Lisa Unger is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of 17 novels, including The Stranger Inside. With millions of readers worldwide and novels published in 26 languages, Lisa Unger is widely regarded as a master of suspense. In 2019, she received two Edgar Award nominations, an honor held by only a few writers including Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie. The Edgar-nominated Under My Skin is also a finalist for the prestigious Hammett Prize, and the Macavity Award for Best Novel.
The Stranger Inside
Twelve-year-old Rain Winter narrowly escaped an abduction while walking to a friend’s house. But her friend Tess never came home and Hank was held in captivity before managing to escape. Their abductor was sent to prison but years later was released. Then someone delivered real justice—and killed him in cold blood.
Now Rain is living a peaceful, domestic life as a stay at home mom. But when another brutal murderer who escaped justice is found dead, Rain is unexpectedly drawn into the case, forcing her to revisit memories she’s worked hard to leave behind.
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Tense, atmospheric and addictive, The Stranger Inside is an utterly unforgettable tale of justice, revenge and good vs. evil. And with one of the most compelling antagonists I’ve read in a very long time, this book hits my top five books this summer. The Stranger Inside was, quite simply, phenomenal.
Author’s Corner – interview with Lisa Unger
Can you tell me something about you that your readers might not know?
If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a psychiatrist. My fascination, and what drives most of my novels, is the human psyche, all its twisting alleys and deep mysteries. I think of myself as spelunker, shimmying into the dark spaces of the mind to shine a light and see what’s there.
I have a voracious curiosity about all the different aspects that make us who we are. Is it nature or nurture, or some impossibly complicated helix of both? How does trauma, addiction, mental illness change our perspectives, dictate our actions? I never stop wondering about these things. So, if I wasn’t writing about it, I’d have to be helping people answer those questions about themselves.
How has being a bestselling author changed things for you? Do you still write the same, or is there more/less pressure now?
I have been writing since childhood. I was writing long before I was ever published, and I will be writing if I never published another word. So I wouldn’t say much has changed; and it shouldn’t. No matter where you are in your career you should always be first dedicated to the page, the language, your characters, the story. That never stops being the most important thing.
What are some of the jobs you had before becoming an author? How have they helped you in your writing career now?
I was a waitress and a salesperson in a retail clothing shop while in college. When I graduated, I worked in book publishing. I was a publicist at a major publishing house for almost ten years. All of these jobs have helped me in different ways.
From waitressing, I learned to multitask, to be calm and focused under pressure. In retail, I learned to sell. And in publishing – well, I learned everything there is to know about the business.
But I think the most important lesson from my years in publishing is that a book contract isn’t a windfall or an end to something. It’s an open door to the writing life. And if you want to walk through, you’d better roll up your sleeves and get to work. Check your ego at the door. I think most new writers are surprised that it’s harder to succeed as a published writer than it is to get published in the first place. I knew that going in.
Stranded on a tropical island, what would be the top three books you’d have with you?
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged – I really love words, all their layers and nuances; I could entertain myself endlessly – 2,861 pages!
Middlemarch by George Eliot – this is a book that I have never read and always wanted to. I actually feel terrible that I haven’t read it; I should have. Finally! Here’s my opportunity!
The Complete Sherlock Holmes – so many stories, so many layers, and ideas and questions! I am also going to need a notebook and a pen. Obviously. When do we leave for this tropical island?
If you could recommend any other book(s) that you’ve read and loved recently, what would it be?
The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman
The Swallows by Lisa Lutz
The Nanny by Gilly Macmillian
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter
If you were granted one wish, what would it be?
That every human being in the world could shed hatred and find love in his or her heart for others and the planet on which we reside together. I think this would take care of most of our problems.
If you could invite five people (dead or alive) to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
Carl Jung, because I have an ongoing obsession with his thoughts, ideas, and writing. I have lots of questions for the good doctor.
Oprah Winfrey, because I so admire her work in the world and how she uses her power to help people and bring beautiful creative projects to life.
Charlotte and Emily Brontë because they wrote some of the most enduring works of literature during a time in history when women didn’t have much freedom.
Stephen King, because of all the authors I love he is the one who consistently, all my life, has moved, scared, and entertained me. His stories are iconic and have impacted me as a writer and a reader. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him. He even gave me a hug! But I really want to have dinner.
What is your writing process like? Plotter/Pantser/Both?
There’s always a germ, a single moment. It might be a song, or a poem, or a news story. In one case, it was a piece of junk mail. That moment usually leads to an obsession and a swath of research on a certain subject matter. And the best way I can describe it is if that research connects me to something larger going on with me, I start to hear a voice. I follow that voice, or sometimes voices, through the narrative.
I don’t know really what the book will be about when I start writing. I don’t know what’s going to happen day to day, who’s going to show up or what they’re going to do. Plot flows from character. I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to know what’s going to happen to the people living in my head.
Writing The Stranger Inside
Let’s talk about The Stranger Inside. Can you tell my readers a little about it, how you came up with the idea and what inspired you to write it?
In my research for another novel, I found a book entitled The Inner World of Trauma: The Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit, by Donald Kalsched. This work was deeply affecting and some of what I learned has stayed with me, coming up again and again in my imagination.
This was where I was first introduced to the Jungian concept of the psyche splitting, an occurrence in cases of extreme trauma where a stronger “self” emerges to protect the weaker aspects of the personality. He talked about it as a survival strategy. I have toyed with this idea in other novels, but in The Stranger Inside, I really dig in deep. I’m most fascinated by the question of what happens to this stronger self when you don’t need him anymore. That’s the heart ofThe Stranger Inside.
What scene did you enjoy writing most?
There were a lot of intense moments in the writing of The Stranger Inside; I went places I wasn’t sure I could go. But I’m very inside the story and the characters; it’s hard to pick a scene that I most “enjoyed.” I will say that I was fascinated by photographer Greta Miller and her birds, and the whole essence of her conversation with Rain toward the end of the book.
What actress and actor would you cast to play Rain and Hank?
This question recently came up in a discussion about film rights – stay tuned! I could see Jake Gyllenhaal as Hank. And Emily Blunt comes to mind for Rain.
Was the ending planned from the beginning or did it evolve as you wrote it?
I never know the ending of my stories. If I did, I couldn’t write them!
What do you think readers will love about The Stranger Inside?
Hmm… that’s a good question. I hope they love Rain, and relate to her journey, and how she’d trying to juggle two big parts of herself. I hope that they love Hank, even though he has – ahem – issues. I hope they see all the layers of the people in this book and find compassion for even the most damaged among them.
I loved the way you so elegantly weaved in the themes of justice and crime, showing how the line between good and bad can get very blurry. Was this intentional from the beginning, or does theme develop over progressive versions of the book?
I’m never aware of the big themes of the book until after it’s finished. But this idea of justice is something that’s been obsessing me for a while. What is justice really? Who has the right to deliver it? My fixation started with The Red Hunter where the question at the heart of the book was: What is the difference between justice and revenge? The question that drives The Stranger Inside takes the question a bit deeper. When bad men get away with murder and good people are driven to do evil things – who is the hero and who is the villain?
Hank was one of the most compelling bad guys I’ve ever read! I actually rooted for him, even though I knew it was wrong. How did you feel about Hank when you were writing him? Did you ever think about making him more sinister or less likeable?
A while back, I stopped thinking of my characters as people that I create and more as people that I meet. That, of course, is not the truth of it – every character is an amalgamation of my thoughts, ideas, observations, imagination, my biases and preferences, people I have encountered, conversations overheard. But they do seem to come real and fully formed, often already with their names.
I couldn’t have made Hank anyone different than who he was; I couldn’t have made him more or less likeable, more or less sinister. I found his layers fascinating; he’s frightening, but he’s understandable. I cared about him, had compassion for him, all the while knowing that he was a dangerous person on the wrong path. Peeling back those layers one by one is part of the joy of writing for me.
What’s next for Lisa?
Are you working on a new book? Can you tell my readers a little about it, a blurb, potential release date, etc? Where did you get the idea?
Ah, I’d love to. But I never talk about my books until they are ready to publish – which in this case will be fall 2020. I’m just going to have to keep you in suspense! But you’ll be among the first to hear about it if you join my early readers club here: www.lisaunger.com (PS – If you join, you’ll also get a free short story!)
Get in touch
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