“The writing life, it’s a little bit rollercoaster-y. There are these dizzying highs and these crushing lows. It’s not like you have a job with a specific list of tasks and you go and you do it and then you punch out. It’s always with you.” Zibby is joined by New York Times best-selling author Lisa Unger to talk about her nineteenth novel, Last Girl Ghosted. The two discuss how Lisa’s mom’s love of books—and lack of boundaries—led Lisa to become a writer, where she finds the inspiration for each of her books, and what phrase should be on a gift pillow for fellow thriller writers.


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

Lisa Unger: Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for having me. You know, can I just start off by saying thank you for everything you do for books and authors? You’re such an amazing writer, publisher, entrepreneur. It’s such an amazing gift that you’re giving people, to reconnect them to books. It is such a true thing that, for writers especially, all writers are readers first. It’s that reader joy that makes us want to write in the first place. Sometimes as writers and then I know as moms, you can kind of lose touch with that really joyful part of your life. It’s such an amazing gift that you’re giving everybody, to connect them to that space.

Zibby: Thank you. Yes, of course, you can start with that. Don’t stop. Let’s just do that the whole time.

Lisa: Let’s just talk about you.

Zibby: Yeah, great. Perfect. Thank you, Lisa. That is really sweet. I really appreciate it. This all comes from such a place of love. Just like you said, I’m a huge reader. This whole thing has been so much fun.

Lisa: We all come to the business for that reason. Everybody comes to this for love, all writers, editors, publishers. Everybody comes from that place of that moment where you open a book and you read those first few sentences and you’re like, this is going to be so amazing. Everybody comes from that place. I think that’s why it’s such a — it can be a challenge, but mostly, it’s a joyful way to live and to earn a living and a joyful business. There’s so much excitement all the time for that new book. It’s a blessing to be able to be in this industry.

Zibby: It’s so true. Your mom was a librarian, right? Did she inculcate this in you from a very early age?

Lisa: Yes, she definitely did. My mom is a great lover of story. Librarian, of course, but also, she loved all kinds of movies, theater. My dad was an engineer, and so he never wanted to do any of those things. He never wanted to go to the movies. He never wanted to go to the theater, so she just took me everywhere even when things were wildly inappropriate for me. , “I just thought it would go over your head. Whatever you did understand, it wouldn’t matter.” I was like, “I’m not sure that’s the way it works now that we know a little bit more about child psychology.” We went to all these different things together. My dad, even though he’s an engineer, also, huge reader of nonfiction. We always had shelves and shelves and shelves of books. There was absolutely no censorship whatsoever. If I could reach it, I could read it. Nobody cared. Nobody was watching. I’ve just been this crazed reader, this literary omnivore all my life reading wildly across genre all the time and just wanting that big story, that big, epic, purple story, deep, raw, emotional, scary usually. Always have had that draw to the dark side. Definitely grew up reading, always.

Zibby: Can I just say that being a literary omnivore is the best expression I’ve heard in a long time? I’m literally going to write that down because I love that. That is the coolest. Wait, that sounded amazing. I want to talk about your book, but have you had that experience with a book yourself where you have felt that passionately about it? Did that happen? Does it happen all the time? Can you think of books that do that for you or that have done that for you?

Lisa: It’s interesting that you ask that question because it is actually an occupational hazard as a writer that you have to read so much and read so much for other people. You read things that you want to read, but things that you’re doing — I have a stack of galleys for blurbs. There’s a lot of books that I read for research that I want to read, but it doesn’t necessarily always engender that type of reader joy. I was on stage a couple of years ago. Who knows when it was now? With the pandemic, time has just become this house of mirrors. I was on stage with Laura Lippman. We started talking about blurbing and stuff. She said that she had really worked hard to preserve her life as a reader. She really made sure that she was always reading things that she loved and wanted to read. I was like, oh, my gosh, I wonder if I’ve done that. Oh, there’s my labradoodle. Sorry.

Zibby: My lab is on the couch. You might not be able to see her.

Lisa: You can’t see him because he’s couch-colored. So I thought, I wonder if I have really done that. I started to just go back to trying to find that reader — at least every month, to have a book that I picked just because, ooh, I’m excited. I want to read that book. I really have gone back there. The one that I read mostly recently that really did that, really transported me in that way that books do, Matrix by Lauren Groff. It was completely another universe, another world and yet such deep, rich themes, brilliant characterization, very atmospheric. Just felt immediately transported to this world that is utterly other. That’s the gift of reading, to open doors to every other universe.

Zibby: I just had that most recently with an alternate life that you sink right into. Tessa Hadley wrote a book called Free Love. Not to say that your book wasn’t amazing, but in terms of — we can talk about your book too. Tessa Hadley’s Free Love, right away, you open, it’s almost like a play. You open onto the kitchen and dining room of this upscale home in London in the 1960s with the young mother at her vanity getting ready with all the scenes set. Then she ends up leaving her husband. There’s something sometimes about the setting itself that it’s like, okay, I am in this. I am in this space.

Lisa: I’m in this space. I can feel it, smell it, hear it. I’m there. For sure, yes.

Zibby: Of course, with your book, I was also in a bar that was very crowded and unpleasant. Then I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Then I was in the car. Now I’m on the corner of Broadway and 79th Street and all over the place. Thank you for that.

Lisa: All of it. All over the place.

Zibby: I was like, oh, I was just on 79th Street. Perfect. Let’s go back to your book for a second. Last Girl Ghosted, this is your nineteenth novel, right?

Lisa: This is number nineteen. It’s crazy to say. Number nineteen, that’s right.

Zibby: Nineteenth novel. Tell listeners what this book is about. How on earth do you keep coming up with so many plots? How?

Lisa: I have no idea. I wish I knew. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, so it’s just kind of the way my brain works. I’ve been writing and reading for so long that I’ve just internalized the form of the novel. There’s always constantly something percolating. In the case of Last Girl Ghosted, when we open up, we meet Wren Greenwood. She’s an advice columnist. She’s somebody who’s come from a very dark past. She’s kind of white-knuckled her way into the light. She’s built a life for herself that she loves. She does this work of trying to help people through trauma and darkness. It’s a catharsis for her. It’s part of the way she’s healed herself. She’s pretty happy. Her best friend, Jax, is like, “You know, you don’t have anybody. You’re not meeting anybody. You’re not dating. You’re alone.” She’s kind of okay with that, but she gives into her friend. Her friend pushes her into the world of online dating.

Zibby: Torch is not a real site, is it?

Lisa: It’s not, no.

Zibby: I’m so out of it.

Lisa: It’s my made-up site.

Zibby: I didn’t think so, but you never know.

Lisa: Right, you never know. It could be something you never heard of. She has a few underwhelming encounters. Then she meets Adam. When she meets him, she falls hard. She falls really hard. Partially, that’s her naïveté, her lack of connection. She falls for him really, really hard. Then after a particularly romantic evening, he makes a request. He says, “Tell me something about yourself that you have never told anyone.” She does. The next day, Adam disappears. His social media sites are gone. His cell phone has been disconnected. The place he lives or the place she thought he lived is just a vacation rental. Wren is gutted. She’s just wrecked. Then when a private detective shows up on her doorstep, she learns that she was not the first girl to fall for Adam and that all these other girls have disappeared. Instead of licking her wounds and being glad worse things didn’t happen to her, she decides that she’s going to chase his dark digital trail into his past and into her own. That is Last Girl Ghosted.

Zibby: Wow, very cool. Of course, it starts off with this very sad moment — I’m not giving it away because it’s the opening — where she loses her mom and curls up with her on the kitchen floor against her chest. That’s so sad. Then you go into her addiction and recovery from addiction and where she is now. This is all in the very first moment. Immediately, we’re hooked. What’s going to happen? What happens to Mia, Princess Belle? The whole thing, that mother loss and even just the way you write about grief.

Lisa: As mothers, we all connect to that. Everybody feels like the worst thing that could happen to you would be to lose your child, but there’s another layer to that too. The biggest thing we fear is them losing us. That’s almost more frightening. I feel like I’ve always wandered into those dark alleys. I always think that there are things that I’ll never write about, and then I wind up writing about them just because I consider myself a little bit of a spelunker. I’m kind of shimmying into the dark spaces of the human psyche. That includes addiction and grief and trauma and mental illness and all that. That’s my number-one curiosity and fascination, is the human mind and what makes us who we are. I tend to go into these sort of dark spaces but always, I hope, headed towards the light.

Zibby: Who was I just talking to who was saying that most writing is an exercise in trying to cope with some sort of pain in some way? Particularly for memoirists, that’s why you’re writing a memoir. Oh, this was Jenny Pentland yesterday. It’s true. I feel like it’s all exercises in working through our stuff. Yesterday, literally, I had to be like, you cannot die. You cannot die. Your kids need you. You have to slow down. It’s going to be okay. Don’t let yourself die. It’s crazy.

Lisa: I know. It’s such a weird thing. I feel like it’s something that people don’t ever talk about, that layer of — then also, just mortality in general is not something we ever really wanted to face. Now as a culture, we’ve had to face it in this really new way. Everybody kind of knew in an intellectual way that you’re pretty much out of control. You can get very good at thinking that you can control your life, especially if you’re a certain type of person. You can get very good at thinking that you’re in charge of what’s happening. Then all of a sudden, if you think about everything you were worried about in January of 2019, not one of those things was a global pandemic that would disrupt your life and the life of your children, if you’re a parent, for the next two and a half, so far, years. You started to face that idea that we’re really not in control the way our modern lives have conspired to make us believe we are. All my life, I’ve been very fascinated with that type of thinking in those dark spaces. I do turn to the page to metabolize darkness, for sure. I think that a lot of people turn to thrillers and crime fiction for the same reason.

Zibby: I love that too. I turn to the page to metabolize darkness. That’s so good. You speak in these awesome — you should put it on a pillow or something.

Lisa: That’s a good idea. I turn to the page to metabolize darkness. I’m not sure how many people would buy that pillow, but maybe more than you think.

Zibby: I bet most crime writers. It’s like a gag gift for the Crime Writers’ Association or something.

Lisa: We just give it to each other.

Zibby: Yeah, give it to each other. It could be like secret santas or something. Everybody gives the same pillow.

Lisa: Exactly. It’s interesting. Lee Child gives this talk about the thriller being the first story ever told. I had this conversation with a friend of mine who’s an artist. We talked about, the first story ever told was a painting on a wall of a cave. These thrillers that we tell ourselves, the stories that we tell ourselves around the fire at night, it’s about how the hero bested the enemy or the hunter felled the beast that feeds the community for the winter. You tell each other these stories to make everybody feel braver in the dark. Then when you turn to a thriller or crime fiction, there’s a beginning, there’s a middle, there’s an end. There’s darkness. There’s some type of justice, maybe not exactly in my book, maybe not exactly the type of justice you might be looking for. Some type of justice is going to be served even if it’s just poetic justice. That is not so in the real world. It gives us this place to be scared, to be intense, to be very involved in our character and what’s going to happen to her or him, and then resolved in a way that hopefully is satisfying. Certainly, we don’t get that very much from life.

Zibby: Yes. You could say that again. Wait, tell me how — the ideas are continually percolating. You’re there with your pickax and belay and ready to dive into —

Lisa: — My headlamp.

Zibby: Yeah, a little headlight. Ready to dive into the dark side. Do you outline? What’s your process? I know that’s a boring question, but I’m actually fascinated by it.

Lisa: Usually, there’s a germ. There’s one thing, like a seed. For me, reading, writing, and researching is a continuum. It’s a never-ending thing. The research is going to inspire the writing, is going to inspire more research, is going to inspire more reading, is going to inspire more writing. That’s kind of my life as it is. Sometimes I have these conversations. In the case of Last Girl Ghosted, I had a conversation with a really young friend of mine. She was talking about the dating apps. For me, I’m 105 years old.

Zibby: Oh, stop it.

Lisa: I’ve been married for a million years. I’ve never been on a dating app. When I was first dating twenty-one years ago before I met my husband, there were the online dating things. They had just started. That’s what I had my experience with. I kind of already had a sense of the potential for it to be just very soulless and strange. It’s a norm now. She was talking about how you just scroll and scroll and scroll to the next one, to the next one, to the next one. She’s like, “How do you ever know if you’ve chosen the right person?” It just struck me as such a broken question. It struck me as, well, you’re not shopping for a toaster. Love is a head-trip. It’s not an algorithm. We had this conversation. She goes on to say, “If they turn up in your life and they’re not what you think –” Who is? Who compares to their social media feed? They’re not who you thought they were or you’re not who they thought you were, it’s just so easy to ghost that person because there’s no close-tie connection. You’re not going to wind up sitting next to your Tinder date’s grandmother at church on Sunday. There’s no external reason for you to be respectful, be kind. That was the germ that got me interested. It’s not so much that I was interested in online dating. It was that I was interested in how online dating rewrites the way we relate to each other. How does it rewrite this very ancient pursuit of finding a mate? Which is essentially what it is. That’s really what interested me.

Then I started doing my research. It usually leads me to a flock of research that are documentaries and reading articles and finding books and maybe somebody to talk to depending on how deep I want to go. Then if it all connects with something that’s bigger, some bigger question, then I start hearing a voice or voices. I follow those voices through the manuscript. I don’t have an outline. I have a very vague idea of what my book is about. I have a very strong connection to the voice or voices that I have in my head. I’m very interested in them and what they have to say. Then the story and the characters evolve, for me, on the page much in the same way they will for my reader later. They reveal themselves to me in layers. I’ve written every single book that way. I’m sure there’s an easier way to do it. It’s a lot of three AM wake-ups. It’s a very subconscious process, so it’s always kind of going, going, going. Then there’s a lot of times where I would just wake up at three and be like, oh, my god, that’s it. That’s it. Then I’m up working. That’s kind of how it works for me. I’ve never worked from an outline. I feel like if I knew how the book was going to end, that there’d be no engine for me. I’m involved in the story the same way — I write for the same reason that I read, because I want to know what’s going to happen to these people who are living in my head. That’s the joy for me. That’s the reader joy in the writing for me. That’s the full engine of how I keep writing and writing and writing, because I’m just in love with stories.

Zibby: I know you’re on your twentieth book, right? Writing your twentieth or you finished your twentieth?

Lisa: It’s done. Number twenty, it’s done.

Zibby: Have you thought, ever, about some sort of reunion tour where all the characters of all the books get together and have a party?

Lisa: In a book?

Zibby: Yeah, in a book.

Lisa: That’s a great idea, but that would be a scary party because I have some very dark .

Zibby: Maybe it’s a prison you have to go to.

Lisa: It’s like Arkham Asylum or something. I love it.

Zibby: Why don’t you try it?

Lisa: That’s a great idea. I’m going to do it.

Zibby: I want someone to try something cool with characters across books and across time. What would it be like?

Lisa: I’ve done a couple of things where people have asked me to interview one of my characters in writing. I’ve done a couple of things like that. That’s always a very interesting exercise because they do live and breathe for me. They’re as real to me as most of the people in my life. I feel that deep connection to them. Then some characters have their story, and then they’re gone. Then some characters just stay. They show up. In Last Girl Ghosted, Jones Cooper is a character that turned up first in Fragile and dwells in my fictional town, The Hollows, where a number of my books are set. He frequently turns up. I feel like, oh, he’s here because I need somebody to manage the crisis. I need a stabilizing influence. He just kind of shows up and fixes the things that are broken or gives this very practical luddite perspective on the mess that people happen to be in at the moment. He turns up in things. Then there’s a number of characters that maybe haven’t turned up, but I still think about them. I still think about, what if — even characters that are no longer with us. One in particular, I feel like she’s still around. I’m just trying to figure out where she’s going to show up again. It’s another one of those continuums.

Zibby: Wow, that’s cool. Wait, so what’s your twentieth? What’s the premise of that book?

Lisa: I’m not totally ready to talk about it yet because I’m still in my revision process, the final copyediting process. When it’s done, then I’m ready to talk about it. I will say that it’s a psychological thriller. Bad things happen.

Zibby: I watched a short — not interview because you were just really talking — little video that you did about when people were asking you if you’d written your best book yet or something like that. You were like, you always like to think that your writing gets better every single time and that your best book is always going to be your next book, which I thought was so interesting. I love that.

Lisa: I do hope that’s true. I do. That’s my number-one driver. I’ve been writing a long time. I’ve had a long career. The things that are great, exciting, the great reviews or best-seller lists and all that, that’s wonderful. It’s such a blessing to be able to have those things happen, but the thing that gets me out of bed every day is that I think I can be a better writer today than I was yesterday. I really do believe that. I believe just in, the doing of it makes you better every day. I hope, always, that I feel like I’m always operating at the pinnacle of my ability at that time. There’s never a moment where I’ve done less than I thought I could do. I’m always heart-and-soul involved in what I’m doing. I always hope what comes next is better, is more exciting, more involving, that I’m more careful with my words, more in-scene, giving more to my reader. That’s definitely a major driver for me.

Zibby: In your acknowledgments, you thanked your family and said it’s really hard to live with a writer. What do you think the hardest part is for them?

Lisa: Oh, my gosh, I’d have to ask my husband to come on to give that answer. My daughter is sixteen, and so she’s grown up — this is all she knows. There are these moments where you’re like, oh, my god, everything’s fantastic. The pages are flowing. It couldn’t be better. Then there’s the days where things are not going well. You can’t get into it. Your manuscript kicks you out. You’re like, that’s it. It’s wrong. It’s all wrong. It can never be right. Then you’re like, oh, I’m back in. My husband is very good at being like, “I know this is horrible. You’re okay. It’s going to be okay. You know you say this every year, right? We do this every single year.” I’m like, “No, this time it’s really true. It’s horrible. I can’t fix it.” He’s like, “Just go back up to your office.” I’m like, “Okay.” I go back up. The writing life, it’s a little bit rollercoaster-y. There are these dizzying highs and these crushing lows. Great things happen. Bad things happen. The work is organic. It’s not like you have a job with a specific list of tasks and you go and you do it and then you punch out. It’s always with you. My husband and I have worked together for a really long time. We like to say he manages the corporation, which is all the stuff that surrounds the business of being an author. We’ve been doing that for a really long time, about fifteen years now. It’s all the joys and wonders of working with your spouse. There’s all that great stuff. Then Ocean, my daughter, she’s been on — now she’s older, not so much, but when she was small, she came on every single book tour with me. That would mean if it was ten cities in twelve days, that meant that I did that with my baby and my husband and sometimes my parents, which we always joke is the worst entourage ever. It’s the worst entourage .

Zibby: Where is Matt Dillion in this scene?

Lisa: You’re like, what? Are you guys not supposed to be helping me? My dad was there to take care of my mom so that my mom could take care of Ocean so that Jeff could take care of me and we could go to our events.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I love it.

Lisa: It was chaotic and crazy. I look back and think, how did we ever do it? Honestly, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Zibby: That’s so nice. I love it. Lisa, this has been so fun. In the back of my head this whole time, I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to put “I turn to the page to metabolize darkness.” I’m going to find a place. I’m going to send it to you when I figure it out, in some swag-related item.

Lisa: I love that. That is really exciting.

Zibby: Thank you so much. It’s been really fun getting to know you. I hope our paths cross in real life.

Lisa: It’s been amazing. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Lisa: Bye. Thanks.



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