Interview with Lisa Unger
Q: Where do the inspirations for your stories come from?
The germ could be anything really — a song, a line of poetry, something I see on the news. If it connects with something going on within me, I generally start hearing voices. Every novel begins with a character voice, someone I connect with who has a story to tell. When I can’t stop hearing that voice, I know I’ll be writing a book about that person. BEAUTIFUL LIES started with Ridley. BLACK OUT started with Annie. DIE FOR YOU began with Isabel. And with FRAGILE, it was Maggie’s voice I heard first.
Q: I chose the same path you did: going to college to get a degree for a “real job” assuming my hopes of being a writer would never happen. What changed your mind and gave you the courage to send in your manuscript to agents?
If you are not born with it, and no one gives it to you, I think it takes a while to find the courage and confidence to really follow your dreams.
I had a moment where I realized everything about my life was wrong. I was in the wrong job. I was with the wrong person. I had let the only dream I ever had for my life lay fallow. I realized that if I didn’t get serious about writing, start writing every day, that I was going to have to look back and say, “You know what? You never even tried.” And I couldn’t live with that. I figured I could live with spectacular failure. But not the idea that I just let it go without trying. It took me about a year and a half from that point to finish my first novel. It sounds like a short journey. But it wasn’t. I began that novel when I was 19. I finished it when I was 29.
On my way to Boca Raton for a company sales conference, I took a little detour to Key West to spend time with a friend who’d recently moved there. While I was down there, spending an evening at Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street, I met my husband. (I may be the only person who has ever met her husband at Sloppy Joe’s … usually the relationships that start there are more, shall we say, short term.) After a SHAZAM! love-at-first-sight moment and whirlwind romance, we sold our homes, quit our huge corporate jobs, left all our family and friends and moved to Florida. (Why Florida? I don’t know … ocean, palm trees, new beginnings … it seemed like the right place somehow and it has been.) I felt like the planets had aligned and it was my time to go for broke. Before we left, I sent my manuscript to my five top choice agents and said good-bye to New York City.
Q: Have you ever been hit with an idea for a story or character at an odd time or place?
In a sense, I’m always working. Sometimes it seems like the actual writing is the last 5% of the process. My subconscious is always churning with whatever I’m currently working on. Often I dream about what I’m writing. Sometimes I go to bed struggling with something in my narrative only to wake up with the answer. I always have my notebook with me, because inspiration and ideas, observations come all the time. The magic isn’t always there; sometimes the craft is sheer perspiration. But when the magic comes, I want to be ready.
Q: Were there any surprises you’ve encountered since becoming a full time writer?
Because I worked in publishing for so many years, there weren’t that many surprises for me. I think many authors see that first book contract as a an end, as the accomplishment of a goal. And, of course, it is that in some ways. But I always saw it as the beginning of my career. And I knew from my years in publishing that it’s a lot harder to succeed as an author than it is to get published in the first place. So I knew I was going to have roll up my sleeves and work hard, do a lot of things myself early on, and check my ego at the door. I think I was better prepared for the dizzying highs and crushing lows than most.
Q: Your latest novel, Fragile, focuses on a small town dealing with the disappearance of a teenage girl. Where did the idea stem from for this story?
When I was a teenager, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we were friends. But we were acquaintances, played together in the same school orchestra. And her horrible, tragic death was a terrifying and hugely traumatic moment in a quiet, suburban town where nothing like that had ever happened before. This event changed me. It changed the way I saw the world. And I carried it with me in ways I wasn’t aware of until I was metabolizing it on the page – more than twenty-five years later.
This story has tried to make its way out in other partials that I have discarded or abandoned. The voices that had tried to tell it before were never strong enough to center a novel around. It is notable that the voices who finally were able to tell the tale are much older, people with a lot of distance from the fictional event. In other words, it’s almost as if we all — the characters and the author — needed to grow up a little to have access to the heart of the story, to really understand it.
But all that said, FRAGILE is not about the actual abduction and murder. My memories of what actually occurred, the police investigation, the trial and conviction are vague at best. And I did nothing to rectify that fact. I did not track down key players, conduct interviews, find news accounts. I didn’t want it to be that kind of book. I had a fear of exploiting someone who had met a tragic end, of causing pain to people who surely didn’t deserve any more.
Q: You used to live in New York before moving to Florida. What made you move away from the big city?
When I left New York City for Florida, I was at a critical level of burnout. As a New Yorker, especially after a number of years, one starts to lose sight of how truly special, how textured and unique it is. The day-to-day can be brutal: the odors, the noise, the homeless, the trains, the expense. Once I had some distance though, New York City started to leak into my work and I found myself rediscovering many of the things I had always treasured about it. It came very naturally as the setting for Beautiful Lies. It is the place I know best. I know it as one can only know a place she has loved desperately and hated passionately and then come to miss terribly once she has left it behind.
Now we have a place in New York, as well. So we divide our time between the city and our more peaceful life in Florida. It’s the perfect combination, allowing me to have everything I love about NY, but allowing me a place where our life is more quiet and centered.
Q: I read that you moved around a lot when you were younger, living in the Netherlands and England. Did you enjoy moving frequently?
I was born in Connecticut but we moved often. By the time my family settled for once and all in New Jersey, I had already lived in Holland and in England (not to mention Brooklyn and other brief New Jersey stays) for most of my childhood. I don’t recall ever minding moving about; even then I had a sense that it was cool and unusual. But I think it was one of many things that kept me feeling separate from the things and people around me, this sense of myself as transient and on the outside, looking in. I don’t recall ever exactly fitting in anywhere. Writers are first and foremost observers … and one can’t truly observe unless she stands apart. So, in that sense, it was a formative experience that I wouldn’t trade.
Q: What are you currently reading?
I just finished TETHERED by Amy McKinnon. It was really fabulous — gripping and gorgeously written. And I’m about to get started on an early read of Amanda Eyre Ward’s CLOSE YOUR EYES. Can’t wait!
Q: What is your best advice for aspiring writers?
Write every day. And strive every day to be a better writer than you were yesterday. Don’t think about publishing. Just think about being the best you can be. And read everything you can get your hands on. If you do these things, and if you have talent, you will get where you want to go.
Q: Where would be your dream vacation?
We travel quite a bit, so generally if I have a dream for a vacation, we go! But there is one trip that I have always wanted to take and just haven’t found the room in my life and schedule as writer and mom. I have always wanted to take The Orient Express from Singapore to Bangkok. I do want to wait until my daughter is a little older so that she can enjoy it, too.