I WAS INTRODUCED to Lisa Gardner’s books years ago when I read her novel The Perfect Husband. I’ve been hooked on her books ever since. Year after year, Lisa manages to write superbly twisty thrillers, each one better than the last. I’ve gotten to know Lisa as a friend as well, and while her stories are chilling, in person she is warm and hilarious, just the gal you’d want to be your best buddy. We’ve shared many a chat about the challenges of writing thrillers, the ups and downs of the book business, and shared laughs about what the “glamorous life of a writer” is really like. It’s always a pleasure to check in with Lisa about the latest story that’s sprung from her wicked imagination.
TESS GERRITSEN: As a woman writing in what was traditionally a man’s genre, you seem to have taken it upon yourself to write some really fascinating and complex female characters. In Look for Me, you bring back D. D. Warren — always a fan favorite — but you also bring back a character from Find Her, Flora Dane, who is extremely complicated and very different from D. D. So, two questions. What about these characters draws you to them time and time again? And why pair these two characters in this book?
LISA GARDNER: I read for character. I love a good twisty plot, and a dash of terror is always nice, too. But mostly, as a reader and writer, I want compelling characters that I can look forward to spending hours with in my living room. Having said that, I don’t know how to plan them. D. D. simply came to me. I wanted a kick-ass cop, completely, shamelessly obsessed with her job. She’s brash, bold, clever, relentless. She knows who she is and makes no apologies. I think we all admire someone with that level of confidence.
Then … Flora. A young woman kidnapped for 472 days, who five years later is still trying to crawl her way back to the land of the living. For Flora, I read biographies from other kidnapping victims while also interviewing experts in the field. What does it mean to be a survivor? I never think of Flora as broken. She made it out, which proves she’s incredibly strong. But if D. D. is brash, then Flora is a woman defined by self-doubt. She doubts every day she didn’t escape from Jacob Ness. She doubts every moment her mother hugs her, and she braces herself for the contact. She doubts every time she’s sad, because she’d promised herself that if she just got away from Jacob, she’d never be unhappy again. I think we can all relate to Flora’s journey. She is someone who doesn’t want to be who she is, but hasn’t quite figured out yet where to go. In the meantime, she never plans on feeling weak again — hence her ability to now take out would-be rapists with chemical fire.
Clearly, Flora and D. D. are very different. And yet, both are drawn to crime. Both are determined to help the victims, especially, say, a missing teenager. And neither can sleep as long as there are predators roaming the streets of Boston. Frankly, D. D. and Flora are a natural pairing for a novel, two sides of the same crime-fighting coin. And their operational difference — cop versus vigilante — just plain makes the story more fun!
You write a book a year — which we both know is exhausting! How do you decide on a new plot for a novel? Are they ripped from the headlines or do they just come to you on their own?
I’m definitely a true crime junkie, drawing most of my novels from the headlines. In the case of Look for Me, a whole family is discovered murdered and their teenage daughter is missing. In real life, this is a 50/50 proposition: half of the time, the teenage daughter assisted with her family’s slaughter (under the influence of drugs, evil boyfriend, controlling friend, et cetera). The other half, the family is murdered to abduct the girl. I was drawn to that level of ambiguity. As a detective, how do you approach such a complex, high-profile, ticking-clock situation, without any idea if the girl that you’re desperately searching for is the killer, or the next victim? In the case of the Baez family, who is Roxy Baez, lone survivor, possible family annihilator? I wrote the entire book just to learn the answer to that question.
As a follow up to the last question — how is it that even though you’re writing a book a year you are able to maintain such high-quality writing? In my experience, this is something only a few writers in the world are able to do.
Ah, now you’re making me blush. Especially considering that Rizzoli & Isles is one my favorite series and maintains an exceptionally high bar year after year. (Fan girl moment: The Bone Garden remains on my top-10 list of Must Read Suspense, which isn’t part of the series and proves once and for all Tess can write anything brilliantly.) I think the trick to writing great suspense is to start out with complicated characters and a sinister scenario, then let the story evolve from there. Why was the Baez family murdered? Who is Roxy Baez and where is she? What is going to happen next? I never have any idea, which gives me plenty of incentive to show up each morning and write, write, write. I want to know the ending as much as you do!
There are so many details in all of your books, including Look for Me, that make the action and crimes seem so real. What is your method for making sure that your characters know their way around a crime scene and are up-to-date on the latest police and detective techniques?
I love research. Like most suspense novelists and readers, I’m drawn to the genre because I’m fascinated by crime. Are killers born or made? What makes a good person do bad things? Is there such a thing as a perfect crime? (These are the questions I contemplate while standing in line for coffee. Makes me wonder what other people are thinking.) My process, then, is to come up with a rough outline of my fictional homicide, then take it to a slew of law enforcement experts and let them beat it up. Like everything else in the world, police techniques are constantly changing. Each year there’s something new and fascinating to consider. For Look for Me, I learned the irony of detectives having almost too much data in this day and age. There’s not just a couple security cameras to check in an urban environment, but dozens. There’s not only a few neighbors to interview, but also entire blocks of prying eyes. Let alone what a random citizen might have caught on her camera while taking a selfie. In an Amber Alert situation, where every second counts, how to effectively and exhaustively plow through so much information — find the proverbial needle in the haystack — is the real challenge. The whole book takes place in roughly 36 hours, because in the real world that’s how quickly, how obsessively, it would be worked.
As I mentioned before, your characters are the definition of complex. But it’s not just the heroes and villains that get the spotlight — it’s the victims, too. Why do you think it’s important for readers to understand the way each character’s mind works and how do you go about writing those inner thoughts?
Crime is about people, and the aftermath of crime is complicated. I originally wrote Flora’s story in Find Her because I wanted to highlight that for a victim, the story doesn’t magically end when the bad guy is arrested; a new story is simply beginning. When talking to victim support groups, one of the concepts you’ll hear again and again, is how to go from surviving to thriving. That is the essence of Flora’s journey. She is a survivor. Now she wants to be a thriver. And taking it one step further, she wants to help others thrive, hence in Look for Me, she’s now working with other crime victims. If you consider that after everything Flora has suffered, she is still empathetic, still reaching out, still figuring out how to stand strong, that’s an amazing accomplishment. That’s heart, and I think at the end of the day, that makes for great characters and great story.
Often your books involve children and their relationship with parents or parental figures. Your last two books, Right Behind You and Look for Me, have featured children in the foster care system. What drew you to that topic and writing about that specific relationship?
In my real life, I volunteer with an organization that works with at-risk children and foster care families. I’ve encountered some horror stories, sadly, but also, some amazing examples of love. The foster family that takes in the feral toddler (a kid so abused and neglected he doesn’t have speech or social skills) and through love, patience, more love and more patience, brings him around. As a writer, I’m drawn to questions. What makes a family? Is family alone reason enough to forgive, forget? How far would you go for the people you love? The Baez family in Look for Me is complicated. D. D. learns almost immediately that the mother was a recovering alcoholic who once lost custody of her kids, but she cleaned up her act, got them back, and now they were supposedly living happily ever after. Except they’ve just been murdered and the oldest child is missing. I worked with a volunteer from CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) on the process for how kids are removed from a home, how siblings are generally placed in separate foster families, and how they have to learn to navigate the system if they want to see each other, let alone their parent. For Roxy, the eldest, she feels the burden to take care of her younger siblings, even as she herself is drowning. Again, what is family? And how far would you go for the people you love?
Tell me about the dogs. You often include pets or service animals in your novels — which tend to bring a little light into the darkness of the plot. Do animals hold a special place in your heart and are any of the animals inspired by real-life pups?
Yes, I love dogs (and cats!) just a little bit. Working in a solitary profession, it’s very nice to have some furry companionship. I’m also active with my local humane society. In fact, I just brought home the family’s newest member, a 14-year-old terrier mix who was surrendered due to severe neglect and yet is the most loving, sweet dog you’ll ever meet. See, now that’s amazing: this dog has every reason to be mistrusting and instead she’ll waddle right up and lick your hand. I can’t help but admire that.
Each year, as a fundraiser for the shelter, I auction off animal character rights. For Look for Me, we had two winners. Rosie and Blaze are two rescued Brittany Spaniels, who at the opening of the novel, have gone missing from the Baez household and may hold important clues as to what happened to the family. Then (drum roll please), D. D. Warren gets a dog! Yes, her husband and five-year-old son have been begging for a puppy, leading to the adoption of Kiko, the best spotted dog in all the land. Who immediately bonds with five-year-old Jack, while developing a taste for D. D.’s prized boots. In real life, Kiko was the beloved dog of the executive director of my local humane society; sadly, she passed away a year ago. Now, she’ll get to live on as D. D.’s new family member/shoe nemesis. It’s nice as a fiction author when you can make some magic happen in the real world, such as memorializing great pets and supporting my local shelter.
Do you have a favorite character — in Look for Me or otherwise?
Can I claim Jane Rizzoli? I love Jane! If not, I’ll go with Flora’s mom, Rosa. I’m drawn to her quiet strength and dignity. First, she lost her husband to a motor vehicle accident when her kids were young, forcing her to learn how to run a farm in upstate Maine all by herself. Then, her beautiful daughter went on spring break in Florida with her friends … and didn’t come home. Rosa spent 472 days not knowing where her daughter was or what had happened. She had to work with victim specialists on how to dress for national news shows, while memorizing talking points designed to humanize her daughter and hopefully keep some psycho from killing her. Then she finally got her daughter back, only to have her flinch every time Rosa hugs her. All Rosa wants is to wrap up her daughter in bubble wrap and keep her safely tucked away at home. Instead, she must accept that her daughter is now a vigilante who purposefully puts herself in danger in order to save others. Of course, Rosa doesn’t want the streets to be safer, she wants her daughter to be safer. But she can’t change who Flora was or what Flora has become. Like mothers everywhere, she can only love her daughter and be there for her when she falls.
I should mention — my own mother is pretty special, too.
I’ve heard that your own daughter is an avid reader as well! Does she get to read your novels before anyone else? Who else do you bounce ideas off of while you’re still in the writing stages?
My daughter is a huge reader. Now that she is a teenager, I’ve finally allowed her to read some of my novels. She started with Right Behind You as that book has a 13-year-old, Sharlah, and I needed my daughter to be my expert reader — what did I screw up (all the social media sites; turns out I have no idea what’s trending in high school these days). She also read Look for Me. Like any teenager, she’s not one to actually praise her mother. But she did read the novel in a single sitting and snapped at me not to interrupt her till she was done. I took that as a compliment.
What are you working on next? Can readers expect to see Flora and D. D. working together in the future?
Yes! I’m liking this new law enforcement duo. Next up, the crime is more personal for both of them. A pregnant woman has shot and killed her husband. Except D. D. recognizes the wife immediately — D. D. investigated her 16 years ago regarding the shooting death of the woman’s own father. And Flora recognizes the husband — he visited with Jacob during her captivity. Now, my two obsessive crime fighters are even more determined to figure out what’s really going on. Oh, and if you happen to have the answer, feel free to let me know, because I’m halfway through writing the book, and I still don’t have a clue!