I was excited when thriller authors Gregg Hurwitz (Don’t Look Back, 2014) and Lisa Unger (Crazy Love You, 2015) agreed to engage in authorial combat for the latest installment of “You’re Doing It Wrong.” Because they’re friends who bonded on a book tour of Australia, I was sure their time trapped in small spaces would have produced some good grist for disagreement, whether about writing and literature or someone’s inability to stop crinkling candy wrappers. But the more we searched for a suitable topic, the more these two best-selling writers agreed upon! (Before I knew it, they were exchanging compliments, for crying out loud.) It was about this time that I had an epiphany: agreement can be interesting, too. Read on as Hurwitz and Unger discuss writing craft and marketing concerns, koala bears and sacred cows, and readers’ *&%^$#@!! complaints.
Character & Plot
Lisa Unger: Plot flows from character. Every novel, for me, begins with a character’s voice, and my plot comes from my getting to know a character or characters. I never have a story or a concept first.
Gregg Hurwitz: I know I have a story when a character collides with a plot. If it’s just character, I got nothing. I have a plot idea I scribbled down in a journal in high school that sat there for ten years. It wasn’t until I’d published three novels that I met the character, Tim Rackley, who fit into that plot. [From The Kill Clause (2004)—Ed.] From there I was off to the races.
Unger: The same thing happens to me but usually with characters, not plots. Sometimes I have a character, or the germ for the character, but she doesn’t find her way onto the page for years. She just kicks around, coming up as someone I wonder about or try to figure out. Then I’ll be writing someone else’s story and she’ll turn up. The inspiration for Emily in Heartbroken (2012) was like that. I had this really damaged girl wandering around, someone who was essentially well meaning, but who just kept making bad decisions and trusting the wrong people. I’d been wondering about her for years. Finally, she found her way to the page. Do you always have your plot ideas first? Do you ever change your plot for your character?
I am constantly surprised by what my characters do.
Hurwitz: I generally have the rough shape of a plot before I start writing. I liken it to those indoor rock-climbing walls. And the key scenes I’ve come up with are like handholds and footholds and I know there are enough there to get me across the wall that is the novel. I don’t know what order I’ll get to them or whether I’ll grab hold with my left hand or my right foot, but I know they are enough of them. And yes, I have changed plot for character. The best moments are where the character does something in real time that I hadn’t considered before. Has that happened to you?
Unger: Absolutely. I am constantly surprised by what my characters do. When I sit down to write, I have no idea who is going to show up from day to day and what they are going to do. My favorite thing is when I write something—a character arrives when I didn’t expect it, or they do something that I don’t understand—and then twenty pages later I realize why it happened. I’ve heard Michael Koryta say that it’s almost as if his subconscious knows the story better than he does. That’s how I feel.
The Editorial Process
Lisa Unger: The editorial process, when you have a great editor, is the second phase of the creative process. That’s where the book goes from being good to great—hopefully.
Gregg Hurwitz: A writer can’t shortchange the editorial process. That last 10, 5, or 2 percent of improvement is the difference between a memorable book and a merely passable one. There’s often as much riding on getting that last 2 percent right as there is on the rest of it. By the way, I’m not implying any book can get to 100 percent. There are no perfect books. Except for Red Dragon. And The Great Gatsby. And The Sound and the Fury. And The Things They Carried. But you get what I’m saying.
Unger: I do sometimes disagree with editorial comments. When I first started publishing, I kind of felt like I had to do whatever my editor said. But as I gained confidence I started to listen to my own voice more. I have a sense when a change is great for the book. But I also know when it’s not true to the story I was trying to tell. Have you ever disagreed with your editor? What was the outcome?
When I first started publishing, I kind of felt
like I had to do whatever my editor said.
Hurwitz: I have had disagreements—perhaps more on the Hollywood end than in publishing. But I always try to address the editorial anxiety beneath the comment. Often when someone jots down that a section is, say, slowly paced, they’re really noting the moment that they recognized that consciously. And the problem might be twenty pages back. I’m glad to have worked with Keith Kahla for my last six books and he and I have a great shorthand at this point. He’s pretty incisive and even if we have different ideas on a particular fix, his instincts are almost always right.
Unger: I work with Sally Kim and she’s a smart, insightful editor. She’s made every book we’ve worked on together the best it can be. I agree, when a comment is made, even if it doesn’t make sense at the time, usually there’s something underlying to blame—a character might not be fleshed out enough, or the narrative is bogged down with an unnecessary information dump or a rambling description. So after my editorial conversation, I tend to start at page one and read, keeping Sally’s comments in mind. She and I have always been able to find our way to the place we both want to be with some combination of her changes and mine. But, yeah, she’s almost always right, too.
Villains vs. Heroes
Lisa Unger: There are no villains. Every character, no matter how deranged, deserves a multifaceted portrait that reveals layers. Not that a dark character has to be sympathetic, necessarily, but he or she should be human. In life, even the worst person might have good qualities and be a wonderful wife, husband, father to someone. It makes a dark character more real if you can access and reveal some of that side.
Gregg Hurwitz: The best is if you can make the antagonist describe his rationale in ways the audience can relate to. If you pry that box open in your reader’s dark little heart, then you’ve done your job. But I also like getting characters to a place where there’s a cathartic moment for the readers when I kill the antagonist in a horrible fashion.
Unger: It is very cathartic to kill someone off, especially when he deserves it. I especially like that moment in Don’t Look Back when Eve feeds al-Gilani to El Puro. Even though the actual event happens “off camera”—and she doesn’t look back, which I love—it felt as if she was slaying lots of demons: fear, the past, the person she thought she was. One of my favorite of yours is You’re Next (2011), not just because Mike is so layered and his relationship to Shep, his wife, and Kat are so deep and beautifully drawn. But also because your portrayal of William’s cerebral palsy and his relationship to Dodge was so humanizing—their interaction and the way you explored the disease. It didn’t make them likable, but it did make them human. This book was also one of the most heart-wrenching. I still think about how Mike had to leave Kat, and even the scene when he went back to get her. I almost couldn’t read it. That might be something I can’t touch, abandoned children. There’s something about that idea that just shreds me.
If you pry that box open in your reader’s
dark little heart, then you’ve done your job.
Hurwitz: Thank you, Lisa. What I’ve responded to the most in your books is along the same lines. As you’ve heard me say before, it’s the way you embed your characters in an entire network of relationships. That’s so much harder to do than it seems. But you paint characters moving through life in a way that feels real and genuine—which helps the gut-punch when things slide horribly off track. Oh—and also Priss. I love Priss. [From Crazy Love You—Ed.] I want to go back in time and take her to prom. She’s so delightfully dark and sexy and tough. Where’d she come from?
Unger: That means a lot. Thank you. I have no idea where Priss came from. I know part of the inspiration came from Dark Phoenix in X-Men, but that was only after I already had Ian Paine in my head, and it’s his inspiration for Priss, someone in his life, as well as a character in his graphic novel series. She starts as off his hero, and slowly becomes the villain in his life. I think she came from this idea of how friendship changes, how a relationship at a certain stage of your life is something nourishing and healthy, but then as you grow and change, it connects you to a part of yourself you’ve outgrown. Shedding it can be painful. Also, she’s was born of the idea that no one is all good, or all bad. That the line between hero and villain is quite thin; everyone is flawed.
Hurwitz: The flaws make the hero. Books where the author is afraid to take risks that might make the protagonist unlikable are boring.
Unger: I have to love my characters, though, even if they are horrible and broken, murderous, addicted, or deranged. A mother always loves her children, even when they disappoint her—or scare her!
Marketing, Creativity, and Koalas
Lisa Unger: Marketing concerns—what a book is, where it fits on the shelf, the hook—should never be a part of the creative process. Once you’re writing just to sell, that’s the death of creativity.
Gregg Hurwitz: Yeah, you’re screwed if you try that. And even if you could get your head around it creatively, you’re chasing a process with a year-plus lag time.
But I ate most of the stuff because I was
gonna write about it somewhere.
Unger: And it’s a hollow pursuit. If you’re really writing authentically, you can only write about what’s obsessing you at the time. I think we talked about that some when we shared a stage at the Melbourne Book Festival.
Hurwitz: Okay, I have to tell the koala story.
Unger: You have to? Just because I mentioned Australia?
Hurwitz: Yes. It’s my favorite. So, Lisa and I were on tour together in Australia and we went to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve. And your daughter was—how old was Ocean then?
Hurwitz: And we were petting kangaroos and holding koalas, which are unreasonably snuggly. And then you and I got to talking about books and wandered off a little and all of a sudden your mom radar went off and you turned around and I heard you say in Stern Mom Voice, “Ocean! We don’t poke koalas!” Which I believe is the finest parental advice I’ve ever heard.
Unger: Thank you.
Unger: We do, too. It also applies to other small, cuddly creatures. Luckily, Ocean seems to have outgrown her animal-poking phase—mostly. Now, I heard that you are a strict vegan and an animal rights activist. How’s that working out for you?
Hurwitz: Animal rights, yes. Strict vegan, no. I’ll pretty much eat anything—crickets, worms, scorpions, kangaroo, crocodile, lamb brains.
Unger: How were the lamb brains?
Hurwitz: They tasted like . . . lamb brains. Nothing elevating there. But I ate most of the stuff because I was gonna write about it somewhere. What’s the oddest thing you did in the name of research?
Unger: Ew. I think my most memorable research moment was taking a concealed weapons class in Florida. There’s too much to that experience to get into here, but let’s say that the company was enthusiastic about their right to carry guns, there were some colorful ideas and personalities, and the location—deep in the woods in the dead of summer—was atmospheric to the point of being haunting.
I Won’t Go There
Lisa Unger: There aren’t many things I consider off limits, or places I won’t go, in my fiction. I am willing to follow my characters into almost any situation. But there are a couple of things I won’t touch. I won’t write about 9/11.
Gregg Hurwitz: I’d write about pretty much anything, including 9/11, if I had a compelling reason to do so. But I won’t write about sock puppets. They scare me.
Unger: It’s not that I hold it out to be some sacred cow. It’s just that the event still looms so large in my mind, and is so horrific and complicated, that to approach it in fiction seems almost arrogant. It’s like when you go to Big Sur and everywhere you look there’s all this Big Sur art. Painters try to capture this huge, awe-inspiring place and everything just kind of falls short. You can’t ever capture an event like 9/11, make it right, or understandable, do justice to all the layers of grief and outrage. I feel like I would just wind up rendering something that’s “less than.” It’s more like I know the limits of my abilities. A lot of places I thought I wouldn’t go, I have wound up visiting, though. So maybe it’s just a matter of time. Maybe one day I’ll be a good enough writer to think I can approach it.
Hurwitz: What else won’t you touch? Is there anything else? I have to say, you go to some pretty dark places in your books, which is one of the things I love about you.
A lot of places I thought I wouldn’t go,
I have wound up visiting, though.
Unger: Yeah, sock puppets are definitely out. I guess you’re right that I tend not to have many rules. Certain things I thought I wouldn’t do, I did in Crazy Love You, and in the upcoming book, which doesn’t have a title yet. I generally don’t get into big matters like race or religion, for the same reasons I don’t write about 9/11. Those topics are too big, too complicated to write about well in the context of a thriller—at least for me. Maybe I’ll feel differently one day, or a story or character will present that can’t be written without addressing one of those things. What’s next for you?
Hurwitz: My next book is the start to a new series. It’s called Orphan X.
Unger: And is it true you sold the rights to Warner Brothers for Bradley Cooper?
Hurwitz: It is.
Unger: He’s so cute.
Hurwitz: He says the same about you.
Bad Language and Offensive Opinions
Lisa Unger: I get some complaints about swearing in my novels. But my characters are generally the types of people who swear liberally. And inserting “golly gee” where my character might really say “fuck”—well, it’s not going to happen. I wonder: Do male writers get complaints about swearing? Do they care?
Gregg Hurwitz: Yes, I do. No, I don’t fucking care.
Unger: It always makes me mad to get letters or comments about that. It’s so beside the point. It’s like your pour your heart out onto the page, agonize over character and plot and prose for a year, do your very best to tell the story you want to tell. And then some person—who misspells every other word—writes to complain about your foul-mouthed character. Who has that kind of time? What is the most annoying complaint you have received from a reader?
Hurwitz: That I occasionally write gay characters. Some reader wrote to say she’d no longer buy anything I wrote because one of my plots featured a gay character. So I said, “Great. Please don’t. And tell your like-minded friends not to, either.”
The only thing that would offend me is if I
wrote a book that offended no one at all.
Unger: One of my characters trashed a particular geographic location that she found not to her liking. That book was written almost 10 years ago and I still get angry mail about it. Meanwhile, no one ever complains about the sex, drugs, or violence! Should we pull back on our characters’ opinions of people, places and things to avoid offending readers?
Hurwitz: No. People these days scramble to get offended by stuff. Humor and character relies, to a certain extent, on risk. You can’t write to everyone’s sensibilities, only your own. Plus the only thing that would offend me is if I wrote a book that offended no one at all. How awful would that be? “Hop on board this big pleasant beige floaty raft of a thriller!”
Unger: Exactly! Meanwhile, plenty of my characters have opinions that don’t even approach my own. It’s so strange that some readers seem to think that I am my characters. On a related topic, occasionally people I know think they see themselves in my work and some people have been hurt or offended by what I’ve written. And I’m always surprised. Even though every character originates from me, is some amalgamation of my observations, imagination, knowledge and ideas, no character in any of my novels has ever been wholly lifted from my life. Even though inspiration often comes from life, what’s on the page is a whole different universe. Are any of the scenarios in your novels or characters ever taken directly from something in your life?
Hurwitz: Not directly, no, but all those bits and pieces go into the mix. One thing I’ve found that gets me out of trouble is that nobody I know has ever come to me thinking that a “bad” character is based on them. They all think the heroes are based on them! Okay. Looks like we’re out of time, so bye for now. Come to L.A. again soon so we can drink bourbon again.
Unger: It’s your turn! Come to Florida for a margarita! Bring Bradley Cooper.