More than a decade ago, Lisa Unger embarked on a risky venture. At twenty-nine, she quit her job as a successful publicist at a major New York publishing house, packed up her things, and moved to Florida to pursue her lifelong dream of being a writer.
A book deal followed. The novel she’d started writing when she was just nineteen sold. The advance was tiny and there was no buzz or overnight success. But Unger didn’t care because she was finally doing what she loved. So she kept at it, year after year, book after book, slowly building momentum and garnering critical praise, the respect of her peers, and loyal fans along the way.
The tenacity and hard work paid off.
Today, Unger is a NEW YORK TIMES, USA TODAY, and internationally bestselling author with too many starred reviews to her name to count. And her novels have sold more than 1.5 million copies and been translated into twenty-six languages. By all accounts, her latest, IN THE BLOOD (Touchstone, Jan. 7, 2014), is classic Unger; an atmospheric psychological thriller that proves, once again, why Unger has earned her place among the literary elite.
IN THE BLOOD follows Lana Granger, a student at a private university in The Hollows, a creepy town in upstate New York (and setting for two of Unger’s past novels). Lana’s a woman with secrets and a troubled past who finds herself near graduation and in need of a job. She lands one, a babysitting gig for Luke, a deeply disturbed eleven year-old and the perfect project for a psychology major (so Lana thinks). The match is not one made in heaven and Luke somehow learns of Lana’s secret. And then the twisted games begin.
The book is released next week, but early reviews are out: Unger outdoes herself in this story of broken people, nature-versus-nurture, secrets and lies, which culminates in a masterful conclusion that advanced readers already can’t stop talking about.
Unger graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about her life, her path to publication, and IN THE BLOOD.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in New Haven, Connecticut, but moved around quite a bit. I lived in the Netherlands and the UK during my early childhood (even learned to speak Dutch) before my family settled back in the U.S. My teen years were spent in a small town in New Jersey called Long Valley. When I turned eighteen, I left for college in Manhattan and spent the next thirteen years in New York City. My brother swears that Long Valley was my inspiration for The Hollows. But it isn’t. Not really. Well, maybe a little.
Was all that moving around difficult or did you enjoy it? Was there anything about being “the new kid” that helped in any way with your writing?
It was challenging at times; I remember a semi-permanent sense of disconnection. But I had a sense even at a fairly young age that it was cool and unusual to see so much of the world. It made me quiet self-reliant and led to my discovery of books, and eventually my identity as a writer. If I was perpetually the new kid, then at least I was at home on the page.
Moreover, this feeling of being on the sideline of things led me to become a keen observer. And that’s the first thing a writer needs to be. Maybe we can’t observe as carefully unless we’re standing a little bit outside the fray. So the traveling I did as a child was formative in more ways than one.
As I mentioned, in your late twenties you left a big job in the publicity department at a major publisher, sold your New York apartment, and moved to Florida, using the proceeds from the sale to allow you a year to write. What prompted the bold move?
About a year and half before I took that big leap, I had an epiphany. I realized that most of the things going on in my life were wrong. I was with the wrong guy. I was working like a maniac in a job that I was good at but didn’t love. And that I was allowing the only thing I ever wanted to do with my life to slowly fade away. So I got serious about finishing the novel that I began when I was nineteen years old. I wrote every day—even if I just had an hour to devote to it—until it was done. When the first draft was complete, I shelved it. I was just happy that I had finished what I began ten years earlier.
Then I had one of those moments, a point on which my whole life pivoted. While in Key West visiting my good friend Tara, I met my husband Jeffrey at Sloppy Joe’s. Go ahead. Get all the jokes out of your system. Okay, let’s move on. It was love at first sight for both of us. I knew that night that everything in my life was going to change.
So when Jeffrey proposed, and we decided to move to Florida (his lifelong dream)—I knew the planets had aligned. With the money I had saved, and that which I had earned from the sale of my Brooklyn Heights co-op, I decided to give myself a year to sell my first novel, and write another one. Meanwhile, I continued working as a freelance public relations writer.
I signed on with The Elaine Markson Literary Agency pretty quickly, and shortly after that she brokered a small, like don’t-quit-your-day-job small, two-book deal with St. Martin’s Minotaur. My first book ANGEL FIRE, the one I began when I was nineteen years old (and took ten years to write!), was published in 2002.
It was definitely a leap of faith and kind of nuts in retrospect. But this January, I’ll release my twelfth novel, IN THE BLOOD. So, I guess it’s working out all right.
I’ve read that you and your family are avid travelers—what’s the most memorable place you’ve visited? The scariest?
We have done a great deal of traveling—and more to come I hope. It’s a priority for us, to see the world and to show as much of it as we can to our daughter. Each place has its special space in my memory, it’s highlights and lowlights. And our trips have been very different from each other: We have trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (that’s a pre-baby trip, of course!) My first real adventure travel experience, it was certainly the most awe-inspiring and at times the most challenging and occasionally frightening trip. I learned a lot about myself on the Inca Trail, mainly that I’m a five-star kind of girl. An eco-lodge in the Amazon, our room open to the jungle, was an experience I won’t forget. My husband is a bit of an adventure junkie. I am kind of a comfort junkie. We are trying to find things that fall somewhere in the middle.
Home exchanges allowed us to stay in Prague, then in Paris for five weeks each. And those were probably two of my favorite experiences, just the immersion of living in a place for a longish time—being a tourist, but also grocery shopping and doing laundry. It lifts you out of yourself and your life for a while, really allows for an authentic experience. One of my favorite memories is of Jeff and I walking our daughter Ocean in her stroller through the streets of Paris, stopping for lunch in a café while she napped. Lowlight: Ocean screaming at the top of her lungs among Monet’s Water Lilies at Musee de l’Orangerie, rolling her out under the glares of museumgoers with better behaved children (or no children at all).
It’s always challenging traveling with a little one—but the magical moments are so much more so for having her with us. Pony rides in the Tuileries, watching the planes fly over Paris on Bastille Day, feeding kangaroos in Australia—it was such a joy to see all of that with Ocean.
Other than travel, what do you and your family do for fun?
We live a real Florida lifestyle, spending as much time as possible on the water as avid boaters and beach goers. We love kayaking, tennis and yoga. Jeff and I really enjoy cooking, entertaining friends. Naturally, we’re film and book junkies. We are obsessed with a number of television shows—currently HOMELAND is our favorite. When we’re in New York, we spend as much time in museums as possible—MOMA and The Met, and The Museum of Natural History are our top favorites.
Speaking of television, any other favorites? (I saw that at least one show, CRIMINAL MINDS, has you as a favorite, since an episode quoted you from BEAUTIFUL LIES)
Yes, at the moment CRIMINAL MINDS is definitely my favorite show! How cool was that?! Oh my gosh, I am going to totally embarrass myself by revealing how much television I watch. Some of my favorite shows in no particular order are: Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Homeland, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and Orphan Black. I am all over the place when it comes to genre. I just love big, character-driven stories. And what’s happening in television these days is so much more interesting than what’s happening in film. Series like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and The Wire are as complex, moving, and well-written as any novel I’ve read.
Television is good for someone like me with an overactive mind. Research shows that watching television shuts down the planning center in your brain. So it’s not just entertainment for me, it’s medication.
What’s on the ‘most played’ list on your iPod?
My workout playlist includes everything from Britney Spears to Bauhaus, from The Killers to Madonna, from Pink to Lady Gaga—anything that gets and keeps me moving. I do my best thinking when I’m exercising, but it has to be a blank headspace so I don’t listen to anything here that makes me ponder or feel too much. I just want something that gets my blood pumping.
My writing play list is similarly diverse—with selections from The Gregorian Chants to Peter Gabriel, from Dead Can Dance to Regina Spector, from the soundtrack to THE WATCHMAN to Nine Inch Nails, from Chopin to Mozart. Here I need music that evokes mood, that brings me someplace else completely.
What are you reading right now? What’s been the most enjoyable read you’ve had this year?
I have two books going at the moment: TATIANA by Martin Cruz Smith and THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tart. Up next is Michael Connelly’s GODS OF GUILT. HELP FOR THE HAUNTED by John Searles was one of my favorite reads this year. I’ve been a fan of John’s for a long time and this is his first book in a while, so I was very excited to receive an advance copy and devoured it. He has a real gift for language and character. Karin Slaughter’s CRIMINAL was maybe her best yet, which is saying something. She is such a talented writer and compelling story teller. And Andrew Pyper’s DEMONOLOGIST was really freaky—in a good way. I’ve loved his work forever, so I’m always looking forward to his next one.
Because of what I was writing this year, I got very into graphic novels (I’m not writing one, but the protagonist of CRAZY LOVE YOU is a graphic novel artist and writer). Some of my favorites were: REVIVAL, Volume One: You’re Among Friends by Tim Seely and Mike Norton, CHEW, Volume One: Taster’s Choice by John Layman and Rob Guillory, and TERM LIFE by AJ Lieberman and Nick Thronborrow. One of my non-fiction favorites was WHAT EVERY BODY IS SAYING by Joe Navarro, an absolutely fascinating read about body language.
Let’s talk a little about your new novel. By all accounts, IN THE BLOOD is your best yet (an extraordinarily high bar)—what inspired the story?
That’s nice to hear, thank you so much. I do strive to get better with each book, so that means a lot to me. IN THE BLOOD was inspired by an article I read in The New York Times Magazine about childhood psychopathy. It really ignited my imagination and led me to do a great deal of research on the topic. It ramped up a fascination I’ve always had about the question of nature versus nurture. 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.
If you had to boil it down to one thing, what is the ‘theme’ of the book?
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 anyone can 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 brought you back to our favorite creepy town, The Hollows?
Oh, The Hollows won’t let me leave! I am obsessed with that place. In fact, my 2015 book is also partially set there. It’s a totally different story, but The Hollows is still one of the main characters. When I first visited The Hollows in FRAGILE, I didn’t think very much of it. It was just the place where the story was set, a kind of Anytown, USA. I didn’t even know where it was at first—New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, wherever. But then it started to emerge in the story as an entity. It’s not a bad place really, but it has goals, agendas, desires. It doesn’t like secrets, encourages paths to cross. I might be there for a while. It hasn’t finished telling me about itself.
Lana and Luke are two incredible, troubled characters. Were they inspired by anyone?
After I read The New York Times Magazine article, I did a lot of research into troubled children. Of course, Lana and Luke are heavily fictionalized. It’s always challenging to write about mental illness because it is so complicated and individual. And I certainly don’t want to minimize the very real issues that families face when raising a troubled child. But what I found most fascinating about kids with emotional problems is sometimes they just grow out of it. Sometimes they don’t. But many times, as their brain develops, their illness changes, diminishes or just fades away. Luke and Lana are basically the exploration of that idea—what factors may or may not lead to early childhood emotional issues becoming something much worse, or lessening with age. Neither character is based on a real person—none of my characters ever are. They are their own people; they just happen to live on the page.
As a mother of a young child, was it hard to write about Lana’s childhood or Luke?
Karin Slaughter says that motherhood has made me soft. On the other hand Jon Jordan (of Crimespree) says it’s made me darker. I think they’re both right. I am a marshmallow. Just the thought of a child suffering or being neglected or hurt in any way cores me out. On the other hand, my imagination only grew darker when I became a mother. There’s so much more to worry about!
The page is where I metabolize the very worst things I can imagine. So, yes, it can be difficult. But it’s difficult the way therapy is difficult. These things are far less frightening and toxic when you face them head on. I think that’s why people read crime fiction, and certainly it’s why many of us write it. In the pages of a book, we can work out fear and understand mayhem in relative safety.
You told the story through Lana’s perspective and through diary entries. Why did you choose this technique?
I don’t do a lot of choosing when it comes to my writing, as odd as that is to say. I do a lot of listening. And the diary entries were simply the way that part of the story told itself. A lot of my process is subconscious. Elements of the story unfold in different ways, and I honor that even if I don’t quite understand why in the moment. I have faith that the story knows how to tell itself. And that everything will be revealed if I listen to the voices in my head and don’t censor them or seek to control them. I know this sounds weird, or even a little crazy.
Your stories so often explore themes of psychological violence and truly dysfunctional people, but you and your family seem so happy and well-adjusted—where does this stuff come from?
I have deep and voracious curiosity about human nature and psychology. I am a spelunker, shimmying into the dark crevices and shadowy spaces because I want to know what’s there. What makes people lie and steal? Why does one person’s rage spiral out of control, while another’s just fizzles out? Are we products of nature or nurture, or some impossibly complex combination? People are the ultimate mystery. Maybe it’s because I live my life in the light that I am so curious about the darkness.
You’ve been in the business more than a decade now. What’s your best advice to writers—both those who are trying to get published and those struggling on the midlist?
My advice to all writers is to only be motivated by the work. Whether you’re trying to write your first novel and get published, or whether you’re trying to write your big “break-out” book, the only thing that matters is what you do at the keyboard. Every day, I try to be a better writer than I was the day before. That was my goal before I was published, and it will be my goal if I never publish again. Every success—whether it’s publishing or hitting the bestseller lists—flows from the work. Achieving the milestones should be incidental to the act of working to get better at what you’re doing. So write every single day. It truly is the only way to hone your craft. It’s all about the writing.
What’s the worst piece of advice that you’ve heard dispensed to writers?
A lot of us are laboring under the delusion that we can make something happen with the social networks, that we can somehow change our fates by creating an “online presence.” We are asked to blog, and get more “likes” and “followers.” And, don’t get me wrong, there is some value in this. We can work to get more exposure, to have more people hear our names. And that’s helpful. But what we can’t create is demand. Demand is something that exists outside of our control. Nobody will demand your work because you’re great at self-promoting, or great at blogging, or write the posts that get the most “likes.” They’ll demand your work because you’re a great writer who has told them a moving and exciting story. They’ll come to your work because they want to, not because you want them to.
And what should writers know about publicists/publishers that would help them navigate the tough world of publishing?
It’s important to remember that publishing is a business. For the author, it’s very personal. You’ve spent a big chunk of your life creating something that means a lot to you, on which you’ve pinned hopes and dreams. If you’re lucky, you have an editor who is passionate about your work and with whom you have a good relationship. That goes a long way in navigating the publishing process.
But ultimately, once you’ve written the very best book you can write and you’ve turned it in, waded through all the layers of editing, it’s really up to the publisher to get it out there. But they are constricted by their budgetary concerns, and can only do so much for each book.
Authors have very little control over the fate of their books once they hit the shelves. Other than making appearances, gaining as much as exposure as possible via social networks, mailing lists, or blogs, conducting whatever media appearances happen our way—there really isn’t much we can do to “move the needle.” I think the closer writers are to understanding that nobody really knows what makes a book a success or not, the more we can focus on the work itself. That is where writers have all the power—at the keyboard.
What was the kindest thing a writer ever did for you when you were a publicist (and how about the most unkind thing)?
Publicists are so abused! They are underpaid and overworked, laboring under the weight of not just the authors’ but also the publishers’ expectations. They have to deal with the sales department, booksellers, the media, authors, agents, and editors. Everyone wants them to book The Today Show, The New York Times Book Review, pack every city with media, make sure book events are well-attended. And honestly, they can’t often do any of that. They can write the press releases, make a good pitch, send out review copies and materials. But even your publicist can’t create demand. So I’ll use this question as an opportunity to give some advice to my fellow writers. Be nice to your publicist! She’s not a miracle worker. And no one wants that big media booking more than she does, trust me! So make sure you thank her!
The nicest thing an author ever did for me was to hire a videographer for my wedding. She knew I didn’t have the money and said she wanted me to have that memory. I do cherish that video and my memory of her as one of the nicest people I have met. A very famous science fiction author gave me a beautiful piece of jewelry that I still have to this day.
I did work with the very worst author in the business—no names. She would call me at home in the middle of the night because she didn’t like her hotel and insist I use my credit card to get her a new room. She would miss her flights and then fill my voicemail with excoriating messages about how it was my fault. She bad-mouthed me to other authors, even though she had a great tour and her book was a huge bestseller. Every time I see her name, I cringe.
Some in publishing think the physical author tour is not worth the money or effort. What’s your view?
I disagree. It’s true that the author tour does not have quantifiable results. On the balance sheet, the cost of travel is not equally offset by the sale of books. Unless you’re a huge, big name author, or a celebrity non-fiction writer, you probably won’t get media in every city. Book signings are a bit hit or miss, very dependent on factors like weather, local events, or even other happenings at the store that week. So I understand why some people think it’s a waste of time and money.
But publishing is a business of relationships. And the act of getting yourself out there, hanging out with booksellers, and meeting the folks that do come to your events, has tremendous value. Even if only a few people come to your signing, you still have an opportunity to spend time with a bookseller, talk about your work, sign stock. You might not sell those books that night, but they’ll probably sell over the next few weeks. And hanging out with booksellers is cool! They’re generally people who care as much about books as you do. Those relationships matter.
People who think that you don’t need to be out there, talking and meeting people, are probably the same people who think we don’t need to speak to each other anymore, that we should just text and email each other. Those people are not right, either.
I understand that you don’t outline before you write each book, but you’re also known as one of the best plotters around; what’s your secret?
I don’t have any secrets. The writing of every novel is an act of faith. The germ for the novel can come from anything—a line of poetry, a song, a news story, even a piece of junk mail. There’s a feeling, a little jingle of excitement. And the best way I can explain it, is that if the initial inspiration connects with something larger going on inside of me, then I’ll start to hear a voice in my head. Or I’ll see something happening over and over again. Then, I know there’s a novel. I start writing, and I have faith that the novel will evolve.
Story is life, and it develops in the same way for me. I could tell you what I plan to do today, that I am going to go to the gym, and come back and make Christmas cookies with my daughter, go to a beach party tonight (that’s how we celebrate the holidays in Florida!). But I can’t tell you about my day, not really, until I’ve lived it. A million things will happen that I don’t expect, people will turn up and either facilitate or derail my goals. Maybe my car breaks down and I don’t make it to the gym—and that leads to some other event. I have to go with the events of the day and only at the end can I tell you what really happened. I feel the same way about my novels.
Do you worry about tying up loose ends in your novels? And how do you know you’ve done it well?
Worry is an essential part of my nature. I worry about everything in my fictional and real worlds. I also have an extremely dark, worst-case-scenario imagination which allows me to weave entire scenarios and spin them out to the most horrible possible conclusion. Doing all this thinking and worrying, makes me extremely vigilant to the details in my life and in my novels. (It also makes me a little crazy.) So, yes, there are panicked, middle of the night wake ups about what is going to happen next in my novel.
But I have faith in myself as a writer, in the form, and in the power of story. I am not concerned so much with tying up loose ends as I am in making sure the story is true, that the characters get what they need at the end of the day, and the ending is the only ending possible. When the story is finished, I feel it.
Are there any rules of writing you follow or that you found helpful?
The only rule I’ve ever found helpful is to write every day. Every other rule just makes me want to do the opposite. Who gets to make up writing rules? And aren’t all the best writers breaking all the rules?
Are there any books on the craft you found helpful?
I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and John Dufresne’s The Lie that Tells a Truth. I think every writer should read these books more than once; There is so much wisdom in each one. And you’ll feel less alone inside your head.
I understand you are writing a YA series? What’s the series about?
I am not quite ready to talk about this series because I’m in the middle of writing the first book in a planned trilogy. And I never talk about the project I’m working on for fear that all the energy will float away. I will say I’m loving every minute of it and can’t wait to discuss it! So stay tuned!
Did having a young daughter inspire you to write to younger readers? (Or why the change?)
I don’t see it as a change as much as an expansion. My January 2015 adult novel called CRAZY LOVE YOU is complete. And the YA series is about me spreading my wings, finding more space in the sky of my imagination. Yes, Ocean was a big part of the inspiration. We tell each other so many stories, that it was a natural evolution for me to put some of it down on the page. Which is funny because if you had asked me two years ago whether or not I’d consider writing a YA novel, I’d have said no. But when inspiration comes, I don’t turn it away.
Are we going to see Ridley Jones again?
I was writing the third and final Ridley book when IN THE BLOOD muscled its way through. And then CRAZY LOVE YOU wanted to be next. So it’s on the back burner. There will be another installment—I think about her so often and have so many questions about where she is now. I just don’t know when that novel will finish itself.
Other than CRAZY LOVE YOU and the YA series, anything else on the horizon?
I am currently quite focused on the young adult book, but I have already begun the 2016 adult title. I am always writing, thinking about what’s next. I have so many voices in my head. If I don’t let them out onto the page I don’t know what would happen to me.
Lisa Unger is an award-winning NEW YORK TIMES and internationally bestselling author. Her novels have sold more than 1.5 million copies and have been translated into twenty-six languages. She lives in Florida.
To learn more about Lisa, please visit her website.
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