In her latest, Darkness My Old Friend, Lisa Unger returns to The Hollows, the small town hiding dark secrets that she introduced in Fragile. Former police detective Jones Cooper, restive and unhappy in his retirement, initially discounts psychic Eloise Montgomery’s warning that he will endanger his life in an attempt to save someone. But as he helps a woman search for her controlling husband’s mysteriously vanished first wife and revisits a long-cold case that he investigated as a young cop, his skepticism begins to crumble.
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The Hollows books play out on a somewhat smaller scale than many of your previous books—more domestic drama, a move from NYC to a small town. Why the switch?
There was no conscious decision on my part to shift from a larger to a smaller scale; it was really about the stories of these particular characters. This small town was where they lived, these domestic concerns were at the heart of their stories. Meanwhile, I’m not sure matters of the heart, questions about faith, family, acceptance of the past and hope for the future are small-scale issues. They’re human issues, things we all struggle with on a daily basis. Sometimes the big themes have to be played out on a small scale.
Does a small town have to have a dark underbelly?
No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure The Hollows has a “dark underbelly.” It’s just that there’s often more to people and places than is immediately apparent. Everyone has a public, private and intimate self. The public face is for everyone. The private face is for our close friends and family. The intimate self is known only to us. And if a town is a construct of the human psyche, the place we build in which to live our lives, then it makes sense that there is more going on than we might, walking though it’s streets and looking at its houses, suspect. I have always been fascinated by what goes on behind the closed door. And The Hollows has been a perfect place for me to indulge that curiosity.
Fragile was inspired by an incident in your hometown—a missing schoolmate. Was there any similar inspiration for Darkness, My Old Friend?
All fiction is autobiographical—and not at all. There wasn’t a particular event that inspired
Darkness, My Old Friend. It was really about this very strong and important connection I felt to Jones. When I first began Fragile, I had no idea what a significant role he would play in that story and how his journey would come to occupy my imagination. At the end of the last book, I left him a little lost. And I had a difficult time moving on. When that happens, I generally have no choice but to stay with a character.
Your characterizations of the young Maggie and of Willow suggest a certain sympathy for the intelligent, creative young woman who can’t quite fit into the prevailing culture. Was that what high school was like for you?
I strongly relate to Willow. Again, her experience was not totally dissimilar to mine growing up a kind of creative, gothic girl in a small town. And high school is generally not the happiest place for people who have their own thing going on. Put it this way: I wasn’t exactly cheerleader or homecoming queen.
But of course I am not Willow, anymore than I am any of my characters. I heard her voice, had a lot of empathy for her experience and told her story to the best of my ability. Most writers understand what it means to be a little bit of a misfit. And maybe all of my characters are misfits in one way or another, even though on the surface they might not appear to be so. I have a lot of compassion for all of them.
Why do you think the psychic is such a powerful character in fiction?
I can’t really speak for other authors or why psychics hold a place in our cultural imagination. For me in this novel, it wasn’t really about “a psychic” per se. It was about Eloise Montgomery and what her particular story was, and what her pain was, and what challenges she was facing. She happened to be a psychic; she had a role to play in Jones’ life. I found her incredibly fascinating. There’s such a mundane quality to her abilities, something so ho-hum, another-day-at-the-office about her “work.” And I like the idea that the ordinary and the extraordinary dwell side by side in her life. I liked that there was an event, a moment that caused her to tap into that part of herself. Everyone in this novel is wrestling with his or her own special brand of darkness. Eloise’s psychic abilities happen to be hers.
Will you return to The Hollows in future books?
I’m definitely not done with The Hollows. Or perhaps better said, it’s not done with me.