Pen Pal Interview with Lisa Unger
First of all, your book is AMAZING! I loved it so much that I didn’t want it to end. The characters were so well-drawn and the tension! So, for my first question:
In THE STRANGER INSIDE, Rain struggles with what she sees as two conflicting desires: to be a good mother and to successfully pursue a career. Is this a struggle that you’ve had as a mother and successful author, and do you think society still puts unfair pressure on women to be the primary caregiver in the family?
Thank you so much for all the kind words about THE STRANGER INSIDE! I’m so glad you loved it. I’m deep into THE LAST MRS. PARRISH and it’s twisty, smart, and totally engrossing. I’m hooked.
Rain Winter is a former investigative journalist, turned stay-at-home mom. She left her career behind for a number of reasons—she wanted to be present for her child, the injustice she saw in the world was grinding her down, and it was an agreement in her marriage that someone should be a full-time parent. But the work she chose was meaningful to her; it defined her. And she chose it because she was looking for answers to dark questions from her own childhood trauma. So, when the work calls her back, she finds it impossible to resist. However, her adoration for and commitment to her daughter Lily has not diminished. So, she engages in a fairly chaotic—and in her case dangerous—juggling act.
Of course, nothing in fiction is autobiographical—and everything is! I do relate to this struggle, as I’m sure will any mom who has an involving career. Before my daughter was born, nothing ever rivaled my desire to write. But when she was small, the conflict was painful. When I was with her, I was often worried about deadlines, and the pressures of the publishing world. When I was writing, I often just wanted to be with her. But, with the help of my husband, I found my way, learned to work around her schedule, be present when she needed me, be present for the work during the scheduled time. I have always been a writer. And I love being a fully-engaged mother. Those are two big, all-consuming, creative enterprises. So, even though the juggling act can be quite stressful, I feel blessed to have two things that I love so much. (And my poor husband! I love him, too! And he’s my partner in this and in all things.)
I think there is external pressure—this idea that not only can we have it all, but, in fact, we MUST have it all. I know I put a lot of pressure on myself, as well, holding myself to impossible standards and then face-planting. I think it’s all slowly changing. Women are making choices. Leaning in, maybe, or choosing to stay home, if they have that option. Finding balance, supporting each other, relying on spouses, if they’re fortunate enough to have that kind of marriage. At ALA last year in New Orleans, I heard Michelle Obama speak and she said something that made a lot of sense to me: You can have it all, just maybe not at the same time.
In THE LAST MRS. PARRISH and THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU, you dive in deep to twisting, complicated female relationships. (And I know you write with your sister, which must be twisty and complicated—at least some of the time!) What fascinates you most about the dynamics between women?
Female friendships have always been emphasized in my family. I remember my mother admonishing me to never lose touch with my girlfriends and stressing the importance of these close relationships. I think in some ways the intimacies we share with our close women friends can be at times even greater than those we share with our partners. Women have such an amazing capacity for supporting and empowering each other while at the same time, the ability to do the complete opposite when rivalry is at play.
In THE LAST MRS. PARRISH we wanted to explore the ways in which the lack of a close female friendship could make someone vulnerable to a predatory female while at the same time turning the idea of the man being the prize on its head. Daphne has a great void in her life—the loss of her sister who was her best friend. When Amber comes on the scene and pretends to have also experienced the same loss, it bonds the women and makes Daphne blind at first to Amber’s manipulations. In THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU we delve into the dynamics of a broken friendship and how those wounds never fully heal, exploring whether or not you can truly forgive someone who has deeply hurt you and if a friendship can be repaired and restored. The relationship between Kate and her mother Lily is also one the book examines and how that foundational relationship influences the way Kate sees herself as a mother.
My sister Valerie and I are extremely close even though fourteen years separate us. Fortunately, the most complicated aspect is just syncing our schedules. As we now approach our fifth book together, we’ve developed a sort of ESP where we can anticipate what the other is going to say, or both come out with the exact idea at the same time. We joke that we might be turning into one person.
Another aspect of relationships that it seems all of our writing encompasses is trauma. In THE STRANGER INSIDE three best friends’ lives are forever changed by a single incident. Despite Hank and Rain surviving, they are never able to recapture the closeness they once had, a source of heartbreak for both of them. What do you think it is that allows some survivors of a joint trauma to emerge more bonded than before while for others it essentially ruptures the relationship?
Even though I don’t have a sister—and what a special relationship you have with yours!—my female friends, colleagues, and mentors have always held such an important space in my life. I value that closeness and support, that special way women have of tag-teaming problems, supporting each other through the rough patches, and celebrating successes. It’s a theme I touch on a bit in UNDER MY SKIN in the relationship between Poppy and Layla, life-long friends that are as close as sisters, there for each other in a way that their families can’t be. Their relationship was forged in childhood—but of course there’s another side to that, too.
In THE STRANGER INSIDE, Hank and Lara have that special bond of childhood friendship until extreme trauma tears them apart. When Tess and Lara (later in the book, she calls herself Rain), are attacked by a violent, mentally ill man, Hank tries to save them. Rain escapes, but Hank and Tess do not. Tess doesn’t make it home at all, and Hank returns altered by his experiences. One of the many losses of that day, as you say, is their friendship.
Extreme trauma is a crucible. And every person reacts to its pressures differently. It makes some people stronger; it tears other people apart. The psyche might split—Jung calls this a “splinter psyche”— stronger aspects of the self emerging to protect weaker. Hank and Lara have dissimilar experiences that dark day, and their responses are not the same. Lara seeks to forget. Hank can’t move on. It’s those different responses to trauma that sunder their friendship, rather than the trauma itself. And, yet, they remain bound by what happened—though not in a healthy way.
My research into psychology, biology, trauma, and addiction is ongoing. Questions about the human psyche, and what makes us who we are is a bit of an obsession for me. I’m constantly reading, watching, listening, learning. If I weren’t a writer digging deep into these subjects, I’d probably be a psychiatrist. What type of research do you do for your novels? Do you have any obsessions that you find yourself exploring again and again in your work?
I feel the same way about how fascinating the human psychological makeup can be. My undergraduate degree is in Human Development and for a long time I thought I wanted to be a therapist. My favorite class in college was Abnormal Psychology, and I find myself continually drawn to research on personality disorders and the complex factors that contribute to the way we relate to others and how we react to situations. It was only after I examined my own subconscious drivers and became more in touch with who I was that I decided I didn’t want to spend my life listening to other people’s problems. So, now I spend my life creating problems for my characters! I am a bit obsessed with understanding sociopathic behavior and drawn to writing characters with varying degrees of sociopathy. I do a lot of reading on the subject and interview a good friend of mine who has a Ph.D. in psychology to make sure the profiles I create are authentic. I find the more flawed the character, the more I enjoy writing him or her.
In your writing, do your characters drive the trajectory of the story and do they surprise you, or do you know from the beginning the path they will take and how the story will develop?
All plot flows from character. Each story begins with a germ—it might be a news story, or a line of poetry, a photograph. In one case, it was a piece of junk mail. This germ usually leads to some kind of an obsession with a topic, a swath of research. And, then the best way I can explain it is that if all of that connects with something deeper going on within me, I start to hear a voice or voices, and I follow those voices through the narrative. I write without an outline. I don’t know who is going to show up day-to-day, and I don’t know what they’re going to do. I certainly don’t know how the book is going to end. I write for the same reason that I read—because I want to know what is going to happen to the people living in my head.
I’ve always been fascinated about how writers work together on a book. How does it go for you and your sister?
We work in a manner similar to you in that we start with a basic idea—sometimes we know the twist from the start as with THE LAST MRS. PARRISHand other times it begins with a theme. We don’t outline but rather write our way into the story. After we’ve developed the setting, characters and basic story, we assign each other scenes and email them to each other every day. We FaceTime in the afternoon and discuss what’s been written and give each other our marching orders for the next day. We often don’t know the ending and in THE LAST TIME I SAW YOU, the killer changed in the third round of revisions. We also brainstorm quite a bit and often an idea that was thrown out as a joke turns out to be something we end up pursuing. It’s a very fun collaboration and we’re both continually surprised by where our characters take us.
This has been so much fun! I look forward to when we can sit across from each other and have a conversation in person!
Me, too! Hopefully over martinis!
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