Lisa Gardner joins Zibby to discuss her latest thriller, Before She Disappeared, as well as how she grew attached to both the story and the novel’s protagonist, Frankie. Lisa shares how her writing practice has shifted over her decades-long career and why she wants to tell different kinds of law enforcement stories. She also confessed to some high school antics!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lisa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Lisa Gardner: Thank you, Zibby. You had me at the title alone. What a great podcast.

Zibby: Thank you. I have to say, I listened to your book on audiobook over many dog walks. It was great. I was on the street listening to you describe your character’s ratty underwear. I’m like, oh, my gosh. Sometimes I don’t bring headphones. I just play it on my iPhone. All right, everybody can listen to me listening about somebody’s underwear. Thank you very much. The suspense as I’m walking around, I’m like, who’s on the street? What’s going on? I don’t know, maybe it was a mistake.

Lisa: Especially in New York City. Before She Disappeared is taking place in an inner-city neighborhood in Boston. Yes, I can see where the ambiance — .

Zibby: Yes, exactly. Although, you kind of made me want to get a job as a barkeep after all the perks associated with that and all the free food and everything else. This could be fun.

Lisa: Frankie definitely eats a lot. I’m not sure I really was conscious of that when I was writing the book. At a certain point, many people have been like, I just want to eat all the food she’s eating. I’m like, let me think, oh, you’re right. She’s very food motivated.

Zibby: It’s true. I found myself getting hungry. I’m like, ooh, throwing on another burger. What should I have for lunch? You’ve written so many books, and not only under your name, but also all your romance books under a pen name, so many books. First of all, tell me about this book. Tell listeners what this book is about, if you don’t mind, and what inspired you to write this book. Then I want to hear about your career in general.

Lisa: My latest novel is Before She Disappeared which takes place in Mattapan, Boston. It’s a new book for me, brand-new character, Frankie Elkin. She was inspired by some real-life trends we have going on of everyday people getting involved in working cold cases. In Frankie’s case, she has no special background or training. She is like us, an everyday person. As she puts it, she is short on the longings, long on regret. She is a recovering alcoholic. Her mission now, her obsession, is to go from place to place working those cold cases, missing person cases that have fallen through the cracks. It this instance, it has brought her to Mattapan, affectionately known as Murderpan by the locals in Boston, looking for a missing Haitian teenager who disappeared eleven months ago stepping out the doors of her school. What happened to Angelique Badeau? The police don’t want Frankie there. The family doesn’t trust her. Who even would do this with their lives? We’re off and running from there.

Zibby: Interesting. I thought it was so interesting, even your description of the community of displaced Haitians after the earthquake and how they came with a visa that lasted ten years. Then after that, you have a whole community of people. Can they stay? Can they not? I feel like it’s so timely with all of the immigration debates and everything going on in the news cycle.

Lisa: I lived in Boston for years. I am in the mountains of New Hampshire now. Even, it was something for me to become more aware of. Boston has one of the largest Haitian populations outside of Florida. Many are very happy acclimated. They pretty much are, in many ways, the healthcare industry in Massachusetts. Bostonians, the local government will tell you they want the Haitians to stay. Yes, the ten-year visas were up under our previous administration. It was not looking good. They basically have had a stay of execution while it’s been tied up in courts. That becomes an element of this book. Did Angelique run away? What’s it like to live in a limbo where month by month — you’ve spent now, eleven years in a country, and you don’t know if you have tomorrow. I really feel for that. This path to immigration, as they call it, really is a big deal for a lot of communities right now.

Zibby: Eleven years, if I’m in a place for eleven days, I feel like I’m settled in. Eleven years, that’s a lifetime.

Lisa: I can’t imagine that kind of limbo. What you see with immigrant communities — Angelique and her younger brother, they came to Mattapan because they had an aunt there. Many of the families have said, now having been together for this long, if part of the family is going to be kicked back, they’ll probably all go. Again, in Boston, they are the ones who are the visiting nurses. They’re doing all those positions in the hospital no one necessarily wants to do, working in the assisted living. I hope everything does work out.

Zibby: I was surprised how easy it was for Frankie just to decide this is what her job was and make it her job. Everybody gave her the validation. She could just waltz into the police and say, here I am, tell me everything. People are like, okay. Even with the families where she’s like, “I’m doing this because I want to do this. I find missing girls,” and everything. That’s just it. You can just sort of decide that’s what you do. Then people share all this stuff with you. It’s really quite fascinating.

Lisa: I love Frankie. Previously, I’ve been known for law enforcement characters, FBI profilers. I wrote Detective Dean Warren books, people who definitely had a reason for being at the scene. Frankie is more a return to the gumshoe investigative instincts. Again, she has no jurisdiction. She has no special training. For her, you could almost say she’s a dry drunk. This is how she is keeping her path to recovery as an alcoholic. She’s gotten kind of invested in other people’s problems instead. Legally, she has a right to ask any questions she wants. She’s somewhat a showcase for bravado, but also just sheer grit. You’re right, even if people don’t really understand her role or don’t want her to be there, she kind of just keeps turning up. She has this way with people. She’s not judgmental. Being a recovering alcoholic, she has seen and heard the worst of most people. She likes people. She wants to help. In the end, that sees her through.

Zibby: Very interesting. How did you come up with her? Why go back to a character like her after being on the law enforcement side for more of your recent work?

Lisa: Pretty much every book I’ve written has been based on something from the real world, the ripped from the headlines kind of books. In this case, I read an article in the BBC about this really interesting woman, Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, who lives on native lands and was very concerned about the number of women that had gone missing. It’s not just that there weren’t the resources to look for them. Nobody cared. It opened up this whole world of where you disappear. Where you live makes a big difference in the level of effort and resources that are going to brough to bear. There’s some really staggering websites out there, Black and Missing Organization is one of them, of hundreds of thousands of people that go missing, and no one even looks for them. In those gaps now, particularly with the internet and social media, you’re getting everyday people stepping forward and saying, this doesn’t seem right, I want to do something about it. For Frankie, that resonated. I loved that idea. This is actually a great book for moms. If you read something locally the other day in your own backyard and you’re like, that’s not right, I want to do something about it, what would you do? That’s kind of how I write Frankie sitting in my own family room. Okay, this didn’t work. What would you try next? Let’s do that.

Zibby: I’m a little concerned about what’s in your family room after seeing your Instagram with weapons. I’m like, uh… You’re like, here’s my latest crime scene for my next book. Those are some pretty serious weapons you have sitting around.

Lisa: Wait until you see what I get to post today. Someone just sent me an anatomically correct sold chocolate working heart.

Zibby: Whoa.

Lisa: There’s nothing like being a suspense novelist. You get the coolest things in the mail.

Zibby: I bet. A chocolate heart, wow, that’s really eating your heart out.

Lisa: You can see the valves and everything. I can’t decide if it’s the creepiest thing or just the best.

Zibby: Wow. I don’t know. If I were you, I might make sure there’s nothing inside lurking in the center.

Lisa: Actually, not a bad point.

Zibby: Right? I don’t know. Now I’m suspicious of everybody after reading your book and being on edge. Why this book now? I know ripped from the headlines and everything, but what drew you to this particular character?

Lisa: I think I was ready for a departure. I’ve written about so many law enforcement characters. As you’ve mentioned, I’ve been writing for a long time now, over two decades. This idea of an everyday, an amateur sleuth, it’s also kind of fun. One of the things suspense novelists in general are struggling with right now — take Mattapan, Boston, where Angelique Badeau disappears. You have cameras at every corner. You can track her cell phone. There’s social media. You can track her computer. There’s so much technology and forensics to bring to bear at the moment that sometimes it feels like the good, traditional detective work, where is that? The minute you start looking at cold cases, and this is something that Frankie talks about very clearly in the beginning, that’s all the stuff she can’t do. She is not a real police officer. However, by definition, eleven months later, those were also all the things that didn’t work. It was very nice to get back to a story that very much is about people. It’s about what we call social engineering. Someone somewhere knows something. It’s not finding the right hair. It’s not this magic DNA test. It’s a matter of talking to the right person. In that case, when you start researching these amateur sleuths, someone like Frankie actually has an advantage. People in a community are much more likely to talk to her than, necessarily, the local police.

Zibby: I feel like I want to have you and Rene Denfeld and Paula McLain on a panel because you’re all —

Lisa: — I get to talk to Paula McLain in a couple weeks. I’m very excited.

Zibby: Good. All of you seem to have this insight into how to find missing girls because your characters are these amazing finders. It’s quite a skill not only to be able to do, but to write about it so well too.

Lisa: I think as authors, but I think also as readers, it’s the people that appeal to us. We’re interested in human nature. Interesting enough, Frankie’s role is much more about human nature. It’s her ability to talk to a teenager’s best friends, and kind of like, yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all the crap you told your parents. That’s the crap you told the cops. I know better. I was a teenage girl once myself. I snuck around drinking all the time and screwing boys. Come on, just tell me now. Just get it out.

Zibby: Are we talking about you or are we talking about Frankie?

Lisa: Maybe both. You get to the age, you’re so glad you had an illicit youth. Thanks heavens.

Zibby: You might not want to share it with your kids. I don’t know.

Lisa: I have a teenager. She doesn’t believe any of it.

Zibby: I have a teenager too. I have two teenagers. So far, I haven’t really shared much about my own antics. I’m like, I think I should just leave my experience under wraps for quite some time.

Lisa: Mine’s firmly lodged in, my parents were never real people.

Zibby: There we go. Tell me how you got started and how you are so prolific. You seem to be just churning out books. How are you doing this?

Lisa: I’m a book a year, which is about average. It takes me three months to research a book, six months to write what I call the shitty first draft from Anne Lamott, some people refer to it as.

Zibby: I talked to her yesterday.

Lisa: Oh, I love her. Bird by Bird is one of my favorite writing books.

Zibby: She was literally talking about the shitty first draft yesterday in our book club. I’m going to send you the link.

Lisa: I would love that.

Zibby: Actually, I’ll release it as a podcast soon so that everyone can listen.

Lisa: That would be fabulous. Reading those words from her so validated and just gave reassurance. I have been at this forever, and that first draft never gets any easier. In fact, some days, the only way I can keep myself going is, this doesn’t have to make sense. This doesn’t have to be any good. This is the shitty first draft. Just do it. So six months of that and then three months to clean it up. That’s a year for me. It’s been dozens of novels, and it gets no easier. It’s still the shitty first draft. It’s a total hot mess. I like to joke I’m not actually a very good writer, but apparently, I’m a decent rewriter. Thank heavens.

Zibby: That’s all you really need as long as you get to the finish line in some way, shape, or form.

Lisa: My favorite part of writing is, no one has to know where you started. That’s between you and your computer.

Zibby: When you start your first drafts, do you always know where you’re headed? Do you have the whole plot all mapped out and then the shitty part is the writing and then you refine the writing, or is that you’re sorting out what happens as you go?

Lisa: I am sorting out as I go. In the very beginning when I started out, I had to have a plot. I had to have an outline. Otherwise, the blank screen was too terrifying. What I found for myself as a thriller writer is if I know what’s going to happen next, almost by definition, the book comes kind of flat and linear. If you know who did it, it’s hard not to broadcast it. Now, really, I’ve done some investigative research. Even Frankie, there’s some logical steps that are going to happen to try to find a missing person. The skeleton of the book is kind of there, but I don’t know who did it. Actually, it was very interesting. For Before She Disappeared, one of my first real things that I did not know the answer to was, how did Angelique Badeau disappear? I started with this premise. She left her school on a Friday afternoon, three PM. Again, cameras everywhere, trackable cell phone. Subways in Boston have cameras. Ubers have cameras. Buses have cameras. There’s license plate reading technology. The amount of surveillance in any downtown urban environment is crazy. Even, how did she disappear? was something I just hoped I would have an answer by the time I got there. It’s a bit of a mess. Somehow, it always works out.

Zibby: That must be what’s fun about it. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be fun for you if you just were inserting — I shouldn’t assume that. Let me do it again. So is that fun for you, Lisa?

Lisa: In writer circles — you’ve talked to so many. You probably know this better than we do. I feel like we fall almost fifty/fifty into two camps, the plotters and then the, I’m called a pantser, as in writing by the seat of your pants. The plotters will tell you that’s how they get the crispness. They show up because they know what’s going to happen. The pantsers will tell you, we show up to figure out what will happen. If I knew the whole book in advance, to me, now I have six months to work on a book report. Where’s the fun in that? The fact that I don’t know how this teenage girl disappeared, I don’t know what happened to her, I don’t know why decent investigative work by Boston detectives who have a fair amount of resources did not find her, that’s somehow the challenge for me and then becomes the surrogate for Frankie. What the hell did happen here?

Zibby: Very interesting. When do you come up with your next one? How soon? Is it in the middle? How many books out do you always know what you’re doing? Is it what you’re in the mood for when it’s time? How do you plan it?

Lisa: It varies. I like to consider it work, it’s probably a form of procrastination, but I like to read all those strange news, weird crime, stupid stuff like that. You can be even two books before, read something and be like, someday I’ve got to use that. Sometimes I’ve gone right down to the wire. The book is written. It’s sent to the publisher, and I’m still — it’s this interesting thing when you’re a creative person. This idea, you’ll stumble across it and you’ll be like, that’s it. That’s what I’m writing next. Sometimes you have them in advance and kind of stored up. Sometimes you’re like, please, please, please let me find that bright, shiny object right now. Right now is what I need.

Zibby: Wow, it’s so exciting. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Lisa: Some of it’s the typical. You need to be a huge reader. You need to keep reading. It’s interesting to me when I meet authors who are like, oh, I don’t read anymore. It’s like, it’s the best part of what we do. Why would you give that up? I also recommend reading across the board, not just what you like. I love to read poetry. I can’t write it for love or money. The way words are used, the economy of phrasing I think is just so lovely. Also, a local writers’ groups is often very helpful. To be able to talk to other people who also hear voices in their head, always a good thing, a supportive thing. Just be kind to yourself. Trying to create something from nothing is not for the faint at heart. I’ve been at this, again, for decades, but it’s still a project each and every time. If it feels really painful and difficult and impossible, good news, you’re probably doing it the right way.

Zibby: What is it you love about it? Why do this for so long? Why keep at it, and in so many genres too? With all of your romance, that’s amazing to shift back and forth. What is it about it that you love?

Lisa: It’s interesting. This is where I relate to Frankie as a character. It’s fascinating to me the more I go out in the world and I meet other authors. None of us are getting up in the morning like, yippee, we get to sit at a computer and type and all day. It’s much more a compulsion. There’s a very famous quote, nobody likes writing, everyone likes having written. I think it’s just once you get these voices in your head, these characters — Frankie, in so many ways, feels so real to me. There’s this obligation to tell the story even on the days that binge-watching Netflix seems like such a better idea. Let me watch The Bridgertons again.

Zibby: Is this going to be a movie? What do you think? It feels very cinematic to me.

Lisa: We hope to have some good news to announce soon, so please stay tuned.

Zibby: Excellent. I love it. Just quickly, what’s the trajectory for the romance world of yours? Are you still writing those books, or have you stopped?

Lisa: I started out writing romantic suspense, so kind of small-genre novels. Most of them aren’t in print anymore. What I discovered back then was at a certain point, it was the suspense element that I got more and more fascinated with, which was really, I got the confidence to actually start picking up the phone and calling the FBI, calling the police. When I first started out, I wrote my first book when I was seventeen. I didn’t know anything about anything. Everyone knows something about falling in love, but actual police work, forensics, that just seemed too far beyond me. It was safer for me to ground the books in the relationship with some other things going on. Over time, like so many women out there who spend all our time watching Criminal Minds and CSI, it is the police work that fascinates me. The truth is, if you are a taxpayer, you can call up and interview your local police. As I started doing more and more of that and learning more of that world, of course, the ideas exploded. I’m a very happy thriller writer now, any excuse to call up people with real jobs. For my next book, I’m learning about cadaver dogs and skeletal remains and all sorts of fun stuff.

Zibby: Can you say anything else about that book?

Lisa: It’s also a Frankie book. I actually wrote Before She Disappeared to be a standalone. Frankie grew on me. It just feels like she has more to say. The next book, One Step Too Far, next year, covers another scenario, under-resourced missing persons, which is missing hikers or people when they go lost on what we call national public lands. Our search efforts, by definition, are volunteers. There’s a ton of intensity in the beginning, but with time, people have to go back to their real jobs. Particularly when it looks like the person can no longer be found alive, everyone retreats. You’re left with a family whose loved one still has not come home, who had no closure, no answers to their questions. Frankie takes part in an expedition to head in the woods, there’s eight of them, to see if they cannot find this young man one last time. Eight people go in the woods, but eight people do not come back out.

Zibby: Ooh, okay, so that will put an end to my hiking career as well.

Lisa: I’m a huge hiker. It’s actually how I brainstorm. If you were scared before, I’ve been working with search and rescue people on this book. One of the first things they told me was there are two things that happen when you are doing a huge search mission. One is there will be a psychic. I saw them sitting in a cave. I see them sitting next to water. The second is, you will find a body, but it won’t be the one you’re looking for.

Zibby: Dun, dun, dun.

Lisa: I am actually really paranoid now. I just want to share that with everyone. I want you guys to be as scared as I am. Thank you. You’re welcome.

Zibby: Lisa, when you are not hiking or reading poetry, what do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Lisa: I like to garden. I am a huge cribbage player. I have many friends I play cribbage with. Then I have three dogs which keep me quite busy. I like to be outdoors. If I’m not at a computer, any excuse to be outside.

Zibby: It’s so nice with the spring. I feel like it’s so hard to be inside now.

Lisa: I know. I used to be a global traveler. I’m looking forward to that hobby coming back soon, very soon.

Zibby: Me too. Thank you. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for introducing us all to Frankie. I’m actually really excited now that she’ll be back in another book because I feel an attachment to her at this point. Thanks for talking about Before She Disappeared. It was great to meet you.

Lisa: Thank you very much, Zibby. This is so much fun. What a great podcast.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care. Have a great day.

Lisa: Thank you. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts