A Conversation with Lisa Unger (by Scott Loring Sanders)

This week we have a second installment in a series of interviews with influential crime writers by Scott Loring Sanders. A favorite of EQMM readers, Scott has a new story coming up in the magazine soon. You can learn more about him and interviewee Lisa Unger below, and on their websites. Our thanks to them both for making time available in their busy schedules to share some insights about writing crime fiction.—Janet Hutchings 

SLS: I recently read an interview with you in The Big Thrill where you talk about compartmentalizing—how you separate your writer-self from your wife-self, your mom-self, from your “regular person” self. I’m curious about this because although I compartmentalize to some degree, I find that when I’m in the middle of writing a story, it tends to constantly haunt me until I’m finished. If I’m walking the dog, or riding my bike, running, whatever, I’m often sorting through plotting issues or character dilemmas. So is your compartmentalizing absolute, something you can turn off and on? Or do your characters and scenes spill over into your everyday?

LU: Of course, yes, the story is always white noise in the back of my mind. And it’s precisely those moments—working out, walking the dog, doing the dishes—where the most thinking gets done, where narrative problems are resolved and the way forward is found. Those are auxiliary spaces to the writing process, the blank places in life, where the mind wanders.

But as a mother, wife, daughter, or friend—I have a responsibility not to be lost in my head all the time. And life informs art. So, the act of being present and living an authentic life, where you’re available to experiences and to the people that you love, fuels the creative process. Without that ability to be present, there would be far less material in the creative well.

But the person at the keyboard, the one in the zone of creation, is certainly not the same person kayaking with her eleven-year-old, even though the story doesn’t fit tidily into that dedicated space. That dedicated space, where you’re only writing, where you’re only experiencing the fictional world, is apart and separate from life. You owe it to the work to be there fully when you are there, as much as you owe it to your family to not be there all the time.

Naturally, little about art or life is absolute, and the lines between the two are rarely neat and tidy. But there are different selves within me, as well as story and character perpetually spinning. I try to honor them all, give them all space to breathe without the others.

Not many of us writers out there will ever experience New York Times bestseller status. You’ve now achieved that many times over. I thought it might be interesting for readers and writers to live vicariously through you for a moment. What was it like the very first time your work made the list? Any specific memories or anecdotes?

It’s funny. This comes up a lot. So, yes, it’s a big deal. Many (but not all) of my books have been on the New York Times list, the USA Today list and other regional and international lists. I’m grateful for that, because this is a brutally competitive business, now more so than ever before.

But when I look back at the big moments, the places where I felt the most elation and joy, they’re smaller moments: seeing my first byline in The Riverdale Press, or that first call from the agent who wanted to represent my first novel, every single time I hold the first copy of my new hardcover in my hands, the notes from readers who say I’ve moved or spoken to them.

And it isn’t lists or accolades that motivate me. I’ve been writing since childhood. At the keyboard, or with pen to paper, is where I’m happiest (other than when I’m with my husband and daughter). And every day I get up thinking that I can be a better writer than I was yesterday. I have a craft, a skill that I never stop working at. I believe that my best book has yet to be written. That goal, that desire, is what motivates me more than any other single external success. I am blessed beyond measure that I make a living doing what I love, that I have readers, and I have achieved some of those dream milestones. But the journey is the thing I love the most. The belief that the best is yet to come, that’s what keeps me going.

And since we just took a walk down memory lane, we might as well continue because you and I have a secret. Perhaps it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. We grew up together in the tiny, bucolic town of Long Valley, New Jersey. We even had the same English class our junior year in high school. So I was wondering, how do you think that rural, quaint setting influenced your writing? I know our town is subtly alluded to in Beautiful Lies, and certainly in Fragile, though often with variations on street names, town names, and so on. Do you still picture certain places from our hometown when you’re writing out a scene? Do you adhere to the old adage, Write what you know, with regards to place and setting?

Yes and no—to both questions. All of fiction is autobiographical—and nothing in fiction is, really. Certainly, the places I’ve been, things I’ve experienced, people I’ve known, situations, observations all inform my fiction. Honestly, if you write the way I do, you can’t help but write what you know. New York City plays a big role in some of my novels; I lived there for 13 years and it’s a part of me. Whether it’s my fictional town called The Hollows, or Lost Valley in The Red Hunter—all of it I suppose stems from how I grew up in a small, semi-rural, semi-suburban town in the Northeast. That energy stays with me; I know it deeply, truly. Weirdly, though, there’s little conscious choice on my part. Places just turn up; setting flows from character. Where does the character live? How is he or she informed by that, affected by that? The names or places, obviously dredged from the dungeon of my subconscious, are only recognizable to me after the fact, or when someone brings it to my attention—like you did, once! So, even though I realize that I am making choices, often it feels as if I’m not. I only have perspective long after the book is done.

On a darker note, in 1985, when we were sophomores in high school, a horrific event took place in our town. A classmate of ours, a year younger, was brutally murdered. Out of respect for her family, you and I have agreed to simply use her first name and not go into a lot of detail about it, except for the very basics: Rachel missed her bus after school, decided to walk the three miles home, and disappeared. Two days later she was found in the woods; she’d been raped and stabbed. A young man who’d recently graduated from our high school was found guilty of the crime.

I wanted to ask how the abduction and murder of Rachel affected you. I’m not talking about the writer you, just you as a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in our small New Jersey town. About a year ago, I wrote an essay on Rachel’s murder, and I discovered several unexpected things about how differently the event affected different people. I’d like to get your take first, and then I’ll explain my own.

I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say that this experience changed me. I want to be careful here, out of respect for Rachel and her family. Because this was their personal tragedy, and I don’t want to exploit their grief and pain, or take ownership of that in the way people do sometimes to dramatize their part in something. But this was a dark experience in my life. I knew Rachel; we played violin together in the school orchestra. And her murder rocked me. It changed how I saw the world.

Also, I think in a real way it informed me as a writer. I remember a feeling of desperately wanting to understand how a thing like that could happen. How she could be there one day, then gone. I vividly remember her viewing, and how seeing her opened up a kind of hollow in me. These questions, ideas, mind-bending moments are threads through my body of work.

I tried to write about the experience—sort of. But those works never resolved themselves into a novel or even a story. It wasn’t until I was deep into Fragile that I thought: Oh, here it is. But to be very, very clear, Fragile is not a retelling of that event, not at all. But it is, in some strange way, the piece I carried forward into my life. I didn’t go back and research the details of her murder. I didn’t want to write that kind of book, because it seemed exploitative to me. It was a story that wasn’t mine to tell. But the essence, the energy of that experience is the heart of Fragile. I needed to be a wife, a mother, a better writer, before I could do it justice; that’s why it took so long to find its way to the page.

I know what you mean about letting a lot of time pass before approaching the subject. It took me thirty years to even consider writing about it, and then I ran it past a family member of Rachel’s to get the okay before I sought publication. When writing the essay, the most profound thing I discovered was the difference in how males and females remembered the event. Every woman I talked to, yourself included, had vivid memories of it, and it tended to change their world view, at least to some degree. For males, however, I discovered nearly the opposite. Most had only vague memories, and some, believe it or not, didn’t remember it at all. Perhaps here is not the venue to discuss the idea of “male privilege”, but it seemed pretty obvious to me, and admittedly, I was guilty of it myself—that is, not fully cognizant of how women have to go about their everyday lives compared to men. So though her murder didn’t affect me in the same way it did you, I’ve certainly thought about those strange couple of days many times over the years. Yet it’s never seeped into my fiction. And to be honest, I don’t want it to. Or maybe a better way to phrase it is, I won’t let it. Do you think her murder created certain boundaries you’re not willing to cross in your own work?

I found that fascinating when I read it in your essay—which I loved by the way, not sure I ever told you! But I don’t find it all that surprising. I wonder if this has less to do with male privilege and more to do with a fixed mental model. (I’ll probably get myself into trouble here!) Men can tend to see the world one way, and resist evidence that it might be another way altogether. In fact, they’ll fight to keep their idea of the world intact. In Deep Survival, a brilliant book by Laurence Gonzalez about the neuroscience of people who survive extreme circumstances, the author states that of all people who get lost in the wilderness, men are the least likely to survive. (Young children are the most likely.) Men think they know the way out, have a clear idea of how things should be—which can prevent them from seeing things as they are. Children, on the other hand, don’t have a fully formed mental model yet. They stop and look, take in information, figure out how to survive in the situation as it is, or wait in one place for help.

Maybe the men you spoke to simply rejected or minimized what happened because it challenged their world view. Of course, there’s a darker possibility. Men are less likely to be the victim of a violent crime, and more likely to be a perpetrator. So maybe there was no challenge to their world view at all.

I don’t think Rachel’s murder made me less willing to cross boundaries. It, perhaps, made me more willing. Prior to her murder, I thought the world was one thing. Then it revealed itself as something else. I think I’m still trying to understand those darkest places, order that chaos.  Once upon a time I thought that there were certain places I wouldn’t go in my fiction. But over time I’ve visited them all. I think of myself as a spelunker, shimmying into the caverns of the human psyche and heart. I want to know what’s there, what makes us who we are. I surprise myself at how deep I’m willing to go. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Life doesn’t have boundaries; there’s no limit to our heroism or our depravity. If fiction is life distilled, then it shouldn’t have any boundaries either.

That’s pretty fascinating, about children being the most likely to survive in the wilderness. As for the other point, about why men were less affected, I think I knew, even back then, that I had less to fear. That is, I was far less likely to be the victim of a violent crime, just as you stated above. And therefore, I had less to be concerned with. I suppose it makes sense. But the thing that bothered me when writing the essay was my lack of awareness for how my female peers had been affected, and how oblivious I was to the genuine fear and anxiety so many went through.

Let’s get back to a lighter note, shall we? When you and I first started corresponding two years ago, you said something important with regards to the difficulties of the writing/publishing world: “The only thing you can truly control is the writing.” That resonated with me. I wondered if you might expound on that. Maybe shed a little light for any aspiring writers out there who are reading this.

At the keyboard, or with pen to page, you have all the control. You control how deep you dig, how hard you work, how much you give to your story, your characters, your readers. But once that final editing is done, and the work is on its way out into the world, you must let it go.

These days, there’s an idea that we can promote ourselves and our work on social media—and certainly this is true to some degree. But ultimately whether a book does well or not has to do with some combination of factors that even publishers don’t fully understand.

So the best any writer, published or aspiring, can do is this: Write well today. Do better tomorrow. Dig deep; write the truest and best work you can. Be bright, be positive. And no matter where you are in the process—aspiring, published, book just released, deadline looming—always be writing.

I’ve seen you mention in various interviews that you don’t outline when writing a story. I’m the exact same way, and I have some very specific reasons for that choice. Of course, plenty of other writers swear by it. I wanted to ask you to explain your reasoning for not using an outline.

I don’t have a reason. I have always written this way; I can’t write any other way. I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to know what’s going to happen to the people living in my head. Story is life; my relationship with my characters evolves over a year, or 100,000 plus words, or 400 or more pages. There is magic in writing that way, a kind of joy and adventure. You can’t outline your life—though many people try. How, then, can you outline your novel? (Though I know plenty of people who do so to great success! Nothing wrong with writing that way—God speed.) Process is so personal, and the writing of a novel is such a private experience. I don’t think any of us could change if we wanted to.

I always ask this as my final question. What is your biggest fear? I don’t mean with regards to writing or publishing. I mean in general. Have you ever considered writing about it, fictionally or otherwise? I think it can be an interesting place to start a story.

If you read my novels, you’ll know all my greatest fears. The entirety of who I am as a person and as a writer is laid bare before my readers.

There’s that fact and fiction blending together once more! Thanks so much for your time, Lisa. Best of luck with The Red Hunter, as well as all of your future endeavors. It’s been a pleasure catching up.

Lisa Unger is the New York Times and internationally bestselling, award-winning author of fifteen novels, including the latest psychological thriller The Red Hunter and Goodreads Choice Award Finalist Ink and Bone. Her books are published in twenty-six languages worldwide, have sold millions of copies, and have been named “Best of the Year” or top picks by The Today ShowGood Morning America, Entertainment WeeklyAmazon.comIndependent Booksellers, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Sun Sentinel, to name a few. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and Travel+Leisure magazine. Lisa Unger lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida with her husband, daughter and labradoodle. To learn more about her and her books visit: www.lisaunger.com

Scott Loring Sanders is the author of two novels, as well as two new books out in 2017: a short story collection, Shooting Creek, and an essay collection/memoir, Surviving Jersey: Danger & Insanity in the Garden State.  His work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, been noted in Best American Essays, and he’s a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. During the month of June, he will be a Writing Fellow at the Edward F. Albee Foundation in Montauk, New York where he will work on a new novel.  He teaches creative writing and mystery writing at Emerson College in Boston, and at Lesley University in Cambridge.  To learn more, visit him at www.scottloringsanders.com

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