This conversation originally appeared on Lisa Unger’s website here
Kate White – wow! Former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine (yes, she knows all your secrets!), bestselling author of thrillers and mysteries, and a business and career expert who travels the country speaking to women. Impossible not to be intimidated by this powerhouse, right? What are the chances that she’s also a lovely, easy-to-talk to, down-to-earth mom? She’s all those things, too! I’m happy to call her my friend, and delighted that she took time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her life, balancing career and family, and of course her rocket-paced, thrill-ride of a new book, THE SECRETS YOU KEEP.
Lisa Unger: Wonderful Kate! It was the lovely and talented Sally Kim who introduced us — sort of! She was your editor at Harper, and she sent me your book HUSH for an early read. I loved it and you and I have been in touch ever since. I’m awed by all that you have accomplished — former editor of Cosmopolitan, stellar thriller writer (six mysteries featuring Bailey Weggins, and five novels of psychological suspense), AND an expert on business with an extensive speaking schedule and bestselling career advice books. And a mom. And a wife. And just someone fun to be around. I should probably ask you about your next book THE SECRETS YOU KEEP which I’m reading and loving (and I will!) but first — you seem to so elegantly handle the balancing act that your life must be. Did you know you wanted to write fiction when you were working at Cosmo? What advice would you offer your younger self (not that you’re not young! You ARE!) and other working mothers balancing career and family, as well as other dreams and goals?
Kate White: Oh, thanks for all those nice things you said, Lisa.
Yes, I always did know I wanted to write fiction, but I got a very late start (let that inspire anyone reading who’s still dreaming of doing it). When I was a young, I had this fantasy about moving to New York and becoming a writer, but I naively thought I could become many kinds of writers at the same time: reporter, magazine writer, playwright, novelist. It was only once I got to the city that I realized I had to pick a lane. I picked magazines in part because I’d won the Glamour Magazine Top Ten College Contest. At least as a magazine editor, I was also able to write essays and first-person pieces. Eventually I moved up the ladder and became an editor-in-chief. Deep down, though, I worried that my dream of writing fiction was slipping away, so in my forties I vowed to do it, despite how hard it might be. Not long after I took over Cosmo, I wrote a proposal for my first mystery and showed my agent. I was very fortunate to get a two-book deal.
I wrote on weekends before my kids got up or after they went to bed. I was burning the candle at both ends, I know, but I also was doing something I wanted. Eventually I realized that as much as I loved running Cosmo, I wanted more personal freedom and the chance to write full time. I was able to do it because I’d laid the foundation on all those weekend mornings.
My best advice to working moms? Delegate more. Make time for yourself, including giving yourself permission to sometimes be away from your kids for at least a day to recharge. I never took time away from my kids at night or on weekends, and I know now they would be fine if I’d gone away with my husband for an overnight or two in eighteen years. Give yourself permission, please!!!!
What about you? How do you balance the work/mom thing? I know you’re very good about including Ocean in some things but you don’t seem to force her in any way to be a part of it all. Am I mistaken?
Lisa Unger: How amazing is that? You had this super-intense job, wrote novels, and still put your kids first. I love that!
I am POSITIVE that your children value and appreciate that you were always there for them; that’s yet another accomplishment in your life! I say delegate, too — but delegate the laundry, the cleaning, the cooking if you can. Delegate yard work, order your groceries online, hire an assistant to manage tasks, or say no to some of the things that drain your energy. Recharge in little ways throughout the day — by meditating, taking a hot shower, getting off social media and having a walk around the block. But I feel like we have our kids with us for five minutes! I cherish time with my girl, and want her to know that in the mommy-writer balance, being her mommy always comes first.
It’s true that I’ve brought Ocean with me almost everywhere I’ve traveled. I’ve been fortunate that my husband Jeff has been able to travel with me. It helped that my parents were willing and able to get up and go wherever I needed them to. It’s kind of a messy entourage, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way! Now that Ocean is 11 years old, I work during her school and summer day camp schedule. When she comes home, I try to be done for the day. And I do still try to take her when I travel, but never to the detriment of school. And, so far, she still wants to travel with us. So, if that’s the case, I’d prefer to have her with me. When that changes, we’ll change to accommodate her needs. No, I’d never force her to be a part of it all. (Though we are putting her to work at Bouchercon 2018 here in St. Petersburg!)
So, I’m deep into your new book THE SECRETS YOU KEEP — don’t tell me anything! Bryn is a self-help writer, recovering from a terrible car accident, and trying desperately to move forward. She’s struggling with the aftermath of trauma, just drained, so it’s no surprise that she can’t make any headway on her next project — even though her agent is applying pressure. It all feels so real — her fatigue, that wanting to work, but just not having the energy. And she’s being plagued by horrible (prophetic?) nightmares. Poor Bryn! I just want to climb into the book and make her some tea. (Meanwhile, I am NOT feeling good about her husband Guy!) How did you access Bryn’s state of mind? What about her do relate to most, and how is she most different from you?
Kate White: I hear you about the simple pleasures. I meditate every day no matter what, and that’s become such a small, wonderful pleasure for me.
And I know what you mean, too, about delegating. Delegate the things you can so you can cherish time with people you care about. One funny memory about myself as a working mom. I used to leave work at five but then work for a couple of hours after putting the kids to bed at about nine because running a magazine can’t be done in only eight hours a day. When my kids were tweens, my husband worked in another city and we saw him only on weekends. The kids and I would read or talk after dinner and then they’d head up to bed. One night my son said to me, “Mom, gosh, can’t I stay up any later?” And I realized, he was FOURTEEN and I was still in the habit of having him go to bed at 9 so I could work afterwards! Of course, I let him stay up after that.
Thanks for the shout out about my book. For Bryn’s state of mind, I tried to access a period in my life years ago when something traumatic had happened and I was trying to separate fact from fiction. I think we’ve all had periods in our lives when we suddenly find ourselves questioning something, wondering if we have an accurate read on a situation or have failed to see the truth. That can be so scary.
I’m LOVING THE RED HUNTER. I’m so impressed with the different points of view you have in the book. Each character is so well drawn. I’ve never written from more than one point of view so I’m dazzled when someone does it well. And it adds so much energy. And in the case of THE RED HUNTER, what’s even more impressive is that the characters with these different points of view are connected but we’re not sure how right away. Though I’m starting to have some clues.
Two questions: First, there’s something Claudia thinks early in the book that seems to be based on research but I never heard it before. She’s talking about it in terms of something terrifying that happened in her life (which you write about in a way that takes my breath away). She thinks, “It’s never one thing that leads to a tragic accident, according to people who knew about those things. It’s usually seven things—seven mistakes or errors in judgment, or acts of negligence.” Is that something simply out of your fabulous imagination or is that true?
Secondly, is your book going to get really, really scary? I’m already very nervous. I’m practically closing my eyes in some parts. Though of course, being scared can be delicious! I just need to know so I won’t read the rest of it when I’m home alone.
Lisa Unger: Ha ha! That made me laugh out loud. Poor Ocean still has an 8:30 bedtime — mainly because I’m so exhausted from being up at 4am that I’m usually not far behind her. I wonder when she’s going to ask to stay up later!
I can relate to that feeling of trying to piece together a traumatic event — in a small way. I had a minor car accident last year. Afterwards, I had no idea what had happened, where the other driver had even come from. He sideswiped me, forcing me off the road — then took off. For weeks, every time I was at the intersection where it happened, I pressed into my memory, just trying to figure it out. But it was gone — or maybe it was never there. It was an odd feeling, and one that stayed with me. You captured it perfectly — though of course Bryn’s trauma is much more severe.
I wish I could exactly document where I gleaned this piece of information! Maybe I first heard something about it in one of my favorite books: DEEP SURVIVAL by Lawrence Gonzalez. Then years later, I think I read it again in relation to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (although in this case maybe it was eight factors — according to an article in New Scientist). Then later I heard something similar relating to a climbing disaster on Mt. Everest. It kicked around in my brain for a long time, and then surfaced in THE RED HUNTER. I researched around to document it, but couldn’t find a source. It makes a kind of sense to me, how many things have to go right or wrong for anything to occur. Probably we could reverse engineer every major event in our lives and find seven factors that led to it. This is a theme that runs through my work, the idea of choices and chance, and what can happen as the result of a moment, or series of moments. How the events might be so tiny — you make a wrong turn, you miss your train, you turn back for your umbrella — and the consequences so unforgiving.
Is THE RED HUNTER going to get really scary? Hmm … I don’t know how to answer that. I sometimes hear from readers how scary, how dark are the books, but I don’t really think of them that way. I am always so deep into character, so fascinated by what’s happening to the people in my books, and why they do what that do, that I don’t think much about whether it’s scary or not! I don’t think it’s SO scary. But if you’re nervous about things like dark, unexplored basements that hide secrets, career criminals stalking your house for something that may or may not be hidden there, or a young woman seeking revenge against men who killed her parents — you might be a LITTLE scared. (But considering that an AXE figures prominently in a murder in your book, I don’t know how scared you can be!)
Bryn comments at one point in the book that she’s a geek for research. And I think you and I have talked about that, too, how we’re both information junkies. Was Bryn’s comment really you in disguise? Do you love research? What was your most intriguing research experience?
Meanwhile, I finished THE SECRETS YOU KEEP! Loved it — twisty, smart, and involving! I won’t give anything away, of course. But I’m sure your legions of fans are going to get the thrill-ride they’ve come to expect. And — how exciting — your book goes on sale this week! Where can your readers find you to get their copies signed?
Kate White: Lisa, you gave me a lot to think about with this last letter. I finished THE RED HUNTER, btw, late last night, and I LOVED IT. I didn’t have to go to sleep with the lights on but I was tense reading it, couldn’t stop reading it, and there were a few times when my heart was pounding. Some surprises I never saw coming, one that knocked my socks off, but made such perfect sense in the end. A great read!!!
I love what you said about choices and chance, and what can happen because of a moment or series of moments. I loved your characters Claudia and Heather and Raven, and Paul, too (and I ached for Josh), and I was trying to will moments to go a certain way for them but knew it wasn’t in my hands. Maybe it wasn’t even in your hands, it was just you letting your characters experience fate. That’s one amazing thing about your writing that just crystallized for me. Your characters are so vivid and never feel manipulated or controlled by you. They always seem to be alive and making their own choices, even if they are dangerous ones.
I also admire how you are always experimenting as a writer, never sticking to the same formula. And can I just say I go nuts for lines like, “The trees punched gold against the gloaming.” Jeez, that’s nice.
In closing, a few words about research. Harlan Coben once told me that he thought research was a form of procrastination. But I like being a research junkie like you. It helps generate ideas and is also damn fun. When I was researching SECRETS in Saratoga, a character I was having trouble creating, just walked into the room I was standing in. Information can be helpful on so many levels. A brilliant consultant I worked with at Cosmo used to say that when you are stumped, it might very well mean you need more information. So go after it.
Incidentally I’m having lunch today with a fantastic forensic expert named Barbara Butcher (true!) who I met years ago and became friends with. Over a delicious lunch, she will give me some grizzly info for the next Bailey Weggins mystery. I can’t wait. Yum!
Lisa Unger: Thanks so much, Kate!
Lucky readers, you’re in for a treat with THE SECRETS YOU KEEP! Suspenseful, intense, twisty and full of surprises you won’t see coming, this is a book that will keep you up past your bedtime turning the pages.