Inhabiting Character, Art Imitating Life, and What Publishing Jobs Taught Us about Writing
Most of the time, authors are alone. To complete a novel, one must be comfortable with solitude. In fact, one must even be happy to log hours with head bent in silence, fingers to the keyboard. But on the other side of publication, authors often have to put on our extrovert hats and get out into the world – book tours, speaking engagements, conferences. At Bouchercon (world’s biggest mystery writers and readers convention) this past September, I bumped into author Chris Pavone for the third time this year. We met at the Tucson Book Festival in March. He came to my booksigning for INK AND BONE at Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. And then we ran into each other at a party in New Orleans. We’ve had a number of interesting, if brief, conversations about how often Labradoodles need to be bathed, introversion vs. extroversion, and balancing career and family life.
I thought those conversations were a little too short, so I invited Chris, New York Times bestselling author of THE TRAVELERS to be my pen pal for a week or so.
Lisa Unger: So, you and I have bumped into each other a couple of times this year, as authors do, at conferences and book events. And during a party at Bouchercon just this past week, we wound up having a chat about introversion. I’m an introvert — which doesn’t mean I’m shy or can’t speak in public — but it does mean I’m drained by social contact, nourished by solitude. In other words, I’d rather be at my desk writing than almost anywhere else. It’s my opinion that most writers are introverts — otherwise we wouldn’t be able to log the solitary hours necessary to write. Do you agree? Do you consider yourself an introvert? In a profession which requires a great deal of alone time, as well as the ability to get out and talk about the work, how do you find balance?
Chris Pavone: We were speaking at around 6:00 p.m. on a night when I ended up staying out till 4:00 a.m.! I’m no introvert. For two decades I worked full-time office jobs in the publishing business, and the main thing I miss about that life is having colleagues–people to talk to day in and day out, to have lunch with, to commiserate with. So my main goal at a conference like Bouchercon is to spend immense amounts of time with people. Which isn’t to say that I don’t find this level of social activity exhausting: leaving New Orleans, I was so relieved to not talk to a single soul all day. Sometimes I really want to be alone all day, especially when I’m in the thick of writing. I’m not the sort who talks about my works-in-progress, which I think drives my editors crazy. Do you talk through your novels while you’re writing? Plot, character, problems, solutions?
Lisa Unger: I know! You did stay out until 4am! Which is only an hour before I usually get up to write. I would have fallen asleep in a corner somewhere. I barely made it to 11.
No way. I never, ever talk about my work in progress. I feel like anything you say about the work drains its energy. I have a couple of people who may read while I’m writing, and I don’t mind hearing what their broad thoughts are, questions they have. But there’s almost no discussion about a novel in progress that is helpful. Because of the way I write, without an outline, with a voice in my head, with no idea how things are going to go day-to-day, the story needs time to evolve and take shape. Early input can really alter the course of the novel.
I guess the only talking I do is when I’m researching and interviewing people. I have a clinical psychiatrist who I might pester. I’ll send him emails — Hey! Do you have time to talk about addiction, or trauma, or fugue states? — or whatever I happen to be obsessed with or curious about. And then we’ll get on the phone and talk about those kinds of things. And I have a retired FBI agent off of whom I bounce various ideas and scenarios. And these kinds of conversations fuel and give inspiration, color, ideas to the writing that comes afterwards. But there’s never any actual talking about plot or character, or where the story might go. That’s all very internal.
One of the things I love about your books is the total authenticity with which you write about scenarios that are clearly divorced from your experience — a retired spy, turned stay-at-home mom living an as an expat in Luxembourg, a travel writer who gets pulled into an international web of intrigue. I heard Meryl Streep say in an interview that the she believes that within every person is the germ of every other person. Does that resonate with you? How do you connect with your characters and their situations? What type of research do you do to access the world your characters inhabit?
Chris Pavone: I agree with Meryl Streep! I think nearly all my characters are different versions of me–they think the same thoughts I do, they share the same concerns, they make the same sorts of decisions I would. This is true for the male and female characters, young and old, rich and poor; all me, wearing different shoes.
It helps that in my novels so far (I’ve written only three!) I haven’t strayed too far from my own real-life experiences. It’s true that I have never been a spy. But I have been a disenchanted expat trailing spouse living in Luxembourg (The Expats), and a conflicted middle-aged New York book editor (The Accident), and a married writer who travels a lot and stays out too late (The Travelers). I’ve been to the places my characters go–Mexico and Argentina, Italy and Spain, Sweden and Iceland, London and Copenhagen and (every year, every book) Paris, etc. I regularly get on a plane to someplace so I can write about it.
It also helps that my books don’t feature real villains. There are characters in conflict, and these conflicts sometimes escalate to lethal. But my goal is for these conflicts to read as the unfortunate confluence of the rational decision-making of self-interested characters, not as straight-up good vs. evil. What’s your approach to evil? To villains? To lethal violence?
Lisa Unger: That’s why I love doing this! I knew about the book editor bit and all the traveling you do as a writer, but not about your trailing spouse gig in Luxembourg.
Like you, I don’t think in terms of villains or heroes, good guys and bad guys. Mainly because these types of people don’t exist in the real world. Most of our lives are a mosaic of choices, good and bad. Some people make good choices most of the time, some make choices motivated by dark desires or appetites. But most people we might think of as villains are in conflict within — mentally ill, or the victims of trauma and abuse, perhaps brainwashed into a cause that escalates to violence. Life is rarely simple; and human motivation is the greatest mystery of all.
So most of my novels, most of my characters, center around the answering of questions I have about human nature. What makes some of us run toward danger in service of others, what makes others run in the opposite direction? What makes some of us lie, or cheat, or steal, or motivates us to find and punish the people who do so? Are we products of nature or nurture or — as I believe — some impossibly complicated helix of both of those things? So I approach each character — even the most deranged among them — with compassion, with respect and with curiosity. Likewise, I approach violence as a personal encounter, the moment between people when rational thought, language, respect have vanished and we are reduced to our most primal selves. Violence is ugly, quiet, deeply, darkly intimate — and ultimately pointless. I try to approach all violent encounters from that place, not idealizing it, or glorifying it, but showing it for what it is as unflinchingly as possible.
So obviously you’ve drawn on your life experiences, as we all do, to inform your novels. I, too, come from a publishing background. And while I have yet to mine that phase of my life for my fiction, those years were an education that has been invaluable in my life as an author. What did you learn in your years as a book editor that was most helpful in your writing life? Did you want to write before you were an editor? Or did your years of editing make you want to write?
Chris Pavone: I’d wanted to write a novel since college, which was one of the reasons I pursued a career in publishing. But I also wanted to have a separate freestanding occupation in its own right, something that could be satisfying whether or not I ever ended up writing. And I did love book publishing–not just the work itself, but especially the culture of the business, the people in it.
And that’s the main thing I learned that continues to be useful: almost everyone who works in publishing is doing it because they love books. It’s a low-paying, unglamorous business that’s headquartered in an exorbitantly expensive, notoriously difficult place to live. The work is relentless, the industry always seems to be on the verge of collapse. It’s not easy. No one is doing it to get rich (it’s literally impossible to get rich from being a book editor), and no one is doing it because they enjoy saying no to writers. No isn’t fun. People come to work hoping to say yes.
I don’t think my experience as a book editor helps me with the actual writing. But it does help me understand how my writing will be consumed within the business, so I bear a couple of things in mind: one is that many agents and editors HATE typos so much that they’ll simply throw away a sloppy manuscript. Another is that many of the people who are most important to the fate of any book might form their opinions–and make their crucial decisions–based on just the first few pages. Whatever’s good about any book ought to be evident from the opening scene.
And you? When did you get the itch to write a novel? Did your experience in the business help with your writing, or publishing, or anything? (Do I remember correctly that it was publicity?)
Lisa Unger: I love that answer, because it’s just perfect, true advice to aspiring writers. And you’re right — everyone in publishing is just head-over-heels in love with story. No one on earth is more excited by a great book than the editor who first holds that manuscript and knows it’s going to be something wonderful. I think a lot of aspiring writers imagine otherwise. But if you’ve written a great book, an editor somewhere is going to fall in love with it.
I have never wanted to do anything but write, as long as I can remember. Likewise, I think that’s why I went into publishing. I didn’t have the confidence to pursue my writing dreams, even though I began my first novel in college (unbelievably, that first book would later be published.) And I kind of had my dad’s voice in my head — and outside my head, too: Get a real job, kid. You’re off the payroll. So going into publishing was the closest I could get to my dream, without actually going for my dream. You’re right; it was publicity. And you’re also right that it’s a brutal industry in some ways. But I loved it, too. Still do!
It took years of being a closet writer — ten to be exact — to finish that first novel, all the while working in publicity, struggling to make ends meet in New York City. In a lot of ways, success at my job took me away from my writing — until I actually got serious about it. My years in publishing definitely didn’t help me get published once I had finished my first novel. But I think my knowledge of the industry helped me to understand the process better than most. I knew that publishing my first novel was just an open door, that I would have to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I knew I had to shed any ego I had, that there would be hills and valleys, setbacks, and rejections even after I’d been published. I knew it was harder to succeed as a published writer than it was to get published in the first place. So I was just ready to do the work.
So, what’s next for you?
Chris Pavone: I spent the past few months working on two very different novels. Both are books that I really want to write, but only one can be next. It’s a tough decision, isn’t it? Sometimes I worry that I don’t give this enough strategic thought: What book should I write? Who should the protagonist be? How should the new book be different from (or similar to) my previous ones? What sort of world should I build? What themes? And for all of these questions: WHY?
In the rational part of my brain, I know these answers will define me, my career. But in the irrational part of my brain, a story occurs to me, a character or two, and I start pursuing it, without necessarily asking myself if this is really what I should be working on. I firmly believe that the projects we reject–the ideas we choose not to engage–are a crucial part of the creative process. Do I reject enough of my ideas?
After back-and-forthing with my agent, we sent a hundred pages of one of these manuscripts to my publisher, and thankfully they like it. The protagonist of what will be my fourth novel is the same as my first’s–THE EXPATS–picking up Kate’s life a couple years later, in a completely different circumstance. It’s called THE PARIS DIVERSION.
What are you working on? How do you choose your projects? Do you belabor different possibilities, or do you just forge ahead when inspiration strikes?
Lisa Unger: Oh, great title! Sounds exciting. I’m working on my 2018 novel right now, and just turned in first pass pages for my April 2017 novel THE RED HUNTER. (Still not ready to talk about it!) I relate to many of your comments above.
For me, it’s character voice — there’s never a “story” or an “idea” that I pursue. Often the themes are only obvious to me after the book is written. There may, initially, be two competing projects, two strong voices in my head. Once or twice, I’ve submitted two projects to my editor and let her choose, but the other usually winds up being the next in line. I can’t work on two books at once, but I might have the other one simmering on the back burner, stirring the pot every now and then.
I write pretty much continuously, one project starting directly after the other. I don’t feel like I have much choice in the matter. If I’m not writing, I’m not happy. And I don’t do much strategizing or thinking about what I should write, or what is the “right” book, right now. Which might not be a good thing! I only know that I have to follow that urgent interest in character, and that character will reveal the story. If I’m chasing questions, characters, if I’m excited, waking up thinking about something, then that’s my novel. So far, I have written every novel this way.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Chris Pavone’s first novel, THE EXPATS, was a New York Times bestseller, with twenty foreign editions and a major film deal, and received both the Edgar and Anthony awards for Best First Novel. THE ACCIDENT (2014) and THE TRAVELERS (2016) were also national bestsellers. Chris grew up in New York City and attended Midwood High School in Brooklyn and then Cornell University. He worked at a number of publishing houses over nearly two decades, mostly as an editor. He is married and the father of twin boys, and they all live in New York City.
Lisa Unger is the New York Times and internationally bestselling, award-winning author of fourteen novels, including her latest thriller INK AND BONE. Her books are published in twenty-six languages worldwide, have sold millions of copies and have been named “Best of the Year” or top picks by the Today show, Good Morning America, Entertainment Weekly, Amazon.com, Independent Booksellers, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Sun Sentinel to name a few. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR and Travel+Leisure Magazine. Lisa Unger lives in Florida with her husband, daughter and labradoodle.