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Sticking to the Formula

By Dawn Ius

Lisa Unger has a well-publicized formula for crafting her novels—get up every morning with the goal of writing better than the day before. From someone else, it may sound pat, but for Unger, it “never stops being about the words.

“A publishing contract is not a windfall. It’s an opening to the writing life—but if you want to succeed, you have to roll up your sleeves, check your ego, and get to work.”

Unger has been doggedly working on her publishing career since before college, when at 19 she started writing a novel that took a decade to get published. That book was Angel Fire, an impressive page turner that put Unger on the map as an author to watch. And in every book after, Unger continues to prove that her formula for writing works.

Her books, on the other hand, are anything but formulaic. While solidly rooted in suspense, Unger goes where the voices in her head take her—and that’s no romantic notion, it’s how she knows when the spark of an idea will explode into a full-length novel.

Those ideas, as Unger is fond of sharing, stem from just about anywhere—a Carl Jung quote, a random piece of junk mail, or in the case of her newest novel of psychological suspense THE STRANGER INSIDE, a book by Donald Kalsched, The Inner World of Trauma.

“This book really upended my thinking about mental illness,” she says. “We always think of mental illness as something that needs to be treated, medicated, fixed. But this is the first time I read something that talked about how splinter psyche can actually be a gift.”

Unger (left) with Karin Slaughter, Kate White, Gilly Macmillan, and Carol Goodman.

Unger researched more about the condition and learned that this form of multiple personality disorder can be an effective survival tool, a way for someone to almost compartmentalize trauma. And that research led to a more chilling question—if the stronger psyche takes over in order to help a trauma victim heal, what happens to that psyche when it’s no longer needed?

That’s the question Rain Winter must grapple with in THE STRANGER INSIDE, a story about a successful suburban mom with a dark childhood secret that is unearthed when a brutal murderer who escaped justice is found dead.

If that sounds a bit vague, it’s meant to be. THE STRANGER INSIDE is one of those kinds of books that revealing too much of the plot would spoil the story—each reveal exposes another layer of suspense, until the shocking end, in which Unger leaves no question as to her tremendous command of the craft.

Unger (middle) at ThrillerFest with Abby Endler and J. T. Ellison.

The story—which dives deep into the psyche of victims who have experienced unfathomable trauma—is not only timely, it taps into a subject matter Unger is keen to address.

“We’ve been watching the second season of Mindhunter and talking about why there is so much time dedicated to these men that kill, and very little time on the victims,” she says. “There is a tendency to want to turn away from the victims’ stories, because when we read about them, we feel so eviscerated and devastated.”

Unger (second from left) with Daniel Palmer, Nadine Nettmann, and Lou Berney.

Unger doesn’t shy from those emotions in THE STRANGER INSIDE, but fans of her work won’t be surprised.

“This is not new territory for me,” she says. “I’ve always been fascinated with how people survive extreme circumstances. Why some people become heroes…and some go the other way.”

As she learned, it’s not something that can be explained by simple genetics—it relies on a very complicated network of factors. In other words, there’s no easy answer to why some people become killers. Just as there’s no one way to “heal.”

Lisa Unger
Photo credit: Jay Nolan

It’s that lack of formula—unlike Unger’s mantra for success—that propels the story forward with hair-raising suspense. The twists and turns are authentic, because Unger doesn’t plot her novels. She simply begins with an idea, waits for the voices to start talking, and then gets to work.

“Writing is never a chore for me,” she says. “I don’t get frustrated. If I’m present for the work, then I know it’s the best work I can do.”

With 18 novels now to her credit—a half dozen of them hitting the New York Times bestseller list and all garnering well-deserved praise—Unger is proof positive that her formula works. THE STRANGER INSIDE is her most compelling and chilling novel to date.

Dawn Ius
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