Discovering that your partner has cheated on you is probably near the top of everyone’s “worst nightmare” list, but what if you found out in front of your closest group of friends? And what if at the same time you were finding out, so was everyone in your neighborhood? In 2015, that scenario played out for thousands of spouses who learned of their significant other’s affairs due to the Ashley Madison hack, and it’s that scenario that inspired Chicago area author Lisa Barr to write “The Unbreakables,” out June 4.
Barr is the creator of parenting blog GIRLilla Warfare and has worked as the editor of The Jerusalem Post, managing editor of Today’s Chicago Woman as well as Moment magazine, and editor/reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. Her first book, “Fugitive Colors,” won the Best Literary Fiction 2014 gold medal from the Independent Publishers Book Award and first prize at the Hollywood Film Festival.
Popsugar recently named “The Unbreakables” one of the “best new books to put in your beach bag this summer,” and Helen Hoang, author of “The Kiss Quotient,” says of the book, “Artful, feminist, and emotionally gripping. ‘The Unbreakables’ is a remarkable tribute to a woman’s strength in the face of heartbreak and adversity.” We spoke with Barr about her newest novel, as well as her favorite places in the suburbs and her words of wisdom for budding authors.
Better: First, can you tell us a little bit about “The Unbreakables” and why you wanted to write this story?
Lisa Barr: My first book was about stolen art and very historical and suspenseful. It was probably four years of research before I was even able to write it. This book just spilled out of me. It’s very different.
It was 2015 and it was literally that day [of the Ashley Madison hack] and I was out with a group of friends for dinner. Someone said, “Hey, I got the list.” And we’re like, “What list?” And it turns out it was one of the lists in our community, a list of those who were on this Ashley Madison list. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but they read off the list and it was a bit shocking, as you can imagine. There were lots of people who I knew from various aspects of my life. And I thought to myself, “Oh my God, there’s a story here. What happens if you’re the wife or the husband of [someone on this list] and this list became public?” So I thought about it and a story began to unfold.
My main character, Sophie Bloom, is a mom from the Chicago suburbs and she’s an artist but due to an injury, she isn’t able to sculpt anymore so she has a gallery representing other artists. And it turns out her husband was not only on this list but was the top cheater of [their town]. And this is the one guy she’s been with since high school; this group of friends, they’ve been together for years, so this just blew her life up. At the same time she’s a young mom of a 19-year-old, a daughter studying abroad in Paris, and her daughter calls her and says, “Mom, Jake cheated on me.” That’s her boyfriend. And within this day or two that happens, she finds out she was betrayed as well by her best friends. So she loses everything in one fell swoop from this hack.
She goes to Paris first to help her daughter deal with her breakup and then things happen there and she decides to take off to the south of France to heal there. And while there, Sophie basically gets her groove back. She finds passion again. She gets back into her art, and sort of succumbs to temptations of her own. So it’s a story of reinvention and really about the triumph of the human spirit and what it takes to survive heartbreak and come out standing strong in the end. It has a beach-read feel but a serious feel and it’s about friendship, love, and art.
What do you hope people take away from reading the book?
That you can reinvent yourself in life. You’re not trapped. Everything can fall apart, but there’s a whole lot of second chances out there. But also, for Sophie, she kind of gave it all to her family — to her daughter, to her husband — and really left nothing for herself, so really it’s, as moms, how important self-care is within the framework of your life.
Tell us about your writing process.
I write every day. I usually outline my idea for a book and I have a vision of where it’s going to go — beginning, middle, and end. I’ll throw in my characters and usually a background, and I’ll do research and things will pop up. When I actually sit down and write it, the characters take me in different directions. So I have a loose outline base and then I start writing and it leads me in various directions. But having been an investigative journalist, I kind of dig research, so on this one I would like to say my, quote, “research” was in the south of France, which, you know, wasn’t research per se. I enjoyed it. But I really like to give the reader a sense of place, that they can really feel they’re with my characters as the story progresses.
You live in the Chicago area. What are some of your favorite things to do or places to go here?
Yes, I’m a Deerfield resident and grew up in the ‘burbs. I worked in the city. And I lived abroad in Jerusalem for seven years.
I sort of look at, where do I write? I kind of go between the Starbucks in Deerfield, where I have my little corner, to this new place that I really love called That Little French Guy. It’s in Highland Park. He’s got French music going and the croissants are to die for. That’s kind of where I do my day with writing.
In terms of restaurants, I pretty much have hit all the big North Shore restaurants — Greenwood, Disotto, Hole in the Wall, and this new one, Bartaco, that’s right in Deerfield. Everyone’s going there. We get so excited when there’s a new North Shore place.
It’s funny, when I was growing up, all I wanted to do was get as far away from the North Shore as possible. I lived in Jerusalem and I traveled the world, but funny, when you raise your kids, you kind of come back home. It’s been a great community to raise my kids.
At Better we’re passionate about philanthropy. What causes or nonprofits are close to your heart?
My mother-in-law has been very involved with the Cancer Wellness Center, so that is a very special place. And anything relating to women and girls and empowerment and helping women through eating disorders has been a big passion of mine as well.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
I’m really big on young writers, people just starting out. It’s so important to me to see young writers and people who want to write, that they don’t get discouraged. It’s a really hard publishing world, but if that’s your passion, don’t give up. It doesn’t come easy, whether you’re a debut writer or a New York Times best-seller; we all go through the same things. It’s just really important not to give up if that is your passion. Rejection is a huge part of this business and writers are probably the most sensitive artistic community, so it can be hard, but don’t give up if that’s your love.
Do you have any tips for those looking to get started?
There are so many great community papers that need stringers and that’s a great place to start. I started there. That’s a lot of what I did. And a lot of times, don’t be afraid to take internships. Get your feet wet and build your portfolio. From there, send out to, whether it’s magazines or newspapers, look and see what they’re looking for; don’t send out blindly. And also, try to get involved with a writers community if books are your passion because writing can be very lonely so it’s important to have the support.
- June 6 at Barbara’s Bookstore in Vernon Hills with author Camille Pagan and “The Good Book Fairy” Lauren Margolin
- June 24 at Max & Benny’s in Northbrook
- June 26 at Lake Forest Book Store
- July 9 at The Book Stall with author B.A. Shapiro
Anna Carlson writes the weekly Weekend 101 column and monthly Recommended Events. A graduate of the University of Missouri, her work has been published in Chicago Parent, Inside Columbia Magazine, and Central California Parent Magazine. She is a proud supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.