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Lisa Unger

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LISA UNger

The best-selling author will sign copies of her new book, "Heartbroken," at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Once Upon a Crime, 604 W. 26th St., Mpls.

Thriller writer plumbs the dark side

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL
  • Star Tribune
  • June 24, 2012 - 4:14 PM

Lisa Unger is one of the few women to first break into the genre of thrillers, then to dominate it. Her books appear regularly on bestseller lists, have sold more than a million copies in the United States and have been translated into 26 languages. Her seventh novel, "Heartbroken," will be published Tuesday -- the same day Unger will be at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis for a book-signing. She divides her time between New York City and Florida.

She took time to talk to us about her writing rituals, Truman Capote and why she compares herself to a girl in a horror movie.

Q Describe your writing room.

A My writing room is a little space off the master bedroom. Since we moved into this house, the room has had many incarnations -- music room, workout room. But now it's mine. The walls are mottled golden sage, good colors for creativity. The back wall is glass looking out onto boats and palm trees, a pool and tiki hut -- lots of blues and greens and whites. I think of this space as my little hobbit hole, small and cozy, full of books and little items that I love, gifts from my daughter and husband, and a wall of photographs. I am happy and comfortable there, and free to write.

Q What is your writing strategy -- do you have rituals that you maintain?

A I'm not one for rituals. Rituals are an excuse not to write. It's almost like saying if things don't go exactly as I want them to, I won't work today. And as a mom, I don't have the luxury of being persnickety. I get to my desk as early as possible, and get to work. It's best not to be too fancy or romantic about it. Yes, inspiration is tricky and slippery, but I can always count on the craft, and a good work ethic, to bolster me when the muse is elusive.

Q How do you get past writers' block (or the distraction of the Internet)?

A I don't believe in writers' block. I think that's just fear, or perfectionism. In "The Lie That Tells a Truth," author John Dufresne says that writers' block is you wanting to write well right now. But sometimes all you have to do is write. Perfection -- or hopefully something close -- comes in revision.

Now, the Internet -- there's a creativity killer. If you let it, it will just suck you right in, and eat all your hours like a hungry little gremlin. Turn it off! I have a brilliant program called Freedom. I set a timer, and it blocks the Internet for the hours I plan to write. Doing this has the effect of setting an intention. I'm announcing to myself: I came here to write and nothing else.

Q Do you have a favorite book from childhood?

A I have always been a literary omnivore, and a voracious reader, never discriminating in any way -- so I read across genre from classic fiction to science fiction. My parents always read to me, but those early childhood books are not the ones I remember. "Jane Eyre" was an early favorite. "Rebecca" was my first Gothic thriller. I love every word Truman Capote has ever written -- from "Music for Chameleons" to "Breakfast at Tiffany's." But it was "In Cold Blood" that had the biggest impact on me as a writer.

Q What books do you reread?

A "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand and "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez are books that I have reread at different times in my life. They are both epic, sweeping works of literature, so multifaceted. Every time I go back, they seem different, and I take away different things.

Q What's on your desk?

A There's my notebook (with longhand pages that I'll enter into the manuscript I'm working on) and a crooked pile of books: "Tracking & the Art of Seeing" by Paul Rezendes, "Savage Spawn" by Jonathan Kellerman, "The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain," and others. There's a picture of my daughter, and some of her creations -- a painted rock, a heart-shaped pottery box, one of her drawings. I have a shell, a small geode, a magic crystal, a tiny obsidian owl, a jar of sea glass and shark teeth. A pink bobblehead cat, a gift from my daughter, nods as I write ... very affirming. All of these objects mean something to me, and each of them makes me happy in its own special way.

Q Where are you right now? Describe what you see.

A See questions 1 and 6! One thing I didn't mention is that, above my computer screen, hangs the framed cover of my first novel, and a color copy of the first check I ever received for my fiction. I keep it there to remind myself of how far I have come since then, and that for all the highs and lows in the life of an author, it's about the journey, not the destination.

Q What are you reading right now?

A My fiction love affair right now is with "The Game of Thrones" series by George R.R. Martin. I'm knee-deep in Book Four, "A Feast for Crows." It's simply a brilliant work of storytelling, character development and dream weaving. I'm in awe.

Q What's been the best place so far to do a reading?

A I have favorite stores, of course: Murder by the Book in Houston, and Murder on the Beach in Delray Beach, Fla., the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. But I am a big fan of the Friends of the Library functions. I love speaking at libraries that loop in a bookstore to sell copies at the event. It's an important union of readers, booksellers, libraries and authors. I hear amazing things about Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis, so I'm very excited to be visiting there to launch "Heartbroken."

Q Which authors have inspired you?

A I think some of the best people writing today are writing crime fiction. Authors like Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Kate Atkinson, George Pelecanos and Karin Slaughter are people who perpetually reach and push themselves as writers. They get better and stronger with each outing.

Q You write thrillers -- a genre dominated by men. What draws you to this kind of story?

A I didn't choose to write thrillers any more than I chose to write in the first place. I don't remember a time before I defined myself as a writer. And I don't remember a time before I had an insatiable curiosity about the dark side of life and human nature. I am the girl in the horror movie, heading down the basement stairs while the audience is yelling "No! Get out of the house! Don't go down there!" I can't help myself. And if the genre is dominated by men, there are also some tremendous female writers doing great work and topping the bestseller lists: Tess Gerritsen, Lisa Gardner, Karin Slaughter, Laura Lippman and Sue Grafton, to name just a few.

Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302

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