'Find Her,' A Conversation with Lisa Gardner

Lisa Gardner is one of the best-known names in all of thrillerdom. She's received praise from Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen, among many others. With more than 22 million books in print, she's written an FBI profiler series; the Detective D.D. Warren series; and a number of standalone novels.
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Photo: Philbrick Photography

Lisa Gardner is one of the best-known names in all of thrillerdom. She's received praise from Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen, among many others. With more than 22 million books in print, she's written an FBI profiler series; the Detective D.D. Warren series; and a number of standalone novels.

In Find Her, Flora Dane shares the protagonist role with Detective D.D. Warren. Some years earlier, while on Spring Break in Florida, Flora found herself waking up in a pinewood box. In pain and disoriented, she began months of captivity at the hands of an abductor.

A survivor, Flora had become a vigilante, and now finds herself in a situation similar to the horror she endured years earlier. Detective D.D. Warren is on the case, and the novel's twists and turns guarantee nothing is quite as it seems.

In Find Her, Flora Dane seems more the protagonist than Detective D.D. Warren. Did you begin writing the novel with that in mind?
I don't plan my novels in advance. I write freely, and go wherever the story takes me. I have to admit, as I began writing about Flora, she captured me, and I think the novel reflects that. Her story begins in such a dark place, and I like writing toward the light. Flora must meet the incredibly difficult challenge facing her: she was once abducted and then freed; but she's in a similar situation now, and must struggle to survive. So, in a way, she really became the protagonist of the story.

One of the novel's characters is from the FBI's Office for Victim Assistance. Tell us about the role of that office.
One of the things I do in my non-writing time is surf the Internet. I came across an article about the FBI's Office of Victim Assistance and its role in dealing with victims of abductions and kidnappings. When these victims are eventually recovered, they need a huge amount of support for re-entry into society.

This issue also came up after the Boston Marathon bombings. Many of the victims of that attack had life-altering injuries. For some, their parents had to give up their jobs because the victims needed so much full-time care. The Boston office of the FBI became very involved. Crimes today are often bigger and more dramatic than ever before. The crime is just the beginning of the journey for the victim, one that will take years to complete.

Who would have thought the FBI would open an office to assist victims with re-entry into society?

Crime novels haven't really explored the effects of crimes on victims and their families. In most novels, a crime occurs; a detective arrives, figures out who did it, and the story is over. But if you're a victim, the experience isn't over at that point. It continues for a very long time.

Find Her has a unique structure. D.D. Warren's parts are told in the third person, while Flora Dane's voice is in the first person, both in the past and present tenses. Was this a bit of a departure for you?
I didn't plan it. It's just the way Flora came to me. I'm lucky to have a great editor who doesn't put constraints on my writing. I'm able to bring freshness to my readers.

Flora was written in the present tense because that's how she's dealing with the world. Everything's immediate; it's urgent. Everything's a crisis for her. Psychologically, she's in a hypersensitive place. I wrote her narration in the first person because it's the most intimate experience for the reader. The reader is inside the narrator's mind.

You once described each new novel as being "painful for me." You also said, "I'm always just feeling my way to that other side--the completed novel." Will you talk about that?
I wish writing were easier. You would think that twenty-five years and seventeen books later, it would become easier, but it hasn't. I do a great deal of research before I write. I have a good understanding of the concepts and procedures I'll use in the novel, but at the end of the day, I'm a character-driven writer. So, the characters take over, and I just go where they lead me. Each day, I start out writing with no idea what I'm going to say. Many other writers have a plan, an outline, a map; but I don't. And, it isn't easy to write this way.

Does facing each day with no real outline or plan make you nervous?
Absolutely. If there's one thing I've gotten used to in writing, it's this: I haven't gotten over the anxiety of writing. I've just become comfortable with it. The fear of the unknown is with me constantly.

What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
I'm a parent, so there are many fears that keep me awake. I think to a certain extent, Find Her involved my exploration of a parent's greatest fear. There are so many abductions in the news these days. Between the Jaycee Duggard case and the Elizabeth Smart case, and so many others, finding research material for Find Her was not a problem.

I think most of my books are about facing fear. The writing process, in some ways, lets me work out the kind of everyday anxieties that can keep a parent awake at night.

In Find Her, Flora's journey is her own, and her mother must have faith that Flora will find her way through it.

As parents, we have to have faith that our kids will find their ways through, too.

Looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently?
From a marketing point of view, it probably would have been better if I'd written my series books in consecutive order instead of alternating them with standalone books and other series.

Last year on Facebook, while I was wrapping up the work on Find Her, we did a Facebook poll. We asked readers which characters they most want to see from the three series, and by an eight to one margin, they requested more of the FBI profiler characters. I haven't written those books in eight years, but the readers have spoken, and I'll go back to them. It would have been more prudent if I'd written the books in a more cohesive way, instead of haphazardly, but it's interesting for me to see that readers have followed the characters.

As a bestselling author, do you worry about anything in your writing life?
I'm lucky in that regard, I don't. As I said, time and experience have taught me to get comfortable with my own discomfort. If you're a professional, you learn your triggers. If I'm stuck, I go for a walk in the woods. Driving is also good for inspiration. Talking about the book with my agent or a friend can spur me on.

I don't wake up every morning thinking it's six a.m. and I can't wait to get back to writing. (Laughter). But I'm a professional writer and know the things that keep me focused and on track.

Do you ever feel guilty if a day goes by and you haven't written?
I get more anxious if I feel I may not meet my deadline. I'm a very structured writer. I draft a novel in about six months. Then, I re-write. I'm a big re-writer. If I get behind schedule, my husband and daughter will tell you I'm not fun to live with. (Laughter).

What question are you asked most frequently in interviews?
I'm most frequently asked from where do I get my ideas?

Why do you think that's the most frequent question?
I think it's because when people look at me, they see someone who looks like an ordinary mom. They can't believe I come up with these horrifying scenarios. (Laughter). My daughter is getting old enough to read my books, and so are her friends. I'm waiting for the day when the parents of my daughter's friends say, 'I can't believe I left my child alone with this woman.' (More laughter).

What's coming next from Lisa Gardner?
I'm returning to the FBI profilers, Rainie and Quincy. I always try to do something new with each book, so for the next novel, I've been researching spree killers, which involves more than one casualty, and more than one location. Spree killing almost always starts close to home, then expands outward to anyone who crosses the killer's path.

Congratulations on writing Find Her, a chilling novel tapping into our darkest fears, and providing readers with a fascinating protagonist they will remember for a very long time. I'm still thinking about Flora Dane.

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel is The Lovers' Tango.

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