By Tim O’Mara
Lisa Towles, award-winning author of Choke, ventures into what for many readers will be familiar territory in her latest novel, THE UNSEEN.
Forty years ago, archaeologist Rachel Careski discovered an ancient scroll, which threatened the power of the Church. Descendants of Pope Theophilus, sworn to protect Christianity, believe that Rachel’s brother, Soren Careski, took possession of the deadly scroll after Rachel vanished. But Soren is dead.
Forty years later, Soren’s son, Alex, receives an email from his dead father’s account with an image of the scroll. The same day, Alex’s wife, Simone, is kidnapped, and in London, two antiquarian texts go missing from the British Museum.
The rest, as they say, is fiction.
THE UNSEEN is bound to remind many readers of the works of Dan Brown and other “ancient secret” mystery novels.
“Let me say first that if THE UNSEEN was sharing a bookshelf with one of Dan Brown’s books, it would be an honor,” Towles says. “There are similarities in that THE UNSEEN has two separate story threads that eventually weave together and become inseparably entwined. This is a pattern I see in a lot of thrillers. So, although it’s action-packed, I think the real thrust is the legend of Alex’s past, his family history, his father’s lifelong work, and the hidden artifact that’s influenced centuries of crimes.”
Those separate storylines juggle many characters, and in less deft hands, it might be hard to keep so many balls in the air. Towles makes it look easy.
“The story has two main threads: Alex Careski’s story and his desperate search to find his wife Simone,” she says. “Then there are the stolen antiquarian books from the British Museum. When I mapped out the story initially, I plotted one thread at a time, intending to weave them together in a way that would make sense to a reader based on my own reading preferences.
“As I progressed, though, the weaving sort of happened on its own, where I’d write a few chapters about Alex and then realize what had to happen next in the other thread. I think the writing process, by and large, is usually a balance between meticulous plotting and reckless surrender to your instincts.”
But with all these characters and interwoven plot lines, it’s clear whose story THE UNSEEN follows: Alex Careski’s.
“The reckoning of the parts of his past he’d been avoiding for so long, his true connection to his wife Simone, and the powerful family secrets from which he could no longer run,” Towles says.
One of the many interesting things about Towles is that she plays the jazz flute at a professional level. Is there a connection between playing a musical instrument and writing?
“Interesting question and thanks for the nod to my music,” she says. “I’m a classically-trained musician who later turned to jazz because of the fun and freedom of jazz improvisation. It was difficult letting go when learning to improvise, when I’d spent so many years glued to the notes on the printed page. (I’ve) come to find out, improvisation isn’t all just free form—in fact, there’s a great deal of order and structure to the open landscape it provides for musical expression.”
How does a good thriller compare to a good piece of jazz?
“I compare this process of playing classical versus jazz to writing with and without an outline,” Towles says. “For the first several books I wrote, I constructed these highly detailed, elaborate outlines that pretty much sapped all my creative energy, leaving nothing to write the actual book. Then I read Stephen King’s On Writing, wherein he sort of gave us permission to explore and allow organic ideas and inspirations to bubble up and make it into the story—even if they were outside the story’s original scope.
“I had another teacher on this topic as well—Tony Hillerman—who suggested the low-beams approach of plotting, just three or four chapters ahead at a time. So I did need to use careful plotting for the complex threads in THE UNSEEN, but I only plotted a handful of chapters at a time and I always left room for sudden inspirations.”
Towles has had the opportunity to live in many parts of America and often pieces of those places make it into her fiction.
“I live in northern California now, and my current work-in-progress takes place in San Francisco, LA, and San Diego,” she says. “My book Choke also takes place in San Francisco. When I lived in New Mexico, I based Knee Deep on that locale, but also wrote several books that take place in Maine, where I spent a lot of time growing up.
“As writers, I think it’s impossible not to use the features, the architecture, and the vibe and energy of your home locale in some way, and that can bring a lot of authenticity (not to mention easy research) to your story.
“But the real fun is writing about a place you’ve never been to, because that research requires exploring a new place. The Ghost of Mary Prairie was something really different for me, in that it was narrated from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy and it took place in rural Oklahoma, where I’d never been. My best friend, Gail, and I took a road trip from New Mexico to Oklahoma to check out this tiny, one-horse, magical town, and the research on that trip had a substantive influence on how that story evolved.”
To cap things off, I asked Towles: If you could put together your dream panel for ThrillerFest—living or dead folks can both apply—who would you put on a panel and what would the topic be?
“Oh my goodness, what a fun topic!,” she says. “The subject would be ‘The Personality of Crime.’ The panelists? Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, John Le Carre, P. D. James, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. (Okay, a rather large panel.) As moderator, I would describe a detailed scenario of a violent crime; each author would comment on the most likely personality type—and traits—to have committed that crime, and why. It would likely end up as an interesting discussion of sleuths, detectives, and criminal profiling.”
“…an interesting discussion…”
I believe we just had one.
Lisa Towles is a crime novelist living in northern California. Her 2017 thriller, Choke, won a Distinguished Favorite IPPY award and a NYC Big Book Award in the thriller category in 2018. Her other books, under the name Lisa Polisar, include Knee Deep, Blackwater Tango, The Ghost of Mary Prairie, and Escape: Dark Mystery Tales. Her short stories have been widely published in literary journals and she was a journalist and art review for many years.
To learn more about Lisa and her work, please visit her website.