Shots: The Crime & Mystery Ezine

Karin Slaughter Interviewed By Ayo Onatade

Georgia native but Atlanta-based Karin Slaughter is the author of the Grant County series, featuring paediatrician and part-time medical examiner Sara Linton and her ex-husband, Police Chief Jeffery Tolliver. Her first novel Blindsighted won the Barry Award for first novel as well as the Georgia Writer of the Year Award for first novel. She was also runner- up for the Gumshoe Mystery Award for Best First Novel. The fourth novel in the series Indelible is set to be published later on this year. Karin Slaughter has just recently edited and had published a serial novel entitled Like A Charm which consists of chapters from some well-known US and UK authors based on the theme of a charm bracelet.

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Ayo: How did you come up with the idea for Like a Charm?

Karin: I have always liked serial novels - I read Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx four or five years ago and I thought it reminded me of the sort of short story collection thatís not really a short story collection because what you get is different stories contained in one greater story. I liked the idea of that and also it reminded me of Steinbeckís The Red Pony. You can even go back to the Bible where people were talking about the same thing and moving it on. There are so many great works of fiction that do that. I am lucky to have a great number of friends who are writers and I thought well why donít I just call them up and see if they are interested, and fortunately most of them were able to do it. Some were not due to scheduling reasons but I really got lucky and got some good ones.

Ayo: Some of the authors that contributed to Like A Charm include Mark Billingham, John Connolly, Denise Mina, Laura Lippman and Peter Robinson as well as yourself. The role call of authors is fantastic. How did you manage this?

Karin: I think that they were just excited about the idea. At the last minute one of the contributors couldnít do it because she had scheduling problems: her next novel was due and she was behind on her deadline. Lee Child gallantly stepped in - heíd never written a short story before and I just said that you have to write about this charm, you have to find it here and leave it somewhere else, and he just rose to the occasion. I think that I can honestly say that none of us are writing short stories for the money. Itís more about being passionate about telling stories and the art of short stories, because, when I sat down to pick people to do this I didnít pick them because John Connolly is a big seller, or Mark Billingham is a big name, I picked them because they are good story tellers. I thought that these authors would work well together and the sequential order would work for the collection, and it turned out really great.

Ayo:One of the best things about Like a Charm is that each chapter also stands alone as a powerful story. Did you aim for the reader to be able to read each chapter as a short story in its own right?

Karin: Sure, what I like about it is that a lot of times people are really busy and they want to read a book so they start one and then forget what happened. In this you can read a chapter and then you can get off the train and go to work and when you come back you can just pick up on the next chapter. I believe that it works out fine because you donít really have to remember all the details. But I think what a lot of people have found is that if you sat down and read it straight through like a thriller, then you begin to wonder what is going to happen next. At one stage the charm is left in a vagina, how are they going to explain that? You think, where is the nastiest place we can leave it so that it screws up the person who comes after?

Ayo: Did you enjoy the editing process or was it stressful?

Karin: I liked it because of the calibre of the writers. I didnít have to do much editing; mostly what I did was try and ensure continuity as best I could. I was dealing with some top writers and they knew how stories worked and they were also very passionate about their work. So I just had to make a couple of suggestions. I read Emma Donoghueís story and she has a child whoís learning Latin; I then read Jerrilyn Farmerís and she also has a child that is learning Latin. Jerrilyn writes about a locket charm and I thought what if Emmaís character puts something in that locket that Jerrilynís character finds, wouldnít that be really neat.

Ayo: Now that it has been published, has it turned out how you visualised, and are you pleased with the end result?

Karin: Yes, actually it has turned out much better than I thought it would. From the beginning I kept telling people that this isnít really a short story collection, itís more like a serial novel. But I think they had to see it and read it for themselves to really get what I was talking about. Itís all about the book at the end of the day, thatís what sells, thatís what makes people excited about reading it.

Ayo: Are you planning another one? I seem to remember reading that you mentioned the possibility of doing a similar one called Like a Knife.

Karin: Yes. It will be about a Barlow pocket knife, pre-civil war, and starts with a slave revolt on a plantation. I am pretty much begging Sarah Walters to write the next story; I think that if we had a free slave or a runaway slave take the knife to England then that would be great. I have already got a number of other authors lined up who are interested - one of them is Jacqueline McCloud who wrote Deep End of the Ocean. She is another one of these people who is just a great story teller - I already have her bit and itís really good.

Ayo: I was surprised to learn that is it being published here in the UK first instead of the US. Was there a specific reason for this?

Karin: My UK publishers were just more excited about it. Then my US publishers came over for the London Book Fair and asked me what I was working on. I told them what it was, but I didnít explain it very well. The first time I just said that I would like to do a short story collection. Iíve learnt that you canít say that and that you have to explain the idea and when people hear it they believe that it will work. But if you just say short stories they arenít too keen. So Iíve been really sneaky about it.

Ayo: When Blindsighted was published it received a lot of critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Kisscut and A Faint Cold Fear have also received their fair share of approbation. Have you been taken aback at how well all three books have been received?

Karin: I have been pleasantly surprised as writing is such a solitary art and therefore it is just me and my computer screen and my crazy ideas. It never occurred to me that people would buy them. Iím really horrible about taking compliments and praise, so I see myself as a different person from the one who sits at the computer. I guess it works, because I can have my angst when Iím writing. Itís been amazing, but I have to say that Iíve been lucky because I have really great publishers and that makes all the difference. They are not just my publishers - I dedicated Like a Charm to Random House - they are my friends and they are so supportive and love books.

Ayo:Blindsighted was nominated for, and won, a number of awards. Do you feel that it put added pressure on you when you came to write Kisscut?

Karin:   No, I didnít because I wrote Kisscut before Blindsighted was published. My US publisher is Morrow, but Harper Collins bought Morrow and Blindsighted was postponed for a year. In some ways this was both the worst and the best thing to happen to me - of course I wanted it on the shelves right after I signed the contract, but at least it got me used to being published, which had been my life focus for ten years. Writing Blindsighted was also the impetus, but I was in this unique position because it wasnít out yet and no-one knew who I was, therefore I had all the time to write Kisscut and I knew when I signed the contract that no matter how crappy it was, it would still be published. I was really free to write the kind of books that I wanted to. I had the idea for Kisscut before Blindsighted was sold - I had a three book deal and Iíd already done a rough outline of it, but I was told that it was too dark a book to start the series because of all the murders that take place. I managed to sneak it in and I was really lucky that way.

Ayo: One of the main themes in all your books are peoplesí damaged pasts - was this intentional?

Karin: Yes, for some reason I was able to know the basic plot of four books after Blindsighted and I knew what I was going to do as far as relationships and life experiences are concerned. I knew that Indelible was going to take place ten years before Blindsighted. I planted things along the way and then when I got to Indelible I moved the majority of it from Grant County to Sylacauga, Jefferyís home town. I didnít have to worry about someone writing in and saying, for example, in Blindsighted you said that the dress shop was on the right side of the main street, now you are saying that it is on the left. People pay attention to the oddest things. I planned it all along and honestly when you read Indelible you can start it as the first in the series and itís a good introduction. But if you have been reading the books all along then there are little things in there you can relate to. There are throwaway lines if you havenít read the previous books, but to people who have been there from the beginning itís like a little gift Iíve given.

Ayo: All the characters in your books have changed as the books have progressed. Have they changed in the ways that you imagined?

Karin: They are much more fleshed out for me. It was interesting with Indelible because itís all about Jeffreyís perception of the small town he grew up in and itís not a good one. They donít think he is a good guy - his father, as you know from earlier books, is in jail now - and he is seen as a bad seed in town. In Grant County however, he is this well thought of person and you also start to understand the dynamics between Sara and Jeffery: why it was so hard for her to forgive him when he cheated on her and why that meant so much. Itís not about him screwing around, itís about the betrayal, and you understand why the relationship didnít work out the first time just by seeing them ten years earlier.

Ayo: A lot of crime writers, especially females, make powerful statements about sex, violence and violence against women. Do you believe that authors (whether male or female) have a duty to comment, or should comment, on such issues?

Karin: I think authors should write about whatever they want to write about. What interests me are womenís issues. I believe strongly in a womanís right to choose; I believe that we should have the same freedoms that the law guarantees us. I think that we should be able to exercise that. With Lena I wanted to show as realistic a recovery as I could.

Peter Robinson is one of my favourite writers, he is so great at writing female characters. But I think that in the Ď90s guys were beaten over the head with the sensitivity stick, saying something along the lines of if: something bad happens to a woman you either have to make her a martyr or you have to make her this catatonic creature that has to be taken care of. I wasnít interested in that. I know women who have experienced a horrible event in their lives and they are really angry and they really need to talk about it - what I wanted to do with Lena is show that you could talk about it. Having this happen to you doesnít mean you are less of a person! I think that it is a secondary form of victimisation when they are asked not to talk about it or are told that they arenít the same person now. Certainly you change but you are still strong. It was interesting, in Faint Cold Fear Lena makes some stupid, really stupid, decisions and some women (I am not saying every single one of them because there are exceptions) say that they can sympathise with what she is doing. I know women that have done that, because women punish themselves, they donít punish other people. The men on the other hand will say that Lena is too strong, she would never do that. There was such a heated argument at one of my signings that I thought, ďOh my God is she going to start slapping this guy around?Ē It was just so vehement how each side felt about it, which was very flattering to me. Statistically what Lena does is more probable. I think for women, but maybe not for men, rape has gone from being spoiled goods to being about the loss of power because thatís really how women identify themselves now. I think that to be out of control and not have control over what is happening to your body is much more terrifying than the social stigma of years ago which was youíre spoiled goods!

Ayo: So far, all your books have dealt with some rather harrowing issues. Were these hard to write about?

Karin: Actually no, because I know how itís going to end. Certainly I love Mary Higgins Clark, I love Janet Evanovich and I like fun books but when Iím writing about violence I want to show it for what it is. For instance, in Blindsighted if you donít know what happened to Lena then Kisscut doesnít make sense. It should be hard to read about it - Iím not writing a text book but to some degree it should be educational. I guess that as a Southerner I am really interested in character and transcendence and unless you test a character you really donít know what kind of person they are.

Ayo: The relationship between Sara and Jeffery is very important. I sometimes get very angry with him- he can sometimes be very intolerant and end up saying the wrong thing to Sara. On the other hand, he is extremely sexy, assured and his own man. I take it that in some way or another he will always be part of her life. Did you deliberately make him annoying at times?

Karin: Yes I did, because I donít know any women, strong women, who are with men that can be totally controlled and steamrollered, because thatís not how it works. I know for myself that I donít want to be with someone who worships me, I want to be with someone who challenges me, and doesnít agree with me. The fact is you donít get one hundred percent of everything you need in a relationship because you are dealing with human beings. Jeffery has his own needs, he can be selfish and a lot of times Sara will put his needs above hers, but lots of women do that. These male and female relationships when the guy is a total pussy, why would this strong educated woman want to be with a man whoís basically there to save her? That just does not happen and, with someone like Sara, I know that at the end of the day she wants to go home and say I donít want to make any decisions, you make all the decisions, take out the trash, you do everything; and thatís how their relationship works.

Ayo: Your books are considered to be hard-boiled and not for those with weak constitutions. Was this what you intended when you wrote Blindsighted?

Karin: Not really, but I am extremely anaesthetised as I have been reading true crime and crime fiction since I was ten or eleven. I read Helter Skelter when I was twelve and even before I was published I read medical and forensic textbooks - I have always been interested in that. Blindsighted didnít seem that graphic to me, but there are people out there that are a little squeamish. There are so many types of books because there are so many people with different tastes and fortunately for me a lot like the sort of thing I write. But it goes back to talking about violence: I think it should be hard to read about if youíre approaching it from the serious angle of ďI want to show this emotional perspectiveĒ - for me that is what I need to do.

Ayo: Why is it do you think that UK writers like Val McDermid, Mo Hayder, and Denise Mina can get away with writing about graphic violence a lot more than US female writers?

Karin: It goes back to Americaís puritanical roots. I believe that we still think that women should be lady-like despite what you watch on television and despite what happens in real life. In Georgia we had this great white flight where all these people moved into the suburbs out of the cities so that their daughters would not date undesirables and take up with black men. Now if you look in the shopping malls in the suburbs all the girls are pimping themselves out for clothes money because they are bored. There are sting operations in the malls because the girls go there after school and yet this is what the parents wanted to move their daughters away from - what they didnít realise that it was their daughters making bad in the first place. It is really funny because young teenage girls are celebrated as wholesome, we should take care of them, theyíre so precious. America is full of these types of dichotomies. I have a cabin in Blue Ridge and itís a dry county so you canít buy any alcohol there, but if you read the newspapers on the weekend there is always a bust of a methamphetamine lab. It is ironic because you can buy methamphetamines but not alcohol.

Ayo: Some authors are not in the slightest bit interested in their books being adapted. How would you feel about having your books adapted? Would you want to be involved or would you not want to have anything to do with the adaptation?

Karin: It just depends; I would love to have it adapted. I love writing; I love the idea of seeing how someone would interpret my words because I think thatís really flattering. I have the Dolly Parton compilation cd Just Because Iím a Woman and I read an interview of her talking about how fabulous it was to be able to get these women to do these interpretations of these songs she had written - I thought thatís what itís all about. I read John Connollyís story and I thought, ďGod, this is so great. I want to write a story that is comparable to this one; I want to go to that level.Ē That is what itís all about.

Ayo: Do you have a strict way of writing or do you just let things flow?

Karin: I let things flow. I have a horrible writing schedule, which is if I feel like writing then I write. Generally if I feel like writing it tends to be a twelve hour day for two to three weeks and then Iím exhausted and I feel that I donít want to write ever again, and I think that Iím a hack! I need to recover, and then I go back into it and do two to three more weeks. Itís just a horrible way to do it. Laura Lippman has this newspaper background and she gets up every day and she writes for hours and itís great - she can do that but I just canít.

Ayo: I understand that you normally outline the plot of your next book while you are still working on the previous one. Is this just a form of distraction or a way of keeping you on your toes?

Karin: Yes - every writer I know wants to be working on their next book. Thatís how it is, the grass is always greener. I have ideas on things I want to do so Iíll write on index cards, napkins, in the front of books that Iím reading... Iíll just scribble these ideas down so that I donít lose them, and then put them in a folder and wait till I get to the book - then of course I donít want to write it. But thatís how it is, I think we have this sort of writing deficiency where we have no attention span for what is in front of us and just want to move on to the next thing.

Ayo: Are there any significant reasons for the titles of your books?

Karin: Definitely - actually I canít start writing the book until I have the title for it. Like a Charm, that plays out with the whole theme; Blindsighted was about someone hiding in plain sight; the theme for Kisscut, which is a printing term where you cut through the surface of something but not all the way through, is played out because you really donít know what crimes have been committed until you are half way through; A Faint Cold Fair is really a book about fear and not just a fear of death, but fear of life for Lena and of course Jeffery and Sara, the star-crossed lovers.

Ayo: What do you consider to be the most important element in crime writing?

Karin: An understanding of a story, which is really a blanket way of saying you have to have plot and you have to have character. You canít have one heavier than the other and I think this is true with any book, not just crime fiction. I am really peeved with a lot of literary fiction lately because itís just this navel-gazing and you get to the end of this book and wonder if they ran out of paper! In the same way I have been really off short stories for a while because everything I read in The New Yorker for such a long time would end and you would wonder where the ďcontinued onĒ page is! And I would also think okay, this horrible thing is happening but I donít care about this person and they probably deserve it. I think that Jonathan Frantzen is a good writer but in Corrections I had the same reaction. Why am I reading this, I donít like any of these people, there is nothing in there that makes me care about this stuff happening to them. So I think you have to have the balance between plot and character so that reader is truly engaged in the story.

Ayo: A lot of crime writers will not read a crime novel while they are writing their own book. Is this the case with you, and if so what type of book would you read instead?

Karin: Certainly - Ann Tyler and Catherine Harrison. I guess it would be called literary fiction, just anything really. I love Kelley Armstrong and thatís fantasy. I like some of the Neil Gaimen stuff; generally whatever book grabs my attention. I canít read anything thatís strictly crime or hard crime but although Kelleyís have a bit of mystery in them that doesnít really jibe with what Iím doing so I can get away with it.

Ayo: No doubt your life has changed since the success of your books. How have you managed to handle all the attention that you and your books have received?

Karin: I have been protected from change too much; thatís the way I have been able to handle it. Iíve been very conservative, I didnít quit my job when I got my first contract because I didnít have a book out and I thought I might as well keep working - if you donít know what to do, donít do anything. This has been my philosophy. We added a second bathroom on the house which was nice. I donít change a lot. I travel a lot more which is one of the exceptions and Iíve had to learn how to talk to people instead of sitting in a corner and watching. Iíve tried to keep things as normal as possible because I think if you get too caught up in it then you stop being the person you want to be. I couldnít do that because my dad would probably spank me.

Ayo: Do you have any plans to write a standalone novel and if you do would it be a crime novel?

Karin: Yes and yes. Itís called Triptych and it will be the novel after Faithless which is the one after Indelible. Itís a story in three parts, of course, and I canít tell you much about it. Itís set in Atlanta because I know Atlanta and itís a really gruesome crime type novel. It is very different from Grant County in a lot of ways.

Ayo: What do you believe is the best thing about being a crime writer?

Karin: Just the people you meet, I think. Crime writers have the best fans and the best readers. They are extremely loyal and they pay attention. Some of them are a little too opinionated. Iím a crime reader, Iíve always read crime fiction, and I love it. Itís great because when I go to a signing, or I do an event, I have to talk about myself but then I just say ďwhat are you guys readingĒ and we get to talk about novels.

Ayo: What do you think of the current trends in the genre?

Karin: You canít write a book to market. You cannot say ďthis is working Iím going to do thatĒ. Itís the same reason I canít write a Danielle Steel novel, but she has a lot of readers. She makes people happy, but I couldnít do that if I tried. I just donít have that in me and maybe she couldnít write what Iím writing. There are so many people out there with different tastes; people read across the board too. There are some people who can only read Mary Higgins Clark. As long as there are readers out there, we are going to have mysteries featuring Amish quilters. Also the thing that makes it work is the authorís ability to make them interesting. I always think of that Katherine Harrison book, Poison, which has long passages about the silk trade and how silk is made. I always say that Katherine Harrison can write about paint drying and it will be the most interesting thing in the book just because she is such a good writer.

Ayo: Some do not consider the genre to be ďliteraryĒ enough and at times it does not get the accolade that it deserves apart from within the crime fiction fraternity. Do you believe that this is the case and if so have you any thoughts on how peopleís views might be changed?

Karin: I think that the pulp novels did us a great disservice. People who have college degrees or think that they are extremely intelligent donít really want to say in mixed company that they read mysteries. I wonder if Shakespeare got this pressure about Hamlet which is a great crime thriller? He wrote about really violent crimes. The last winner of the Booker Prize, Vernon God Little, thatís a crime novel. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is also crime as well as Lucky the book before that which was a memoir about crime. Itís a bit like heroin, somebodyís buying it, but no one will admit to it. These are crime novels and the fact that they have a literary approach or they are literary writers means that they canít be crime novels; because so many people are enjoying them.

But it is all a marketing technique. My books donít say ďa crime fiction novelĒ; it says itís a novel. People are going to be snotty about it. There are those who say they donít read crime fiction, but theyíll read a Poe story which is a great fantasy. All those labels, people never want to label themselves but if you look at the bestseller lists, theyíre all thrillers.

Ayo: I understand that Indelible is the next in the series. Can you tell us a bit more about it without giving too much away?

Karin: Like I said, it takes place ten years before Blindsighted. Itís set in Sylacauga, Jefferyís home town. There is a present day narration over the course of probably three or four hours. The past situation takes place over the course of a week and what I would say to people who are asking is that it answers a lot of questions and it tells you a lot about character, but keep in mind youíve asked earlier how Jeffery and Sara have changed in the progression of the books - this is ten years ago and they are very different people.

Ayo: Apart from yourself, which other crime writers would you suggest readers might like to try and why?

Karin: Mo Hayder I think is great. The Treatment is one of the best plotted books Iíve ever read and I think it should be used in universities to teach structure. If you plot a crime novel you can plot anything. There are so many balls you have to juggle and she would be the person. I would say The Treatment does this perfectly. Denise Mina is a perfect example of how crime fiction is so much more interesting than literary fiction. I love Oprah Winfrey to death, but we had all the Oprahesque books where women were abused etc, and Denise Mina proves that crime fiction does it so much better. Itís like the West Wing is everyoneís favourite television show, but they would never vote for Martin Sheen because heís too liberal.

Ayo: Is there a book out there you would have liked to have written?

Karin: I can honestly say no because I know what goes into writing a book. There are books where I have sat back and said ďthis is so fabulousĒ. Fingersmith is a perfect example of that. But thatís Sarahís book and thatís years of her life and her intelligence and everything she brought to it is in that book. To me it would be tantamount to saying ďI wish I looked like Uma ThurmanĒ! Well thatís certainly not going to happen. This is my book and Fingersmith is Sarahís. I just appreciate too much who the person and writer is.

Ayo: What were your favourite reads last year and why?

Karin: Fingersmith of course - what a great twist. I was reading it when I was here last time and I sat up in bed and gasped when I got to the end. It was one of those things where I was on the phone the next day telling people in America to get this book and I forced it on my editor here and persuaded her to read it. Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue - a great book! Emma Donoghue is the only one I didnít know before I asked her to be in Like a Charm. I just thought man she is so great, and I thought that a lot of crime fiction readers would love her stuff and maybe bring her a new audience. I really liked Crimson Petal and the White but I liked Slammerkin more. I read so many books last year, but those are the ones that really stood out for me. Also Glen Davis Goldís Carter Beats the Devil and I would also say Alice Seboldís Lucky and The Lovely Bones.

Ayo: When you do get a chance to relax, what is your favourite way of relaxing?

Karin: I have had land in the mountains for a really long time and now Iím lucky enough to have a cabin. I like going up there just to watch the deer go through the yard and to listen to the creek. Itís close to my dad so I like doing that just to relax and thatís all I really do.

Ayo: On a lighter note, if you were marooned on a desert island and could take five books away with you, which would they be and why?

Karin: Because I remember too much about them I canít re-read books. The only books that I have re-read are Gone With the Wind and Helter Skelter and I would say - because I know that they are finished - the next Mo Hayder, the next Sarah Walters, and the next Glen Davis Gold.

Ayo:Thanks very much for the brilliant interview!

Like a Charm is published by Century £16.99 hbk


 

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