Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Interview with Lisa Unger

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

My guest today published four novels in the Lydia Strong series under the name Lisa Miscione before she switched to her married name, Lisa Unger, for publication of the bestselling suspense novels Beautiful Lies and A Sliver of Truth. Her new book, Black Out, will be released May 27 and is already garnering rave reviews and has been named a Booksense Notable Book for June. Lisa was born in Connecticut, but her family moved a lot – as far as Holland and England – during her childhood before settling in New Jersey. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked as a publicist for a major publisher. She lives in Florida with her husband and young child.

Q. Would you tell us about your upcoming book, Black Out?

A. Black Out is about a woman name Annie Fowler, whose perfect life in a wealthy Florida beach community is little more than a fa├žade.

She’s literally and figuratively left a horrible past behind -- having fled her true identity and forgotten most of the trauma of her childhood and adolescence. But a series of terrifying events start triggering unwanted memories. And she realizes that she has to face the past she’d rather forget to claim her future -- and save her daughter.

Black Out was my most intense writing experience, and Annie is my darkest, most complicated heroine. I see the resolution of a lot of themes that started in my Lydia Strong books and continued through to Ridley Jones -- the lost girl, fractured identity, how we must claim ourselves rather than wait to be rescued. I felt a terrible urgency to resolve these themes in Black Out.

Q. Why did you decide to use the name Unger after writing four Lydia Strong novels as Lisa Miscione?

A. There are a lot of reasons. First, Beautiful Lies represented such a departure, such an evolution in my writing that it didn’t seem like a Lisa Miscione book at all. I was moving on from the Lydia Strong series and from St. Martin’s Minotaur to be published at Shaye Areheart Books/ Crown. Unger is my married name. So it seemed like a normal and even necessary step. So, I just sent an email to the five people who’d read my Lydia Strong books and let them know to look for Lisa Unger in the future. The transition was fairly smooth, thanks to mostly supportive mystery independent stores who did a lot of handselling and the chains that have supported the Lisa Unger books in a big way.

Q. I see Beautiful Lies and A Sliver of Truth as a single story told in two parts, and it’s hard to imagine that you didn’t originally intend to write a second book about Ridley. At what point did you realize there would be a second book?

A. I didn’t know there was a second book until after Beautiful Lies was done and I’d decided that there wouldn’t be a series. I didn’t want to write another Ridley.
I knew the ending wasn’t easy. I knew that a lot of things went unanswered. And I knew that in BL Jake had lied to Ridley, and fooled her completely. But that’s life, right? There’s so much that never gets resolved, people go unpunished, some answers are never found. But I thought, Ridley’s okay. She’s on her own. After a while, though, all those unresolved points kept nagging, and I kept hearing Ridley’s voice. So I wrote Sliver of Truth. Now, of course, there are a lot of unresolved issues at the end of that book, too.
So …

Q. Have you decided yet whether you’ll write a third Ridley book? Do you think it would be possible to make a third story as deeply personal for Ridley as the first two are?

A. I do still think about Ridley a lot. I think about Max and Ace, even Jake, still. I also wonder about Grace from time to time. So, never say never. I feel connected to Ridley, so I know if I choose to write about her again, it will be a deeply personal story, about the next level of her journey. I wouldn’t write it by design, under some outside influence to write more about her. All my novels well up from within, each of them had to be written for reasons largely unknown to me at the time. This is especially true with the Lisa Unger books. I feel like I really found my voice with Beautiful Lies. I started writing Angel Fire when I was 19 years old. Lydia was a product of a very young woman’s imagination, of very young issues working in my subconscious. As much as Beautiful Lies and Sliver of Truth are Ridley’s coming of age story, they’re mine, as well. So yes, I’m confident that any evolution of Ridley’s story, should it demand to be written, would be deeply personal for her, and for me.

Q. To me, the most striking quality of your writing is its sheer emotional intensity. Do you have to work at heightening the emotion during the revision process, or does it all come tumbling out of you as you write the first draft?

A. I am a very emotional person, so if anything, I think … god, is this too over-wrought? I don’t know if one can fake -- or heighten, as you say -- emotional intensity. If it is possible, I don’t know how.

Q. How much planning or outlining, if any, do you do before you begin writing? What is the first day of working on a new book like for you? Do you choose a day to begin, or wait until you reach a point where you feel compelled to sit down and get started?

A. When I sit down to write, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I might hear a voice in my head, a phrase, see a news story, a song lyric, an image and I’m off. I don’t know how things are going to end, who is going to turn up on the page. For example, in Black Out, Dax -- one of my favorite characters from the Lydia Strong books -- turned up. How did he get into this new universe? No idea.

My golden writing hours are from 5 AM to noon. That’s generally when I work. Of course, I have a toddler now, so she takes precedence over almost everything, including my writing. So I have to be a bit more flexible. I write again the way I did when I had a full time job -- I make the time, squeeze it in between the other demands on me. Luckily, it’s really harder for me not to write than to find the time, so somehow it all seems to work out.

As for choosing the day or not, it’s kind of some combination between discipline and inspiration. You can’t always make the magic come, but you have to be open and available to it. If you are disciplined about making time to work, then the magic finds you. But, usually, the idea for a new book comes like a lightning bolt. There’s no seeking it and no avoiding it.

Q. Do you revise as you go, or concentrate on getting the whole story down before you rewrite?

A. I tend to do a bit of rewriting and revision as I go along. Going back and reworking this paragraph or that scene helps settle me into the manuscript for the day and often leads to a propulsion forward. I don’t spend too much time on revision during the first draft, though; forward momentum is very important.

Q. How much time do you devote to research, and how do you go about it? For example, when you wrote Twice, how did you learn about the lives of the homeless who live in tunnels beneath Manhattan?

A. I spend quite a bit of time on research. Mainly because I know next to nothing and have to learn about everything! I love the Internet for its immediacy and wealth of information. But there’s nothing like anecdotal research, talking to people, hearing their stories. I have a couple of people who I really rely on for the nuts and bolts of crime and police work. And for Black Out, I conducted a number of interviews -- a clinical psychiatrist, the head honchos at a privatized military company. I also read a lot of non-fiction, and this is in a way a kind of research just because I’m a knowledge and experience junkie, just taking it all in, never knowing what I’ll use later.

With Twice, I’d been fascinated for a long time about the people living in the tunnels beneath Manhattan. A book by Jennifer Toth called The Mole People had really captured my imagination when I was in college. And then I was in a seven-year relationship with a New York City police officer (a whole other kind of research, not for the faint-hearted). And he confirmed that there was an indeed a whole community of homeless living beneath the streets of New York, though no one wanted to admit that. So a lot of what I learned came long before I wrote the book. There have also been a number of great documentary films made on this topic, which served as research and inspiration. I also did a lot of investigating about the system of tunnels beneath the city, unmapped and uncharted, miles and miles of old tracks and abandoned stations. That just always impressed me as enormously cool. For a dark imagination like mine, it’s heaven on earth.

Q. Why do you prefer thrillers to straight mystery? What does the experience of writing a thriller offer you as a writer?

A. Strangely enough, I’m not sure I understand the difference. I get that it’s a pacing and intensity thing.

But, in my heart, I feel as though these are labels created by publishing companies and booksellers to categorize books for sale. I just write what I write, and some people think I’m a thriller writer, others think I’m a mystery writer. I read a review of Beautiful Lies that called it chick-lit. I’ll leave it to others to decide what I am. I’m a writer who tends toward crime and the dark side of things … that’s where my imagination takes me. What other people call me is up to them, I suppose.

Q. Thrillers used to be the domain of male writers. Do you think women have achieved equal status with readers -- or have you encountered male readers who still won’t touch a thriller written by a woman?

A. Hmm … good question. I do have quite a few male readers and am amazed to get mail from them, telling me how much they enjoyed the books. I guess I don’t really expect to have male readers in the first place. So when they take the time to write, I’m really shocked. I had one bookseller in California tell me that the Lydia Strong books were hard-boiled and that male readers in his store who don’t read women, read me. I did take that as a compliment -- sort of.

I do think there’s a bit of a boys club in the genre -- and not just among readers. Maybe it is simply because so many writers and readers of the thriller/mystery genre were forged by noir, which was very much so dominated by men. I definitely feel that a certain type of reader -- uncomfortable with strong female characters, emotional content, sex as told from the feminine perspective - might still shy away from books written by women. But they’re missing out. We have a lot to offer the genre, a new perspective, a fresh voice. Some of the best people writing are writing crime fiction, and quite of few of those writers are women.

Q. What kind of work did you do in publishing? Were you writing throughout that time? When did you decide to go for a full-time career as a novelist?

A. I was a publicist, booking author tours, setting up interviews, appearances, parties, etc. It was a very cool job and I learned everything I ever wanted to know about the industry.

But I have always been a writer and went into publishing as a way to get closer to my dreams without actually committing to it. But, of course, my job got bigger and bigger and I wrote less and less. Finally I had an epiphany -- I realized that I had stopped writing, had never been further away from my dreams and if I didn’t start writing again, I’d have to look back and myself in five years, ten years and say, “You know what? You never even tried to do this.” I couldn’t live with that, so I started writing again, every day, staying up late, getting up early, staying in on weekends, writing at lunch. From that point it took me another year to finish Angel Fire. I started it when I was 19 and finished it when I was 29. Ten years and it’s not a very long book. It’s a little embarrassing, actually.

Q. Do you think finding an agent and selling your first novel was made easier by your experience in publishing?

A. It was easier and harder at the same time. It was easier to find an agent because an editor friend liked the book -- but not enough to buy it. She did, however, suggest a few agents who might like it enough to work on it with me. One of those agents, Elaine Markson, signed me on and helped me rework the manuscript into something publishable.

I may not have had that opportunity if I hadn’t worked in the industry. On the other hand, anyone who wants to slave away in publishing for no money for ten years as a way to get her foot in the door, be my guest. We all pay our dues, one way or another, and no one does anybody any favors in this or any money-making industry.

None of the editors I had known, and none of the publishing companies where I’d worked made offers on my manuscript. They all, in fact, turned it down. When Angel Fire went to St. Martin’s, it was to an editor I’d never met.

I think people don’t want you to change. They see you one way, in my case as a book publicist, and they don’t want to see you any other way. So I think that made it harder to sell my first book.

Q. Do you have a pet peeve about the publishing business?

A. I actually love the business. I love everything about it. I think it’s a wonderfully romantic way to make a living -- as a writer, or an editor or even a publicist. Which is not to say that it isn’t as brutal as any other industry -- dreams are made and crushed everyday; talent doesn’t necessarily mean success; numbers matter more than high achievement in craft. The highs are dizzying; the lows are abysmal.

Success is not guaranteed, no matter how auspicious your beginning -- in fact it’s harder to succeed as a published writer than it is to get published in the first place. But I have never wanted to do anything else but write, so I’m profoundly grateful to make a living in this business.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

A. Write every day. Dig deeper every day. Be true to yourself. Think of publishing as an incidental element to the act of striving to be the best writer you can be, secondary to getting better every day for your experiences and dedication to the craft.

Q. Will you be at any mystery or thriller conferences this year where fans can meet you?

A. I’m planning to make it to Bouchercon this year, schedule permitting. Hope to see you all there!

Visit Lisa’s web sites at and

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this in-depth interview. Good insights into the publishing world by a veteran. I'll read more titles by Lisa.

Ed Lynskey