Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Lisa Unger

Lisa Unger is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author. Her books are published in 26 languages, with millions of copies sold worldwide. In 2019, she received two Edgar Award nominations, an honor held by only a few writers including Agatha Christie. Her work has been named on "Best Book" lists from Today, People, GMA, EW, Amazon, IndieBound and many others. She has written for the NYT, WSJ, NPR, and Travel+Leisure. Netflix is currently making her 2020 book Confessions on the 7:45 into a series starring Jessica Alba. She lives in Florida with her family.

Unger's new novel is Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Titling a book may be more difficult than actually writing one. (Well, not really.) But I have loved titles that wound up on the cutting room floor in favor of something that I loved less but made more sense for the book. (The Stranger Inside was originally The Nightjar.) I have slapped a working title on a manuscript, thinking I’d have time to come up with something better, only to have an editor fall in love with it. (Beautiful Lies) Sometimes it’s collaborative, lots of emails back and forth until someone comes up with an idea that makes everyone go “Aha!” For example, Confessions on the 7:45 was originally Black Butterfly. After a lot of back-and-forth, it was my editor who came up with Confessions on the 7:45 – which may be one of my all-time favorites.

For Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six, all the credit goes to Margaret Marbury, VP of Editorial at Park Row. This one was a little painful. Originally, it was Blow Your House Down and I was weirdly attached to it, though you’d think I’d know better by now. But everybody – my editor, my agent, my husband, even my mother -- loved Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six. Everyone except for me! But over the years I have come to understand that the title of a book falls less in the area of the author and more in the area of the marketing department. So, I deferred to the judgement of people I trust, and it slowly started to grow on me. Now I can’t go a day without hearing what a fabulous title it is. And it really does capture the vibe of the book. So now I love it, too!

What's in a name?

A long time ago I stopped thinking of characters as people I create and started thinking of them as people that I meet. That’s not the whole truth of it, but it is how I experience the process. So, there’s no real choosing, or baby name books, or naming characters after this one or that. They just arrived as Eloise or Jones, Ian or Lana. Like anyone you would meet, right?

Over the years, I have agreed to auction off a character name in a book to benefit a charity. I struggled with this. It was difficult to have the name first and find someone in the novel who didn’t already have one. Another time, I agreed to name a cat in my book after the cat of a charitable person who’d donated some money to a worthy cause. I even struggled with that. And then when bad things happened to that cat (Don’t worry! It didn’t die! I know you can’t kill the cat!) I felt kind of bad. But, also, I found it a little funny. I no longer auction off character or cat names.

Once I had to change a character’s name for legal reasons. It was torture. And I never stopped thinking about the character by her original name.

All of this is to say that my work is deeply unconscious and internal. Things that might seem like choices, and are in some ways, don’t feel like choices to me. And trying to work in a way that is not organic – like inserting names where they don’t belong – destabilizes the creative process. Not that there’s anything stable about the creative process.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Wow. Very. First of all, my father told me that people didn’t write for a living, and I should, instead of making up stories all the time, focus some attention on what kind of a real job I could possibly get after college. So, I think she would have been shocked that I’ve gotten as far as I have with this writing thing. Also, I think she would have raised an eyebrow to find I was writing crime fiction. My teenage reader self was a literary omnivore, reading wildly across genre from Stephen King to Charlotte and Emily Brontë, from Jane Austen to Robert Heinlein, to VC Andrews, to Truman Capote. Anything big and purple and gothic, doorways into another universe of time and place. I didn’t choose crime fiction. It chose me.

When I published my first novel in 2002, a reviewer wrote that she enjoyed the fact that I was a young writer and that my characters had a youthful sensibility. (I think it was a compliment?) I was thirty-something at the time, but I had started writing that novel, Angel Fire, when I was 19. This year, I turned 52. And I have had the rare opportunity to grow up on the page in front of my readers. Every book is very personal, the place where I grapple with my questions about life and people and what makes us all tick. There hasn’t been a year in my adult life where I wasn’t working on a novel. So maybe she’d be surprised by how much each novel has to say about my life at the time of its writing, and hopefully by how much better we are than when we started.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Everything in fiction is autobiographical and nothing is. Every character is an amalgamation of my thoughts, ideas, observations, people I know, things I’ve overheard, slivers of myself. There might be pieces of me in any of my characters. Some of them are total strangers. Some I fall in love with. Some, even though I have empathy for them or may be compelled by them, I don’t like very much at all. A few of them stay with me and turn up again and again in novels and short stories, their stories progressing a little each time.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music is a big part of my process. If I’m stuck in my novel, a good long walk or a workout just listening to my various playlists usually does the trick. Travel; whole books have been inspired by places I have visited. Living an authentic life. Paying attention when people tell me their stories. Eavesdropping on conversations that don’t involve me. Film and television, of course. Any form of artistic expression can fuel inspiration. I am often very moved in museums, just immersing myself in the creative work of visual artists. Personal struggles, questions about life and people. The news. Podcasts. What doesn’t serve as inspiration, really? I can’t think of a single thing!
Visit Lisa Unger's website.

--Marshal Zeringue