Interview with Author David Unger PhD

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed author David Unger PhD, about his writing and his recently released rollicking mystery novel, A Lesson in Woo-Woo and Murder, the ninth installment in the long-running A Lesson in Series. (Read the review here.)

DAVID UNGER, PhD, is a writer, therapist, educator, and author of the mystery series A Lesson in…, which currently has nine books, with two more coming soon. He is also known for his series of relationship training manuals, which includes a guide to parenting teens.  A graduate of UCLA, he’s been a licensed therapist and Chair of a graduate psychology program most of his career. 

Facebook: @APsychologicalMysterySeries

Instagram: @david_unger_phd

YouTube: @davidungerphd6027

How do you begin a book?

 When I wrote the first book in the series, I started it with the main character standing in a hotel registration line and overhearing the conversation in front of him. In that book, A Lesson in Sex and Murder, they were talking about the best sex they ever had. Who wouldn’t want to eavesdrop on that? In my second book, A Lesson in Music and Murder, the main character is standing in the ticket line at a concert venue and hears three guys talking about the best concerts they ever attended. 

 I hadn’t intended to start the second book that way, it just happened. Since then, I’ve started all of my books with the main character in a line and overhearing a conversation about what the people in front of him consider the best ever regarding the topic that is in the title.

If there are any aspiring series writers out there, I recommend this process. It doesn’t have to be overhearing a conversation, but if you can find a standard beginning you like, it makes it much easier to start the next book. Yes, it always starts with a blank page, but at least I already know some of what is going to transpire upon it.

What are your favorite books?

I have many favorites. Throughout most of my adult life I’ve enjoyed reading mystery series. When I discover a writer of a series, I start with the first one and read them through. Usually when I am in the midst of those journeys, I consider the author to be a favorite. I’ve binged on Harlan Coben, Don Winslow, Agatha Christie, Kinky Friedman, Roger Simon, David Handler, Lawrence Block and that’s just the start.

Two books are my favorites due to their big impact in my life. One initially was read to me, Winnie the Pooh. The gentleness and friendship in this book were a model for how I wanted to live. I’ve re-read the book many times and it still rings true to me.

The other book that changed my life, I discovered when I was about twelve years old. At school we had to choose a book to read each month. At the time I just read sports books, so I was browsing in the sports section in the library when I came across one that had never been checked out. I was curious so checked it out. It was the first book I ever read that had “dirty” words in it. It appears that someone had thought the book, The Catcher in the Rye, was about baseball. I’m thankful for the mistake as this book opened up a whole new world for me in terms of how to be and write.

Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?

My best friend’s father was a writer and I always admired him. He worked out of the house and his study door was always open. My friend and I would walk by, he’d invite us in and we’d chat about this and that. The room had books to the ceiling, papers on his desk, and he was always so welcoming. My mother and father went off to work each day, but I never saw them at work. Seeing my friend’s dad working and engaging with him just made being a writer feel more natural and fulfilling.

After the writing’s finished, how do you judge the quality of your work?

Most of the time when I finish the first draft of my books I have a good feeling about the quality of the book, but not always.  When I read it through again and do my first edits I either have my first inclination confirmed or I realize it’s better than I thought it was. Luckily, I’ve yet to have that sinking feeling with that first run through.

In terms of how good the books are, that’s harder to determine. I feel like my writing gets better with each book, but some plots are more engaging to readers than others. Usually if I am reading and it flows well, makes me smile, and feels real, I’m pleased. As to how others will judge the books, it’s hard to tell. I know we all have preferences, and what one person may like, another might not. It evokes the saying, you can’t please everyone all the time, so I just do my best and hope that people will enjoy the books.

How does your faith life/ethical outlook inform your writing?

I’m a pantster. That means I write by the seat of my pants. I’m in good company, Stephen King, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Raymond Chandler wrote some of their books by the seats of their pants. When I start my books, I know the title and maybe a few sentences about what will happen, the rest I learn as I go along. The books are just as much a mystery to me as they are to the reader. I don’t know who is going to get killed, but I do know one or more people will. I don’t know whodunit, how they dunit, or where or why they dunit. Finding all that out is as much a pleasure to me as it hopefully is to the reader.

I believe the story will come together because I learned in grad school to trust the process. I have confidence that things will work out. We all know life can throw you all manner of challenges that you have to navigate your way through. And yes, not all challenges can be managed well, life isn’t fair, and you don’t always end up on the winning side, but you persevere until you don’t.

Fortunately, writing a book is way easier than real life so I take comfort in knowing that the challenges the characters face will be resolved, the whodunit will be figured out by the end, and, thankfully, the main character and his posse will live to face another challenge.

What does literary success look like to you?

Throughout my career I have focused on helping others, so it was second nature to weave in many of the therapy insider tips I’ve learned, taught and utilized in my work. Whenever a reader lets me know they’ve applied and grown from something they read about in one of my books I feel I have been successful. Of course, if I was fortunate enough to get a nomination for the Edgar award, and even better yet, win the award that would be the pinnacle of literary success.

Tell us some more about your book.

 A Lesson in Woo-Woo and Murder takes place at a Whole Life Expo in 1985. I describe it in the book as a “(n)ew Age, spiritual, natural health, conscious living, metaphysical, extra-terrestrial, enlightening hodgepodge of vendors, speakers and snake oil purveyors.” There are Tarot card readers, psychics, chakra balancers, aural energy readers, Tantra sex practitioners, and all manner of people doing things I previously knew little about. I thought that this environment would be a great place for a murder to occur, and how intriguing it would be to tap into the various practices of the people there to help solve the murder.

When I started the book, Woo-Woo, it was the term I used to describe those things in the healing arts field that were outside my understanding. As I researched and wrote the book, I gained a greater appreciation of the viability of some of these practices. We use so little of our brain power. Who is to say that those things we don’t understand, and may even hold in disrespect, shouldn’t be explored with a more open mind? 

How often do you read?

I read every day, but it’s what I read that is more interesting than how often I read, although the time adds up. I am addicted to the morning paper. I now only read one daily paper, but my city has a weekly free paper that I usually read to get more local news and events. I read my emails and text messages, but delete more than I read, as unsubscribe does not seem to mean what it used to. I’ve cut my magazine subscriptions down to the New Yorker and National Geographic and have difficulty keeping up with them. I read my actual mail, although the majority of that goes directly into the recycling bin. I have a few newsletters I follow, news feeds I scan and Facebook and Instagram postings that I can’t entirely avoid. Listing these I realize that many of the things I read did not exist years ago, and then I was able to devote more time to books. I still read books and enjoy getting lost in them, but they’ve been losing out to those other items which when I think about it do not compare in quality. Answering this question has pointed out to me that I may need to re-think my priorities.

 If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?

I would definitely have taken some writing courses and, also, I would have whined but been grateful for taking a typing class.

 What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

 First off, I hope readers will put the book down with the satisfaction of time well spent. I’d like them to have enjoyed the story, gotten some laughs, shared some things with friends, gone from suspecting one person to another, and been surprised at the end. I also hope that they learn some things that will help them out in their life and relationships. I try not to be heavy handed with the self-help tips and do my best to slip them in seamlessly. As a therapist and teacher, it would make me happy to hear that my readers have benefited from what I I’ve shared with them. 


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