Lisa Unger is the author of sixteen, soon-to-be seventeen, novels of crime and suspense, including The Red Hunter. An international best-seller, she is acclaimed by critics and fans alike. Ms. Unger agreed to sit down with MysteryPeople’s Matthew Turbeville for a candid chat, and we are so excited for the results.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Lisa! Welcome to MysteryPeople. We love your writing here. First, off, I’d like to ask how you got your start in writing.
Lisa Unger: Thank you so much, Matthew! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all your support. I feel like I know you!
Most writers are born and not made. I honestly don’t remember a time before I defined myself that way. But like most writers, I was a reader first. When I was young, my family moved around a lot. So, often the new kid, often the odd one out, I found a home in books and the written word.
For readers, it probably stops there – they’re content to disappear into worlds created by others. But I remember thinking: If somebody else can so completely transport me with their words, I wonder if I can do the same for someone else? How many stories are there in me?
I’ve been writing since childhood – short stories, poetry, plays. Most of my education was devoted to learning and honing my craft, and it was in college when I began my first novel. But, as for most novelists, the road from those early pages to my first published novel is long and twisting.
MT: Who are your favorite mystery writers? What authors do you turn to for inspiration?
LU: Some of the best people writing today are writing crime fiction – I’m sure you agree. My list of beloved authors is so long, I don’t even know where to begin.
Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardner, and Karin Slaughter are women I so admire as writers and people. They get better with every book. It’s inspirational because I, too, strive to be a better writer every day, hoping that each book is better than my last.
Authors that never fail to transport me include Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Gregg Hurwitz, Megan Abbott, Kate Atkinson (I think she has a new one coming out!), Donna Tartt … More favorites: Alafair Burke (reading her new one now! Love it!), Sara Blaedel, Lisa Lutz, Kate White, Michael Koryta, Michael Connelly … oh! I know I’m leaving people off this list. Let’s call it a work in progress.
MT: All of your novels are so different and so alive. Where do you get inspiration for each novel?
LU: Thank you, Matthew. That means a lot coming from you, such an avid reader and with such great taste. They are alive. With every story, each character lives and breathes in me. My process is deeply subconscious, so I don’t have as much access to how things work as you might think. But inspiration can come from anywhere – a line of poetry, a news story, even, in one case, a piece of junk mail. If that spark ignites something else going on with me – a question I have about people, some deep-rooted fear, something about my life or myself that I’m processing – then I start to hear a voice. I follow that voice – or sometimes voices – through the narrative.
MT: Do you know the twists and turns you will write from the novel’s very first page, or do they come to you?
LU: I don’t! I have no idea day to day who is going to show up in my manuscript, what they are going to do, and I certainly have no idea how a book is going to end. I write for the same reason that I read. Because I want to know what’s going to happen to the characters living in my head.
MT: What is your writing process like? Are you a morning or evening writer? How many hours do you write a day? How many words do you write on average?
LU: My golden creative hours are around 5am to noon, that time and space where my brain is still in that sleepy, dreamlike phase. I don’t always get that time, because I have a daughter who also likes to get up early. So these days, I wake up and write as early as possible, write until my daughter wakes up, eat with her and get her off to school, then back to writing. I don’t have a daily page or word count. But recently, I have been working in three-hour blocks with breaks in between for exercise, eating, errands, etc., saving things like answering email or social media posts for the end of the day. I find that allows me to be the most present and creative when I’m at the keyboard (or notebook!).
MT: Out of all your books, which do you feel is your best? Your favorite? What book would you go back and rewrite if you had a chance, if any?
LU: My singular goal as a writer is to sit down at my keyboard and be better than I was the day before. So I hope that each novel I write is the best I’ve written. And if that’s the case, then my best book is the one I’m writing right now!
But honestly, it’s impossible to choose. Each book is special to me, each one the pinnacle of my ability at the time of its writing, and each uniquely connected to what was going on in my life as I wrote it.
If given the chance, I would rewrite every single book I’ve ever written! A book can only get better with each rewrite.
MT: You frequently write about violence against women, as seen specifically in The Red Hunter. How do you feel your writing is important in today’s ever-changing and ever-disruptive political climate?
LU: I believe that readers turn to fiction not just to escape life but to understand it better. Each story is a slice of life. Readers turn to crime fiction, much as writers do, to order the chaos we perceive in the world. In books, there is a definable beginning, middle, and end. Characters take a journey, hopefully changing for the better. There is, of course, violence and crime. But usually, justice of one form or another is served. Not so in the real world – where crimes often go unpunished, and we often feel out of control.
I do write about violence, dark actions, disturbed people. But I peer into those dark places because I’m looking for the light of understanding. Why do people do what they do to each other? What makes one person a hero, another a villain? What makes one person a victim, another an avenger? How do we face the darkest moments of our lives and find a path to love, forgiveness? Is there redemption after wrong-doing?
I know a lot of writers struggle to understand their relevance when truth is often stranger and more disturbing than fiction. It’s the writer’s job to metabolize the world, our stories reflecting our times, in some rare cases even illuminating or creating meaning with our characters and their journeys. In times of political and social chaos, people turn to story to take a break, to understand, and to order a world that is as unpredictable and changeable as at any time in history.
MT: Which of your books do you feel would make the biggest different socially, politically, etc? Which of your books are you dying for readers to read? Is there one that you feel doesn’t get enough attention?
LU: Each of my novels is deeply personal, and I hope that each has an element that readers either empathize with or connect to on a deeper level. There are threads that run through them all – ideas about family relationships, the twisting, changing nature of identity, truth and lies, what makes us who we are. I know from the mail I receive that I’m connecting with some readers on a very personal level – because these are things with which we all wrestle, questions we all want to answer.
I’ve been fortunate that most of my books have found their audience. But if I had to pick one that I think doesn’t get enough attention it would be Crazy Love You. Because of the title and cover imagery, it may be mistaken by some as more of a romantic tale. Not that there is anything wrong with romance novels! But this book is no romance. It’s a deep dive into obsession, addiction, and a kind of dark attachment that some people confuse for love. I have a special place in my heart for the disturbed main character Ian, and his childhood friend Priss – who is wild, unpredictable and has a dark, dark past.
MT: In the Blood features a major twist that must have taken a lot of research on your end. How much research do you put into each book? How much time do you spend pre-writing?
LU: I am always researching something. I’m a non-fiction junkie, constantly taking in information from books, documentaries, podcasts, text books. In the Blood was inspired by an article I read in New York Times Magazine about childhood psychopathy. And it was shortly after reading it that I started hearing the voice of Lana Granger. I didn’t know anything about her when I started writing except that she was a liar. And that she was so deeply veiled that she was almost in a cocoon. That she’d start the book as one thing, and be something totally different by the end. The twist was, believe it or not, a huge surprise to me, as well.
Research and learning is a big part of my work and my life. So I spend a great deal of time learning about my subject matter. Or, more often, my work is inspired by a non-fiction topic that is already obsessing me. So, the writing process and research are indivisible for me.
But as important as knowledge is empathy. I approach all my characters with empathy and compassion. I listen to them. I understand them. And they reveal themselves to me. It’s important to get the facts right, especially in a book like In the Blood. But it’s equally important to treat your characters with respect, to understand and reveal the heart of the story, and to know that – no matter what our secondary differences – we are all the same.
MT: You tend to be fairly prolific. How do you keep a steady output of books going so frequently, and with such high quality? Do you prefer to write fast or take your time?
LU: Honestly, it is harder for me not to write that it is for me to find time to write. If I go a few days without writing, I feel unmoored. I write most days, and I am happiest that way. As a mom, my daughter always comes first. I try to strictly compartmentalize my time. When I’m working, I’m present for the page. When I’m with my family, I am present for them. When I’m in that marketing, social media, speaking, touring space I focus my energy there. It’s the fractured moments, where I try to do too many things at once that I feel the most stressed.
Of course, the lines are always messy and blurred. Time is the most limited resource, and there is a constant juggling act between those parts of myself. But I am semi-obsessed with the stories that are going in my head. So, I’m always looking for those nooks and crannies to get something down on paper.
Sometimes, I’m in the zone and those pages are flying. Sometimes I stare at the page. And stare. And stare. I am comfortable in both places. In writing, as in all organic processes, there is an ebb and a flow. So I never feel rushed, or stressed if something is taking too long. It is what it is.
MT: We’re dying to know what sort of book is next! What book do you have up your sleeve this time, and when will it be released?
LU: My next release, entitled Under My Skin, will release in October 2018. The cover reveal should be coming in the next month or two and I’ll be sharing that on social media, of course! I’m not ready to talk about it yet. But suffice it to say that I’ve been obsessed lately with that hazy space between sleep and wakefulness, between our dream and waking lives, and the twist of the past and the present. Buckle up!
MT: What do you feel your responsibilities or duties are as one of the leading female voices in crime fiction?
LU: My contract with my readers is to be the best possible writer I can be, and to give each book everything I have creatively, every time. It’s my responsibility to care more about the work than I do about its promotion, to treat my readers and characters with respect, and to be true to the type of story I authentically want to tell. But while I am writing, I never really think about how a novel will be received, what kind of discussions or thoughts it might provoke, what its place might be in the world. It is a personal process, and when I write I am utterly alone with the page and what’s happening there.
MT: Thank you so much for speaking with us here at MysteryPeople. We always look forward to your new books. You’re welcome back any time!
LU: You are so welcome! Thank you for reaching out, for your thoughtful questions, and for being such a champion of crime fiction writers, Matthew!