The Intel: Lisa Unger

lisa-unger-2011We love writers here, I think you may have an inkling of that by now. We certainly loved Lisa Unger’s psychological thriller In The Blood, which was reviewed earlier in the week. Didn’t catch it? Worry not. Click here or scroll down.

Lisa is the internationally best-selling author of novels such as Heartbroken, Darkness, My Old Friend and Fragile. So we’re absolutely chuffed to bits that she’s agreed to give us The Intel on how she goes about getting words on a page.

How would you describe In The Blood to a potential reader?

That’s always the hardest question I get.  I never know quite how to summarize my novels.  Of course, I can tell you what my book is about — but I need about 400 pages to do it.

In the Blood was inspired by an article I read in The New York Times Magazine about how certain doctors think they can see early signs of psychopathic behavior in children as young as five. This idea ignited my imagination and led me to do a great deal of research on the topic.  And while I was reading, I started to hear the voice of Lana Granger.  The only thing I knew about her was that she was hiding something big.  But I didn’t know what.  I also knew I had to tell her story.

Like most of my novels, In the Blood is my delving into the question of what makes us who we are, and what power do we have to change ourselves.  My father used to recite this poem for me when I was a kid.  You cannot hide in snow/ no matter where you go/ you leave a trail behind/ that others always find.  It sounds a little creepy, doesn’t it?  He didn’t mean it to be; he’s just into the sound of words.  It stayed with me and comes back at weird moments.  And over the course of my life, its meaning has evolved as an allegory for the self.  You cannot hide from yourself.  The psyche won’t allow it.  You must embrace everything, even the darkest and most unpleasant things within you.  That’s the major theme of In the Blood, what it’s really about.

 Unknown-2In The Blood is a fiendish rattlesnake of a book – how do you ensure that, as an author, you’re always one step ahead of your readers?

All of my novels begin with a character voice.  When I sit down to write each novel, that voice is all I have.  I don’t have an outline.  I don’t know who is going to show up day-to-day, or what they are going to do.  I certainly don’t know how a book is going to end.  So, in a very real way, I find things out about my characters and my story almost at the same pace as my readers.

I am very deep inside my story, feeling the same curiosity of character and urgency to know what will happen next as I hope my readers are feeling.  The only thing I know about Lana when we first me was that she was a liar.  And I had the sense that she would begin the novel as one thing, and evolve into something else all together.  She surprised me.  So maybe it’s my characters that are one step ahead.

Lana Granger is a very damaged protagonist – what attracts you to those characters?

People are endlessly fascinating, aren’t they?  For me, the more complicated and layered a personality, the better.   I don’t see my characters as damaged people, though many of them are there.  To me, they are simply people who have a story to tell, one that’s different, darker, more complex than most.  I don’t judge them, just honor what they say and try to tell their stories.

I think if I weren’t a writer, I would probably have been a psychiatrist. My novels are mostly my trying to answer questions I have about what makes us who we are.  I never get tired of exploring the human psyche for those answers.

Darkness-My-Old-Friend-Mass-Market-ThumbWhat’s the secret to writing a gripping psychological thriller?

I don’t know if there’s a secret. I just hope the fascination I have with my characters and my deep, urgent involvement with their stories translates into the same experience for my readers.  If I am breathless with excitement in the writing, I hope they are, too, in the reading.  I am writing from a raw, organic place and I have great passion for all my stories and characters. I am always thinking about the novel I’m working on; I dream about my stories.  If I were less involved with my stories, maybe the stories would be less involving.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Writing for me is pure joy.  I live for the blank page — anything is possible on that empty white sheet of paper.  And I have never felt anything but gratitude that I get to make my living doing what I love to do.  The hardest lesson I have learned is that, off the page, writers have very little control.  We can’t predict how a book will be received, or how it will sell, what people will say about it.

There are things we can do when a book goes out in the world — we can do appearances, connect with readers on the social networks, and conduct interviews. But much of it is out of our hands.  As writers, we belong at the keyboard writing the best books we can write.  We have to find peace with the idea that everything else is out of our control.

imagesHow do you deal with feedback?

Well, there is a lot of feedback these days! Writers are so connected to our readers and we have so many ways to hear what they are saying about our books. And that can be a great thing.  It can also addict you to feedback, which in a lot of ways is a very bad thing for a writer.

I try to stay centered.  At my very first conference I met a writer who said to me: Always remember that you are not as good as best review and you’re not as bad as your worst one.  Something about that stayed with me.  Over the years, it has become a reminder to stay centered, to stay focused on the work.  Don’t get your head turned by praise and don’t get crushed by criticism.  Just keep writing.  That’s my mantra.

How have your own experiences shaped your writing?

My writing is indivisible from my life experiences.  I am in a constant state of observation, perpetually using my life as research.  Every experience changes me, enriches my writing. The germ for a novel can come from almost anything – a newstory, a line of poetry, a photograph, even a piece of junk mail.  If it connects with something larger going on within me, I start to hear voices.   So every book is very personal, and informed by my life at the time.

I can go back over my whole body of work and see how each novel reflected big themes or things that I was grappling with in my own life.  In fiction, nothing is autobiographical and everything is.  So, if our experiences aren’t shaping the work, then we’re either not living well or not writing well.

Give me some advice about writing…

Write every day.  Read great books so that you can learn from the best.  Dig deeper.  Every day, try to get better than you were yesterday.  Twelve published novels in, that’s still what I do.  Nothing else has ever motivated me more than believing that I can be better at my craft today than I was yesterday.

What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…

Just keep writing.  If you have completed your manuscript and you are submitting it to agents, just keep writing.  Dig deeper.  Try to get better.  Because that’s what will get you published in the end, being great at what you do.

UnknownThe publishing world is changing all the time; it’s true.  What doesn’t change is that everyone is still looking for a great story – agents, editor, and readers.  We will always look to story to escape from life, or to understand life a little better.  We will always want a great story to lift us up, thrill us, excite us, and make us feel something.  Publishing may change.  But love of story is forever.  There will always be a place for a great book.

What’s next for you?

My next novel, entitled Crazy Love You will publish in April 2015.  I am currently at work on my first young adult book, as well as my 2016 adult title.   Readers can stay connected to me on Twitter (@lisaunger) and Facebook (authorlisaunger) for more on all upcoming projects.


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