Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lisa Gardner & Mike Lawson at the Poisoned Pen

Lisa Gardner, author of Live to Tell, and Mike Lawson, author of House Justice, appeared together at the Poisoned Pen. Gardner's series features Boston police detective D.D. Warren. Lawson writes the Joe DeMarco espionage series. The latest book received starred reviews in PW and Booklist.

The authors were asked to introduce their books. Gardner began by saying this was her first visit to Phoenix, so it was her first visit to the Poisoned Pen. She said, sadly, she's unusual for a suspense author in that writing is all she's ever done. She wrote her first book at seventeen, sold it at twenty. She's written nearly thirty suspense novels.

Live to Tell starts with D.D. Warren going a date. D.D. should never go on dates because the crime rate in Boston goes up. Gardner says her stories start with a puzzle and a crime. This one begins with what appears to be a straightforward crime. It was a family annihilation, and that usually just means a lot of paperwork for the police. However, a second family was killed the next day. So the connection was found at a locked down pediatric psych ward where a nurse, Danielle Burton, worked, whose family had been killed by her father exactly twenty-five years earlier, leaving her as the only survivor.

Lisa Gardner went on to tell us that the idea came from the true story of the son of a friend, a child who had a psychotic break at eight. He used a hammer to destroy the house, and the babysitter had to lock herself in a room, barricading it to protect herself and the boy's little sister, while she called the police. It takes very special people to work in those pediatric wards, but they say if they can save some kids at five, they may prevent a greater tragedy fifteen or twenty years later.

Gardner said she hopes her books leave readers with some feeling of resolution. She hopes they're intrigued, puzzled and terrified.

Mike Lawson said a review in the New York Times said one of the part things about his books is that "None of the characters are high-minded." Lawson worked for the Navy for thirty years, working in reactor plants on the West Coast. He said he started writing when he took the ferry from Seattle to the shipyard daily. He had a one hour trip, and could type during that time. But, it took him ten years to get an agent. His favorite story is about a woman who said she'd never sold a book, but agreed to represent him. She sent a very amateurish letter to the publisher, and then one day she called, and said she'd have to drop him. Her house had flooded, she had all these troubles, and she just couldn't handle the two clients she had.

After ten years of trying, an agent called, and said he liked the sample Would he send the book? By this time, Lawson had sent the book to so many agents, he didn't even know who he was talking to. But, he sent the book, and two days later, he had a call saying he liked the book, but would he change a few things. It turned out the man was John Grisham's agent.

Lawson sets his books in Washington, D.C. because it's a target rich environment, with horrendous and frightening stories, that are all true. His latest, and fifth book, House Justice, deals with a story similar to Valerie Plame's, the CIA agent who was outed. In Lawson's book, a reporter reveals a CIA agent's name, and the agent is killed. It looks like the leak might have come from Congress.

Lawson's books have three main recurring characters. Joe DeMarco is the political troubleshooter for the Speaker of the House. The Speaker, John Fitzpatrick Mahoney, resembles Tip O'Neill physically, but he's more corrupt. Then there's a CIA agent.

Mike said his second book is set in the shipyard where he worked. That story resembles one that happened in Los Alamos, when some CDs disappeared, and some employees were said to be spies for the Chinese. When Lawson was working at the shipyard, some CDs disappeared that had secret information about submarines on them. They weren't stolen, but had just been misfiled.

The authors were asked what they read, and Lisa said she had been touring with Tess Gerritsen, and she read her books, and everyone needed to be home to watch Rizzoli & Isles on TV that night. She said the book she's been raving about, though, is Chevy Stevens' Still Missing.

Lawson began his answer by telling everyone that Lisa Gardner had just won Thriller of the Year from International Thriller Writers for her book, The Neighbor, and he was hoping to get that for his wife because she likes to go to open houses. Then he said he reads Don Winslow, Thomas Perry, John Sandford, and Richard Price. He also likes nonfiction, particularly a series about the NSA. Gardner said, as to nonfiction, she likes true crime. Her mother recently sent her a book on blood spatter that she's excited to read.

Asked about research, Lisa Gardner said started writing romantic suspense, under the name Alicia Scott. She came from a family of accountants, so that wasn't helpful when she wanted to write suspense. But, she discovered that she could successfully cold call agencies to get help.

Lawson said before 9/11, it was particularly easy to call Congress or the State Department and ask questions. DeMarco's office is in the subbasement of the Capitol. Mike found it pre-9/11, when you could wander anywhere in the Capitol. He found this room in the subbasement, and thought it would be perfect for DeMarco's office. You can't do that today. In fact, he called Homeland Security, and asked for their address, and they wanted to know why he wanted it. He eventually go the address, from another agency.

Asked what they liked about writing, Lisa said she loves the research. She just spent two days at the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, and she loved it. She usually does three months of research before writing her books. But, asked if she knows who did it, she said the characters are ambiguous to her to start. She had a preconceived idea with The Neighbor, and she changed it for a better idea.

Mike loves to write. (At which point, Lisa told him she hated him.) He starts with an idea, and just starts writing. But, he does a lot of rewriting. The characters tell you where you're going. He said he writes the first draft fast, and then plays with it. He said he doesn't know where he's going for the first 100 pages. He's always liked John Grisham's comment. When told readers could see what was coming, Grisham said how do they know where it's going, when he didn't.

Both authors said they do a lot of rewriting. Lawson commented that he has gotten better at writing, but it's not an easy. (At which point, Lisa told him she liked him now.) He said he's a smarter writer, but not as polished as he'd like.

Gardner said she's been writing for twenty years, and has thirty novels. She was already published when she married and started a family, and she wondered if parenthood would change her. Now, she writes domestic suspense rather than serial killers. Now, she has a seven-year-old, and lies away at night, thinking of what could happen. She told us, "If I'm afraid of something, twelve months later you'll have a novel."

Lisa said her darkest novel, Say Goodbye, when she and her daughter kept listening to the Care Bears. So, the secret to violence is listening to the Care Bears. To this day, she thinks she could sing the entire album. So, for those kids who think their parents scar them, when you're a parent, you're children fight back.

Asked if they always wanted to be writers, Lawson said he always wanted to write. He needed a laptop and that hour ferry ride. And, what got him started is when he read a book by an author he liked, and the book wasn't very good. He thought, I can write as bad as that.

At seventeen, when she started to write, Lisa saw it as a hobby. Her family was all into math. Her parents were accountants. She never thought she'd make a living as a writer. But, she can write in casual clothes at home. Even at three, when her daughter saw her putting on heels to go to a signing, she'd say, you'll be an "author" today.

The comment was made that 95% of American people think they have a book inside them. Mike said, they probably do, but it takes persistence and luck, because it's a tough industry. Lisa said prospective writers could go to her website, to find tools of the trade, under Toolbox, a fifty page lecture series on how to get published.

Asked about the original name she wrote under, Alicia Scott, Gardner said she used that name for category romances. But, the name was owned by the publishing company, so she didn't have permission to use it when she left. She's with Bantam for her suspense novels.

Someone asked Mike about a previous comment he had made in passing, that by the time he was published he had two more books written. He said, yes, he continued to write although he'd been rejected. And, some of his rejections contained very good advice. He appreciated one rejection. He loved his characters and his plot, but so much of the writing did nothing to advance the plot.

Lisa agreed. She said you need to keep writing. She discovered writers don't control publishing. But, the writing is about the writer. So, keep writing and working on the next project. She had two more books done while waiting for her first book to be published.

Lawson said he writes every day. He likes to write from about 5 to 11 a.m. Gardner compared writing to going to the gym. No one wants to do it, but they're happy with the results.

Asked about book tours, Mike said he finds book tours fun. Lisa likes to do tours and events with another author. Then she gets to talk with them. She's recently toured with Tess Gerritsen, and she's toured with Karin Slaughter.

They each do a book a year. Gardner does three months of research, three months for the first draft, three months of revision, and then her daughter's home for the summer, and she doesn't write. Later that night, when Lawson said it must be hard to write with a seven-year-old, Gardner said she has rented an office within walking distance, so she can get out of the house and write. That was her husband's idea.

Asked about her favorite book, Gardner said it's the one coming out in March 2011. It will be another D.D. Warren novel. She researched it by going to the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. They do cutting edge forensics there. Lisa said she was so pleased that she horrified a woman there; she shocked a true professional.

Someone asked her about her two series, and Gardner said she had done a series with an FBI profiler, and she does the D.D. Warren series. She had first done the FBI series, but she had an idea that she wanted to d a police sniper book. So, she had a SWAT team, the Massachusetts State Police, and a Boston detective with a walk-on part, D.D. Warren. She liked D.D., who became her own series. Lisa admitted her publisher would probably like her to be consistent and write one series.

Mike Lawson said he had written his NSA book as a standalone, but his editor told him it should be turned into a DeMarco book. Publishers like series. Sometimes, though, it's hard to tell the story from the perspective of the series character. But, the publisher wanted a series.

Lisa said, though, overall, it's a collaborative relationship with the editor and the author. The editor is trying to help you understand how different aspects of books affect sales. They'll say, it might be better if we go this way.

Mike said he likes his main character. Lisa agreed, saying she likes D.D. Warren, but she likes to introduce another main protagonist, adding other personalities to the mix. Live to Tell has three main protagonists, and she won't do that again.

In answer to a question, both authors said they have no input on the narrator for their audio books. Neither one had listened to their books. They said by the time it comes out, they've moved on, and they're sick of writing and rewriting that book, so they don't want to listen to it.

Lisa told the audience the number one question Tess Gerritsen receives on tour is why is Maura Isles a blonde in the new show, Rizzoli & Isles. It's for the visual contrast on TV. They need visual cues, and it's even more important for the overseas market to have visual cues.

Asked when they felt as if they made it, Gardner answered at Thrillerfest, when she found out she was the first female to win Thriller of the Year for The Neighbor. And she had the twenty-pound trophy she could use to kill someone. Of course, when she arrived home, her husband, who races, told her he won two trophies over the weekend.

Lawson said he felt lucky when his book sold, but they actually both agreed it's hard to feel as if you've actually made it. Writers are very insecure, knowing the publishing business is changing.

The authors ended by talking about naming of characters. Lisa Gardner runs a sweepstakes, Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy, and the winners get to die in the next novel. Mike said he's only done charity events, when a role in a novel is auctioned off. It was then mentioned that Maura Isles was the winner of such a contest. The character was supposed to have a small role in a book, and the character grew to have a large role, and now a part in a TV series. So, somewhere out there is a real person named Maura Isles, and the character was named after her.

A book signing followed the program, and then, thanks to Barbara Peters from the Poisoned Pen, I was able to join Lisa Gardner, Mike Lawson, and some of the members of the Desert Sleuths Chapter of Sisters in Crime for a hour of conversation afterward at Trader Vic's.

Lisa Gardner's website is

Mike Lawson's website is


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great recap and picture! LOL about the Care Bears. :) I think I know where Lisa is coming from.

And I totally agree with Mike's thoughts on breaking into the industry--that it takes persistence and luck.

Thanks for sharing this!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Elizabeth. There are probably a few parents out there who can identify with the Care Bears comment.

I had a fun evening, so it was fun to share it as well!

le0pard13 said...

One great recap of the event, Lesa! But, what else could I expect ;-). Thanks very much for this.

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Michael. And, I'm enjoying your recap & pictures from Don Winslow's event.

Anonymous said...

Great writeup, Lesa. It sounds like a fun event. I have Lisa's book on my Kindle and I won HOUSE JUSTICE on another website recently. Looking forward to reading it. Mike Lawson is a new-to-me author. That's always a good thing!

You've been having a good summer with the authors, haven't you?

jenny milchman said...

I love your write ups, Lesa, they always make wish I'd been there (and ALWAYS make me want to read the books). Poisoned Pen knows how to host a great event.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Kay! Isn't it great to discover a new author? I have a review up tomorrow from a debut author.

I have been having a good summer with the authors. And, Sunday it's PP, wine and pizza with Jamie Freveletti, Avery Aames & members of the Desert Sleuths Chapter of Sisters in Crime. That should be fun, too!

Lesa said...


That's the perfect thing to say to me, that you wish you were there, and you ALWAYS want to read the books! Then, I'm succeeding! Thank you.

Dana Kaye said...

Thanks for the wonderful, in-depth write up. I can't go to all my clients events so it's nice to feel like I have eyes and ears everywhere :)

Have fun with Jamie and Avery!


Lesa said...

You're welcome, Dana. Of course you can't get to all of them. Glad I could give you a close-up view! I'm sure we're going to have fun on Sunday!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this. There were some interesting insights and it sounds like it would have been great.

Lesa said...

It was a good event, Cassandra. Joanne, as moderator, moves it along, and Lisa asked Mike questions as well.