D.J. Palmer and Lisa Unger, In Conversation

D.J. Palmer and Lisa Unger in conversation

A bestselling author, an accomplished musician, and just an all-round lovely human being, Daniel Palmer is someone with whom I always look forward to spending time. So when he offered me an early read of his new novel SAVING MEGHAN, I couldn’t wait to dive in. It’s twisting and complex, a total thrill ride. But it’s also a layered examination of family and parenthood, asking some very tough questions. I loved it, and I wasn’t the only one. Lisa Scottoline said that it will “keep you turning the pages as you guess and guess again.” And William Landay raved: “An acute, sensitive family portrait – with a touch of Hitchcock.”

Daniel was sweet enough to spend some time chatting with me about his book, inspiration, process, and the state of the publishing business. Join us!

Lisa Unger: I know that you’re a very devoted father. And all parents are familiar with that terrible mingling of love and fear that seems to underpin our lives with our children—especially when one of our children is ill. Was there a real-life medical emergency that inspired SAVING MEGHAN? Or did the idea come from somewhere else?

D.J. Palmer: SAVING MEGHAN is a story of Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP)—a darkly fascinating condition in which a caretaker, often a mother, acts as if their child is sick when they are perfectly healthy. Crazy, I know, but it’s all too real. Most ideas for my books come from my imagination, but fiction often has some grounding in real-life events. There have been several stories of MSBP in fiction and in the news of late, most recently in THE ACT—an original on Hulu dramatizing the hard-to-believe-but-true Gypsy Rose story. Google that one if you want a real shocker!

As I began researching MSBP, I discovered a community of people with little-understood diseases whose confounding symptoms raise the suspicions of doctors and hospital administrators. In such cases, parents may be accused of medical child abuse, deliberately making their child ill for their emotional gain. The consequences for the parents and children can be quite dire.

The controversy stems from a simple question: who is telling the truth? The parents seem to me to be at a distinct disadvantage, but I also empathized with the doctors and providers, who have a legal obligation to ensure the safety of the minor patient. There is a natural conflict here, the fuel for fiction. Who to believe? Is it real or in your head? Indeed, I pulled from my experience as a parent to tell this story, but knowing it is a real-life struggle for many gave the narrative added weight for me.

Speaking of parenthood, how would you say being a mother has affected your writing?

Lisa Unger: Ha! Talk about a twisty, complicated narrative. Before my daughter Ocean was born, nothing—not even my wonderful husband Jeff—rivaled my desire to write. Then she burst on the scene in 2005, just before the publication of BEAUTIFUL LIES, and rocked my world. Suddenly, I was a very fractured person—always wanting to be with her, then feeling the tug back to the work, then wanting to be with her. Beyond that, my already very dark imagination got even darker and more vivid. I wrote BLACK OUT during this very fractured time, which is reflected in the story. On the other hand, motherhood has made me more patient, more empathetic, and a better person. And I hope, because of those changes, a better writer. Now, Ocean is a teenager, and things are both more and less complicated—but it is easier to balance my time.

The research for SAVING MEGHAN is fascinating, as is that complicated twist, that deep connection between parent and child. The bond is so strong, and why MSBP is so hard to diagnose. Is the child really sick? Or does the child on some level know that their parent just wants them to be? Also, there’s often a psychological component to chronic illness, making things even more complicated. I think you’ve captured that perfectly in this book, especially with the alternating narratives.

I never feel like I choose the voices who tell the story. Why did you choose to tell the story from multiple perspectives? Or is it just the way the way the narrative presented itself to you?

D.J. Palmer: Great question and here’s to finding that balance between family and work! Doesn’t matter what the job, I think it’s a universal challenge.

Now back to your question, why I wrote this book from multiple points of view? My father, the much-loved medical suspense novelist Michael Palmer, who sadly left us back in 2013, taught me a lot of valuable writing lessons. Two of my favorites are: Be Fearless, and This Is Hard. The fearless part comes down to trusting your instincts and not letting voices of naysayers impede your writing—you have to write from the heart. The hard part is doing just that. How do you know a story is working, or that you’ve picked the right protagonist, antagonist, or MacGuffin—the plot device that creates some goal for the characters to obtain, or a mystery to solve?

The way I know I’ve picked the right points of view comes down to another of my father’s excellent writing tips. He told me: “Pick the people who have the most at stake, then tell their story or stories.” In the case of SAVING MEGHAN, the central question, as it is with all MSBP cases, is what’s real, and what’s in someone’s head? Right there we have two excellent opportunities to show a great deal of conflict—the caregiver and patient, or in the case of the novel, the mother and daughter. Whose version of events is right or wrong? In many ways, it was a given that I had to tell this story from a least two points of view because the conflict was so rife with each. So why the third? I felt that to round out the narrative the book needed to show the medical side of the saga. More specifically, I wanted to show how it’s possible for doctors, who we count on to be confident, all-knowing, omniscient healers, to be filled with doubt and uncertainty, to disagree even though the stakes are high and the penalty for being wrong quite severe. So, I came up with Dr. Zach Fisher to bring medicine into the story. His backstory of losing a son to the same disease that Meghan may or may not have, not only added drama, it also gave me a chance to play on the theme of how our biases and belief systems can narrow our field of view such that we risk missing better opportunities or lurking dangers.

Speaking of writing advice, is there any you’ve received that has influenced your creative process?

Lisa Unger: I loved your dad so much—everyone did! He was such a giant in the publishing world, but always so unfailingly kind and supportive. He always had something sweet to say to me. And you’re just like him! That’s great writing advice. Fearlessness is definitely something you need to succeed as a writer.

Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD is a source of continuing inspiration for me. The title is based on a story about her little brother, who had left a big school report about birds of North America until the last minute. He was in a panic, and his father told him, just relax and take it “bird by bird.” I always come back to that when I’m stuck in a narrative, or lacking inspiration. Visit with each character, get to know them, understand what they want and tell their truth—bird by bird. Anne Lamott also talks about treating each chapter like a short story, a world onto itself. And I go back to that, too. In his seminal book on screenwriting, STORY, Robert McGee writes that each scene should advance plot or character, hopefully both—or it has to go. And that is something I apply to the editing process because it’s important for novels, too.

So, maybe your readers don’t know that you’re also an extremely talented musician performing live at clubs in Boston, with two CDs released! There’s a quote on your website: “Music allowed an outlet for storytelling that has translated into writing.” How does your novel and song writing process differ and how is it alike? Do these two creative enterprises compliment or conflict with each other?

D.J. Palmer: Thanks for the kind words about my father. Much appreciated. And such sage writing advice from Anne—I’ve read her book too, loved it, but forgot the origin of the title. So glad you reminded me. Yes, this is for sure a bird by bird kind of gig. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s funny that you asked about my music because I think it is the reason that I became a writer. I’m now at 3 CDs, though my club playing days are long behind me. I do have a new band of local dads called The Big Bad Dad Band and we’re surprisingly pretty good, but I don’t think we’re going to get groupies any time soon. Okay, back to the writing. I wasn’t the kid who knew from age two he was going to be a writer. If you asked my English teachers in school, I don’t think any of them would have pegged me for a future publishing contract. But what I didn’t realize back then is that I loved to write—only, I loved writing songs. I formed my first band in my sophomore year high school called Grand Theft Auto—way before the video game franchise made the crime even more popular. I had personally vetoed the drummer’s suggestion of Nirvana thinking, who would ever name a bad after a state of enlightenment? Oh well. I wasn’t a great guitar player (I’m a solid harmonica player) but what I could do was write original songs. I discovered later on when I became a novelist that my songwriting actually helped train me to become a fiction writer. There are many parallels between the disciplines…songs like books need a clear direction, first line matters, just relax and write, it’s okay to exaggerate for effect, and so on. I even wrote a little essay about if you want further reading. When I set out to try to publish a book my first attempt was a spin on High Fidelity meets Bridget Jones Diary, thinking a romantic comedy from the guy’s point of view would be of interest, only to find out that women who read romance don’t particularly care about the guy’s point of view. But I was inspired by Nick Hornby because he GOT music and music lovers, and it gave me the confidence to try my hand at a book instead of a song. I found out I kind of liked it. When my father-in-law read what I wrote out loud, I heard it as rhythmic and musical, it sounded like a writer’s work to my ears, and that’s when I knew I could do this job—if I stuck with it long enough. My first creative love though is and always will be songwriting…I do it with or without an audience (okay, really without), but I’m not sure I could grind my way through novel after novel, bird by bird, without someone at the other end to appreciate the effort. Nobody really listens to my music, well my dog does, but that’s fine by me. It’s a compulsion—actually, it’s pure joy. So, I’m happy to share a link to the recordings if anyone wants to give a listen. Daniel Palmer Sings is my most recent recording and I think my best to date.

Sometimes these songs, even though they’re short, can be as tough to get right as a novel. What are some writing challenges you’ve faced and how did find your way through it?

Lisa Unger: Fiction writing for me is like song writing is for you. When I sit down at the keyboard with a blank page before me, I am most myself. Other than my life with Jeff and Ocean, writing is my greatest passion. Which is not to say there aren’t good days and bad days, days where the pages fly, and days when inspiration flags, narratives get tangled, characters aren’t cooperating. As with all organic processes, there is an ebb and a flow. When I’m stuck on any given day, exercise is usually how I shake things loose. Music is a big part of my process, too. There’s nothing like a good long walk while listening to music to give creativity a jump start. Lately, I’ve developed a meditation and mindfulness practice. And I find that the act of settling the chatter of the mind and going quiet brings me to a new place of focus and concentration.

My biggest challenges, though, are not with the writing. I talk a good deal about creativity, and how we can be our most creative selves. And I find that the modern world of social media, information overload, that perpetual buzz of chatter to be a real enemy to the writing life. Authors are told that they need to self-promote online to survive a competitive marketplace. And it’s true that having connections to readers, media, booksellers and other authors online can be a real advantage when it comes to discovery. But it’s a double-edged sword because nothing saps creativity and wastes time more efficiently than mindless time online. I have a post-it on my desk that reads: If you’re on social media, then you’re not doing your job. And I don’t go online until my creative goals for the day are met. Because no one ever came to your work and stayed because you were a great self-promoter. They come and stay if you’re a great writer, because you told a story that made them feel something, lifted them out of life for a little while. I try never to lose sight of that.

But, of course, SAVING MEGHAN is just about to release and I’m sure there will be a firestorm of publicity and social media chatter. Which is a good thing at release time! Do you enjoy heading out on the road at pub time? What events are you most excited about and where can readers find you?

D.J. Palmer: So, here’s the thing…I am going nowhere. No tour. No planes, trains, but maybe a few automobiles and that’s only to drive to the Toadstool Bookshop down the street to sign some stock. This “No Tour Launch” was a tough adjustment for me because I’ve always done something—at least a book launch—on publication day. This year, the book launch for SAVING MEGHAN will be a small gathering at my house where I hope to play some guitar.

It’s not because I don’t want the book to do well, but rather the publisher has a different vision for marketing and well—I think they might be onto something. The stores and visits are great (sort of) but I’ll be honest—I’m not much of a draw. Local events might as well be at my house because it’s only friends and family who show up. I’ve flown across the country to present to a crowd of booksellers, there only because that’s where they worked. Nobody else in the audience. Other times I’ve had 5, 10, 15 in the house?

It’s never a packed store because let’s be honest…who’s D.J. Palmer? The thing the publisher has figured out (I think) is that to go toe-to-toe with Amazon they need the equivalent secret weapon: the database. The book, for those who aren’t a brand name author, is the star these days. What’s the hot title I must read? If traditional publishers get one of those in their list, well, it can lead to a loyal readership and long career. But they have to start that fire to get it burning. Gosh, my metaphors need work!

Anyway, Amazon is great in that with a push of a button (figurative) millions of readers get the news of their latest/greatest release. Publishers have been relying on bookstores to function as their megaphone, but a) it’s crowded, so hard to be heard, b) they don’t really control the message.

Social media seems to be where it’s at, but not in the way you described exactly. In your version of events, it’s incumbent on the author to do the database building part online, which isn’t really in our wheelhouse.

Instead of a tour, my publisher focused on Instagram, Goodreads, and some other social media outlets to get the book into the hands of early readers who become megaphones for other readers.

In this way, these first readers play the part of the store—but their message is targeted to their followers, so there’s less noise. If you have the right book, out at the right time, for the right audience (yes, this is where some luck plays a part) all that online chatter might yield a sales wave you can ride, and if that catches it builds on itself and more readers suffering FOMO (fear of missing out) go to your book instead of another. The more this is done with the publisher, the more effective their initial database of early readers becomes and it’s a lot like mimicking in the real world what Amazon is doing in the digital realm. Already SAVING MEGHAN’s numbers on Goodreads are better than any book I’ve published and it’s not even out yet.

As for my role, well, I do have to connect with my readers, but it becomes a focused conversation. Pick one (maybe two, max three) platforms and work those; build a community there. I use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The focus is your book, because those folks partaking in the conversations are interested in you—the writer. On Twitter it’s less so, so that’s a time sink risk. Caution! Caution! When it’s focused on the book, you the author, you don’t have to do too much…post news, answer questions, be a presence. I do think authors shouldn’t lose sight of email marketing—it’s still highly effective and a good way to share news. I haven’t committed to a monthly newsletter because I’m not sure it’s super effective, at least I don’t think it would be for me. But I have a decent sized list I’ve cultivated over a decade.

I guess to your bigger point about social media as a distraction, I find myself spending a lot longer on the sites when it’s conversations with friends, or stuff about people I know well. The book stuff is quick hit—in/out, here I am, love you all, thanks for the support onward. This group knows better than most that if I’m hanging with them online, I’m not doing what you said is most important which is writing them another book. Really, that’s what they most want from me.

If readers are looking for me online, here is where to find me: Facebook, Facebook Group, Twitter, Instagram, Website.

In these venues I’ll talk about the books, answer questions about anything, let you get to know me better. And, I don’t have to take my laptop out of my bag in a snaking TSA checkpoint line. I’ll take it. Although, I still hope to do festivals and book talks, but I think the traditional author tour is less impactful as it once was. But who knows? If everyone knew what made a bestseller, we’d only publish bestsellers. 😉

What about you, Lisa? You’ve certainly made a name for yourself, and I for one am grateful that you lent it to me to blurb my new book. It means so much to me, and I can’t say thank you enough.

So, what changes are you seeing in the industry—good or bad—since you’ve started publishing?

Lisa Unger: Well, I’ll be looking for my invitation to that party at your place! Sounds like a good plan to me.

Wow, that’s a tough one. I started in publishing as a book publicist, way back in 1993, right out of college. OMG, that’s forever ago. And everything has changed since that time—the internet as a marketing tool, the shrinking of book coverage in traditional media, the fall of many chain and independent bookstores, the ebook, social media, Amazon. So, everything from format to publicity to the way books are sold has changed and continues to do so.

But one thing hasn’t changed. For the writer, it still is and should always be about the page. As much as we may wish we controlled the market place, what our publishers will and won’t do for us, trends, format, discovery, we don’t. All we control is that when we sit down to write, we write the best book we can. That every day we work to get better, dig deeper, explore our characters more fully, tell meaningful and authentic stories. That’s the thing that has always inspired me, the belief that I can be a better writer today than I was yesterday, that every book is better than the one before, and that I haven’t yet written my best book. If I know that’s true, then I can make peace with what comes when the book leaves my control.

Because even with all the publishing fire power behind you, if you haven’t written a good book, it won’t matter. And SAVING MEGHAN is a really good book – smart, deep, and human. So, I’ll look forward to watching its success.

There’s so much good advice here for writers at every stage in their career. Thanks so much for taking time out to chat!