Message From The Author
Lisa Gardner Unplugged
SUSPENSE AUTHOR OPENS UP ABOUT LIFE, WRITING AND RESEARCH
By Allison Brennan
Writers are readers first. One of my favorite authors is Lisa Gardner. I was absolutely thrilled to interview her about her career and her 23rd book, Say Goodbye (Jul., Bantam).
I did have a major fan girl moment as I conducted the interview cell phone to cell phone one Friday afternoon, Lisa on the East Coast, myself on the West Coast. I may have squealed just a bit when she answered the phone with a calm and confident voice. (I can't believe I'm talking to Lisa Gardner!) Immediately I apologized.
I was supposed to call the day before. But I was in the middle of buying a house and when my lender said jump, I jumped all the way over to Kinko's to copy 250 pages of contracts and wasn't at home when my computer beeped to remind me to call Lisa.
Fortunately, Lisa is a class act and didn't send her SWAT friends to snipe at me.
After I got over my fan girl moment, I began the interview portion of the program. Starting with, "I can't believe you sold your first novel in college! I am such a slacker."
True, Lisa sold her debut novel while still in college, the first of 13 Silhouette Intimate Moments she penned as Alicia Scott, beginning in 1992.
"I was drawn to category romance because that was what I read," she says. "It took me two years to finish my first manuscript, then another two years to sell it. My revisions were so extensive, only the characters' names stayed the same."
And like most writers, Lisa had a dream. "I thought someday I would stay home with my kids and be a full-time writer. In the short term, however, given that I like to eat, I needed to get a corporate job after college. It didn't take me long to realize I didn't like being a management consultant, however, and I'm not really an author who can write five books a year and work full time. It's not easy to build a following in category if you're not prolific."
After one of her SIM books, At the Midnight Hour, was made into a TV movie, Lisa had enough money to write full time and act on her agent's suggestion that she write a "dark and gritty suspense."
That novel became The Perfect Husband, which launched her career as a suspense author. The rest, as they say, is history. But Lisa says it wasn't that easy.
"Bantam bought my book! I was living my dream! (Without the husband and kids yet.) Then I learned I needed to make huge revisions. Two years and four complete rewrites later, I was done," she recalls. "Adding up the year it took me to write the book and the two years to revise it, my advance was spread pretty thin. I would have done better getting an hourly wage at McDonald's. I was so sick of the story when it was finally published [in 1998], that I still can't stand to look at that book."
Lisa and I are both fans of Tess Gerritsen, and I mentioned that Tess has said that starting her career in category romantic suspense, for Harlequin Intrigue, helped her create stronger characters, ultimately helping her suspense career. Lisa strongly agrees.
"We were seeing, at that time, a cool wave of former category romance authors overtaking the New York Times list writing suspense. We brought phenomenal characters with really intense, great plots," Lisa explains. "Suspense until then was great on plot but lacking in character and dominated by male authors. Nora Roberts, Tess Gerritsen, Sandra Brown and others gave readers what they wanted in a page-turning suspense novel, with characters they cared about by the end of the book.
"At the end of the day, we [female suspense writers] don't mind going to dark places and compelling worlds. What we want is a resolution that puts the characters in a better place than they were at the beginning. By providing readers with great characterization and a satisfying resolution, they'll have a great reading experience and come back for more."
The first book by Lisa that I read was The Third Victim, and I definitely went back for more. To this day, I remember the characters, the story -- the feeling of the dark, brilliant and disturbing story.
"That book is one of my favorites," Lisa admits. "I'm from Oregon. My family is largely in education, so when Kip Kinkel shot up [a Springfield, Ore.] high school the incident was dinner conversation for years. I asked my friends and family how it changed them. I wondered what would drive a teenager to such terrible acts of extreme violence. That's when I first spoke with Dr. Greg Moffatt, a specialist on mass murders, about how juveniles could be capable of such acts and, more importantly, what as a community can we do about it.
"In The Third Victim, I created Rainie Conner, who was so compelling and deep she really stuck with me," Lisa continues. "She went into the book with one agenda, to be FBI profiler Pierce Quincy's love interest, but a lot more came into the story along the way. I found myself writing to find out what was going to happen next!"
Recently, Lisa has released a suspense novel featuring Quincy and Rainie every other year while writing other books in between. Had always been the plan? "I never planned a sequel," she admits. "Every book initially started as a stand-alone. I'm idea driven. If my existing characters can work, I bring them back. It sort of just happened that Quincy and Rainie fit into every other book."
And they certainly fit into Lisa's latest. In Say Goodbye, Kimberly takes a starring role. Yet, as in The Killing Hour, her love interest Mac, Rainie and Quincy also have parts to play. Kimberly is a compelling character, and I was curious how this new book came to be.
"For Say Goodbye, I wanted to bring Kimberly back," Lisa explains. "We watched her grow up, join Quantico, become an FBI agent and fall in love. But she is still very driven and not completely confident in herself."
And she'll have to find that confidence quickly -- the killer in this book is superscary. "I haven't written anyone nearly as scary as Jim Beckett in The Perfect Husband in a while, and I wanted to scare the bejesus out of people. ... There are scenes in Say Goodbye that are hard to take. I wanted people to feel it. Most of the scenes involving the villain are disturbing, but I don't think we as writers can come up with something more depraved than the real world."
RESEARCH AND STORYTELLING
The nugget of the idea for Say Goodbye came indirectly from one of Lisa's friends. "I was talking to one of my fellow RWA [Romance Writers of America] chapter members, Sheila, and told her I wanted to learn more about bugs, but I didn't know an entomologist. She turned to me and said, 'My husband is an entomologist; you can have him!' I had many open-ended conversations with Sheila's husband -- I just wanted to learn. Then he told me that he'd found a black widow spider one day, saved it and put it in a terrarium.
"That's when I knew I had to learn everything I could about spiders." (Even her 5-year-old daughter read about spiders!)
Like Lisa, I'm a research nut. Suspense authors, in the name of research, observe autopsies, tour Quantico and hang out with SWAT; work that's needed to get it right.
"If you can spend a lot of time in the field talking to those in law enforcement, you have a much better sense of who they are and what type of person goes into law enforcement," explains Lisa. "Years ago, I took a class about how to secure the crime scene at the University of Rhode Island. There was nothing that said you had to have any credentials. It was me and a lot of macho security guards. Pretty quickly the game became, 'Can we make the chick puke?' Over the eight-week course, the material became more and more graphic and included real crime scenes.
"It is very different to see real-life violence from what we see on television," Lisa continues. "I now understand the compartmentalization that police need to have. You have to put it away in order to function. I have textbooks above my writing space so my young daughter can't reach them."
But, she continues with a smile in her voice, "I had a lot of fun researching [character] Bobby Dodge for Alone and Hide. A female suspense writer interviewing -- in person -- tactical law enforcement? I had a lot of questions. I had to go back, often, for follow-up interviews. Bobby came from talking with all these guys. The situations Bobby faced really happened. I simply fictionalized them."
While Bobby may have come alive thanks to the experiences of those she interviewed, Lisa's inspiration came while watching TV. "My husband is a junkie of the History Channel, Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel," she says. "One night we got into a show about sniping -- both military snipers and police snipers. One segment had an interview with a sniper out in California in a real-life case where he used deadly force on a man holding a woman hostage.
"The cop, cleared by his department, was trapped in the legal system. The criminal became the victim; the law enforcement officer, the perpetrator. For 10 years the sniper was caught up in civil court. Ten years. His job was to train and train and train to be prepared to use deadly force if and when necessary. Then when you do the job you were trained to do, your life as you know it is over. I knew then that I wanted to write about a sniper. None of my characters had sniper training, so I created Bobby."
THE ROMANCE WORLD
Though she may be focused on writing her suspense novels, Lisa hasn't forgotten her roots in romance."Romance writers get what some other writers don't," she says. "Publishing is not a zero-sum game. Cross-marketing, growing readership, supporting each other -- this helps all writers. If my fans ask who I recommend they read, I happily offer a list of authors they might like. "In the end, I like a good relationship story, whether it's a 'romance' or not. A cool plot keeps the story moving, but characters make that story satisfying. It's all part of the character ending at a better place. I often start with a loner or someone who doesn't feel like they can relate to other people. Coming to terms with conflict, getting the marriage back on track, basically being smarter by the end of the book. That means there's hope for the rest of us."
Today, Lisa writes her New York Times bestsellers in a loft walking distance from her New Hampshire home. She has a lovely view from the window above her desk. And because her young daughter insists she must have flowers, fake roses decorate her office, along with a handmade giraffe next to her computer. Lisa is certainly living her dream now.
LISA'S FUN FACTS
Favorite color: Yellow
Favorite animal: Giraffe
Favorite reading spot: In bed
Favorite book as a kid: The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Least favorite question: "Where do you get your ideas?"
Lisa, you've just typed THE END and want to celebrate. What do you do? In the summer, I just want to be outside and enjoy the sun for a change. And a dry martini is always in order.
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