturally, we’re film and book junkies. We are obsessed with a number of television shows – currently Homeland, True Detectives, and Downton Abbey.

Travel is a big part of our lives. We try to go someplace new every year and expose our daughter to as many different places as we can. We spend a lot of time in New York, and there we get our city fix – theater, new restaurants, music, museums.

STRAND MAGAZINE: Do you outline?

No. I write for the same reason that I read. Because I want to know what’s going to happen.

The writing of every novel is an act of faith.  As I mentioned, the germ for the novel can come from anything – a line of poetry, a song, a news story, even a piece of junk mail.  There’s a feeling, a little jingle of excitement.  And the best way I can explain it, is that if the initial inspiration connects with something larger going on inside of me, then I’ll start to hear a voice in my head.  Or I’ll see something happening over and over again.  Then, I know there’s a novel.  I start writing, and I have faith that the novel will evolve.

Story is life, and it develops in the same way for me.  I could tell you what I plan to do today, that I am going to go to work on my book, go to the gym, and pick my daughter up from school. But I can’t tell you about my day, not really, until I’ve lived it.  A million things will happen that I don’t expect, people will turn up and either facilitate or derail my goals.  Maybe my car breaks down and I don’t make it to the gym – and that leads to some other event.  I have to go with the events of the day and only at the end can I tell you what really happened.  I feel the same way about my novels.

STRAND MAGAZINE: What contemporary writers do you enjoy reading today?

I get this question a lot and I feel like I always list the same people. So I am just going to tell you what I have recently read. I devoured Doctor Sleep by Stephen King. It was a truly fantastic read. I find him as awe-inspiring and inspirational as I did when I was a kid. He’s a master. I had the privilege to read an early copy of Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta. It was truly stellar and I enjoyed every second of it. I am excited to start Elizabeth George’s Just One Evil Act. And I have a copy of Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye, which I’ve been dying to read.

STRAND MAGAZINE: I found Fragile one of your more intriguing books—what inspired that, was it a trip to the Hollows?

A great deal of my process is unconscious.  I usually begin each novel with a voice in my head, as I’ve said. I don’t even fully know what a book is about until I’ve been sitting with it for a while. This is why I was about halfway through the writing of FRAGILE when I finally realized what it was about — and that the story at its center was an event from my own past.

When I was a teenager, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we were friends.  But we were acquaintances, played together in the same school orchestra.  And her horrible, tragic death was a terrifying and hugely traumatic moment in a quiet, suburban town where nothing like that had ever happened before.  This event changed me.  It changed the way I saw the world.  And I carried it with me in ways I wasn’t aware of until I was metabolizing it on the page – more than twenty-five years later.

This story has tried to make its way out in other partials that I have discarded or abandoned.  The voices that had tried to tell it before were never strong enough to center a novel around.  It is notable that the voices who finally were able to tell the tale are much older, people with a lot of distance from the fictional event.  In other words, it’s almost as if we all  — the characters and the author — needed to grow up a little to have access to the heart of the story, to really understand it.

It’s a very personal book, though it’s not the retelling of actual events.

STRAND MAGAZINE: Are there any film deals in the pipeline?

There’s always buzz about interest. But at the moment, there’s nothing solid.

STRAND MAGAZINE: Why did you write under a pseudonym?

St. Martin’s Minotaur purchased my first book, ANGEL FIRE, before I was married.  I published three more Lydia Strong novels with them, under my maiden name of Lisa Miscione, before moving to Random House in 2006 with BEAUTIFUL LIES.  When I made that move, it seemed like a natural time to start writing under my married name, Lisa Unger.

BEAUTIFUL LIES was also very different than anything I written before and it felt like a real leap forward for me as writer.  And Random House wanted to publish it as such. So the choice to move forward in a new direction with my married name was an easy one. And I just emailed the five people who’d read my early series and told them to look out for the new name on my covers!

STRAND MAGAZINE: What do you think the future holds for publishing? I have to deal with people telling me that the printed word on paper is dying and I have to say I have become rather testy!

Story is life. To narrate our existence is at the core of our natures – we are all storytellers in once sense or another. That is not going to change.

Of course, people are reading differently, e-book sales are skyrocketing. But no, I don’t believe the printed word is dying. I think e-reading is a big trend right now, but my guess is that it will level off. Some people will read exclusively on e-readers; others will cling to the printed book. Most of us will fall somewhere in the middle.

I personally still like the quiet experience of reading a real book. My eight-year-old is all about the real paper book. So that makes me think the printed book is here to stay, if in diminished numbers.

STRAND MAGAZINE: What was your most challenging book to write? I have often felt that setting your novel in two countries (Die For You) would have been a tough prospect.

It’s strange; I never think of books as challenging. Though I suppose BLACK OUT was kind of a rough ride. First of all, my narrator Annie Powers (aka Ophelia) was very unstable. From the first page I didn’t know whether she was crazy or not. So that was a little unsettling.

Meanwhile, I was quite fractured myself at the time, really struggling with the whole mommy-writer balance. I only wanted to be with my daughter, and yet I was still as powerfully driven to write as I have ever been. So I felt really split … either working and missing my baby, or taking care of my daughter and worried about deadlines.   So, in that way, I would have to say BLACK OUT was the hardest.

I began DIE FOR YOU while I was spending five weeks in Prague. So I was really in my setting, doing my research, very inspired by the place around me. And New York City is one of the places I know best, so it wasn’t much of a balancing act.

Life poses a lot of challenges of course when you’re trying to find your way to the page; it throws up a lot of obstacles (especially in parenthood) that one must navigate in order to find her way to the page.   But once I’m there, it’s pure joy.

STRAND MAGAZINE: What are you working on now? If you say nothing, I am going to insist you write a short story for the Strand.

I am currently at work on my first young adult book. (Which I love doing! So much fun!) And I am in the editorial phase on my January 2015 book CRAZY LOVE YOU. Meanwhile, I am also at work on my 2016 adult title. Short story? Maybe. Let’s talk.

STRAND MAGAZINE: Did you work in publishing help you realize what you needed to do in terms of promotion to get to the top of the ladder?

I learned a lot from my years in publishing. First of all, it gave me permission to pursue a career in writing. In spite of what my father told me, people did write for a living! Second, I learned that a publishing contract is a beginning, not an end, not a windfall. It means that it is time to roll up your sleeves and get to work – meanwhile, check your ego at the door. It also taught me, long before I published my first novel, that writers control very little. The only place they have any control at all is on the page. So all of that has helped to keep me centered on this crazy journey of being a published writer!

STRAND MAGAZINE: What advice can you offer beginning writers?

Write every day. Read everything you can get your hands on. Work hard every day to be a better writer than you were yesterday. And treat the pursuit of publication as an incidental enterprise, a distant second to getting better every day.

STRAND MAGAZINE: What’s the best part of being a writer?

Writing. I never wanted to do anything else with my life. So I am grateful every day that I make my living doing what I love to do.