Lisa Unger, SECLUDED CABIN SLEEPS SIX: A Novel of Thrilling Suspense

Lisa Unger, SECLUDED CABIN SLEEPS SIX: A Novel of Thrilling Suspense

Zibby is joined by repeat podcast guest and New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger to discuss her new book Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six: A Novel of Thrilling Suspense. Lisa shares the inspiration behind the book (it includes her own family trip to the woods…), her fascination with DNA testing and complex family relationships, and the beauty of sharing her writing with her daughter. She also hints at her upcoming project (it will keep you up at night!) and reveals the five people she would take on her own secluded cabin getaway!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Lisa. Thank you so much for coming back — I’m laughing because Lisa just held up a copy of my book — for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” now to talk about Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six.

Lisa Unger: Hi, Zibby. You’re amazing. I’m daily blown away by you in every social media platform where I see you and follow you. You’re this amazing powerhouse of energy and love for books. It’s moving, actually. It truly is. Your book, Bookends, is a real love letter to your life as a reader and also as a creator and this book maven. It’s such a beautiful journey that you’ve been on with books, starting from your moment with Charlotte’s Web in the bathroom. That really got me because that was one of my first loves as a kid as well. Probably everybody, right? I just really appreciate you and everything that you do.

Zibby: Aw, thank you. That’s so sweet, Lisa. That just totally made my day. Thank you for that.

Lisa: Do people not tell you that every day? They really should.

Zibby: It’s always nice to hear, particularly when I think I’m interviewing somebody else.

Lisa: Oh, right. Sorry.

Zibby: No, it’s fine. I do love books so much. I get so excited. I can’t imagine a life without books, honestly. It’s like a parallel narrative that I’ve been living.

Lisa: I feel the same way. Your life as a reader is so rich. I don’t remember a time in my life before I defined myself as a reader and then as a writer. My mom was a librarian. I think we discussed that. She had this great love of story, always, not just books, but also television and film and theater. It was her big passion. My dad, on the other hand, is an engineer, nonfiction, doesn’t want to go to the movies. I just became her companion in all that stuff. I know that it formed me, this love of story. Watching my daughter have that same experience, having her read books that moved me — she’s reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Even something like The Island of the Blue Dolphins and all these things that had such meaning and impact, it’s just a continuum of love for story. It enriches our lives in all kinds of ways.

Zibby: Totally true. I haven’t actually had that experience where one of my kids has read one of my favorite books and we could talk about it.

Lisa: What’s really trippy is now she’s reading my books. Then we talk about that.

Zibby: At what stage does she read your books?

Lisa: She just started. It’s funny. She didn’t really ask. She’s sixteen now. She didn’t really ask for a long time. Then she was like, “When do I get to read your books?” I had to think about that because they’re dark. I’m the kind of mom who’s like, when I’m reading aloud from Harry Potter to her when she was little — the books do get dark — I was verbally editing what I was reading. My parents never censored my reading or my television viewing or anything like that, but I very much so did that with her. I was like, “I don’t know. Let me think about it.” Then she’s like, “Mom, all my friends are reading your books.” I was like, “Okay, fine.” Then I just let her start reading. The conversations that I have with her are so fascinating, the way she experiences my characters and then the things that — she said the other day — she just started reading Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six. She was like, “There’s so much in there that is from us, is from our life. I hear your voice.” I found that moving because I feel like she has these pieces of me that she’ll always have. I think that there’s something that’s moving about that that I didn’t expect.

Zibby: Interesting. I do feel like if you are able to write, whether it’s a book like this that you have out now or just diary scratches or something, at the end of the day, they’re what we leave behind. It’s not our clothes or this bracelet or something. It’s the words written by the people that I’ve loved that I cling to like talismans.

Lisa: The stories that we tell of our lives are the things that we pass down. That’s our truth. You said something in your memoir. At the beginning, you were like, this is how I remember it. Maybe you were there, and you remember it differently. This is the life that I have held. This is the life that I have held and that I am giving to you in this way. I think that there’s something so important about that because you could have this experience with your siblings or other people in your family, and everybody’s going to walk with it hearing a different story, a different version of that moment. Yours is important, whatever it is, whether somebody comes, it didn’t happen that way. I didn’t feel that way about it. Okay, that’s you, but this was my piece to bring forward. I think it’s valuable if you can put that down and have it for whoever wants to read it later, your child, your grandchild, their child. It’s a greater legacy than anything that you could ever leave.

Zibby: Meanwhile, I can’t get even my mom to listen to my podcast.

Lisa: Your mom doesn’t have to listen to your podcast.

Zibby: I’m kidding.

Lisa: My dad didn’t read my books.

Zibby: She does sometimes. I shouldn’t say that. I put out all this content all the time. I’m like, anyone that I know, did you listen?

Lisa: Oh, okay. You were busy. No, I get it. Totally.

Zibby: Wait, so what do you think your daughter found that was you in Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six? What do you think she was responsive to?

Lisa: I’m not really sure. I asked her specifically, “What was it?” Usually after she finishes, we sit down and have kind of a long talk about it. I asked her specifically, “What is it that you felt resonated with you about me?” She was like, “I don’t know.” Typical sixteen-year-old answer. I was like, “Think about it. Let’s talk about it later.” When I have that deep conversation with her about Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six, I’ll hit you back. Tape the conversation to be continued.

Zibby: To be continued. We could patch her in.

Lisa: Exactly, be like, “So Ocean…”

Zibby: Why don’t you talk about where you came up with the idea for Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six and what it’s about for people who are in the mood for one of your new books?

Lisa: Usually, there’s one germ. In this case, there was a couple things that led me to start hearing the voice of Hannah, which is really the major voice that led me through the story. Although, Henry was a really big part of it as well for me. It was an ongoing discussion that I have with DNA testing. Stopping short of actually testing my own DNA — that’s another part of the story. That’s another podcast, actually. I’ve been really obsessed with the idea of this and the industry surrounding it and how the information is being used or how it could be used and how it ties into some dark historical things that make me a little bit uncomfortable and just all the various layers of it. Much the way Last Girl Ghosted was about online dating and Confessions on the 7:45 had a lot to do with social media, I’m interested in these technologies, but not in the technologies themselves. I’m interested in how they’re rewriting the way we relate to each other. Especially in DNA testing, I’m interested in these themes that run through most of my work, which is, what makes us who we are? Is it biology? Is it experience? It is nature versus nurture? All these historical arguments and questions that exist, what is it really? That’s the journey on that piece of it.

Then during the pandemic, my husband and my daughter and I, we would just drive from Florida and rent cabins in places like North Carolina and Georgia. We would rent these secluded cabins in the woods. They were beautiful, beautifully appointed, very comfortable, lots of fun, hiking, all kinds of great socially distanced stuff that we could do at the time. It’s very difficult for me to go on vacation. My brain never stops. It never stops working. I was in this beautiful cabin. I was thinking to myself, I’m just curious about that door code. Does everybody get the same code? Is it a different code for every person? Then I was sitting outside enjoying the beautiful outdoor fireplace, and some strange man comes driving up on a Gator. He’s got this long gray hair and baseball cap. He’s like, “I check in on the property for the owners from time to time.” I was like, oh, do you? Wow. Great. There was that whole piece, and just the isolation, the quiet. Another big theme that runs through a lot of the books is this nature theme, the imperviousness of nature. It just stands witness to all the folly that we participate in as people, the good, the bad, and the ugly. There was that piece that came into it.

When you first open Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six, you’re at a Christmas gathering with Hannah and her family. A secret Santa delivers a mysterious package. Everybody opens it. When they open it, it’s a DNA testing kit. Nobody in the family has any idea where it came from. Everybody has a different reaction to the gift. Then fast-forward a few months. Hannah and her brother Mako, their spouses, their family friend and her mysterious new boyfriend are all headed out to a secluded cabin in the woods, a luxury cabin, for some much-needed R & R, a big disconnect from the very hectic, technology-addled modern life that they’re experiencing. Hannah, this is her first time away from her child, so there’s a lot of tension there for her. They are hauling with them, all kinds of baggage in the form of secrets and lies. There’s a mysterious guest who is lingering outside in the periphery. This stranger is running a dark agenda of revenge. There’s a storm brewing. Of course, cell phone service is spotty. What could go wrong?

Zibby: Love it.

Lisa: It’s going to be fine, really.

Zibby: One of my takeaways from this book was to always hide a secret extra gift. That’s such a good idea anyway, after the kids finish opening everything, just being like, actually, there’s more.

Lisa: There is that moment. Hannah talks about it. Every mom knows, every parent knows the crush of the holiday season and all the effort that we pour into it and everything. It’s the big meals, the gatherings, the gifts, all of it, if you’re fortunate and blessed in that way. Then there’s a moment where — usually, it’s pretty on Christmas Day or whatever holiday you’re celebrating. It’s usually pretty early on that day when you’re like, okay, wow, now it’s over. To prolong that moment, to have the one more thing that’s hidden I think is a good plan for everyone.

Zibby: It’s sort of like cooking. It takes so long to do everything. Then you eat it in two seconds. That’s it. Then you just have to clean it up.

Lisa: Then everybody’s standing around doing the dishes for the next hour.

Zibby: You’re like, oh, no, but that ten minutes, that was great.

Lisa: That was great. It was so good. The turkey was a little dry, but still, it was good.

Zibby: I found it really interesting the way you wrote about all of the different relationships. There are a lot of different contingents here, siblings, in-law. Those relationships can be very fraught, especially as siblings change over time and bring in new people. I just loved how you wove that all together and really examined that a little bit more, especially before the holidays are upon us.

Lisa: I think that that’s something that I tend to do. I feel like there’s this vision of the family. There’s this idea that we’re sold. There’s the table, the gathering of all your relatives. It’s all joy and laughter and support and all of that. It’s a tiny bit of a fallacy. I don’t know any families like that. There’s always this subterrain life to every family, the way relationships twist around each other and the way when you bring the spouse into the mix, how all of a sudden, his or her perspective on your family makes you see things that you did not see before, which is the case a little bit with Bruce and Hannah. There’s so much dysfunction that we kind of take for granted in our families because we just didn’t know any better. We thought everybody’s family was like this. When you bring that other person in and all of a sudden, that person is like, “Whoa, wait a minute. No, this is not how we’re moving forward,” it creates this really interesting conflict. It solidifies the spousal relationship. As a consequence, the extended family or the family-of-origin relationship has to take a step back or it breaks up the marriage. I find those kinds of dynamics to be very interesting. Also, just the idea that you have your family of origin — you think of your parents and your aunts and your uncles and your cousins and all of that as this very solid and known unit of people. Then you meet somebody. You’re not biologically related to that person. You fall in love with that person. You form a bond. Then you start creating your own children together. Then you are the family of origin. Your child looks to you as this solidified thing that always was without ever thinking, why did you choose this person? What was your experience? You choose these people to be part of your life, your friends, your spouse. You choose people to be part of your life. Then they become as important, as influential as the biological relationships that you have as a child.

Zibby: My version of your catastrophizing every time you’re in a cabin situation is setting up these impossible predicaments in my head, just what you’re saying. What if my brother and my husband were both nominated for an Academy Award at the same time? I go down this whole path. Where would I sit? Would they both want me to come? Who would I root for? How could I root for them both at the same time? Would someone get mad at me? It’s a completely useless worry.

Lisa: We do that. Of course, we do. We all do that. That’s the way the brain works. You can bring yourself into presence with meditation and your breath, but basically, you’re always time traveling. You’re either in the past ruminating on things that happened or you’re in the future worrying about what could happen.

Zibby: What will never happen.

Lisa: You’re future-tripping creating bizarre scenarios that will never come to pass, probably. It’s such an interesting revelation I had about the pandemic when that first happened. It was such this moment of, oh, my god, this thing is happening. It is unbelievably scary. I was thinking to myself in December of 2019, of all the things that I worried about about 2020, a global pandemic never once entered my mind. The fate of the planet and the world, it never once was like, oh, yeah, I’m really — we all worry about our various global things, but that was definitely not one of them. I was reminded that my powers of prediction are absolutely abysmal, terrible. I just try to comfort myself with that whenever I’m future-tripping. It’s like, yeah, this horrible thing could happen, but this wonderful thing could happen too. You can kind of balance yourself out that way, or you just write a book about it and all onto the page. That’s usually how I manage it.

Zibby: I do feel, though, that once I’ve worried about it, I can stop worrying about it. Okay, I’ve worried about that. Now I can move on. If it doesn’t happen, I’m always so pleasantly surprised. My husband thinks I’m a pessimist. I’m like, it’s not really pessimism. I hope for the best. I really do. It’s just, I’m prepared with the worst and always pleasantly surprised if the worst doesn’t happen.

Lisa: I agree. I’m with you on that.

Zibby: It’s a nice way to live. How long did it take you to write this book?

Lisa: A first draft of a novel usually takes about nine to twelve months. This is about that for me.

Zibby: What is coming next?

Lisa: What comes next is, I can’t really talk about it yet. I’m not ready to talk about it. That’s kind of how it works for me. I just finished up revisions on the next book. I’m just now starting to get a sense of what I wrote. I’m just this week ready to talk about Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six. I’m just ready to say, this is what I wrote. This is what it meant to me. These are the layers of it, and whatnot. It takes that year for me to reflect and write something else and have the distance from the next book before I’m ready to talk about it. Also, I just have this thing about never talking about the book until it’s completely done because I feel like it drains the energy from it.

Zibby: Okay, I won’t say a word.

Lisa: It’ll be a psychological thriller. Bad things will happen. You’ll be scared. You’ll stay up late turning the pages, I hope. That’s what I can tell you.

Zibby: We’ll see what your daughter has to say about it.

Lisa: That’s right.

Zibby: You just wrote a great article for us at Zibby Mag — thank you so much — with all of your book picks. Are there any you want to highlight? Thank you for writing it.

Lisa: I loved writing that, about books to read, or not, in a secluded cabin. There were some really interesting books on that list. Some of them were older. Some of them were newer. I’ll just shout out to you, Ruth Ware and Heather Gudenkauf and Gilly Macmillan. Gillian and Heather wrote books about similar themes, these very isolated settings where people come together, and the past and the present collide. Heather’s book was about a true crime writer who has gone to a secluded cabin to finish her book. That’s pretty brave. It’s all these tendrils that reach into the past. It’s just incredibly suspenseful. She’s an excellent writer. In that group, I had talked about The Turn of the Key, which is Ruth Ware’s, not her most recent book, but I think two books ago, about a nanny who goes out into the Scottish Highlands to an isolated mansion. She’s the caregiver for children who are, basically from the minute steps onto the property, warning her that she should leave. It’s a really cool juxtaposition of a very old-school haunted house vibe. The house is controlled by this system called Happy. It’s a smart house. There’s this juxtaposition of the technology and the old-school scary horror story. Gilly Macmillan’s book, The Long Weekend, was about a group of women. They’ve gone out to a house in the countryside of England. They’re waiting for their husbands to arrive the next day. When they arrive, there’s a gift basket. The gift basket is from a friend. There’s a note that says, “One of your husbands have been murdered.” They’re completely isolated. They can’t reach any of their husbands. It’s about how these friends — all their interconnectedness with each other and their spouses. It’s very layered and super fun. Those are just a few of the books on the list.

Zibby: I don’t have as high a tolerance of fear as you do, I think.

Lisa: Probably not.

Zibby: My tolerance is way lower. My sleep is affected intensely.

Lisa: I suggest that if you do go to a secluded cabin for some R & R, you do not bring any of the books on my list to that cabin. You’ve already read mine, so sorry about that.

Zibby: Guess what? I am not going to go to a secluded cabin.

Lisa: That’s it. That’s the end of secluded cabins. Sorry.

Zibby: In fact, we were just at our retreat a couple weeks ago up at this beautiful resort called Inness. They have these twenty cabins and then just a couple hotel rooms. Originally, we were all in cabins. I was like, I don’t want to sleep in one of these cabins. I’d rather take this tiny room in the inn, just light and someone else locking up. I was like, I think I’ll be creeped out. This is the city girl in me, at least.

Lisa: I was going to say, this is the Manhattan girl.

Zibby: Sorry about that.

Lisa: Nature is very, very unpredictable.

Zibby: Yes, it’s true. Last question is, if you could pick and fill a cabin with six people for a dream vacation, maybe not where terrible things happen, who would you stick in the cabin with you? Actual people.

Lisa: A vacation that I would actually enjoy?

Zibby: Yeah, a vacation you would enjoy. Who would you want? They could be alive or not. They could be people you know, people you don’t know. It doesn’t even have to be all six, but if you could dream up a cabin.

Lisa: Everything has to include my husband and my daughter because they’re my besties. I don’t enjoy anything as much as I do when I’m with them. That’s two, my husband Jeff and our daughter.

Zibby: You count, so that’s three.

Lisa: Oh, I count too?

Zibby: Yeah, you’re in the cabin. We only have three left.

Lisa: Definitely, Oprah. She’s just such a force for good in the world. I feel like she would have a lot of wisdom and presence. I would love to hang out and talk to Oprah. Zibby, I would like you to come.

Zibby: I’m in. Thank you.

Lisa: I would also like you to come. We would all just sit around and talk about books. We would cook food and make cocktails. I’m trying to think of who would be my next person. Does my Labradoodle count? Can I bring Jak Jak?

Zibby: Okay. We can count Jak Jak.

Lisa: If I had themes, I could probably come up with Edgar Allan Poe and the Brontë sisters. That would be really good. I always wanted to talk to them about not only their novels, but just their lives, which are so interesting, and being a female writer during that time and all of that. Oh, Mary Shelley would be another one. Okay, this is good. This has really gotten out of hand. Sorry.

Zibby: Now we’ve got two cabins. That’s okay. We’re at a resort now.

Lisa: In the third cabin…

Zibby: I put you on the spot. I think that was well-done.

Lisa: Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you, Lisa. This was so fun. For people listening, you can go back and listen to Lisa’s last episode, which came out in February. There’s no lack of Lisa Unger to go around.

Lisa: That’s for sure.

Zibby: Congratulations on your book. Thanks again for writing for us at Zibby Mag. Thanks for just being so nice and complimentary and making my day.

Lisa: You’re amazing. You’re a real treasure. Your love of books is infectious. I know everybody appreciates you so much, including me.

Zibby: Thank you. I’ll pack my bag for the cabin.

Lisa: Great. Let’s go.

Zibby: Bye.

Lisa Unger, SECLUDED CABIN SLEEPS SIX: A Novel of Thrilling Suspense

SECLUDED CABIN SLEEPS SIX: A Novel of Thrilling Suspense by Lisa Unger

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