Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Conversation with Lisa Unger

By Alex Segura

I like Lisa Unger's books because they're not conventional, they change things up and they keep you guessing. She does this consistently with each of her novels. Imagine my delight when I learned that one of her latest, CRAZY LOVE YOU, featured a protagonist who also happens to be a comic book creator. I took a shot and asked her to come visit this here website to chat about writing, the book and the two mediums. 

While CRAZY LOVE YOU is unlike a lot of her previous work, that's par for the course for the versatile author - which, in turn, is refreshing and fun for the reader. Dark, evocative and hard to put down, CRAZY LOVE YOU makes for a quick and intense read, very much worth your time.

Thanks to Lisa for taking the time to chat and to the amazing Erin for making it happen. This interview was edited a bit for clarity, etc. 

Let's dive in, shall we? What can you tell us about CRAZY LOVE YOU?

Each of my novels begins and ends with a character voice. There’s usually a germ or a spark that leads me to do a lot of research. If all of that connects with something else going on with me, I usually start to hear a voice, or see a scene over and over. That’s how almost all of my novels have started. But it wasn’t that way with CRAZY LOVE YOU. I just started hearing Ian Paine’s very edgy, very male voice in my head. And I started writing just because I was interested in who he might be. I’m not really sure what the initial germ was.

Ian is a graphic novelist, living in Manhattan. He’s escaped from an ugly past, and shed his former self — a bullied, overweight boy, who was hated and feared in equal measure. When we first meet him, Ian has a successful graphic novel series called FATBOY AND PRISS, loosely based on his own past. One of the main characters, Priss, is modeled after his lifelong friend of the same name. Ian is newly in love with a girl named Megan. And his complicated relationship with Priss is starting to be more of a liability than an asset in his life. Though Priss was his only friend growing up, his avenger in many ways, standing up for him, and making trouble for the people who made trouble for Ian, as they grew older, their relationship changed, grew darker. Where she used to bring out the best in him, now she brings out the worst. Even his editor is hinting that it might be time to move on from the series — where Priss suddenly seems more like a villain than a hero. Ian knows it’s time for a change, time for a grown-up relationship with someone who doesn’t encourage him to indulge his darker urges. But Priss isn’t willing to let go, not on the page and not in real life. The more he pulls away, the more out of control his life becomes.

Were you a comic book/graphic novel reader before writing CRAZY LOVE YOU? What made you want to make one of the protagonists a "graphic novelist”? Did you speak to a lot of comic creators or people in the business to get a feel for what it's like to work in the medium?

I have deal of respect for the medium and a real fascination with idea of the classic superhero figure, particularly Batman. The layers of character and the mythic nature of the storytelling has resonated with me as a reader and writer. But I wasn’t a graphic novel reader per se until I wrote this book. 

CRAZY LOVE YOU didn’t come from that place, necessarily, not from a desire to write about a graphic novelist. When I started thinking about (hearing? seeing?) Ian, it was just who he was, what he did. He was a graphic novelist and a lifelong lover of comic books. He found a home within those exciting, beautiful, idealized pages when he couldn’t find one in the real world. That’s what I knew about him. And I was a little freaked out because I knew nothing about his world. So I called my friend Gregg Hurwitz and said, “I am writing about this guy and he’s a graphic novelist. And I know nothing!” And his classic Gregg response was, “What? Why?” And I said, “I have no idea. Just help me.” So Gregg connected me with Jud Meyers, owner of the amazing, fabulous BLASTOFF comics in North Hollywood. 

During my first conversation with Jud (who is one of the loveliest, smartest, coolest people I have ever met), I said, “I don’t even know enough to interview you.” So, he sent me a vast array of graphic novels and I read them, as well as a bunch of books on how to write and publish graphic novels (like it’s just that easy!) and did a deep dive online until I felt like I knew enough to ask reasonably intelligent questions. And then I stalked Jud, who was my doorway into the whole world. He opened up everything for me, knows just about everything there is to know, and inspired me in all sorts of ways.

What did you learn that surprised you?
There was so much to learn about that whole universe — and I’m sure I didn’t even scratch the surface of what I should know. But for me it was always about Ian — who he was as a person, what his journey was as an artist and a traumatized spirit. Could he make himself whole? What was real with him and what wasn’t? Is there a difference between fiction and reality for the writer/artist? And if so, which one is better, more manageable? The world of graphic novels – meaning the nuts and bolts of the business -- was less critical to me than was the inner life of the artist. (And for that I don’t have to go very far.)

What has always thrilled me about the medium is how art and language unify to tell a story. Flipping through the pages of both the classic “comic book” and the very current, sophisticated and deep “graphic novels” I am amazed by the talent of the artists and the writers, the big stories, and how few words it takes to convey meaning. As a novelist, I am swimming in words. I need a lot of them to weave my universe. But the graphic novel has all these layers of meaning in a single glance. I am also amazed by how collaborative the process is, that people like Ian who do it all are very rare. It’s fascinating to me how a team of people can work together to create a single story. My process is so private, so personal — each novel is an inner journey. The story spins out from inside. There isn’t a story that I seek to tell. There’s a story that tells itself through me.

I think the character of Priss represents something for most people - the dark past relationship we're all trying to move past. Would you agree? What went into her creation as a counter-balance to Ian?

Priss, like Ian, is her own entity. She is not his counter-balance, nor is he hers. Their relationship is a symbiotic one, as perhaps all relationships are to a certain degree. They each fulfill very specific needs for the other, which once upon a time was a positive and powerful thing. But the energy between them has grown dark, a bit twisted. It needs to change. And, yes, I agree that she represents a dark relationship. That relationship might be with drugs, or appetites we know we shouldn’t indulge, or someone we love but who nonetheless brings out our darkest selves. Or it might be with the person we ourselves used to be, someone we’ve outgrown as much as we have those old friendships that keep us living in the past.

Ian has a dark history, and some dangerous appetites, as well as suffering from extreme trauma and addiction. In some ways, it would just be easy for him to continue down the path he and Priss are on together. For Ian, darkness is a siren song. All he has to do is surrender to Priss. The way into the light takes work, he has to claw his way there. I wasn’t sure he had it in him to make it into the light. I am still not. 

How much is the world of comics/graphic novels part of the story? 

All my novels begin and end with character. The world of comics/ graphic novels plays a relatively small part in this story. Much as when I wrote about a fiction writer in DIE FOR YOU, the publishing world was a small element. It’s Ian’s life as an artist, his struggle to separate fiction from reality, what comics and graphic novels meant to him as a kid, and what story means to him now that interested me. It’s always the people we’re involved with, more than the world they inhabit. And that’s true for any genre. I could have been writing about fiction, or painting, or music — any creative enterprise that takes over the artist and becomes more significant than the real world. But the vivid color and rich textures graphic novel storytelling worked perfectly for this novel.

Are there any comics you read regularly? Would you ever want to write a graphic novel?

I kind of fell in love with graphic novels during the writing of CRAZY LOVE YOU. There’s nothing I read regularly, as I always have piles of things I need to read, want to read, should be reading. But during my last visit to Blastoff Comics I bought, on Gregg Hurwitz’s recommendation, I KILL GIANTS by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura. I don’t say this lightly: It was brilliant and beautiful and incredibly moving. Just gorgeous. Some of my favorites during my research: REVIVAL: Volume One: You’re Among Friends by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton; TERM LIFE by AJ Lieberman and Nick Thornborrow; CHEW: Volume One: Taster’s Choice by John Layman and Rob Guillory. My daughter Ocean, who is 9 and a half going on fifteen, loves the new BATGIRL by Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, and Babs Tarr. But, to be honest, it’s a tiny bit too grown up for her, so we’ve only read a couple together. I love it, too.

My daughter became a little obsessed with my graphic novel/comic pile and kept trying to sneak glances. She’s currently writing her own — and it’s pretty amazing. She’s that rare breed of writer and artist. It will be interesting to see how those twin talents develop. I think it’s more likely that she’ll write a graphic novel before I do.

As someone who's written both novels and comics, I find each medium to be uniquely fulfilling. Comics let you collaborate with another creative person to create something greater than the individual parts. A novel is solitary and allows you to create a clear, singular vision. Would you agree?

The novel is a very personal enterprise, and definitely in most cases a solitary one. I am not sure I could collaborate with another person, not because I don’t want to. Just because I’m not sure how that would work. I’m so deep inside my story and character. And I often find myself waiting for that voice to tell me what’s next, or to see that next scene, or hear that phrase that drives me to the next piece of the puzzle. I’ve always loved the idea of writing a graphic novel, but I’m so all about words, and creating images with those words, I don’t know how I would adapt to that very different process. I already have too many people and voices in my head. But I like the idea, as you say, about the collaboration allowing creative people to make something bigger than the individual parts. I hope I get to experience that one day.

With this book, were you trying to allow them to bleed into each other a bit, and maybe turn on novel-readers to comics and maybe vice-versa? 

So little of what I do is intentional. The way I ultimately told the story -- a dreamy blend of the “real" and the graphic novel within the novel -- was a direct result of who Ian was and how his story unfolded.

I was hoping that there might be a graphic feature to the book. Those interior sections, the graphic novel within the novel is all so vivid and colorful to me. I see it in panels. It’s a shame I can’t draw to save my life! But my publisher was very adamant that the world of novels and the world of graphic novels don’t blend easily. Readers of novels — supposedly — aren’t necessarily graphic novel readers, and vice versa.

But I wonder how that can be so. If you love story, wouldn’t you be excited for any great one, no matter what the format? But maybe that’s just me as a reader. I don’t discriminate — give me a great story with vivid images and well-drawn characters and I’m yours regardless of genre or format. So even though I didn’t really intend to turn novel-readers on to graphic novels or vice versa, I’d be happy if that was a result.

This book is a bit of a departure for you, in terms of character and style - was that intentional? Instinctual? How has reception been so far?

Is it? A “departure” indicates that I’m on one particular path. I’m not. (Which is probably not a good thing from a commercial standpoint!) I am all about character, and the person (or people) in my head dictates how the story is told. So each of my books is going to be a little different from the others — though you can always count on dark themes, and a deep dive into character, and hopefully some twisty suspense.

Ian is my first male, first-person voice. But I don’t feel like I chose that — even though on some level I know I did. So that’s a little bit of a departure. CRAZY LOVE YOU is not my first foray into the “unexplained” for lack of a better word. But it’s certainly my most fearless trip. (I write a little more about there here: 

Like all of my books, some people love it, some don’t. But I think with any truly authentic endeavor, the most we can hope for is deep engagement with the people who do find their way to the work and with whom it resonates. I’m fortunate to have very loyal readers who are willing to follow me wherever I choose to go. The reviews here and abroad have been lovely. So I’m thrilled.

Did I miss anything?

I don’t think so! Thanks for the great questions and inviting me to hang out on your blog! 

My pleasure! Thanks again.


Kristopher said...

Great interview. Lisa can do no wrong. Clearly, listening to the voices in her head is working for her. Crazy Love You is a wonderful book.

Kristi said...

thanks so much for interviewing Lisa Unger on DSD. I'm just jealous you beat me to it! ; )
I'm always amazed and awed by details of how Lisa Unger writes her books - as a writer who outlines like a fiend, I'm fascinated by her process and it ALWAYS works. Always.
Unger will always be one of the very few authors I buy without even reading the back cover description - an auto-buy author!

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