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Author Talk: April 28, 2017

Lisa Unger is the New York Times and internationally bestselling, award-winning author of 15 novels, including IN THE BLOOD, CRAZY LOVE YOU and INK AND BONE. Her latest stand-alone thriller, THE RED HUNTER, introduces readers to two wronged women who are on very different paths yet find themselves in the same dark place. In this interview, Unger reveals how kung-fu and kickboxing served as part of the inspiration for the book, what she admires most about each of her main characters, why there is never a “true villain” in any of her novels, and who she could see playing the roles of Zoey and Claudia in a potential film version of THE RED HUNTER.

Question: After a career spent writing bestselling thrillers, what new ground did THE RED HUNTER allow you to cover? Why this story now?

Lisa Unger: A friend of mine, and a very successful writer, sent me an email the other day asking: Why does it always feel like the first time? I know exactly what he meant. Each story has a special kind of energy, is something different than what came before it. Every time a writer sits down to write, she's a different person --- changed by her experiences, observations, new ideas.

I hope it never stops feeling like the first time. I can see now looking back, all of my novels have been intimately connected to questions that I have about people, or myself or the world, or issues with which I was grappling at the time. I’ve been dwelling in my fictional town, The Hollows, for a while. But the voice of Zoey Drake, which is the driving force of the narrative, was very clear and present. Her story was not connected to the other stories that have been kicking around my subconscious. This was the story I needed to tell, and now was the time to tell it.

Q: Do you have a favorite character in the novel? Who is it, and why are you so drawn to them?

LU: Of course it’s impossible to ever choose a favorite character! Each one is unique and holds a special place in my heart. I love Zoey’s fire, her fighting spirit. I admire and am also alarmed by her willingness to walk into darkness to do what she thinks is “right.” I am moved by Claudia’s dogged determination to look toward the light, even from a place of deepest despair. Her willingness to take on big, nearly impossible tasks, with self-confidence and verve is inspirational --- even when things crumble around her. And I am intrigued by Raven’s struggle with her identity, worried by the risks she’s willing to take to find out where she truly belongs. Through the writing of THE RED HUNTER, each of these very different characters continually surprised me --- all of them deeper, more daring and ultimately braver that I, at first, imagined them to be.

Q: You write Zoey’s kung fu–inflected fight scenes with so much accuracy. Why did you decide to have her train in this particular fighting style? What does it reveal about her character?

LU: I studied kung fu for eight years, giving it up when I became pregnant with my daughter. When I first found kung fu, I was in a vulnerable place in my life. I was young, unsure of myself, wasn’t quite certain who I was or who I wanted to be. When I started to train in the martial arts, I was introduced to myself in a way I never had been before. I found a power within that I never knew was there, accomplished things that I hadn’t imagined possible. Kung fu was a healing for me, a kind of rebirth. I was interested in exploring that through Zoey. Her journey from kitten to dragon, from victim to fighter is something that resonates with me.

Just before the writing of THE RED HUNTER, I took up kickboxing. And some of that fighting energy returned to my life. It, too, was part of the inspiration for the book.

Q: In THE RED HUNTER, you’re interested in the lines between victims and perpetrators. What do you hope to reveal to readers about the way we think about good, bad and the spaces in between?

LU: It always seems to me that the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, perpetrator and victim are slim indeed. None of us is as far apart from each other as we think --- or maybe even wish we were. This is a theme that runs through most of my novels.

I had an editor lament once that there wasn’t a true villain in my novel. But I don’t believe that there are true villains in life. Most perpetrators were victims once. Most evil-doers passionately believe in their cause, consider themselves to be righteous. My core belief about human nature is that we are each trying to be happy. It’s just that some of us have a very sick and twisted idea about how to accomplish that. People are an impossibly complicated helix of nature and nurture, of good choices and bad, action and reaction. We make mistakes, and life spins out of our control. Some of us make bad choices most of the time; some of us make good choices most of the time. Most people make good and bad choices depending on the moment, on circumstances. What makes us who we are is a topic of continuing fascination for me. I don’t know if I’ve revealed anything about people; mainly I’m just exploring.

Q: What was your favorite thing to research for this book?

LU: The germ for this book was Zoey’s voice, the voice of a victim turned into a fighter. And her voice I think came from my questions about victimhood. How do people who’ve experienced extreme violence, who’ve been the victim of the most horrific possible circumstance come back to life?

The book FAR FROM THE TREE by Andrew Solomon was a valuable source of information in understanding the experience of children of rape. I found the insights in this ambitious, brilliantly written book to be illuminating on questions of family and identity.

I leaned on my own home renovation experience to detail Claudia’s struggle (though I wasn’t brave enough to attempt it myself, and I definitely wouldn’t classify it as a “favorite” research experience).

If I had to choose a favorite, it would be revisiting my old kung fu training. That period was a special time and place in my life. I loved kung fu and what it taught me about myself, about strength, about how the ability to fight means you often don’t have to. I still think about my school, and the tremendous sense of peace I found there. I stopped studying, but the things I learned there I carry with me.

Q: What message does this novel have for survivors of traumatic violence, like Zoey and Claudia?

LU: I wouldn’t presume to send a message to survivors of traumatic violence. Most of my novels revolve around a question I have about human nature. And in this book, one of the central questions is: How do we survive the worst day? The characters in this book all have very different answers to that question, approach their moving on in myriad ways. I’ll leave it to the reader to draw conclusions about which way worked better. I suppose the central question in the book is: What is the difference between justice and revenge? Maybe in the asking of that question, there’s a message. But the answer will be different for everyone.

Q: Your books are thrillers, but they also have strong aspects of psychological suspense. What do you see as the difference between the two genres? What draws you to thrillers as a writer?

LU: Hmm…that brings up another interesting question. What is the difference between a thriller and psychological suspense? If you can find the person to tell me, have him give me a call!

When writers sit down to write, few of us are thinking about genre. We have voices and stories in our heads; we get it all onto the page to the best of our ability. And then if we’re very fortunate, our publishers bring those stories out into the world. It’s at that point that publishers and booksellers decide on genre, where your book fits on the shelf. Readers and reviewers will have their opinions, too, about what kind of book you’ve written. For me, it’s all about following those voices, hearing the stories they tell, exploring human nature, and the psyche. Usually these stories are dark, because it’s the dark recesses of the mind that interest me most. As for whether my books are thrillers or stories of psychological suspense --- I hope they’re both.

Q: Tell readers about your writing routine. Do you have any particular routines, rituals or places that you regularly return to?

LU: My golden writing hours are 5am to noon. That’s when my creativity is at its highest vibration. Of course, with a school-age daughter, I don’t always get those hours. So her school day is mainly my work day. When I first got serious about my writing, I was working a full-time job. So I got very good about writing while dealing with other high-level goals and demands. I am lucky in that I can write anywhere, anytime, even with distractions. So there’s no ritual or places where I have to be. Needs like that tend to become excuses for why you can’t write. So I try to get those morning hours, and if I don’t, I make the time elsewhere.

Q: Your writing can be incredibly cinematic. Who can you see playing this book’s main characters in a film version of THE RED HUNTER?

LU: Impossible to answer! My characters are so clear and vivid in my mind’s eye. It would be like asking me who would play my husband in a movie of our life. (Okay. Bradley Cooper.) In an absolute fantasy, I could see Ellen Page inhabiting Zoey; she has that sweet exterior that conceals the steel within. With her earnestness and strength, Reese Witherspoon would be a compelling Claudia. But those are just imaginings after being asked. All the characters in the novel are as vivid and real as anyone I might meet in life, so it’s hard to imagine them as anyone else.

Q: What are your plans for your next novel?

LU: I am at work on my next novel now. But I can never talk about it until it’s complete; that just drains all the energy. So stay tuned, follow me on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for my newsletter at, where you’ll hear everything first.