Lisa Gardner’s consulting career was cut short by a husband who savagely murdered 10 women. The psychopathic spouse is the villain in Gardner’s 1998 best-selling suspense novel, The Perfect Husband (Bantam). Gardner penned the book late at night following her long days as a young research analyst with Mercer Management (now Oliver Wyman) in Boston during the mid-1990s.
A self-professed “research geek,” Gardner says her time as a consultant gave her the skills and confidence to follow a line of investigation while delving into new topics. “What brought me to both writing and consulting is my passion for research,” she says from her home in New Hampshire.
Gardner published three romance novels before she finished college. “You don’t publish a novel and then hang up your hat,” she notes. To quench her thirst for research, and economic stability, Gardner joined Mercer in 1993. For two years, she worked 12-hour days and then returned home to write fiction from 11 p.m. until 1 a.m. She ultimately produced 13 romance novels, including one (The Midnight Hour) that was made into a TV-movie.
Needing a change, Gardner soon switched her focus to suspense novels toward the end of her two-year stint with Mercer—an experience that provided a supportive network, research opportunities and fodder for her books. “All of the research analysts sat together,” she recalls. “And we would nominate different vice presidents to kill off.”
She credits her two years in the profession with imparting proficiencies she uses as a novelist. “I learned a lot about marketing. And marketing is everything in publishing,” Gardner asserts. “The other thing you learn as a research analyst that really comes in handy [as a novelist] is cold-calling. We were assigned a lot of cold calls, and that’s still how I conduct a lot of my research. I need to know how hanging bodies decompose outdoors, so I look up a company on the Internet and make the phone call.”
Prior to her experience as a research analyst, Gardner says she was interested in .writing suspense novels, but felt too intimated by the genre. Most suspense novelists are former cops, crime reporters or lawyers who sprinkle precise details culled from first-hand experience into their stories.
“Once I felt confident as a research analyst, I started to realize that I could write bigger novels, ones that pay a lot more” Gardner notes. The advance from The Perfect Husband, which became her first book with Bantam and a New York Times best-seller, gave Gardner enough of a financial cushion to take a crack at becoming a full-time writer.
Her former colleagues at Mercer remained supportive of her efforts after she left the firm. “During the first year after I left [consulting] I was living on baloney because I had to make the advance last,” she says. “And everyone [among her group of friends at the firm] took me to dinner and invited me over.”
It was a short-lived regression. Since leaving consulting, Gardner has completed a dozen more suspense novels, including most recently The Neighbor (Bantam, 2009), which consistently place in the upper reaches of best-seller lists. Her web site, http://www.lisagardner.com, demonstrates her marketing chops: her fictional attacks on old consulting superiors has evolved into a “Kill a Friend, Maim a Buddy” program in which fans can nominate friends (or foes) to be featured in her upcoming novels.
“I still think my two years as a consultant were probably the most valuable years of my education,” says Gardner. “Publishing is a numbers game, and I’m pretty levelheaded about understanding that it is a business. [Publishing] is really about spreadsheets, and to feel confident
wading through it is huge.”