Q&A with Lisa Unger

The author of Beautiful Lies talks about inspiration and her New York nostalgia

This interview contains spoilers – please read at your own discretion.

Chatelaine: Could you tell us a bit about your background – how did you become a writer?
Lisa Unger: I’ve been a writer all my life; I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing something. After college, I got a job in the PR department of a publishing company in New York. As the years went by, I kept getting sucked up the corporate ladder. Then I had an epiphany that basically everything I was doing was wrong. I was in a really good job – a fun job – but it wasn’t something that I loved. I didn’t want to look at myself in 10 years and say, “You never tried being a writer.” I started writing every day and it took me a year to finish my first novel. It was my secret life – I worked in publishing by day, but I was really a writer.

I headed down to Key West on vacation to visit a friend and that’s where I met my husband. It was a love at first sight kind of thing. Four months later he proposed; we both quit our corporate jobs and moved to Florida. Before I left New York, I sent my manuscript to five choice publishers. I was lucky enough to get signed on by an agent. I sold my first book a few months after that.

CH: What inspired the plot for Beautiful Lies?
LU: My husband and I were talking about having kids and I started thinking about what it meant to be to be a parent – what I wanted to bring from my past and what to leave behind. I got one of those missing children postcards in the mail. I thought, ‘What if I recognized myself on the back of one of those cards?’ That was the point when Beautiful Lies sprung out of my head.

CH: Was it nostalgic for you to write about New York and recall places you loved there?
LU: I lived there for over 13 years – it was the only place I wanted to live! It’s the best city in the world, but it takes all your money, all your energy to live there. I was burned out and I sort of left without looking back.

After two years, especially after I started writing, all the things I loved about New York came back to me. I lived in Ridley’s apartment in the East Village – it’s where I lived when I went to college. Both [my real apartment and Ridley’s fictional one] had shoddy construction. The Five Roses [pizzeria downstairs from Ridley’s apartment] is real. All of that stuff came flooding back. I love New York, I love to be there. But I’m living at the beach right now and it’s pretty great.

CH: You’ve said: “If I knew the ending it would suck all the life out of the process for me.” Do you really have no idea how a book will end while you’re writing it? Have you ever surprised yourself?
LU: I surprise myself every day! I really don’t have any idea where I’m going. I get a vague, nebulous feeling about where [the book] is going, but there’s no actual outline or scenes or characters – they just sort of show up. So much of the process feels unconscious for me. The characters show up just like people in your life. I’m not the best person to talk about process, I have no idea how I work. The characters definitely do take on a life of their own, though.

CH: Did you ever want to shake Ridley and say, “Just trust the police!” For example, after Christian Luna is shot sitting right next to her, I wanted to jump in there and take her to the station.
LU: Yeah, I know. With [Ridley’s] reaction to that scene, I felt like she would probably be sort of stunned – especially in the quiet, with no loud explosions and no mad assailant rushing past. When you see violence in the movies, it’s so loud and there are so many sound effects. It’s almost impossible to get your head around the concept of horrible violence that can be so quiet.

CH: How is the sequel coming along? Can you elaborate on what’s next for Ridley?
LU: It’s done. It’s called Sliver of Truth and it’s slated for release in the US and Canada in early 2007. When I closed the book on Ridley I thought she was OK. I thought she was done, that she didn’t need more drama in her life. Then I realized that the journey back to a normal life wasn’t going to be easy and the relationship with Jake just couldn’t go well and I sort of got back into it.

CH: Do you enjoy other suspense writers?
LU: I think some of the best people writing today are writing crime fiction. I like Lee Child author of the Jack Reacher series, Irish writer John Connolly, Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith writes these quietly kind of disturbing, really dark, simple tales about people. I just read This Sweet Sickness about a man who’s in love with a married woman – she’s a great writer. She has her finger on the pulse of the dark side of the mundane.