Lisa Unger Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Lisa Unger
Photo: Tanya Sharkey

Lisa Unger

An interview with Lisa Unger

Lisa Unger talks about her first book, Beautiful Lies, a thriller in which a woman discovers she is not who she thinks she is.

What elements of the story come from your own experience living in New York City?

For me and for most fiction writers, I think, it is true to say that everything and nothing in my work is autobiographical. As much as the plot, the events, and the characters are purely from my imagination, of course all of these things are an amalgamation of my experiences, relationships, observations, literary influences, etc.

In the case of Beautiful Lies, however, much of the setting has been mined from my own history. The apartment where Ridley lives is an exact recall of my first New York City apartment in the East Village. She stands where I stood many a morning trying to hail a cab when she first spots Justin Wheeler. Places like Five Roses and Veniero's are real places in that neighborhood and places that I have loved. The streets she walks, the subways and taxis are all from my direct experience. I have had a love affair with the city most of my life. But it wasn't until after I'd left there, that all the beauty of it came back to me. I know that place better than I know any other. For me it lives and breathes; I can hear it and smell it and feel its rhythm when I write about it.

Is Ridley like you (or unlike you) in any way?

I think Ridley is more like me that any other character who has visited me, without being exactly like me. In many ways she is more sheltered and naïve that I am, has had a more picture-perfect upbringing … or so she thought. She's a bit of a commitment-phobe, which I have never been. I'm not sure I would have made some of the choices she makes along the way in Beautiful Lies. But a good deal of her observations are similar to my own … her reflections on life, love, sex and what defines a family are things with which I might agree if the questions were posed to me.

Is there an anecdote you can share about coming up with the story?

The idea for Beautiful Lies came to me in the mail. I received one of those postcards with the face of a missing child on the back. It was one of those age graduated pictures that tells you the child has been missing for years, no answer to what happened to her ever discovered. I'd received them before, of course, and the awful mystery of it has always stopped me in my tracks, imagining what might have happened. While staring at this particular photo, I asked a question: What if I looked at one of these postcards and recognized myself? From there, the story just spun out.

What is your writing process like?

Most of my novels began with a question like I mentioned above. A “what if…” that builds and builds on itself. Or I might just hear a voice, someone with a story to tell. It could be a news story I read, or a sentence I hear or just an image that inspires me. And then I write. I write without an outline and without knowing exactly where the story is going. Sometimes I have a vague idea about certain events but generally speaking I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to know what's going to happen. If I knew the ending it would suck all the life out of the process for me.

What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you reading now?

For most writers, their first love is reading. And I have been an avid reader all my life. Once I became a professional writer, I lost that love a little bit. It has been hard in recent years to read fiction without reading critically … and by that I mean without studying what I'm reading, thinking “oh, that didn't work!” or “why didn't I write that?!” I miss the way I use to easily lose myself in a great book. Today, I know when I do lose myself that I'm in the presence of a master. And I so appreciate and respect that.

These days I find myself reading a lot of non-fiction. I just finished Devil in the White City, a really intelligent and compelling tapestry of American history and true crime. I recently read Stiff by Mary Roach which I found horrifying and positively riveting. There are things I read in that book that I wish I didn't know. But I loved it!

What writers have most influenced you?

Hmm … that's a tough one. If you asked me who my favorite writers are, I would say: Truman Capote, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Irving, Ayn Rand, Keri Hulme, Tolstoy, Tolkein … the list would go on and on. Can I say that I've been influenced by these people? I suppose in certain ways, in that their works were what first inspired me to write. It was somewhere in those novels that I realized if I can read, if I can imagine, I can create worlds. I love the combination of terrible beauty, the lovely sadness and grim reality in Capote, the magical realism where the extraordinary, the supernatural dwell side by side with the mundane in Marquez. I admire the human folly and depth of emotion in Irving, the sheer brilliance and epic scope of Rand. I could never compare myself to these titans except to say that I aspire. Their talent has been a lifelong-inspiration.

My favorite people writing thrillers today would have to be Dennis Lehane and John Connelly. Again, I wouldn't say I've been influenced by either of them. But I will say that I admire the way they each seamlessly blend brilliant plotting, riveting characterization, and simply gorgeous prose. There aren't many people writing that well, mastering all the elements of great suspense.

What's next for Ridley?

A. She's got a long road ahead of her, I think. When I closed the book on her, I really thought we were done. But I have since realized that there's a good deal more to say. Let's just say our Ridley's not one to let the dead lie. There will be a sequel to Beautiful Lies. At this writing, it's entitled Ghost.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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