Alafair Burke and Lisa Unger, in Conversation

It’s probably true in all industries, but publishing seems especially a business of relationships. Even though authors don’t all work together in the same place, we do gather quite a bit at conferences and speaking engagements. And when you do this work for long enough, some of those authors with whom you share a stage or a drink at the bar, become your friends.

So it is with New York Times bestselling and Edgar award-nominated author Alafair Burke. We met at a conference in Florida about ten years ago and we’ve been besties ever since. She’s an amazingly accomplished woman – a lawyer, a professor, a fantastic writer in her own right, and a co-author with the legendary Mary Higgins Clark. Above all, she’s a great friend.

In this installment of my world-famous (not really) pen pal series, Alafair and I chat a bit about her fantastic (really) new book THE WIFE.

Alafair Burke and Lisa Unger in Conversation

Lisa Unger: One of the elements I love about your books is how they always have this extraordinarily current feel, very present, modern, in touch with what’s happening in our world. And THE WIFE is really spot on with a cultural moment we’re experiencing. Knowing how far ahead of that curve this book was written — because we’re all usually done with a manuscript about a year before it hits the shelves — were you surprised by the extraordinary timing? This happened with your Edgar nominated THE EX, too, didn’t it?

Alafair Burke: Yeah, it’s a little weird how many times my books have collided with real events. Instead of ripped from the headlines, I wonder if the headlines follow me. With THE EX, a mass shooting served as a backdrop to the novel. Given the shocking rate of mass shootings in our country, I suppose it was inevitable that another one would occur around the time of the book’s release. But when I wrote THE WIFE, one of my concerns was that the entire topic— a beloved public figure, father, and husband accused of sexual misconduct—would be too unsavory, too icky at a basic level, for most readers. But it was the book I wanted to write, so I said screw it and wrote it. Now we’re all living in this moment of #MeToo — a so-called reckoning. It’s too soon to tell whether the world is really changing in front of us, or whether this will prove to be a cultural bubble that pops and floats away. But at this very moment at time, we seem at least willing to recognize that otherwise affable, even noble, men have a dark side that is unleashed behind closed doors. Now part of me is worried that people will think they know where the book’s going to take them based on all the stories in the news right now. But THE WIFE is a piece of fiction, about one fictional man and a wife who doesn’t know whom to believe when its his word against other women—women she’d be inclined to believe if they were accusing anyone other than her husband. I think people will be surprised where that story leads.

I don’t want to give away spoilers from either my books or yours, but there’s a shared element between both THE WIFE and THE RED HUNTER that involves living with the long-term consequences of rape. Did you wonder while you were writing whether your readers would be able to handle the subject material?

Lisa Unger: Well, if we think the headlines are following you, then we should probably make some adjustments. Maybe your next book should be about amazing women who broker world peace, or maybe Oprah becomes president!

You’re right. It’s too soon to tell whether this #MeToo moment is powerful enough to create any real change. The fact remains that as far as we have come, the world is still a dangerous place for women. And it’s a theme that comes up again and again in my work; it’s something with which all of us writing crime fiction are grappling, isn’t it? So, I didn’t really stop to think whether or not my readers could handle the subject matter in THE RED HUNTER. I tend to write from a very immediate place, asking and answering questions I have about people, about life, about the world, on the page. I follow character voice primarily; there’s no idea initially that I can accept or reject. I used to feel like certain things were off-limits, and that there were places I wouldn’t follow my characters. But now I feel like if it’s happening in the world, and it’s on my mind enough that my characters are dealing with it, I have a right to explore it on the page. I think it’s a big part of why we write about crime, and why people read about it — because we’re trying to understand. We’re trying to order the chaos we perceive around us. There’s a particular note of fear that the idea of rape strikes in us; and the long term consequences can be enormous. But maybe that means we need to write about it authentically, including all the layers, rather than turn away from it.

I love the multiple perspectives in THE WIFE, how we see Angela’s story, and Jason’s story, unfold through Angela’s eyes, through her mother’s, through Corinne’s. They each have an important perspective on how things unfold. All these women are very different, each struggling with her particular place in life, fighting certain battles, each strong in her own way. Was it your intent to reveal these different women and to say something about the various struggles they face? Or was it just a natural consequence of exploring character, of telling the story through different sets of eyes?

Alafair Burke: We’ve spoken before about process, and I know we both tend to find plot by exploring character. I know generally that some thing happens and then I try to think about the people affected by that. What do their lives look like in the weeks, months, and sometimes years after? What in the past brought them to that moment? By trying to look at each character’s world—past, present, and future—from that person’s perspective, somehow I manage to find a beginning, middle, and end to the story.

Sometimes I’m surprised by some of the themes that emerge without any conscious plan on my part. I knew that I wanted Angela Powell to be very aware of station. She still thinks of herself as the daughter of a handyman and housekeeper, keenly aware of the distinction between the locals on the east end of Long Island and the summer visitors who descend upon the Hamptons in the summer. In her mind, she’s still an outsider to the world occupied by Jason, her more educated and pampered husband. But the book allows the reader to see Angela for who she currently is, through the eyes of others. As introspective and self-aware as Angela perceives herself to be, I think most readers will be left with the impression that Angela — like many of us — has created and preserved a persona for herself that may not match the reality. So, as much as I think I learn about characters by trying to occupy their shoes, I learned a lot about Angela by looking at her from the perspective of other characters, especially Corrine’s when she’s investigating the claims against Angela’s husband.

I know how strongly you are led by your characters. Can you talk about a time when you learned something surprising about a character by looking at him or her from someone else’s eyes?

Lisa Unger: There’s certainly a lot more to Angela than meets the eye. We see fragments of her through various characters, even through the distorted lens of her own perspective, but we don’t truly know her until the very end of the book.

I have had that journey a number of times, especially since so many of my characters have skewed perspectives on reality and themselves because of trauma, addiction, and mental illness. I probably learned the most about Jones Cooper from his wife Maggie in FRAGILE. He presented as one thing when I first started hearing his voice, but evolved into someone totally different by the end. I think I learned the most about Lana Granger in IN THE BLOOD by virtue of another perspective which I can’t reveal without spoiling. I can say the same about my fictional town The Hollows, which feels more like a character than a place to me. It has been revealed to me in pieces over years and novels and short stories by the characters who live there and experience its many facets based on their perspectives and abilities. It’s different to everyone who knows it, much in the way people are to a certain extent; we extract different qualities and flaws from each other by the nature of our own qualities and flaws. As it is with The Hollows. For some it’s an idyllic getaway, to others a hometown they can’t quite escape, to still others, well, it’s a hell mouth.

THE WIFE is truly a rollercoaster ride of changing perspectives, and new information that alters the book from one page to the next. Beyond being totally gripping and twisty, I think you perfectly captured some of the questions, layers, fears, and risks about women coming forward after sexual assault. You brilliantly show all the reasons why women might (and do) stay silent, gloss over — even internally — violent encounters, or even find themselves apologizing and blaming themselves. But there’s another layer here, too: an awareness that there’s always more to people, marriages, and sexual encounters than might be immediately apparent, that in some cases the concept of consent is slippery and personal. (Which is not to say that there’s any question that rape is a crime, and no means no.) I like the question you pose at the beginning of Chapter 30: What does it mean to really know something? I see this as a major theme of the book. What do we really know about events inside and outside our lives, our most intimate relationships, and even ourselves? What did you want readers to take away from the way the story unfolds?

Alafair Burke: I think the book certainly plays with subjectivity. It’s so easy to say “he said-she said,” but what does that really mean? It’s not necessarily a swearing match. Even if you were in the room, different people can perceive and experience events in different ways. And one person’s own characterization of and reflection on a single event can change over time. There’s so much more I want to say, but it’s always tricky to find a way to talk about a book without spoiling it. I dream of an online book club among author friends and their readers, and no one tunes in until the book is read. I’m game for any ideas you have about how to make that work. Anyone reading this: Would you join in that venture? What’s the best way to make it work?

Lisa Unger: I think that’s a great idea! I’ll have to give that some thought. A website maybe, where there was an online chat every week and people could log in to the discussions? Maybe there could be a real world component, too – readers could sign up online, but occasionally when an author was on the road, local book groups could meet at The Poisoned Pen in Arizona, or Mysterious Bookshop in NYC. Maybe our readers will have an idea about how to do that.

I’m looking forward to continuing this chat at Inkwood Books in Tampa on Saturday, February 10 at 7 PM. I hope our local pals will all come out for a lively discussion, some treats, and a little bit of wine.  THE WIFE is on sale January 23, so get your book from Stefani at Inkwood Books now – so that we can really get in deep at the event!