New York Times bestselling crime novelist Lisa Gardner began her career in food service, but after catching her hair on fire numerous times, she took the hint and focused on writing instead. A self-described research junkie, she has parlayed her interest in police procedure, cutting edge forensics and twisted plots into a streak of eleven bestselling suspense novels, including her most recent release, Love You More.
Lisa Gardner: First, the question I’ve always wanted to ask another author: Where do you get your ideas?
Andrew Gross: It's just that if I told you I’d have to kill you Lisa, and you're so nice… Actually, as we both know, that process varies, and every author has his or her own path. You just pray like hell they come when you need them!
For me, this is the hardest and most stressful hurdle in what I do. The writing comes easy! For my last three books, I took conspiratorial headlines from the news—Iraq War scandals; people who used 9/11 to disappear from their life; the Wall Street financial meltdown—and wrapped them around more local and personal stories: a harrowing home invasion gone tragically wrong or a wife who wakes up one day to find her dead husband wasn't at all the person she thought she knew. Stories that I thought could achieve the emotional resonance I strive for in my books.
Eyes Wide Open took shape from two real life events straight from my own past. One was the sad suicide of my young nephew, a troubled kid, who was found at the bottom of a landmark cliff in central California. The second was a chance encounter forty years ago with none other than, ahem, Charles Manson! You’ll have to read it to see how these stories link.
Blind Curve, the book I’m working on now, sprang from a crazy incident that happened to me last year while on my book tour. I was pulled out of my car for a minor traffic violation—an incident that escalated into my being thrown into cuffs and told I was going to jail. Except in my story, the hero doesn't get off as easily as I did.
As long as events like these keep happening to me, I’ll be in good shape!
LG: Your last novel, Reckless, was a “ripped from the headlines” sort of novel, whereas Eyes Wide Open draws from events in your life. What prompted you to pull from your personal experiences this time around, and how hard was that to write?
AG: It's much, much, much harder to write a story from your own life that affects real people, and some of them people you care for—especially those who have suffered tragedy, like me brother. On the other hand, drawing from personal experience makes for a much more enriching and rewarding story, one that is filled with the detail and resonance of real life. I wanted to write a poignant, personal testament to my nephew that was also a thriller, using a theme I seem to carry from book to book—a family hiding a secret past; in this case, revolving around teenage suicide, sons fighting against their fathers, the L.A. music scene in the ’60s, and an encounter with that Manson-like figure. Hopefully what came out is a chilling, rich, autobiographical, and satisfying tale filled with the kind of richness and family lore that you usually find in a memoir. While writing Eyes Wide Open from events in my own life was tough, and awkward—and you know you may not please everyone—to me, it became more rewarding in the end.
LG: OK, so you mentioned that as a child you had a passing encounter with Charles Manson, which helped inspire Eyes Wide Open. Say what?
AG: Okay. I go back and forth on this. Eyes Wide Open isn't a book about Manson, or even a Manson-like character, though a cultish figure is a chilling detail in the book. My dad moved out to L.A. in the ’60s and my older brother, a wayward spirit trying to become a musician, was out there as well, and, uh, took up residence on the Spahn Ranch, where Manson lived. At that time, Charlie was also trying to get his music produced. The two of them came up to my father's place one day and tried to sell him on anteing up for a demo. Manson was gaunt, quiet, creepy—and yes, he had those dark eyes. Though, at that time, Charlie Manson hadn't become the infamous “Charles Manson” yet! The scene eventually turned ugly—which I describe in the book—and they left, humiliated and angry. For years, my dad always insisted that the clan went up into the canyons that night looking to pay him back for what took place, but got lost in the L.A. hills and ended up at Sharon Tate’s. Truth was, by that time my brother was long gone and, of course, there were other reasons the Manson clan ended up at Sharon Tate’s house. But it makes a chilling scene!
LG: Having followed your novels since The Dark Tide, I’ve noticed that you’re drawn to stories involving complex family dynamics. What is it about this theme that resonates so strongly for you, and how has your own experience as a father influenced your writing?
AG: I don't like writing straight-up thrillers. I like writing about families hurled into crisis and danger—soccer moms and regular dads and husbands who might have to rescue their daughters or who are, say, hedge fund managers and have one foot on the sidelines watching their kids and the other in nefarious cover-ups and conspiracies. These are the “real life” stories that intrigue me and provide the basis for the emotional complexity I’m looking for. As for being a dad, it makes you know exactly what you would do—basically anything—to save your own family. And how creepy and evil one has to be to betray theirs!
LG: One thriller writer to another, what draws you to suspense—and what’s your favorite thing about thrillers?
AG: You know what, Lisa, you can make a strong case that thriller writing is the single most relevant genre of fiction being written today, because it reflects the conflicts and crises and stories that we read every day in the news and that shape our world. The people who come to our craft aren’t just graduate students, or MFA candidates or teachers, but CIA agents and journalists and doctors and lawyers whose experiences in life inform their work. As for suspense, I like to write books that draw you into the hero’s plight from the opening pages, where people put their lives on the line for something—a belief, a family member, the truth. I’m actually more into heroism than evil—but it's hard to have one without the other and when their arcs meet and they clash... well, there's suspense!
LG: Without giving too much away, what’s your favorite scene in Eyes Wide Open?
AG: Well, there are many, because the characters are based on people I know. But without doubt, one of the best involves my everyman hero, Jay Erlich, a doctor from Westchester who puts his successful life on hold and his life on the line to find the truth behind his nephew's suicide. Erlich goes to the super-max Pelican Bay Prison to see the long incarcerated Manson-like murderer, Russell Hovnanian. And the thing that makes that scene really creepy, and made hard to write, was that to be credible, this character, Hovnanian, had to be smarter than my hero, smarter than the very smart detective who accompanies him, even smarter than the reader! Oh yeah, the author too. But when it's pulled off, as I hope I did, it's a killer scene.
LG: You wrote six New York Times bestsellers with James Patterson. Dish. What was it like to work with Jim, and how much more fun is it to control everything yourself?
AG: Such good questions. Are you a writer, too? Oh, wait. Never mind.
Ha! Jim and I got along fine; he's an amazing idea guy, his instincts for plot are finely honed, and I think he might even say himself that he's a sharper editor than a writer. I always describe working with him as an MFA and MBA course in thriller management rolled into one. I learned a lot of things about how to craft a thriller that would have taken years to learn on my own—and how to put them in my own style. I’m honestly proud of the six books we did together, all of which went to number one. But yes, I’m kind of a control guy—how did you know?
To his credit, Jim let me have a substantial share of control on the books we did—probably a lot more than I would have. He’s a much more evolved manager than me! And all these books later, I still kind of miss him, calling him up, running a plot idea by him. I mean, is there a better person in the world to bounce an idea off of? But I also like it when the checks are made out solely to me!
LG: Now tell me the truth. What is your least favorite part of writing—and you can only choose one.
AG: Easy—this is becoming a bit of a running theme here—loss of control! You shape your baby from the initial birth of an idea, live with it daily, watch it grow like a child into a fully dimensional being. You feel you know it better than anybody. Then you turn it over and put it out into the world and between the cover, the marketing, the presentation at retail and the sales, it all takes place without you being able to control its destiny a single lick! And by that time, you're already halfway into the next one anyway!
LG: Finally, what do you want readers to take away from reading Eyes Wide Open—and congrats on another great novel!
AG: Thanks, Lisa. What I would have them take away is that Eyes Wide Open is not only a thrilling read, it's also an engrossing, emotional family story—about a family with a dark history and the lengths it will go to protect that secret. It’s also about two brothers, one wayward, the other successful, and how they try to bridge the gap that tore them apart. It reads like a personal memoir chock-full of thrills. And it’s my family story.
So great to be with you today! I was a big fan of Love You More. It’s been a lot of fun!