Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lisa Unger talks about Heartbroken, storyworld, her obsession with the psychic, and so much more

I had one of the best times ever sitting at Le Pain Quotidian in Chelsea with Lisa Unger. She's funny, smart, and so engaging, I really wanted her to start checking out New York city real estate so she could come live here.  An award-winning New York Times and international bestselling author, her novels have sold over 1 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 26 different languages. Her writing has been hailed as “masterful” (St. Petersburg Times), “sensational” (Publishers Weekly) and “sophisticated” (New York Daily News) with “gripping narrative and evocative, muscular prose” (Associated Press.) The only thing that would thrill me more than hosting her on my blog would be to have her come to lunch again with me! Thank you, Lisa!

You're known for the tense psychological grip your novels hold on readers. Can you talk about your techniques for this? Do you plan out your stories in advance or does some of the tension just come to you?

I’m the worst person to talk to about technique, because I write for the same reason that I read. I want to know what’s going to happen. When I sit down to write a novel, I only hear a character voice, or see a scene in my head. I never know what my book will be about, who will show up, or what those characters will do day to day. So there’s no
know what my book will be about, who will show up, or what those characters will do day to day. So there’s no plan, really. But I’m always in suspense, in the grip of the drama playing out in the lives of my characters. So hopefully I can pass along that tension, that suspense, that passion to my readers. 

The novel has three really indelible women in it. One of the women, Kate, writes a novel, based on her grandmother and aunt's journals about a tragedy. Do you feel that everything is material for a writer or that some stories should be kept secret--and why? (I loved one of the lines: It was her story, not theirs.)

The page is where I exorcise all my demons. It’s where I answer my questions about the world, about myself, about the things that frighten and pain me. I am all over the page, even though my work is purely fiction. There is almost no autobiography to the stories, the characters. And yet I exist in every word. (I talk more extensively about this in two recent blogs, The Truth About Fiction and The Truth About Fiction, Part Two found at:

If something is affecting me, living in me, I don’t suppose it’s any surprise that it winds up on the page. But it’s not intentional. If we’re living and writing authentically, where we are allowing our experiences to change our lives, and our lives to inform our fiction, then everything we feel, dream, know and imagine is going to find its way into the work. If I were to censor or question that, I might limit my growth and honesty as a writer.growth and honesty as a writer.

I always talk to my UCLA students about storyworld--how the setting of their novels should have its own dramatic arc and change as the characters do. You've done this gorgeously in Heartbroken with Heart Island (I also loved the play on words with the title). Why choose this Lake? What did it mean to you specifically? 

Thank you for that. I do consider the island to be a kind of character in this story. It has a history, a personality. It does change and grow in the story. 

In many ways, Heart Island, which is a totally fictional island in a fictional lake, is an allegory for family. Emily, Birdie, and Kate are all connected to this place, and they are each either there or headed there for very personal reasons. Everyone wants something from HEART ISLAND; it means something different to each of them. But Heart Island is a fiction, a dream each of them has. And they’ll all be crashed upon the rocks of its reality. So often this is true of family. We want so much from it, but ultimately it can only be what it is. The contrast is often stark and painful.

I also loved the idea of memories and ghosts that filter through this novel. Do you think we can ever escape our past? 

Most of us aren’t living in the present tense. Every moment is a messy twist of what we remember, what we are experiencing now, and what we expect, hope, or dread for the future. We are haunted in a sense by what has come before. I think the intention to dwell in the now, shedding the past, and not thinking about the future, is an important one. But, no. I don’t think we can escape our past – any more than we can escape our genetics. We can accept it, forgive it, move on from it, learn not to act from a place of pain relating to it. But it’s always with us.

What's obsessing you now?

I am currently obsessed with psychic phenomenon, the childhood behavior of psychopaths, and the genetic roots of violence. I tend to get obsessed with certain dark non-fiction topics, and spend a lot of time buried in books. Those ideas often wind up figuring largely into my fiction. I am not sure if the story inspires the obsession, or if the obsession inspires the story. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You should have asked when you would be invited to come to Florida and hang out in my tiki hut! I’ve been doing a series of videos with authors and other book lovers, where they sit in my tiki hut and talk about books. I call it: Tiki Talk! The answer is: You have a standing invitation.

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