ICYMI: BookTrib’s Exclusive with New York Times Best Selling Author Lisa Gardner

Courtesy Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau

There’s something great about reading the next book in a series – it’s like an exciting new adventure with an old friend. You know all their secrets, passions and dreams; and, even though some time has passed since you were last together, when you open that book cover it’s as though you’d never been apart. This is what New York Times best selling author Lisa Gardner accomplishes in her Detective D.D. Warren series: she has made it her specialty to take us to places we never thought we’d go.

Look For Me, sees the return of both beloved Detective D.D. Warren and Flora Dane, the victim-turned-vigilante from Find Her and takes them on a case involving the brutal deaths of an entire family, with one teenager missing. It may get dark and more than a little violent, but Gardner’s writing is eloquent and fluid, her plots well-planned out, and her characters resilient, determined and so relatable, that Look For Me is one read you cannot miss.

BookTrib was able to sit down and talk with Lisa Gardner about researching her latest novel, surviving, writing kick-ass women and more.

BookTrib: You’ve been writing suspense/thrillers for years – each book has been a bestseller, they’re rich stories that go to some pretty dark places, yet they’re so well planned-out. What is the research and planning part like for you?

Lisa Gardner:  Like most of my novels, ‘Look For Me’ was inspired by a real-life case, kind of a ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ situation. One of the things that I often do when I’m not writing is just following true-crime cases. So, there were several cases where an entire family had been murdered and a teenager is missing. In 50 percent of the cases, the teenager is involved – they got into drugs, had a boyfriend that convinced her she had to kill off her whole family, something like that. But in the other half, the child is in danger – the family was murdered to, say, kidnap the daughter. It is a genuine Amber Alert situation.

We’re captivated by these cases in real life and when they first break, no one knows the answer – just, “What happened to this family?” That’s when I want to understand the situation better – if you were a police detective, what would you do? You clearly have an urgent situation, you need to learn about this family very quickly, but of course, they’re dead, the other one is missing – how do you even begin to approach it? Do you think of yourself as searching for a killer, or do you think of yourself as searching for a victim?

I’ll meet with law enforcement and I’ll give them the fictionalized situation, and basically ask, “In the real world, how would you approach this?” I believe very strongly that in thrillers you always want your detectives being the smartest cops out there. It was interesting for me because it’s actually been 25 years since I started writing and policing itself is constantly evolving. There are several detectives that I now have longstanding relationships with and they’re like, “Oh, I was just at this seminar, and here’s the latest and greatest in what’s new.”

BookTrib: You get to keep up-to-date with the new police technology and procedures as they’re introduced.

LG: Yes, and one of the interesting things for cops right now are all these new devices like Amazon’s Echo or Alexa. These devices are recording small, 30 second increments of time, but already a Fitbit has been used in a murder case. They just subpoenaed a digital water gauge that was used, really just to show water usage, but it showed the suspect had gone through thousands of gallons of water at 2 AM, because he was hosing down the patio after he murdered his wife.

It’s the real-world policing that gets really fascinating and in the case of ‘Look For Me’ one of the first things everyone was talking to me about is that in a major urban environment like Boston, there are eyes everywhere. The issue isn’t getting leads, it isn’t getting information; it’s how to manage the information in any kind of thoughtful and strategic way. There are so many cameras, so how do you pour through them? Which ones do you decide to look at first?

But that then raises the next question for me because we don’t want to find Roxy, our missing teenager, on page two, right? So how do you hide in a town like Boston? And that is something I hadn’t even anticipated, but after talking to the cops, it’s like first you get to play the good guy, think “If I were the detective this is what I would do.” Then I get to play the bad guy. 

BookTrib: Speaking of detectives for a moment, Detective D.D. Warren has developed and evolved, really grown as a character over the years. Did you know from the beginning that this is where you wanted to take her, that she was going to change in these ways, or has she surprised you as the series has gone along?

LG: It’s a total surprise to me. Detective D.D. Warren is actually named after my real-life neighbor, who is beautiful and blonde, but she’s also known for her gardening and cooking skills — so not really like the fictional D.D. Warren! But I used her name because I thought D.D. Warren would only be a chapter or two in ‘Alone.’ I basically had a book where I needed a Boston cop and I liked the idea of this unapologetically brash, workaholic, married-to-her-job detective who would say all the things that I was raised way too politely to ever say. I think in the very first scene she’s wearing the T-shirt that has ‘Felonious’ scrawled all over it. But it’s the attitude, I think, that really just captured people’s attentions. She loves her job and she makes no apologies for it; this is what she lives for. Readers were so responsive, and my editor was like, “What about another book with her?” and I thought, “I could see another book, she’s fun!” And now I think it’s ten books, not one, so we were kind of off on that count. 

To make this work as a series, I need there to be a challenge for D.D. and I think that has also really worked for readers, where here is a detective who excels at her job; she is so comfortable at a crime scene and you know, not all of us can say that! But her personal life is a genuine struggle for her. She never expected to fall in love, or get married, or have a five-year-old son, whom clearly she adores. But being a working mom is something she never even thought would happen and I think that gives her a certain level of relatability. We’re not all kick-ass detectives, but we do know what it’s like in this modern day to juggle and to wonder “who are we shortchanging, what did we just mess up?”

BookTrib: As a counterpart to D.D., Look For Me sees the return of Flora Dane from Find Her, which I was not expecting! When you were writing Find Her, did you know that Flora was someone you would be bringing back?

LG: Not at all! It’s funny, because that character, our victim-turned-vigilante, clearly struck a chord. And ‘Find Her’ was one of the hardest books to write. It was again inspired by one of these real-life cases where you have women who have been abducted and held, kidnapped for long, long periods of time – more than 10 years and in some cases, more than 20 years. Unfortunately, there is a lot of research material out there.

I think it is a captivating search, that here are people who have gone through the worst and as Flora herself would tell you, this is supposed to be her happily ever after: she made it out, she survived. So why can’t she feel happy? Why does she still feel so isolated, so dead inside? I think that is just so poignant to all of us trying to feel connected. So, again, they were like, “Can you bring Flora back?”

I have to admit, I love her as a character. I spend a lot of time now with survivors’ groups and the phrase you hear a lot is “What does it mean to go from a survivor to a thriver?” In other words, how do you start defining your own success, because you can’t go back to the person you were. How do you figure out what the new normal is going to be?

I think there’s a lot of story left in Flora, I think this really is a real search. One of the things that she is discovering is that she likes to help others. She can’t be a cop like D.D. is, because she can’t follow rules that well – problems with authority figures – but she is finding a sense of purpose in working with other victims and it’s interesting to give her and D.D. something of a shared goal. 

BookTrib: As a counterpart to D.D., Look For Me sees the return of Flora Dane from Find Her, which I was not expecting! When you were writing Find Her, did you know that Flora was someone you would be bringing back?

LG: Not at all! It’s funny, because that character, our victim-turned-vigilante, clearly struck a chord. And ‘Find Her’ was one of the hardest books to write. It was again inspired by one of these real-life cases where you have women who have been abducted and held – kidnapped for long, long periods of time. More than 10 years and in some cases, more than 20 years. Unfortunately, there is a lot of research material out there.

I think it is a captivating search, that here are people who have gone through the worst and as Flora herself would tell you, that this is supposed to be her happily ever after: she made it out, she survived. So why can’t she feel happy? Why does she still feel so isolated, so dead inside? I think that is just so poignant to all of us trying to feel connected. So, again, they were like, “Can you bring Flora back?”

I have to admit, I love her as a character. I spend a lot of time now with survivors’ groups and the phrase you hear a lot is “What does it mean to go from a survivor to a thriver?” How do you start defining your own success, because you can’t go back to the person you were. How do you figure out what the new normal is going to be?

I think there’s a lot of story left in Flora, I think this really is a real search. One of the things that she is discovering is that she likes to help others. She can’t be a cop like D.D. is, because she can’t follow rules that well – problems with authority figures – but she is finding a sense of purpose in working with other victims and it’s interesting to give her and D.D. something of a shared goal. 

BookTrib: Does this mean that we can expect to see Flora again?

LG: Yes! I am working on next year’s novel, which was also be D.D. and Flora again. This time it’s even more personal, because someone comes forward and it’s directly related to Jacob Ness, who kidnapped Flora. She starts to realize that there might be other survivors out there – she’s never really asked the question of if anyone else survived him.

But it’s funny, because that really is the writing process for me. Like, “Okay, let’s bring this character back, sure, but what can we do that would really mean something to the readers? What’s something that would absolutely, positively be the toughest challenge for Flora?” And that’s looking backwards. 

BookTrib: Speaking of D.D. and Flora together, can you tell us briefly about their relationship? They’re very similar in some ways, but they’re also so incredibly different from each other. But the relationship between them is just so dynamic. 

LG: This is the fun part of writing for me. I didn’t plan on having Detective D.D. Warren as a series character and I didn’t plan on Flora as a character, let alone to have them together. ‘Look For Me’ really evolved as they evolved. And Flora keeps sticking her nose in things. She’s gotten involved with survivors, she has opinions, she’s following breaking cases in the news; and when a young girl goes missing, in her mind, it’s almost her duty to go find her. For Flora, it will always be personal because of what she went through. 

D.D. is a workaholic; she’s obsessed with her job, but she’s also totally exasperated with someone like Flora. Like,”You’re a civilian, stay out.” But she’s also a smart woman who will use the resources she’s given. Flora has more street knowledge, she can do things like interview female gangsters and they’ll talk to her because she’s not a cop. For me, that was something fun to work out – that this could be an advantageous relationship, each of them have something to bring to the table. They both want the same thing, but you’re going to see two very different styles of getting there. 

BookTrib: The first time that we see Flora in Look For Me is in the prologue. I don’t want to give too much away, but by the time I finished the prologue I had goosebumps because it was just so gripping. What do you think the key to writing something that puts everyone on edge, and gets inside people’s heads?

LG: I read a lot of Stephen King growing up and he remains my writing hero. He has this ability to capture something truly horrific, but mix it with the mundane. In this case, we open to where this girl Sarah becomes the only survivor of this absolutely horrific crime spree in her apartment – and you can’t just tell someone what happened. If you tell the reader “Oh, something really bad happened and Sarah hasn’t been able to sleep for a year,” it doesn’t mean anything. I do feel like your job as an author is to put yourself in that character’s shoes and make the reader see what she sees and experience what she experiences, which was that she went to bed, it was a normal night, a normal “I’m annoyed with my roommate who brings home strange men,” but then it turns into “Oh my god, what is happening?”

It’s such a dark scene and it’s meant to be terrifying, but what you also get from it is the determination to survive. Her roommates, the fight that they put up and even for her a year later, she has to find a way to move on, to survive with what happened. I liked introducing Flora there, where she shows up saying, “I’m going to teach you how to live again.” Because we don’t want to keep seeing victims being victims – we want to see them making progress. I think in thrillers you can go as dark as you want to go, as long as you show progress. And that brings purpose. It is a violent opening, but it brings a purpose: she’s going to get over this, she’s going to get stronger. And I think people like the ending of the book because you were there for the beginning and you know exactly what this girl has gone through. 

BookTrib: Another girl that you have in Look For Me is Roxy. I don’t want to give too much away, but what I did want to touch on is that she wrote these essays about her family and how alcoholism has just destroyed them. There is a brutal honesty to them, but they’re also written so eloquently or poignantly. Can you tell us about writing these essays?

LG: With each book, I trying to learn something new. But I also think, ‘I’ve been at this for 25 years,’ and as a reader, you want to experience something different. In the case of ‘Look For Me,’ I had a neighbor who became a CASA [court-appointed special advocate] volunteer and that was something I had heard of but didn’t really understand. CASA volunteers  are advocates for children, usually in foster care, when the family has been ripped apart. If child services is sitting to one side of the court room with the prosecution and the parental unit that’s losing custody because of abuse or alcoholism is sitting on the other side with the defense attorney, the CASA advocate sits in the middle with the children. 

In this day and age of the opioid crisis and alcoholism, there are a record number of children in foster care. Even her own biases in the beginning, or the assumptions that all the parent has to do is sober up and the family can get back together, it’s just so much more difficult than that. And for the kids, it’s just brutal. They are helpless in the system, and everyone is trying to tell them it’s for their own good.

Roxy is actually a perfect example of a pretty responsible kid who is taking over for her mom in order to keep the family together. But then the state comes and rips them all apart and says, “This is good for you.” And she’s just like, “No, it’s not.” But I think there’s a real poignancy there too, where families go through crises and you see families ripped apart, and you see families come back together. And, really, the heart of ‘Look For Me’ is the story of this family. They lost each other, the found each other again, and then they were murdered. Now D.D. has 48 hours to figure out what happened. Family is very complicated, let alone understand at all in 48 hours or less.

BookTrib: I keep coming back to this, but just how you wrote the family and the dynamics between them… There’s just such a huge amount of realism throughout every interaction. 

LG: I think it helps that I have a teenage daughter, I did have her read those scenes. But with teenagers, they’re just so unflinching in how they look at things. We sugarcoat things, we try to come up with the right words. It was interesting to talk with my neighbor who is with CASA because she said, “The first thing I had to learn was how to talk.” She tried to butter things up, and she would just watch her charges roll their eyes like, “You’re already lying to us we don’t even care anymore.” It calls for that brutal honesty, like, “Your mom is a drunk and that’s why she doesn’t have you anymore.” You have to start interacting at that level, or you weren’t real to them. Because that’s how they see the world; we’re the ones trying to make it seem… not quite how it is, or softened up. 

The real question for these kids is “What happens next? What happens to us?” And it’s trying to break things down to those very fundamental levels.

It’s surviving and moving on. 

 

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