Inviting Darkness: Q&A with Lisa Unger

Sisters in Crime President, Robyn Walton, spoke to US author, Lisa Unger, about her latest psychological thriller, Under My Skin (2018).

Hello, and congratulations on your publication record: 16 novels and a novella. In 2018 Bouchercon, the annual mystery convention, was held in your US hometown. How was that?

Thank you so much! Bouchercon always feels like the biggest party of the year. I was thrilled to be a guest of honour, especially with it being hosted in my hometown, St Petersburg, Florida.

Writing is a solitary profession much of the time. But, every once in a while, they let us out of our hobbit holes and into the world. The mystery and thriller conventions, like Bouchercon and Thrillerfest, are the rare times when we all get to gather in one place. It could be dangerous, to have so many dark minds together at one bar (where we tend to congregate at these things)! But, it’s actually great fun — connecting with old friends, making new ones, talking about craft and the business. As the 2018 Toastmaster, I was on stage quite a bit. But there was still time for one-on-one chats with my author pals, dinners, parties, and lots of laughs. There’s always a great sense of comraderie and a feeling of being at home.

‘Psychological thriller’ can be an over-used publicity description, but in the case of your novel Under My Skin I think it’s a really accurate label. I understand an idea of Carl Jung’s was important to you at the outset?

There are so many ‘over-used’ publicity labels in publishing that I don’t think there is anything that hasn’t been over-used. Most writers are just writing the stories that compel and move us. Labels are the business of publishers and booksellers.

But, yes, Under My Skin definitely can be called a psychological thriller, like most of my novels. There’s no greater mystery than the human mind. And I consider myself a spelunker, shimmying into the dark spaces there, always fascinated by what I find.

Carl Jung’s work and ideas are an ongoing obsession of mine. And one of his thoughts had been kicking around in my head for a while. He wrote: Between the dreams of day and night, there is not so great a difference. What did he mean by that – the dreams of day and night? So, it led me to start researching sleep, dreams, and the liminal space between – hypnagogia. I’ve long been fascinated by the states of altered perception – the aftermath of trauma, addiction, obsession. We spend a third of our lives sleeping and dreaming, and yet we’re convinced that our waking life is more real than our dream life. Is it? That was the inspiration for Under My Skin.

Traumatised by the murder of her husband, your protagonist Poppy ‘went missing’ for three days after his funeral. She has no memory of what happened in that period. Now she is having strange dreams and possible hallucinations, and she’s wondering: am I over-medicated and paranoid, or are these returning memories and factual observations? You took a risk writing from the point of view of this confused, stressed woman?

Just what are you implying here exactly? Ha ha! I am often writing from the point of view of a confused, stressed protagonist – male or female. Most of my characters are struggling with trauma or addiction, psychological disorders, black outs, or other states of twisted and altered perception.

I am fascinated by how fragile our grip on reality can be, how even just a bad mood, or a terrible night’s sleep can impact how we perceive the world. We’re all unreliable narrators of our own existence, aren’t we? We see things through the filters of our own aversion, desires, prejudice, fears. In eyewitness accounts to the same event, there are often as many different stories as there were people present. Reality, the truth, can be a puzzle we must piece together.

With Poppy, as with all of my troubled characters, I just had to follow her journey and try to untangle the real from the imagined; it was quite a ride. But I loved every minute of it. I hope readers will, too.

Poppy’s husband, Jack, was an adventurous photojournalist. Poppy went on a few expeditions with Jack, on one occasion wading through wetlands in search of a rare orchid. In real life your husband is ‘an adrenaline junkie’, according to a piece you wrote for the Wall Street Journal, while you’re ‘a comfort junkie’. Any comments?

Hmm. No. None at all!

These things, of course, find their way into the work. My husband is an adrenaline junkie – though fatherhood and nearly twenty years of marriage to me (the comfort junkie) has mellowed him considerably. And because of his adventurous spirit, I have ventured to places and done thing that I wouldn’t have without him. That’s the gift of a good marriage, I suppose you push each other, change with each other, and balance each other’s impulses.

I was less interested in Jack as an adrenaline junkie, and more interested in how he thought of the world as being essentially safe. How that may be true in some ways, but that if we don’t take the proper precautions, we’re disrespecting the precious gift of our lives. This idea has some relevance for Poppy, too. Grayson, a detective, wonders aloud if she’s “inviting darkness” because she’s in a troubled mental space.

When we’re younger, less attached, maybe we don’t realize how fragile life can be. Marriage and parenthood change the stakes, make the smallest things the most important. I wondered how things would have been different for Jack if they’d had the child Poppy wanted so badly.

The book’s photography theme is curiously relevant to Poppy’s unreliability as a narrator. Could you say something about your thoughts on photography?

I am interested in how we photo-narrate our lives now. How we tell a story about ourselves in social media, and our own archives of thousands of photos stored in various ‘clouds’. From my own childhood, there are only one or two albums of photos. From my mother’s childhood, far fewer. My daughter, however, is thirteen. And there is barely a second of her life that has not been documented.

I am curious about how this desire to photo narrate changes our experience. How every moment must now be broadcast, offered up for approval by our ‘followers’. How is reality itself altered by this? When people are always staring at their devices – taking images of themselves, viewing the images of others – and ignoring the world that plays out before them, what are they missing? Are the things we believe are connecting us actually keeping us apart? In documenting the world, each other, and ourselves are we missing the actual lived moment?

Poppy, a photographer, someone who is searching for meaning through the lens, uses images in the story to orient herself, to document a reality that is shifting and changing because of her addled psyche. But ultimately, she has to detox from the poison in her system and recover her mental stability before she can see the truth. The truth is not in the image; it’s in what she sees when her vision becomes clear.

Your narrative explores different ways of coping with loneliness, uncertainty and misery. Going to work every day in her Manhattan photographic agency doesn’t seem to be an answer for Poppy. But could spending time in the country be any better for her mental health?

Nature is a salve. It’s where we connect to the primal, to the eternal. In that space and quietude, we find our true voice. That, more than anything, is what Poppy needs to heal. That more than anything is what we need to combat “loneliness, uncertainty and misery”. Because there is a difference between being lonely and being alone. There can be peace in uncertainty when you realize and accept that everything, moment-to-moment is uncertain. And misery is a state we find ourselves in when we fight and struggle against what is. There is no better place than the silence and solitude of nature to be introduced to these ideas.

Online dating is another source of solace Poppy is trying: “a stumble back to some strange apartment, disappearing into someone else’s body, life, bed where I can close my eyes and pretend I’m with Jack”. How helpful is this?

Not very. It’s just one of the many things she’s doing to avoid her reality. Poppy’s main problem, and there are many, is that she thinks escaping her pain – numbing it with pills, alcohol, and shallow sexual encounters – is the same thing as moving past it. So, no, it’s not helpful. But I’m sure many people can relate to the dark impulses we sometimes follow when we’re in pain.

Poppy’s best friend, Layla, is forceful in her efforts to be nurturing and protective. Is this helpful? 

Layla’s friendship is loving and nurturing, but it’s also a crutch for Poppy. As in many long relationships, there is a deep comfort in knowing and caring for someone over time. But it’s also possible to fall into well-worn roles, roles that may or may not foster personal growth. We sometimes find it difficult to change, knowing on some level that it will alter our most significant relationships. Layla likes to be in control. And Poppy, who is very fragile at the beginning of this story, finds it easy to fall into the safe space of this friendship.

And how about Poppy’s sessions with Dr Nash?

This is probably the healthiest relationship Poppy has, or it has the potential to be – except that she’s not being honest with Dr Nash about her abuse of pills and alcohol. Our medical professionals can only help us if we let them. And Poppy is not in a healthy space at the beginning of the story – in fact, I’d go so far as to say that she’s actively avoiding help. Under My Skin, in addition to being a psychological thriller, is also about Poppy’s journey from trauma and grief to wholeness.

Another would-be helper is a loner detective, Grayson, who is committed to finding Jack’s killer. Is active investigation and cooperation with the police a suitable way forward for Poppy?

I don’t think Poppy is doing anything that is particularly suitable to moving forward – at least not when we first meet her. Her relationship to Grayson is complicated. Is she a cooperating party, or is she a suspect? How can she help an investigation if she can’t even piece together her missing days, if she can’t tell the difference between her memories and her dreams?

Poppy’s memory of her marriage is fractured and coloured by grief and loss, the truth of it coming clear in slivers of conversations with the people who knew them best. When we’re suffering, floundering, fractured by extreme trauma, we are rarely the best judge of the way forward.

Still another would-be helper is an older woman with tarot cards. Can the metaphysical realm guide us?

I often flirt with the metaphysical world in my fiction. As I see it, it’s just another mysterious area of the mind. Carl Jung believed in a metaphysical universe. His mother was a medium; Jung had a spirit guide he called Philemon. After all, there are more questions about the universe and about the psyche than there are answers. We know more about outer space than we do about the human brain – and we have very little knowledge of that. So, I have questions about the metaphysical, the paranormal. I don’t have answers, but I am happy to wander around and see what’s there.

An exciting denouement puts Poppy’s life at risk, and she learns why Jack came to be murdered. Do you enjoy getting to the most dramatic part of a novel? Do you plan the climax from the start or devise it as you’re writing?          

All plot flows from character. As I get to know my characters, the story reveals itself. So, I never know the climax of the story or how it is going to end.

The most exciting part of writing for me is discovery – getting to know and understand my characters, following their journeys through the story, understanding the heart of the story, and seeing how they will progress, change, grow, meet justice – or not.

In many ways, 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.

Finally, Lisa, are there other things you’d like to say to Australian crime and mystery readers about Under My Skin?

I’d just like to say thank you so much for reading! I had the honour of touring Australia and appearing at the Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane writers’ festivals some years ago. And it was such a joy to spend time with Australian readers who were so lively, fun, smart and lovely to be around. I have family in Melbourne, so I feel very connected to the country and look forward to my next visit.

Thank you, Lisa, for responding so generously to these questions. I hope we can have you as a guest at a Sisters in Crime Australia event next time you visit.

For more on Lisa Unger, click here and  here for her Bouchercon interview.