Under Her Skin: The Lisa Unger Interview You’ve Been Waiting For

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.

Image result for lisa ungerFor 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 HunterHow 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!

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Steven Saylor on writing about history, crime, & more

Steven Saylor’s Ancient Roman detective, Gordianus The Finder, finally takes on the biggest murder of his time in The Throne Of Caesar. He will be discussing it at BookPeople on February 22nd, but our Scott Butki got in some early questions in concerning writing about history and work in the future.

MysteryPeople Scott Butki: Let’s start by talking about how you came up with this seed of an idea that became this novel. You got the idea at a cocktail party with scholars?

Steven Saylor: I was invited to speak to a group of Classical scholars meeting at Baylor—a long way from Rome!—and a professor named James O’Hara, having heard me bemoan the “impossible challenge” of writing a mystery novel around the Ides of March, said to me, “Make it about…X.” In the Author’s Note to The Throne of Caesar, I fill in the blank, but it would be a spoiler to do so here. The point is, I am so lucky to be linked in and to get insights and feedback from some world-class experts on the ancient world. Sometimes all it takes is a single word, as in this case, to get me over the stumbling block and out of the starting blocks.

MPSB: As someone writing about Ancient Rome did you feel you had to write, at some point, about what you call “the most famous murder case in history”?

SS: Once I realized that my first novel Roman Blood (set in 80 B.C.) would become a series, getting to the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C. seemed a natural goal. It’s such a huge watershed event, a real before/after moment in world history.

MPSB: If anyone thinks they already know how this story will end—it being so famous after all—what would you tell them?

SS: As in most of my novels, there are two plot lines running parallel and simultaneously—the plot on the surface, and the invisible plot. You know how one will turn out, but hopefully the other will give you a surprise.

MPSB: How did you decide how much of Shakespeare to quote in the book?

SS: There’s only one direct homage to the Bard, when a certain character speaks a line lifted directly from Julius Caesar. I reveal the details of that in Author’s Note. It’s a line that works one way in Shakespeare’s play, and a different way in my version, so it’s loaded with irony, and one of many in-jokes sprinkled throughout the book that may amuse history buffs and Shakespeare lovers.

MPSB: Let’s back up now. Why did you start writing novels about Ancient Rome in the first place?

SS: I give a great amount of credit to the sword-and-sandal movies of my childhood, chief among them Cleopatra, written and directed by the great Joseph Mankiewicz. The tale of Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra became one of the central myths of my imagination. The assassination scene in that movie is pure cinematic genius, unforgettable. I went on to study Classics and history at UT Austin, and then years later had the idea to turn Cicero’s first murder trial into a crime novel; that became Roman Blood. The book found a readership, and I suddenly had a whole career ahead of me.

MPSB: Why did you decide to write erotic thrillers under a different name, Aaron Travis?

SS: That was back in my slacker twenties, which are a bit of a blur now. Hormones ruled my life, and the erotic was my muse. I’ve kept those works available in e-editions for the discerning connoisseur, but I must warn readers that they are not for the faint of heart.

MPSB: When I last interviewed you you said, “I would like to write another historical epic set in Austin some day, about the early days of the Texas Republic.” Is that still on the radar?

SS: Hmmm, off the radar for now, I would say. I have a current project that’s consuming all my research and storytelling. (More about that below.) But every now and then I find myself musing about Mirabeau Lamar and Sam Houston and their competing visions for the Republic of Texas. I still collect books about that period. You never know.

MPSB: As both a graduate of University of Texas and a part-time Austin resident, what are some of your favorite spots around Austin?

SS: My Austin is all about swimming, running, Tex-Mex and BBQ—working up an appetite at Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Hippie Hollow, the trail around Lady Bird Lake, and the Barton Creek Greenbelt (but not all in the same day!) and then eating at Maudie’s, Green Mesquite, Chuy’s, or The Iron Works. For culture, I love the Blanton Museum; I’m eager to see Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” structure. And I still drop in on the occasional lecture on the UT campus.

MPSB: What would readers be most surprised to learn about you?

SS: I’ve been with the same guy for well over forty years now, since Rick and I were both at UT back in 1976. Now we’re legally hitched. Such long marriages are not so common these days. I’m very lucky to have had so much emotional continuity in my life. I’ve also had the same editor and agent since forever. I’m very loyal, I suppose.

MPSB: What are you working on next?

SS: My next novel will be the third volume in my family saga series, to follow Roma and Empire. It’s a big chunk of history, taking the family from the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and his no-good playboy son Commodus (notorious from the movie Gladiator, though my version will be very different) all the way to Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the state religion. Along the way we meet the sun-worshipping, drag-queen emperor, Elagabalus. His reign was quite short, I’m afraid, but he made quite an impression.

Laura Lippman: An Interview with One of the Biggest Names in the Industry

Matthew Turbeville: Hi Laura, it’s so nice to have you here with MysteryPeople.  We love your work and are in awe of your newest book, Sunburn.  I know you said it might be your favorite book you’ve written so far—what’s your second favorite, and what’s your least favorite book? Also, what makes these books your favorite or your least favorite?

Laura Lippman: I cringe a little bit thinking about my early work. I think I leaned a little too hard into certain jokes. There’s a recent television show that I’m obsessed with precisely because of that same tendency. (I won’t name it because I know one of the writers on it.) I am who I am. Unlike some other writers I know — Megan Abbott is an obvious example — I wasn’t anywhere close to fully formed when I started publishing, although I was no youngster. But I don’t know how I would have gotten to the books I ended up writing without writing those early books.

My least favorite book is always the book I’m working on, but it’s also my favorite. It’s very much like being a mom.

MT: I’ve loved your books for the longest time.  Can you explain where you got the idea for your first novel, Baltimore Blues, and how it evolved into one of the greatest P.I. series of all time?

LL: I was dating a young lawyer with a horrible boss. One icy November night, my boyfriend was late meeting me and I was worried about him. I called the office — this would have been 8 o’clock or so — and his boss screamed at me. (I found out later my boyfriend was chasing a FedEx truck down the street, trying to make the last delivery of the night.) I later remarked, “One day someone is going to kill your boss and there are going to be so many suspects it will be impossible to solve.”

We began to talk about how this might make a great mystery novel. He saw himself as the lead, the wrongly accused associate, with a female sidekick who helps to prove his innocence. I thought, Well, I’m the writer. I think it should be a story about a young woman who investigates to help her friend.

MT: I know one thing that’s important to you is the rise of women in crime fiction and how important it is that women and other minorities are contributing to this genre.  Who are your favorite women writers—as well as other minorities? How do you suggest we further expand and make room in the genre for other marginalized groups?

LL: I’ve mentioned Megan. My other favorites include Denise Mina, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Lisa Lutz, Attica Locke, Ivy Pochoda. Boy, that’s a really white list, though. And awfully heterosexual, to the best of my knowledge. Crime fiction really needs to have some different voices.

But then, I think we all have to challenge ourselves to read outside our comfort zones. I like to read about people with whom I identify. But by “identify,” I don’t mean race/sexual orientation/age. I like to read about people who are unsure and looking for answers. Probably one reason I became a crime writer.

MT: You’ve won more awards than I can count.  Do you have a favorite award that you’ve won, one that feels more special to you than the rest? I know you tied with Megan Abbott at one point, which seems like an honor on both of your ends.  What author would you give an award to if you had the chance?

LL: Tying with Megan was pretty great. But I have to say, the first award I won, the Edgar, stands out in my memory. It was so early in my career and it made my novel-writing career feel quite different from my newspaper writing career, where the bosses did not see me as someone who could win the field’s top prize.

MT: I love your matter-of-fact storytelling.  You are very to-the-point and no-nonsense, and your prose is really beautiful in its own way.  No one is writing exactly like you.  Where did you get the influence to write this way? What books were important to you, and remain important, in determining the influence of your writing style?

LL: My prose style is probably the result of reading far too many articles aimed at teenage girls trying to make the most of their assets, beauty and style-wise. My prose is not naturally beautiful. It just isn’t. I read enough poetry to know that I don’t write the kind of words that make readers almost startle from the glory of the images and the sounds. But I try to exploit whatever merits are there. It’s funny, I’m answering these questions after a morning of writing a passage about an older woman who absolutely owns her unconventional looks, who compared herself to Diane Vreeland. I think that’s how I feel about my prose. It’s mine, it has a distinctive style. Possibly one that involves in wearing mostly black accessorized with some very good pieces of Bakelite or Ippolita.

And even as I write these words, I kind of regret them. Because we live in this rah-rah branding world where being honest about one’s work isn’t always productive. I know writers who go around, humblebragging about how great they are and I see this become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their “brand,” if you will.

MT: You often teach classes, or workshops perhaps, involving new and emerging writers.  What is your favorite method of teaching? I know once you mentioned to me that your process is very visual.  Can you describe that?

LL:  I love doing one-on-one manuscript consultations because it’s like the movie version of psychotherapy. People come to me for a two-hour session and some of them, most of them, leave feeling “cured.” I use colored cards to show them a text-free version of their book and all sorts of insights pop out. Balance of POV, the shape of the story. There’s also an aspect of play to it and I think we should never lose sight that storytelling is fun, it’s something we do when we’re children. I had a very large collection of small stuffed animals from the Steiff Co. when I was a child. (I still have them and I am NOT a hoarder, nor particularly sentimental.) I played elaborate games of make-believe with them. And my sister and I played a version of Barbies that was very much influenced by the soap operas my mother liked.

MT: I know you often reference or base your novels on true crime stories.  This is fascinating to me—you take something so real and make it your own, and bring out the beauty in these stories, even in their most horrifying situations.  If you could tackle one true crime in a novel, what would it be?

LL: It’s not a crime, but I wish I knew the mystery of my mother’s father, who was divorced from my grandmother by the time my mother was a year old. There was this terrible silence around the story. My mother waited until her own mother had died to find him and then she declined to have any relationship with him. She has half sisters she’s never met. I don’t think it’s scandalous in any way, just a young marriage that didn’t work out. But it’s interesting to me that, as a family, we tacitly agreed not to speak of it and not to probe it.

MT: What is your favorite crime novel of all time? Are there any books or authors you think are overrated? Are there authors you find yourself returning to again and again?

LL: Can I claim Lolita as a crime story? I know, it’s a stretch, the kind of stretch that I normally hate, but it does play with a lot of the genre conventions. If not Lolita, then Mildred Pierce, which is barely a crime novel at all, although there are some disreputable accounting practices.

There are a lot of authors I think are overrated. I just don’t read them.

MT: I very rarely find that white authors can write about race in a new and “woke” way.  Yet, with you, you’re able to tackle almost any subject with an objectiveness and understanding that is refreshing and encouraging.  How do you go about investigating your novels, and doing research beforehand? What do you think helps you be so objective and thoughtful? How do you feel about other authors who have tackled issues like race, homophobia, sexism—things outside of themselves? Who does it best, and who would you like to see improve?

LL: I’m not going to claim I’m woke. But there’s this interesting conversation right now, in which some white/binary writers want to say, “How dare you suggest there are any limits on the imagination,” when the only thing anyone is suggesting is that writers are going to get called out for doing it poorly. I spent a few moments today wondering if I should describe a character’s weight, or if I was being a bit of a fat-ist, if the detail added something or simply reinforced certain stereotypes. All that said, it’s not for me to say who does it best, just that I’m thinking about it all the time. Sunburn identifies almost no one’s race — Polly, who has the titular sunburn, is clearly Caucasian — and there are actually three African-American characters hidden in the text. I thought that was kind of cool, but the writer Steph Cha politely challenged me when I mentioned it, said perhaps the way to go is to make sure that all skin colors are described. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m willing to try and willing to fail. But isn’t that the essence of writing? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing across the board?

I am slightly unusual because, growing up in Baltimore, I was often in the minority growing up. That’s a valuable experience. I encourage people to seek it out.

As for research — I do it as I go. I don’t believe in deep dives beforehand. That’s a form of procrastination I can’t afford, personally. I support myself through my writing. If I don’t publish, I don’t get paid. But even if someone paid me a sum that allowed me to work five years on a book, or I had a freak hit that sent so many royalties my way I never had to worry about money again — I don’t think I would change much. I like to get things right. I like to make stuff up. Once I know what I want to make up, it’s easier to get things right. Does that make sense?

MT: If you could suggest one of your books to President Trump, which would it be? Which of your books would America in general learn the most from?

LL: I would give President Trump the magical book from Seven Day Magic by Edward Eager and hope that he gets stuck in it, as Barnaby almost does, staring into a reflection that shows him his every flaw and defect, for an eternity.

I’m not sure I have anything to teach America, but I think my most overtly sociological novel is No Good Deeds, which is based on the all-too-real premise that it would be really easy to have a conspiracy that’s dependent upon killing young black men, because almost no one would notice or care.

MT: What do you think is the most important piece of advice or mantra an author can live by?

LL: Read well.

MT: How do you stay in the mind of one of your best protagonists, Tess, who is the subject of your Tess series? How have you stayed in her mind for so long? Is it like second-nature now?

LL: Tess and I agree on almost everything, although I think she needs to cultivate impulse control. She is my very satisfactory invisible friend and I am always happy in her company. It helps that we have several shared experiences — newspaper life, motherhood.

MT: I think my favorite book of yours is either Sunburn or After Im Gone.  What inspired After Im Gone? I remember when you announced your idea for Sunburn on social media—I believe you maybe got the idea in the shower? What triggered it?

LL: After I’m Gone was my husband’s idea. He lobbied for years. But I didn’t see my way into it until I flipped it, decided to focus on the women left behind, not the man who left and where he was. For a long time, it was going to center on what happened when the youngest daughter showed up at High Holiday services in a fur she couldn’t possibly afford. Clearly, the book changed a lot.

MT: What advice do you give to new and struggling writers?

LL:  Persevere. It’s hard, I know, in this climate, and it probably seems very easy for me to give such advice. In hindsight, I had a relatively painless passage from unpublished to published. But it never feels easy, I don’t think.

MT: What are you writing next? Our readers are likely dying to know.

LL:  A historical novel, assuming we all agree that 1966 is now in the history books. It’s about a 30-something housewife who leaves her husband, much to everyone’s amazement (including her own) and then decides she wants to be a reporter.

MT: Laura, thank you so much for joining us at MysteryPeople.  It was such an honor and a privilege.  We love your work so much, and especially Sunburn, out February 18.  P.S. I adore you and your work.

LL: Mutual, I’m sure.

Interview With Don M. Patterson

Don M. Patterson’s Sierra Blanca ended up on my list of favorite Texas crime novels and thrillers of 2017. It features CIA operative Hank Copeland teaming up with a handful of  Lone Star lawmen to take down a Russian plot involving drug cartels on the border in 1984. Its swift storytelling, action-packed plot, and fun characters made it one of last years’ most entertaining reads. Don will be joining us on February 10th with Alex Berenson but was kind enough to answer come questions for us earlier.

MysteryPeople Scott: Sierra Blanca is one of those rare pieces of entertainment that is fresh yet a throwback to earlier books and movies. How did it come about?

Don Patterson: Sierra Blanca began with the idea of creating a spy character that is as Texan (specifically West Texan) as James Bond is British; and that became Hank Copeland.  Once I started playing around with story ideas for a West Texan spy, doing a Western, or neo-Western, was a natural conclusion.  Westerns – the spaghetti variety in particular – and espionage have always been favorite genres of mine, so I set out to create a story that took the recognizable tropes from each and co-mingled them into something new: a Spy-Western.

MPS: You have classic buddy dynamic with Hank Copeland and Sheriff Clearwater. How did you approach that relationship?

DM: The Howard Hawk classic film Rio Bravo was a major influence on Sierra Blanca and I looked at Copeland as Dean Martin to Clearwater’s John Wayne.  Copeland’s lackadaisical attitude to his job provides a foil to Clearwater’s tough lawman demeanor.  But I think what really makes the dynamic work is that I didn’t write Copeland as the driver of the story’s action, but rather the facilitator for other characters to act.  The real heroes of the story are Texas Ranger Burgos and Sheriff Clearwater; Copeland is mostly along for the ride and to hopefully make you laugh.

MPS: Besides the necessary place for the plot, what did the Texas-Mexico border offer to the story?

DM: For me, the golden era of spy stories is unquestionably the Cold War.  I looked for a way to bring the Cold War to West Texas in a somewhat plausible way, and proximity to Mexico and Latin America provided that in.  Latin America in the late 70s and early 80s threatened to become the next major theater in the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  That tension bleeding up to the Mexico-Texas border became a major plot driver.

Growing up in West Texas, I always held a romanticized view of El Paso & Juarez as an international community rife with intrigue, like the Casablanca of the southwest.  So you have this historic metroplex straddling an international border, a perfect setting for a spy story.  And surrounding the cities are beautiful mountains, a sun soaked desert, and the hard-scrabble stretches of the Transpecos region; the perfect setting for a Western.  I’d argue no region could be a better host for a Cold War Western.

MPS: This book felt like one of the best seventies or eighties action films never made. Were you influenced by movies as much as books?

DM: Absolutely, probably more so.  For the spy elements, I was naturally influenced by both the film and literary versions of James Bond – I used Ian Flemings’ books as a style guide as I was writing.  But the Western elements were mostly inspired by film (and some Cormac McCarthy).  As I’ve said, Rio Bravo in particular was a major influence, as was John Carpenter’s modern take on that movie: Assault on Precinct 13.  I wanted the feel of a gritty Sam Peckinpah Western or a grind-house B-action flick packaged as a modern pulp.  Even the cover art was inspired by the title cards of old movies.      

MPS: One reason for that cinematic feel is you write kinetic action passages that the reader can always follow. Is there anything you keep in mind when writing those parts?

DM: Physics, human anatomy, and logic mostly.  People,cars, and things should react realistically when acted upon and the motion should be described in a way that makes sense and is unambiguous.  I viewed my role as the play-by-play announcer calling a game the listener couldn’t see; it’s good to use some flourish, but it has to be clear who’s rounding which bases.  

MPS: Was there anything you had to keep in mind when setting the book in the eighties?

DM: I did more research than one might think is necessary for a short, action novella.  I wanted there to be accuracy in the types of cars law enforcement used in 1984, the weapons and gadgets in use, the politics and cultural touchstones of the time, and even inconsequential things like what was on TV in the summer of ’84.  I found that the 1980s, or any pre-cell phone era, actually helps a great deal with story telling.  Think about how many classic plots would be ruined if the characters had access to a cellphone or the internet.  

 

Q&A with Alex Berenson

Alex Berenson’s John Wells espionage series often uses the headlines or predicts them for novels dealing with our county’s involvement in the geo-political game. His latest, The Deceivers, has John and his team dealing with a Russian plot to put their man in the White House. Alex will be joining us at 2PM on Saturday, February 10th with fellow thriller writer Don M. Patterson. MysteryPeople’s Scott Butki intercepted him earlier for a one on one interrogation.

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MysteryPeople Scott Butki: How did this story, the latest about John Wells, come about?

Alex Berenson: Over the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in false-flag operations, where an intelligence service tries to carry out an attack and blame it on another country or a third-party. False-flags are obviously tricky, but if they succeed they can wreak havoc. In The Deceivers, the false-flag comes with a twist – the Russian spy agency isn’t trying to carry out the attacks itself. It wants to use Americans against the United States in attacks that will look like Muslim terror. And to do so the Russians need some buy-in from semi-witting Americans. I tried to make the Russian scheming plausible, and I hoped I succeeded.

MPSB: This has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel (that’s a compliment), where you took some current issues, like the question of whether the Russians meddled and influenced the election and took it to a larger but, hopefully, fictitious level. What was it like dealing with current events in your plotting?

AB: From The Faithful Spy, I’ve always dealt with current events. I like to say my books are reality-adjacent. In some cases they’ve turned out to be surprisingly prescient – notably The Secret Soldier, which focused on succession in Saudi Arabia – six years before the current crisis.

MPSB: As a fellow former newspaper reporter for, among other publications, The New York Times, i’m curious how your background affected your work as a novelist? Was that background helpful when dealing with current events in this novel?

AB: I do like to make my novels feel as real and authentic as possible, and I think being a reporter drives that impulse. Sometimes I have to remind myself the books are an escape, and Wells occasionally needs to. In general, I research my books thoroughly; over the years I’ve traveled nearly everywhere I’ve written about, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. I’ll talk to folks in the intelligence community (though they are more likely to be retired than active employees, given the risks people face if they discuss classified information).

MPSB: Do you miss being a journalist?

AB: Only when I see a really, really good story that I wish I could tell.

MPSB: What was the timing on this book? You definitely captured the anti-Muslim fervor of politicians including President Trump. Was that happening – those speeches -while you were writing the book or did you accurately guess that it’d be happening more often

AB: I started writing the book in the summer of 2016, so Trump’s comments were in the news by then. There are a lot of reasons Trump won the presidency, but one is the attacks in Paris in November 2015 – which propelled him to the top of the Republican polls. The Orlando attack clearly helped him too.

MPSB: As someone who wrote about government intelligence, what do you think of how Trump has famously refused to hear part or all of his intelligence briefings, treated intelligence officers awfully, etc?

AB: Trump isn’t entirely wrong that a lot of intelligence work is throat-clearing and that sometimes leaders just have to go with their gut instincts. But the disdain with which he treats the intelligence community is unconscionable – and bad for US national security.

MPSB: How did you go about researching this book?

AB: As with all my novels, a combination of traveling to the most important locations in the book, a ton of Internet research and reading, and finally talking to people in the intelligence community (though I don’t want to overstate how much they will say).

MPSB: Do you want readers to take away something from this book? If so, what?

AB: I wouldn’t presume to tell my readers what they should take away from my novels.

MPSB: Should people read your John Wells books in order or can they start with this one, the 14th in the series?

AB: The 12th! He’s not that old yet. I write each new book knowing that some readers will be new to the series, so anyone who happens to pick this one up first will be fine.  That said, I tell readers who have read one of the books and feel committed to the series that they should go back to The Faithful Spy and read the rest in order – the books do build on each other, so reading them that way will give them the best idea of how John became who he is.

MPSB: What is a question you wish people would ask you? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

AB: What’s harder, journalism or fiction? Fiction, I think, because as a journalist you can always just return to the facts – as a novelist you have to look within yourself.

Interview with Meg Gardiner

Into The Black Nowhere is the second book in the Meg Gardiner’s Unsub series featuring Caitlin Hendrix. Now a newly minted FBI agent, Caitlin and her team are sent to Texas to face off with a charming serial killer. Meg will be at BookPeople in conversation with Mark Pryor tomorrow, January 30th, at 7pm. She was kind enough to answer some of our questions in advance.

MysteryPeople Scott: How did the title come about?

Meg Gardiner: The novel is a psychological thriller. Its heroine, FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix, journeys into frightening and unexplored territory as she pursues a devious, charismatic killer. I wanted the title to reflect that—to pull readers along as Caitlin tracks the killer and, eventually, as the case forces her to look deep into herself.  

MPS: You’ve loosely based this killer on Ted Bundy. What drew you to him as a template?

MG: Bundy was a singular monster—a killer in All-American guise. Clean cut, an aspiring lawyer, beneath the “mask of sanity,” he was a voracious murderer. His immaculate camouflage made him fascinating. And dangerous.

MPS: This is the first time you’ve used Texas extensively as a backdrop. Did anything about your new home state come into cleared view when writing about it?

MG: The contrast between the vast size of the state and the intimacy of its small towns. The glorious, never-ending sunsets. The true, wondrous bounty of Austin’s tacos.

MPS: You did several stand alone books before Unsub. How does it feel returning to a series character?

MG: I love it. Every time I finish writing a novel, I hate saying goodbye the the characters. When I can come back to one—like Caitlin—it feels like meeting up with a close friend. And it’s exciting to continue exploring Caitlin’s mission and her world. She’s young, driven, dedicated, and still has a lot to learn. I want to take her on that trip.

MPS: Is there a different way of approaching a character like Caitlin who you plan to have in a series of books?

MG: A stand alone novel is often about a hero facing the singular defining event of his or her life. That’s why an every-man caught up by forces beyond his control can make a terrific standalone protagonist. But a series heroine needs a reason to return. She needs a story that will carry her through multiple novels. And skills to do the job. She must have a strong identity that will stay true to its core, while being able to grow—without morphing into a completely different person. Series characters need secrets, and a future, and unfinished business. Because you want readers coming back to find out what happens next.

MPS: You will be doing an event with us on January 30th with Mark Pryor. Would Caitlin find his psychopath Dominic a challenge?

MG: Caitlin would find Dominic a dangerous challenge. He’s smart, cunning, and brilliantly disguised as a straight-shooting prosecutor. He’s ruthless, and he loves to win. Caitlin would have to throw everything at him. It would be close. He’d scare her. But she’s a deadly adversary. She’d scare him, too.

 

Sympathy for the Devil: an interview with Mark Pryor

A couple years ago, Mark Pryor took a break from his true blue series hero, Hugo Marston, to crawl into the the dark mind of an Austin prosecutor, musician, and sociopath named Dominic in the acclaimed Hollow Man. He has recently released a follow up, Dominic, with our anti-hero tying up his loose ends. Mark will be joining Meg Gardiner (Into The Black Nowhere) for a discussion of writing fictional psychopaths on January 30th. Mark was kind enough to talk to us early about dealing with his dark creation.
Pryor-Photo-by-Alia-Michelle-Photography3476-33MysteryPeople Scott: Was there anything in particular that drew you back to Dominic?
Mark Pryor: Several things. First, I’m (still) kind of obsessed with psychopaths, and Dominic was and is my way to explore their mentality. So I wasn’t done with the subject matter, and he’s my way in. Second, I kind of missed him. Weird, I know, but he was SO much fun to write that I wanted to do it again. I wanted to know what he could pull off again. I wanted to let the dark side reign and write him again. I think, too, he’s such a change from my Hugo Marston series that writing Dominic gives me a good balance, so in a way it’s healthy creatively for me to write about such a total bastard once in a while.
MPS: This time you split perspectives, which you had never done to this degree in a book. Did that prove as a challenge?
9781633883659MP: Actually, yes. You’re right in that I’ve not done this much before but as I thought about how to tell this story, I knew it was necessary. Put simply, if anyone who read Hollow Man read another book entirely from Dominic’s perspective, they wouldn’t believe a word he was saying. They’d be crazy to! So, I knew I had to corroborate events through other, more reliable, characters. It turned out to be fun, especially overlapping Dominic with the sycophantic Brian, getting two very different takes on one interaction.
MPS: One of the main reasons the book is so unsettling is that the reader feels they are in collusion with Dominic. Did you sometimes feel that way in the writing?
MP: Yes, and I think that’s vital. I mean, in practical terms I’m the one devising his evil schemes but even though it’s all fictional, and even though I could do anything I want, I really do sometimes feel like he takes the lead and does his nasty deed, with me as his note-taker. That may sound weird but it’s how I feel sometimes! I would say, too, that it’s a lot of work for me to get into the head of a psychopath, to abandon the emotion and the feelings, so I myself get that unsettled feeling and it makes sense that the reader would pick up on that.
MPS: How do you write a character with little or no empathy?
MP: Carefully. The biggest factor for me is accuracy. I’ve seen too many movies or shows, books too, where the character is given dabs of empathy here and there and I don’t think that’s realistic. Similarly, over the two books the one thing I wanted to avoid is giving him a character arc, because he’s not capable of it. Obviously, I’ve done a good amount of research to know what he would or would not feel as a psychopath, so there’s a crafty element to creating him, but as I say, I really want him to seem genuine. Genuinely horribly, that is.
MPS: What did you find as a key for writing a suspense novel like this?
MP: This novel and the previous one are much more carefully constructed than my Hugo Marston novels. By that I mean that I am more devious about planting clues and misdirecting the reader. I think the reason for that is knowing where the suspense comes from — the reader is going to be pretty sure that Dominic will achieve his objective(s), the question is how does he get there? Precisely how ruthless is he going to be? And, who will be casualties along the way? These aren’t straight forward mysteries where you can proceed from clue to clue like stepping stones, you have to look under the rocks (and find the snake!).
MPS: Since you are both a prosecutor and an Englishman living in Austin, what is the best way you have found to convince people you are not Dominic?

MP: You know, just between us, I’ve been surprised by how many people give me that side-eye and ask if I’m a psychopath. These are people I’ve known for years, and if you’ve known me for years I think it’s pretty obvious I’m not. So I laugh it off, and tell the story of how I took the psychopath test (yes, there is such a thing) at home, with my wife. Bottom line, the test is 20 questions, and you score 0, 1, or 2 for each. Anything over 30 and you’re a psychopath. I scored 7. Yes, seven. So low I was actually disappointed! I mean, as a prosecutor and crime writer you’d think I’d have something of a callous edge to me, but it turns out I’m a big softy.
The interesting thing to me is that if I’d written a character who was English, a prosecutor, and who had really been the one who killed John Lennon, no one would be asking, “Hey, did you really kill John Lennon?” All in all, I’ll take it as a compliment that I wrote a convincing psychopath, which is satisfying enough to stop me murdering whoever asks that question. Oh, wait, I didn’t mean that…

We hope you’ll join us January 30th at 7pm as Mark Pryor and Meg Gardiner discuss their new books!