Karin Slaughter Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Karin Slaughter. Karin is a New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author of over a dozen thrillers, including Fallen, Broken, Undone, Fractured, Beyond Reach, and several other acclaimed titles including the novella The Unremarkable Heart. She is the winner of the Edgar Award, was shortlisted for two CWA Dagger awards, and nominated for the Georgia Writer of the Year Award among other awards. She also established and participates in the Save the Libraries foundation. AudioGO published the audio version of Karin’s latest novel Unseen, narrated by Kathleen Early, simultaneously with the hardcover on July 2, 2013. Unseen is available on Downpour.com. Welcome Karin. Thanks for joining us today.
KARIN SLAUGHTER: Thank you.
MH: Congratulations on the release of Unseen, book eight in the Will Trent series. Tell us a little bit about the storyline.
KS: I always say a great introduction to any of the books would be sex, murder, and Chihuahuas. With this one, I normally write in Atlanta and I thought, “What’s the point of having a state agency if I don’t take it outside of Atlanta occasionally?” So I chose a town that’s about an hour and a half away called Macon and decided to put Will Trent undercover so we can see how he acts when he has to pretend to be a bad guy and comes face to face with some really horrible people.
MH: Now I understand that you’ve actually brought in another main character from your Grant County series into this series. What made you make the decision to bring those two characters together in a story?
KS: Lena Adams is the character from Grant County and she’s one of my controversial characters. People either love her or love to hate her because she makes some really bad choices for herself. I thought it was time to check in with her and see what she’s up to, and of course this being a thriller, she gets herself into some trouble, and Will has to help figure how to get her out of it.
MH: Now your books are grittily real. What sort of research do you do? I know some writers, particularly in crime thrillers, sometimes come from law enforcement backgrounds and that can help add a reality to their writing. So what do you do to bring that sort of gritty realism to your stories?
KS: I talk to a lot of people when I’m researching my books. I have a medical doctor who’s been advising me from the get-go to make Sarah seem believable. I have been really lucky that a lot of agents and the director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation have been really open to talking to me. I think part of the reason is very seldom will you find a bad guy who’s a cop in one of my books. I always have the GBI as a force for good. I think for the most part they really are. They do a lot of great work in the state. Just talking to these people, hanging out with them, doing some training drills with them, that sort of thing, has given me insight into how they work and the procedural aspect. That being said, I think although it’s very important to know the details, a lot of times I have to truncate those details a bit because it would be really, really boring if you had to follow a cop on one of their daily routines because it’s filled with paperwork and lots of time waiting for people to call back. It’s not as exciting as it is in a book or in a movie. It’s just a lot of downtime, a lot of paperwork, that sort of thing.
MH: So what drew you to writing crime fiction as opposed to other aspects of the thriller genres?
KS: I grew up reading crime fiction. I loved it, whether it was true crime like Anne Rule or Truman Capote, or Nancy Drew in the fiction realm, I just loved these sorts of stories. I also grew up during the time of the Atlanta child murders, so I was very conscious from a very early age that horrible things can happen. It made me hyperaware of crime and how crime changes communities. If anyone reads any of my books, they know my focus is not per se on the violent acts, but what the violent act leaves behind. How does this change people? How does this affect communities?
MH: Social issues like sexual violence, particularly against women, seem to play a big part in your novels. How does the crime thriller genre lend itself to exploring these topics in a meaningful way?
KS: I think good crime fiction has always talked about social issues. Books that are iconic and are collective social memory are books that have crime in them, whether it’s The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone with the Wind, which has an extremely violent and brutal murder. I mean, Scarlett, when she kills the Yankee, she’s barefooted and she has this thought in her head that she wants to dance on his blood. These kinds of books have always been in popular culture, and I think people are interested in crime. They are programmed as human beings to mark dangerous events. The majority of all readers, not just crime readers, are women. I think it’s over eighty percent of all book buyers in the Western world are women and I think women are interested in reading stories that talk about crimes that occur to them.
MH: How do you feel that you as a writer, and particularly as a woman writer, can bring a different perspective to that?
KS: I think that all writers bring a different perspective. Male, female, north, south, west. We are all products of our upbringings. I think that for me when I’m a woman and I read a crime novel written by a woman, they’re a lot better at scaring me personally. There’s a more visceral reaction to crime. If I’m reading something by Gillian Flynn, for instance, or Denise Mina or Mo Hayder, there’s a psychological turning of the screws in those books. But that’s not to say men don’t do that also. Peter Robinson, I think, wrote one of the most believable female characters I’ve ever read in In a Dry Season. Wally Lamb is a non-thriller example of a guy who can really write strong, believable women. But I do think in crime specifically, women can speak to the fears of other women, just like men can speak to the fears of other men. One thing we tend not to do in our books, not so much as men, is create superhero kind of guys. I love Lee Child, I think Jack Reacher’s probably my top five favorite summer book, but he’s created a superhero, sort of an American James Bond, and I don’t think women tend to create women as superheroes like that.
MH: By that same token, your Will Trent character is obviously a man. So how did that character develop for you? How did you come about inventing him?
KS: Well, a lot of women come up and say they have a crush on Will and I say, “Keep in mind, he’s fictional. He does the dishes without being asked, he takes out the trash.” So in many ways probably I’ve created a woman’s ideal of a superman. And he’s a sensitive guy. He’s like a lot of guys of my generation who are products of divorce. Their childhood was sort of split by divorce and they were raised by their mothers and their sisters in many cases. Will was raised by mostly women. He’s worked for women and with women all his life, so he has a certain sensitivity. But he also is extremely stubborn. He may agree with some of these women to their faces, but he turns around and does exactly what he wants to do. So in that regard he still has his sense of identity. He’s not completely cowed by them in any way. But one of the primary things I think is important to him as a character is his dyslexia. This is something he was born with. Growing up in state care, he really didn’t have an advocate, a parent to stand up for him. He was treated pretty badly in school. He was considered to be stupid, and he’s kind of bought into that, that it’s something wrong with him, rather than something he can’t control; like the color of his eyes or his height, or something like that. But it’s something he feels great shame over. I think in many ways that gives him an understanding of criminals because criminals are hiding something, and Will understands the idea of having to hide something.
MH: Your novels, many of them are set in Georgia and Atlanta specifically, though you did mention you’ve moved to Macon, but what prompted you to set your books in Atlanta?
KS: Well, it’s where I’m from. I love the South. I love being a Southerner. I love the multicultural cosmopolitan atmosphere of Atlanta. I think we have over a hundred and thirty different languages spoken here. We have a huge international population. It’s a very vibrant community. Part of my selection of writing about the South is just because it’s what I know. Another part is I really want to get rid of the idea that we’re down here sipping mint juleps and burning crosses in our yards. Atlanta is so multicultural. It has the largest African American middle class of any major American city. We have five historically black colleges who feed us wonderful educated people who go into the law profession or medicine or who are really equipped to take on the demands of a city that is always changing and always encouraging business. They’re training people who are ready for these types of jobs that any major American city needs. So I just think it’s a great place to live and I really enjoy talking about it, especially when I travel overseas. I was just in Poland a little while ago and it was really interesting because I think I had about fifteen interviews over the course of three days and every single one of the interviewers mentioned Gone with the Wind. That was their perception of Atlanta. So it was quite shocking to them to read that we have changed a little bit since then.
MH: Your books have been really popular in foreign markets and yet they’re rooted in a specific locale and a really major American milieu. Why did they translate to having such international success?
KS: Everywhere I go, whether it’s Poland or Holland or the UK, their bestseller lists are very similar to ours. Dan Brown is up there, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Lisa Gardner. It’s not just my books, though I would love to say it’s only my books because that would make me sound really cool. I just think America has—just the international psyche—it’s a place where awful things can believably happen. One of the problems with Scandinavian crime is that it just boggles the mind that really awful crimes would happen in Scandinavia. They have a hard time accepting that. They think that Americans run down the streets with guns in their hands and it’s completely believable to set something extremely shocking or have really horrible criminals here. Even though I would argue that a lot of those countries have their own horrible criminals, whether it’s France that had a whole village of pedophiles, or Austria who had the guy Fritzl who was holding his entire family captive in his basement. Horrible things happen everywhere, but people just think when you’re using an American setting that it’s completely believable that any horrible thing would happen.
MH: Blindsided was your debut novel and it became an international success and it was on the Crime Writers Association New Blood Dagger Award shortlist in 2001. With such early success in your writing career, did that come as a surprise to you?
KS: I was absolutely surprised when the first book did so well. When you want to be a writer, you kind of just picture going to your local bookstore and seeing a couple copies on the shelf and hopefully if those sell, they’ll order more. So to think about not just the rest of the country, but the rest of the world buying your book and reading your book and getting letters from readers through email or Facebook or wherever, it really is kind of shocking. I think it’s best if you’re a new writer not to even think about that because it can get a little overwhelming when you consider people are reading your book in a language you’ve never even read yourself or can possibly understand.
MH: So describe some of the changes that happen to you with that success after your debut in terms of how it affected your life, both as a writer and just personally.
KS: A lot of writers sit around and worry about change being bad or success changing them. I think that you should embrace these changes because the whole point of traveling the world or different experiences or any number of things that a successful writer might come across—the whole point of that is to change you and to make you see things differently and expose you to different things. I think it’s very important to accept that into your life rather than fight it, but I still feel like in my heart I’m still that same person. I still get nervous when a book comes out. I still have that flop sweat when I’m writing a book until I get to about a hundred pages, and then I think “Okay, great. It’s not a novella. It’s actually a novel now.” I think that in many ways knowing someone’s going to publish my next book takes some pressure off because when you’re writing a book and you don’t know if anyone’s going to publish it; that can be very soul killing. But it also puts some pressure on you because you think, “Oh, God, it has to do better than the last one.” So it really has its pluses and minuses. I think the best advice I ever got was from Harlan Coben because when my book came out and it was very successful, he said to me, “The problems you have when you’re successful are much better than the problems you have when you’re not.” I think that’s absolutely true.
MH: I understand that a television series based on your novels is in the works. Can you tell us a little more about that?
KS: A company called Yellowbird that did the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies in Swedish and had a hand in the American version has optioned the series and they want to do Will Trent. They want me to write the pilot with a friend of mine named Will Rokos, who’s a fantastic writer. He worked on Copper, he wrote Monster’s Ball. He’s also a Southerner. He grew up about five miles from where I live now. So we have a very good shorthand with each other, and he’s just a fantastic writer. That’s the thing that’s important to me. The production company is very interested in maintaining the quality of the books. I could have sold options left and right from the very beginning to people who wanted to set it in New York or who wanted to move it to London or wherever, or change the ethnicity of the characters, or change a million things about the characters. I think that we’re lucky to be living in a great time for television where they can tell serialized stories. They figured out that people have attention spans that last longer than forty-three minutes, so we get great series like House of Cards or you can go back to The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or name any of them—where they are really invested in not just telling single stories that stand alone every week but a series of stories that go for twelve to fifteen episodes and really tie together and represent what the writer had intended to represent in the book.
MH: I read on your website you’ve done a lot of charitable work for libraries. You have a real passion for this and you established the Save the Libraries Foundation. How did you get involved in that project?
KS: I was speaking to a group of librarians at their American Libraries Association meeting and I’ve always been a big library supporter. This was about four or five year ago when I realized that a lot of the librarians I was used to seeing were no longer there. Some of them had been asked to retire, some of them had been laid off, some of them had been fired, and some of them just didn’t have the budget to go to this conference, which is a really important conference for librarians. So I was giving a speech about this and I thought, “You need to either put up or shut up.” That’s when I decided to create Save the Libraries. We do some fundraisers where authors will pay their way to go to a library and help raise money for them, or we just give block grants. We just gave the Seattle Public Library a $25,000 grant. We’re trying to raise money now for my local library. This is Atlanta of course. This is the South. It’s very hot here, and the main branch of the library doesn’t have air conditioning on two of the floors. One of the elevators is broken. We’re trying to get some money to help them just keep the lights on.
MH: Do you listen to audiobooks? And have you had a chance to listen to Kathleen Early’s narration of Unseen?
KS: Yes, I do listen to audiobooks, especially when I travel. My commute is basically a two- minute walk, so I don’t have much time when I commute, but I do love what Kathleen is doing with my books. There were some early misfires I think with my audiobooks because the people reading them, even though they were Southern, for some reason when they got into the studio, they sounded like Foghorn Leghorn, or they had an accent that one would associate if you lived in the South with someone living in a trailer park. So I had a nice long conversation with the reader about what the vision was. She’s from the South. She understands that someone like Sarah for instance, who is extremely well educated, would not talk as if she had some chaw in her mouth. I’m really pleased with what she’s come up with. It’s difficult for me to listen to someone read my stuff, just right off the bat, but I think she does a fantastic job.
MH: Well, this has been great talking with you Karin. Thanks so much for joining us today. We are excited to have Unseen on audiobook.
KS: Thank you.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Karin Slaughter. You can find Unseen and many of Karin Slaughter’s other titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in July 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Bill Black is a scary guy: a tall ex-con who rides to work on a Harley, and trails an air of violence wherever he goes. In Macon, Georgia, Bill has caught the eye of a wiry little drug dealer and his cunning girlfriend. They think Bill might be a useful ally. They don’t know that Bill is a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent named Will Trent. Or that he is fighting his own demons, undercover and cut off from the support of Sara Linton—the woman he loves, who he dares not tell he is putting himself at such risk.
Sara herself has come to Macon because of a cop shooting: her stepson Jared has been gunned down in his home. Sara holds Lena, Jared’s wife, responsible: The female detective has been a magnet for trouble all her life, and it’s not the first time someone Sara loved got caught in the crossfire. Furious, Sara gets involved in the same case that Will is working without even knowing it, and soon danger is swirling around both of them.
In a novel of fierce intensity, shifting allegiances, and shocking twists, two investigations collide around a conspiracy on both sides of the law. Karin Slaughter’s latest is both an electrifying thriller and a piercing study of human nature: what happens when good people face the unseen evils in their lives.