New York Times Bestselling author

Mary Kubica and Lisa Unger, in Conversation

The delightful, talented and bestselling Mary Kubica was an overnight success with her stellar first novel The Good Girl … or was she? Mary agreed to be my pen pal and we discussed what it takes to get published, the highs and lows of the writing life, our upcoming new novels and more. Lots of great stuff in this interview for both readers and aspiring writers. If there was a recurring theme to our chat, it would be “don’t ever give up!”

Mary Kubica and Lisa Unger

Lisa Unger: Often, when we hear successful, published authors speak – we don’t get the full picture. About how challenging it is to get published – and to stay published. I heard an interview where you talked about your journey from aspiring to published author. And it struck me how inspiring your story would be to a writer working on a first novel, wondering whether it’s good enough, whether the dream can come true. I think it’s important to remind aspiring authors that every working published writer, every award-winner and bestseller, was at one point someone, writing alone, not sure if his or her book would ever see the light of day. Can you talk a little bit about your own path? And what advice you would you give to your past self, knowing what you know today?

Mary Kubica: Since I was a little girl, Lisa, I loved writing. But it was a part of my life that I kept hidden from the rest of the world because I didn’t know if my work was any good, and I was too scared to find out. I pursued other passions of mine – becoming a high school teacher, starting my family – while writing privately on the side. When I began The Good Girl, I knew there was something special about it right away. I fell in love with the story and characters in a way that I never had before. Though it took five years to write, it was the first manuscript I ever completed. I felt a need to try and do something with this book, to see if it could be published. I’d never felt that urge before. Knowing no one in the publishing industry, I sent my manuscript out far and wide to just about any literary agent who represented my kind of work. Rejections ensued, and ultimately every agent I sent The Good Girl to passed on the project. I gave up hope of it ever being published – until two years later when one of these agents reached back out to me to see if it was still available. She’d been working as an assistant literary agent the first time the book landed on her desk. Though she loved it, she wasn’t in a position to take it on herself and others in her agency decided to pass. Two years later, she’d been promoted and remembered my little book for all that time. It was truly a dream come true. Within a few months, I had a two-book deal with a major publisher. My advice to aspiring authors? You only need one person to love your book as much as you do, and to be as passionate about it as you are. Keep looking until you find that person.

I’m about to publish my fifth book and am writing my sixth, all with the same publisher as I’ve had from the start. There’s a tremendous comfort in this. As my husband will tell you – based on any time a new TV remote control enters our home – I’m not good with change. You’ve recently joined the team at Park Row Books, and you and I now share the same amazing editor. I’m so happy to have you as part of our team! What is it like to make these changes at this point in your career?

Lisa Unger: I love that, and often tell aspiring writers that very same thing. It’s just like dating, but for your novel. You only need one person to fall in love with you! I also believe that tenacity makes up for almost any shortfall. A lot of people give up – they don’t finish the book. Or once they’ve had a few rejections, they just assume the work isn’t good enough. But that moment when an agent or editor falls in love with a manuscript, it’s as subjective as any love connection. So, aspiring writers, keep at it, keep writing and keep trying. Your story, Mary, is really a perfect illustration of how challenging the road can be even when you have a great book.

Under My Skin which will come out from Park Row in October will by my sixteenth novel. And though I would have loved to stay in the same place with the same editor for most of my career, that just didn’t happen. During the course of my career as an author, the publishing business has undergone major changes. In my case, editors have left, imprints have dissolved, creative differences have arisen. My wonderful agent of thirteen years was forced to retire due to health reasons. So, over the years – my first novel Angel Fire published in 2002 – I have navigated a great deal of shifting waters. The flip side of that is that I have worked with many wonderful people, learned so much, and have had such talented editors – each of whom taught me something. Though most people don’t welcome change, it often comes on us without warning. Learning to adapt is critical to survival.

I’m thrilled to have joined Park Row. From my first conversations with Erika Imranyi, the wonderful editor we both share, I sensed her passion, her dedication, and her talent. I am honored to be at a place where so many great writers are being so well published – like you, Pam Jenoff and Heather Gudenkauf to name just a few. Thank you for the warm welcome to the team!

I have also been writing since I was a young girl, and began my first novel when I was nineteen. But after college, I became a book publicist and worked at Penguin Putnam for many years. So, I had exposure to the business of publishing and learned certain truths early on. Many aspiring writers think that a book contract is a windfall, a happy ending to the story. In reality, it’s just an open door, a new beginning. I knew that there would be a lot of hard work ahead. And I wanted a long career, one where I could grow, change and become a better writer with each book. So, as with any career, that means you roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Was there anything that surprised you about the writing life when you published your first novel The Good Girl?

Mary Kubica: I love your enthusiasm toward change, Lisa. That’s something I need to work on – being more adaptable and open to new adventures! I have learned a great deal about writing and myself as a writer from working with Erika, and can imagine the wealth of knowledge and insight that comes from working with a variety of editors. What a wonderful experience!

I don’t come from a publishing background. Before I sold The Good Girl to Mira Books, I didn’t know a single person in the publishing industry. I went into this blind and have learned an infinite amount during the last handful of years. I had no idea how extensive the editorial process would be, or the great lag time that happens from the time I finish a manuscript until it publishes, or how absolutely vital good marketing and publicity is to the success of a book. That said, the part of publishing that surprised me most was how welcoming and supportive other authors can be. I had envisioned a much more competitive, self-seeking environment, but what I’ve found instead is a bounty of wonderful new friends who will bend over backwards to support me and my books. Writing can be a lonely task at times, but by connecting with authors both in the real world and in the world of social media, I’ve gained a network of people I can rely on for brainstorming, for emotional support, for accountability, for celebrating successes and lamenting the woes of book publishing. It’s been one of the highlights of my career!

Speaking of highlights – you mentioned that you are about the publish your sixteenth book, Under My Skin, which I’ve gotten a sneak peek of and absolutely loved. Not only is it a twisty, page-turner that I physically couldn’t put down, but your writing is beautiful and visceral, and your characters have a tendency to stay with me for a long time after I’ve finished your books. You have celebrated many successes during your publishing career, but I’d love to know if there’s one memorable moment that sticks out more than the rest.

Lisa Unger: That’s definitely one of the best things about the writing and publishing community. It’s a business of relationships. Over the years, your fellow writers, the people you work with, they become some of your closest friends. The suspense/mystery/thriller community especially is so warm, welcoming, and helpful. It’s been such a blessing to be a part of this wonderful world of people in love with story, so willing to show kindness and support to each other.

Thank you for your very kind words about Under My Skin. And thank you so much for reading. That early feedback from fellow writers means so much. We write alone, pour all of ourselves into our work. Then we send it out into the world to publish – a wonderful gift to be able to do so, but always (even 16 books in) so scary. Having early praise from writers I admire always helps so much. It makes me braver!

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to celebrate many successes – and strong enough to weather a few storms. I am very grateful. I’m also glad you asked about my most memorable moment. Because it’s probably not what you think. While I was working as a book publicist in the publishing industry, I was a closet writer; writing in the early or late hours, during my commute, whenever or however I could get my time in. At that same time, I was trying to get published in my local paper The Riverdale Press. I was literally stalking the editor – calling every week, sending him my work. Finally, I think he just felt sorry for me and gave me my first assignment. I covered the first Seder Dinner for a group of Russian Jewish immigrants at a local community center! A couple of days later my article wound up as the lead feature in the paper. I was on my way to work and I stopped at the local newsstand. There it was – my byline, in a real newspaper! On the road from an aspiring to published writer, you hear the word “no” so many times. This was my first real “Yes!” And that was the moment I knew that I could do what I had set out to do.

So, I’m right in the middle of Every Last Lie, which comes out in paperback in May. It’s a gripping, moving, and beautifully written novel; I was hooked on the first page. Even now, I have to hurry up and finish writing this question so that I can get back to it! For me, every book starts with a germ – it might be a news story, a poem, a photograph, in the case of Beautiful Lies it was a piece of junk mail. Then I start to hear a voice or voices that lead me through my narrative. Was there a germ for Every Last Lie? Or how does your process differ?

Mary Kubica: I adore the story about your first piece in The Riverdale Press, Lisa. Writing requires so much perseverance! The number of authors I’ve met who worked for years and endured much rejection before receiving that first Yes is huge; the number who found success after their first try is far more rare. It’s something for aspiring authors to always remember. But that initial struggle and rejection only makes it all the more worth it when you finally see your own name on a published piece, whether a book or a newspaper article. I’m so glad you never gave up!

Thank you for your wonderful words about Every Last Lie. I’m thrilled you’re enjoying it, and am so looking forward to the trade paperback release in May, which has had a cover makeover since the hardcover came out last year. I couldn’t be happier with the new design. The origins of Every Last Lie are a bit different than my other books, which usually begin with some concept my mind makes up that builds bit by bit on the page. But with this book, I was completely captivated by a newspaper headline I read, which said something to the effect of how a child’s dreams helped solve the mystery of her father’s death. I knew at once that I had to do something with it, and just like that, the story of Nick and Clara was born. I’m not a plotter, but prefer the spontaneity that comes from making my stories up as I go. There’s something very organic to me in writing this way; I need to get to know my characters before I can have a better understanding of where their story will go. This novel begins when Nick, a father of two, is killed in a car crash with his four-year-old daughter in the backseat. She’s remarkably fine, and the crash is simply ruled an accident, until four-year-old Maisie begins to have nightmares about a bad man in a car, following her father and her. Nick’s widow, Clara, sets off in search of his killer. It’s a whodunit as much as it is a story of grief, and coming to terms with how little we can ever know about those we’re closest to. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the rest of it!

Plotting or pantsing (aka flying by the seat of one’s pants) is a point of contention among authors. Some plot every detail out in advance, and others, like me, prefer to wing it. I’d love to know where you fall in this dichotomy, Lisa.

Lisa Unger: Story is life. I might be able to tell you what I plan to do with my day. But I can’t tell you what I did until after the sun has set. So it is with the writing of a novel. Each novel begins with a germ, then I’ll start to hear a character voice – or maybe multiple voices. And I follow those voices through my narrative. I don’t have an outline, just a nebulous sense of what the story is. I have no idea who will show up day to day, or what they will do. But I don’t think of it as “flying by the seat of my pants,” however. It’s more like – the story is there, and I just have to find it. It is utterly organic, with lots of ebbs and flows, but I’ve written every novel this way and can’t imagine doing it any other way. There’s no real debate here, of course, no right or wrong way (though some folks do seem intent on that type of thinking). Each writer has his or her own path into story; it’s a personal journey. It’s okay to do it your own way.

The germ for The Red Hunter, which comes out in paperback in May, settled in years ago. I was in my twenties and in a dark place in my life – I’d just come out of a terrible relationship, was in a job I didn’t love, and had let my dreams of being a writer lay fallow. During this time, I discovered the martial arts. I started studying Kung Fu, at a school in New York City. And over the course of a year, I was introduced to a whole new version of myself – someone stronger and more able than I would have believed myself to be.

Fast forward twenty years – I’m married to my wonderful husband, we have a beautiful child, I’ve published fourteen novels. I rediscover the martial arts (kickboxing this time) – and remember what it was like to be a fighter. That was the seed for Zoey, one of the women at the heart of The Red Hunter. She’s suffered a terrible trauma, and it’s the martial arts that introduces her to a stronger version of herself. She uses this new power to hunt down the people who wronged her. Meanwhile, Claudia is on a very different path after an event that shattered her perfect life. She’s a writer, a mother, struggling back to the light on a path of forgiveness. These two women, on two very different roads, find themselves in the same place – an isolated farmhouse, which has a dark past of its own. They’ll both have to face down their inner demons, and those banging down the door.

What a great chat, Mary! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your wisdom, your process, and your thoughts. I’m going back to reading Every Last Lie now, loving every page. I know readers are going to love hearing about your journey and your writing life. And it’s been such a pleasure for me to get to know you in this way, too!

Lisa Unger is the critically acclaimed and bestselling author of sixteen novels, including the forthcoming UNDER MY SKIN to be published by Park Row/HarperCollins in October 2018. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and Travel + Leisure Magazine. Her novel IN THE BLOOD is now in development for television. Learn more about her at www.lisaunger.com.

Mary Kubica is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of four novels, including THE GOOD GIRL, PRETTY BABY, DON’T YOU CRY and EVERY LAST LIE. A former high school history teacher, Mary holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in History and American Literature. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two children, where she enjoys photography, gardening and caring for the animals at a local shelter. For more about Mary, visit her at www.marykubica.com