An Interview with Lisa Gardner

Conducted by Alia Spring, Kate Ward, and Max Waite.

Lisa Gardner is a #1 New York Times bestselling thriller and mystery writer. She has published over thirty novels including The Perfect Husband, The Killing Hour, The Third Victim and The Survivors Club. Four of her novels were transformed into TV movies including The Perfect Husband and The Survivors Club. She has made personal appearances on a couple of television channels, including TruTV and CNN. Additionally, Lisa has written several romance novels under the pseudonym, Alicia Scott. Originally from Oregon, she now lives in New Hampshire and dedicates her time to writing a new novel every year.

Interviewers: Your books are filled with specific details about police procedures and criminal activity. What kind of person were you as a child and have these topics always interested you? For example, did you watch a lot police shows on television?

Lisa Gardner: I’ve always been fascinated by puzzles and things that go bump in the night, so mysteries were a natural fit. I grew up reading everything from Nancy Drew to Erle Stanley Gardner to V.C. Andrews. So yes, the mystery/police procedural aspect of my career is organic. I can’t imagine writing a book without a gruesome crime (which I guess says something about me).

KW: Many of your books are of the mystery and thriller genre, including the FBI and detective stories. What research have you done to become more connected with these genres, in order to get more of a specialized understanding?

LG: In the beginning of my writing career, I didn’t have the confidence to reach out to law enforcement to refine my novels. When I wanted to write my first thriller, however, THE PERFECT HUSBAND, real-world research became critical. In this day and age, readers expect plausible fiction—the crime may be over the top, but the investigative procedure should be authentic. Having no police contacts, I took the plunge and cold-called my local police department. It turns out, as long as you’re a taxpayer, you have the right to ask away.  Let them know up front it’s for fiction, and everyone relaxes. In the course of my career, I’ve now spent time at the FBI Academy, visited the Body Farm, worked with cadaver dogs, toured countless prisons, and learned about fugitive tracking. Each experience started with a phone call, hey I’m a writer working on a fiction novel, can I ask you some questions. No one ever recognizes Lisa Gardner. It’s simply a matter of taking that leap of faith, being professional and proving you are willing to learn. Most experts help in the end, because they are tired of the inaccuracies they see in books and TV. So tell them you want to get things right, and doors open up.

MW: How did you come up with the individual personalities of Detective D.D. Warren, Flora Dane, and Kimberly Quincy? Perhaps from people in your own life? 

LG: To be honest, I don’t know where my characters come from. I have to work on research and plot. The people in my novels, however, they simply come to me. Yep, I’m that crazy woman who listens to voices in her head. I don’t do character charting, bios, favorite flavors of ice cream. I just listen, then write. Yeah, freakish. I know.

AS: Could you point to a particular incident that made you decide to become a writer or more specifically a mystery writer?

LG: I don’t think you become a writer. I think you are a writer. It’s just a matter of finding the courage to take the plunge. I wrote my first book at 17. I can’t tell you why. Maybe because at 17 it’s more like why not? Then it sold, so I wrote another and another. Your first few novels are for love, not money, that’s for sure. Eventually I realized I liked writing more than I liked being a Boston business consultant. So then the question became, how could I make enough money to support myself in a profession famous for poverty-level income? The solution: write something with a bigger audience, e.g., a mainstream suspense thriller. I came up with the idea of THE PERFECT HUSBAND—a serial killer who escapes from maximum security prison in Massachusetts to extract revenge on everyone who put him there, including his wife. I gritted my teeth, did the research, survived the rewrites. And the rest, as they say, is history.

KW: Do you have any favorite thriller or mystery writers of your own?

LG: Tons. Where to begin? Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen, Gregg Hurwitz, T. Jefferson Parker, John Sandford, Nora Roberts, Riley Sager, Chevy Stevens, J.T. Ellison. I read a lot. Still my favorite past time.

MW: You write a book a year, which is incredible. How do you come up with fresh ideas for plots? Is it difficult to come up with new ideas or does it come naturally?

LG: Sadly, most of my books have been inspired by true crime, and there’s no end to that kind of inspiration. My January 28, 2020 release, WHEN YOU SEE ME, has to do with the discovery of skeletal remains which connect with a serial killer’s “asterisk list.” Basically, all serial predators have the murders that have been proven, then the additional victims police believe were killed but can’t prove it, often because they never found the body. For example, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, hunting grounds of Ted Bundy. They never found all his victims. So there are families out there who’ve still never had their missing girls returned, but get to live out their days believing their daughters died at the hands of a serial predator. How awful is that? Given that, when remains are eventually discovered, even if you’re 90% sure it was the past work of so and so, the family needs/deserves closure. So, that’s where my book starts. A cold case investigation to provide closure in a fifteen-year old missing persons investigation. Needless to say, fresh murder and mayhem ensue.

AS: Following up that prior question, how do you escape burn out while writing a new book per year? It must be difficult to be on that constant grind of coming up with new ideas, plot, and characters.

LG: Once you become an established author, deadlines are real. You learn what works for you. I live in the mountains, so I often go hiking when I’m stuck. Active meditation, I believe they call it. Helps me brainstorm. Then there’s long car rides, thinking of a plot problem right before you fall asleep and waking up with the answer… At writers’ conferences we often compare notes. There’s definitely something about being on the move—car, walk, whatever—that seems to assist the creative process. Whatever the block, there is a solution. The best novelists listen to their inner voices and adapt along with them. Huh, we may be back to the freakish part. But because I’m successful, I get to use the word eccentric instead. I’m very, very…eccentric.

KW: Do you have any advice for college students who are aspiring mystery and thriller writers?

LG: What are you waiting for? I was published while in college. And I’m not alone. Age is no barrier to entry, young or old. Writing is organic. Read. Research. Write. Just do it. And yes, the first results will be crap. But then you rewrite and it gets better. You gotta log your 10,000 hours just like everyone else. Oh, and read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD and Stephen King’s ON WRITING. Then you’re ready. Go for it.