Q&A with Lisa Unger, Author of House of Crows
By John ValeriJune 4, 2021
New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger is quickly becoming as prolific as her body of work is prodigious. Having sold many millions of books worldwide in twenty-six languages, she notched yet another hit with last fall’s Confessions on the 7:45—now a 2021 ITW Thriller Award Nominee for Best Hardcover Novel as well as a 2021 Audie Awards Finalist for Best Mystery. This May, she returns with a unique project from Amazon Original Stories: House of Crows, a four-part serial available on Kindle and audio that follows a group of friends as they come home to confront Merle House—and the shared past that haunted them since childhood.
Unger graciously took time to reflect on this new collection for Criminal Element, discussing topics including: the construct of a serial, the challenge(s) of creating a multi-part work, exploring trauma through characters, confronting areas of vulnerability (physical and/or psychological), and the paranormal. Additionally, she speaks about the thrill of hearing her work brought to life by an ensemble of voices.
House of Crows is a four-part serial. What appealed to you about this construct—and do you have favorite works of a similar framework that you drew on for inspiration?
There’s a blast, a kind of energetic intensity that I love, to the writing of short fiction. My relationship to the novel is a long, enduring one; it takes longer to evolve, to make itself fully known. But the short story usually reveals itself in one great rush, almost as if it was waiting to be told. It was like that for House of Crows.
The structure—a four-part serial—evolved organically. Since everything flows from character, it seemed natural that each story should be a deep dive into one of the people who populate the tale. Matthew, Mason, Ian, and Claire all deserved their own universe, which I think adds a richness to the ending. We know how each of them got there, what drove and motivated them, and we’re deeply invested in their fates. I loved being able to explore their shared experience from different perspectives and show how each one constructed a life around trying to find answers—or around running from darkness.
I’m not sure I can think of another serial anthology just like House of Crows. But I love Dean Koontz’s short stories in his smart and twisty series Nameless. It has that energy of smaller parts comprising a whole, like episodes in a television series.
Each story can stand alone yet adds to the totality of the work. What is the greatest challenge in creating a piece that must satisfy both singularly and as part of a collective whole?
I am actually not sure that each story stands totally alone. I suppose you could read them that way. But I think the richest experience is starting at Book 1 (All My Darkest Impulses) and reading through to Book 4 (Love the Way You Lie). It’s not so different from chapters in a novel. You might have a singular experience with each chapter, but ultimately if you want the full story with all its layers, you’ll have to read the whole thing. Still, each story is its own universe, an intimate exploration of character with its own arc. So some closure for each character is achieved at the end of his or her story, but how they intersect is the underlying structure that unifies the parts.
The saga revisits four adults—Matthew, Claire, Ian & Mason—who as childhood friends shared an inexplicably dark, haunting experience. In what ways does the trauma of that history manifest itself differently in these characters—and how did that allow you to explore the variant nature of PTSD?
House of Crows is at its heart an exploration of trauma and how it can inform our choices—a theme that I’ve explored again and again in my work. Each character is driven in different ways by their shared experience. Claire explores human psychology. Ian is a ghost hunter. Mason has been searching for a spiritual truth that speaks to him. And Matthew is a professor of literature and a struggling writer. They all made choices, mistakes, big ones and small ones. The sum of those choices—and the haunting they carry with them from Merle House and Havenwood—leads them all back to where they began. Which is true of all trauma. You can’t run from it or bury it. You must face it down eventually.
I loved my time with each of these very different characters and had a different relationship with each of them. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Mason. I have a soft spot for the damaged person clawing his way toward the light, and that’s how I see Mason. He comes from trauma and abuse, he’s been accused of terrible things, he’s made big mistakes with his life, and yet when we first meet him he’s counseling a group of struggling young people. There’s a sweetness to him, a kindness, and an acceptance of the world’s darkness that appealed to me. But they all spoke to me in different ways. I liked Ian for his skepticism, even though in his heart he’s a believer. I admired Claire’s cool intelligence and her bravery. I was intrigued by Matthew’s darkness, his mistakes; his love for his family was redemptive in some ways.
Each of these characters is drawn back to Merle House (and its surrounding property). Tell us about the attractive and repellant qualities of this place. Also, how may it resonate with readers who have their own demons—or Merle House—to confront?
For House of Crows, I was loosely inspired by The Haunting of Hill House—not the story as much as the idea of a haunting as a personal event, and the ambiguity between reality and the constructions of our perceptions. I’ve read Shirley Jackson’s iconic story more than once over my lifetime. And one of the elements that comes back to me again and again is how everyone brings his or her own dysfunction to Hill House.
I’m fascinated by the idea of haunted places—structures and the land upon which they’re built—and who might be sensitive to those trapped energies, who might be vulnerable. This is a topic that has come up in my work quite a bit. And for House of Crows, I was wondering about how different types of people—fiction writers, psychiatrists, spiritualists, ghost hunters approach the idea of the haunting. Is it something internal, external, something made up altogether? Once this idea was turning around in my head, it wasn’t long before I was hearing the voices of Claire, Matthew, Ian, and Mason, each of them with their own set of problems, and joined by a common dark experience that shaped all of their lives. It was their stories and how they connected that compelled me.
The idea of The Unknown is in play throughout. How do you endeavor to balance potentially speculative elements with an overriding sense of realism—and in what ways do you see faith, fear, and/or memory factoring into this equation?
I don’t see a conflict between realism and the supernatural—for lack of a better word. Paranormal might be better—just beyond normal. Or just beyond what we understand. What we view as unknown or unexplained are simply things that are outside of our understanding right now. What we view as real and solid often dwells side by side with the great mysteries of the universe, like body and soul. The body we think we know; our soul is a question for the ages.
Faith, fear, memory—these are all altered states. Our faith is colored by the stories we’ve been told and believe. Fear is perception altered by brain chemistry. Memory is the trickiest and most unreliable narrator of all. I don’t see a huge difference between the things we suppose we have explained and the things we’re still exploring. We have more questions about the human brain than we have answers, so too with the universe, spirituality, science. Life, story, for me, is all about asking and trying to answer some of those questions.
The serial was also recorded as an audiobook, and you were involved in selecting the voice actors. Tell us about this experience. How does, or can, hearing something you wrote brought to life by others change/enhance your own relationship to it?
I am always excited to hear how different actors interpret voice and tone for my characters. I usually get a number of samples to choose from. Often, there’s a little flash of recognition when it’s the right voice, or the voice that matches the one I’ve been hearing in my head.
For House of Crows, there’s an ensemble of voices telling the story, so it was especially exciting to hear the auditions. Usually, when I hear narrator audition files, the actor is reading from another book. But in this case, each actor read from the House of Crows manuscript. It was a special thrill to hear different voices, interpreting my words, tone, and character energy in unique ways. Each character came to life in a way I didn’t expect. But in most cases, I had an immediate reaction to the voice that rang true to each person in the story, like hearing the voice of an old friend.