Sunday, July 18, 2010

Read This Book: Fragile by Lisa Unger

Lisa Unger is an award-winning New York Times, USA Today and international bestselling author. Her novels have been published in over 26 countries and Fragile, her addictive newest, has just been chosen by Good Morning America as one of the "Top Book Picks for Great Summer Reading." I'm thrilled Lisa agreed to answer my questions.

You’re known for tense literary thrillers, but Fragile is something different. Was this a conscious decision (and if so, why?) and if not, when did you realize you were writing something so different?

It really wasn’t a conscious decision. Not much about my process is. Most of my novels start with a voice, and in this case it was Maggie. We first meet her in a moment when she is feeling the loss of her son—not in any tragic way. It’s in that normal way that we say goodbye to our children every day, as they grow and change into someone new. In a moment of conflict with her teenager, she’s missing the loving little boy he was -- even as much as she loves the person he has become. So it was her voice, her story, that brought me into The Hollows. Once I was there, I was meeting different types of people than I had met before. And their experiences, there way of telling was unlike other character I have known.

As much as Fragile is a departure from the novels that came before it, it felt like a very natural evolution of my writing. I think I was halfway into it before I knew I had moved in another direction, and when I realized what the book was really about.

You’ve said in your author’s notes, that “a lifetime ago, a girl that I knew went missing” and you’ve been trying to write this novel for 20 years. Why do you think this one was so hard to write? Was it finding the voice? Or the story? Or was it not having the right understanding of what had happened?

It wasn’t that the story was hard to write, necessarily. (Though the subject matter is hard to take.) It’s more that I wasn’t writer enough to do it. I learned with Fragile that you can have ambitions to tell a story and not have the talent or the skill to tell it well. It took me eight novels to learn what I needed to learn—about myself, about the craft—to write this book.

This story has turned up in partials over the years, with voices very different from those that eventually allowed me to access it. So, I suppose it was about voice, too. And it was interesting that it took older, more mature people with distance from the tragedy to make sense of it. I don’t think I realized until I wrote this novel how greatly I was impacted by the real life event upon which the book is (very loosely) based. In other words, I think I had to grow up a little to meet the people who would eventually be able to tell this story.

Fragile is about the fragile bonds of community, but I also think it’s about the fragility of memory—what we choose to remember and what we are desperate to forget, perhaps. Would you agree with this?

I would very much agree with that. In fact, I’d say it’s more about the latter than the former. My own memories of what happened are scattered and dream-like. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, what happened when. I purposely did nothing to alter that, because I didn’t want to resurrect ugly memories for anyone, or cause any more pain. What I do remember clearly is how I felt—lost, terrified, disbelieving that someone I knew could be abducted and murdered.

But I think that’s true of most childhood memories. They take on this mythic quality. They’re misty and vague, but they play a gigantic role in how we define ourselves. Some we hold on to, replay over and over. Others we tamp down, try to forget. In both cases, they have a hold on how we think about the past, the present, and the future. And Fragile is definitely about the impact of memory. Most of the characters are struggling with lost selves, hidden selves, former selves they can’t escape and events they don’t want to remember but can’t move past.

What I also loved about this novel was the complexity of all the relationships, from husband and wife to boyfriend and girlfriends. Do you think we can ever really know the ones we love?

It’s an interesting question. This is a theme I explore over and over in my work.

People are complex, different from moment to moment, depending on circumstances. Jones is probably the best example of this. In The Hollows, he’s beloved, the trusted and respected town cop. He’s a different man as a father. He’s a good, but sometimes distant husband. He was another person again as a son. And he has an ugliness in his past that he has allowed to consume him—a secret he has kept from everyone. Does his wife Maggie really know him? Does his son? Not all of him. But that doesn’t make what they do know of him any less true.

Jones may have been angry and resentful with his mother, but loving and compassionate with his wife. Maybe he’s harsh with his son, but gentle with a boy he’s rescuing from a well. All of these facets of him are authentic…but we have to look at the complete picture to know the real man. And in real life, we may never have the opportunity. We do know the people we love, the people with whom we share our lives. But we only really know the people they are with us. Under other circumstances, with other people, they may be someone totally unrecognizable.

I’m fascinated by process, so can you tell me something about how you wrote this novel? Do you outline things out?

I don’t outline. When a book begins, usually with a character voice, I have no idea what’s going to happen, who’s going to show up, what they’re going to do day to day. And I certainly have no idea how things will end. It’s kind of a crazy way to write a book, but I’ve never done it any other way. I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to know what’s going to happen.

Plot flows from character. And until you get to know your characters, you don’t have any idea what’s going on with them, what they’ll do in any given circumstance. And you can’t get to know them unless you write. You can write a whole novel, just as you can life a whole life, just getting to know the people who populate it. One of my favorite quotes about process is from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

What is obsessing you now in your writing?

I have some on-going obsessions. The themes of memory, identity, and family secrets continue to loom large. My latest obsession is faith—which is also not-so-coincidentally the working title of my next novel. How does faith or a lack thereof affect our decisions, our ability to face death. In Fragile, I touch a little bit on the idea of psychic phenomenon and its role in crime solving. In Faith, I explore that a bit more.

And I’m still in The Hollows. I’m a little obsessed with that place, too. The whole idea of the small town, quiet, idyllic on its surface, and the depths beneath full of secrets and dark memories. Come to think of it, that’s another on-going obsession of mine … it’s just playing out in The Hollows at the moment.

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