ThrillerFest: Interview: Karin Slaughter
INTERVIEW with KARIN SLAUGHTER
THRILLERFEST 2011 Author
Q: What is Save the Libraries and how did you get involved?
Save the Libraries is basically my way of trying to help keep libraries open. Not many people realize how threatened our library systems are right now, and not many remember how vital these institutions are. For over 80% of children in rural areas, the library represents their only access to reading and the internet outside of school. For many adults who are looking for jobs, the library is the only place they can go to in order to surf listings on the internet. Lots of minimum wage companies require applications to be submitted online now. Children’s reading groups, book clubs, ESL classes, community organizers, all depend on the library doors staying open so that they can conduct business. Staff are being fired, doors are being closed, and budgets are being slashed so severely that not many systems can afford to buy new books. The pilot program we did for STL in DeKalb raised $50,000, which was the only money the system had this year to buy physical books. Communities are so short-sighted when it comes to libraries. For every dollar spent, four dollars is returned to the community in higher taxes and educational benefits. We are literally destroying the basic infrastructure needed to advance American interests. That’s why I say that funding libraries is a matter of national security.
Considering past recipients, I’m wondering how on earth I made the list. It’s a bit like those “which one of these doesn’t belong” puzzles. Linda Fairstein, last year’s recipient has kindly agreed to present the award during the banquet, and I’m going to feel a bit like the red-headed stepchild compared to her. She’s done so much to help women’s causes. She’s a true hero to me; the best kind of human being the earth has to offer.
Q: What is your involvement this year in ThrillerFest?
I’ve been asked to speak at the opening breakfast and do a panel with Andrew Gross and some other authors. I’m not sure what advice I can offer would-be writers, other than to read—and to read the authors they’ve come to see. It’s shocking how many people come up to me at events and say that they want to be writers, only can’t really name their favorite book or author. If you want to write, you have to read. I can’t name a successful author who isn’t a reader. That’s why it’s such an easy ask when I’ve reached out to people like Michael Connelly, Lee Child or Tess Gerritsen to help the library project. We all got our start there, and we all still love finding new authors.
Q: What can attendees expect to experience at ThrillerFest?
I think it’s a big mistake to go to Thrillerfest thinking you’re going to get an agent or have your book published. But, then, I think it’s a big mistake in general to think you’re ever going to be published, because it’s very, very rare. There is no magic formula other than loving what you’re writing, and I think that the desperation to get published sort of talks you out of that love. It’s sort of like going to college and studying literature day and night, which means the last thing you want to do when you get out is read another book. If you focus on the passion you feel for writing, and other people feel that passion, then you’re on the right track. If you want to meet authors in their natural state, and talk to people in the business, then Thrillerfest is a great fit. What you should take home is a drive to be the best author you can possibly be. Tune out the rest of the noise. If you are doing your best work, then the rest will follow.
Q: In what order should your books be read?
I write my books so that they can be read out of order and things still make sense. I think it’s important to tell long-time readers something new about characters with each story, and it’s equally as important to fill in new readers on their various histories. It’s a delicate balance, but that’s the fun part about writing a series. A character should be like an onion that’s slowly peeled to reveal the core. That being said, I myself am a reader of the OCD school, and if I read the twelfth book in a series and love it, I have to go back to number one and catch up. There is no thrill like finding an author you’ve never heard of and then discovering there are eleventy billion more books waiting in the wings.
Q: Where is Grant County? Does it really exist?
Grant County floats around South Georgia, in the general vicinity of Macon and Augusta. I made it fictional because I didn’t want people sending me letters saying, “you can’t go left on Main Street,” but of course I get them anyway. My favorite is someone who wrote in—very angrily—saying you didn’t have to pass through Grant County to get to Florida. I kindly wrote back asking him to show me the route on the map. Still haven’t heard back…
Q: Are your characters based on real people?
I think it’d be really arrogant of me to say that they’re not. All authors are a sum of their total experiences. I’m creative, but I’m not capable of making a character who doesn’t have a bit of someone I’ve met along the way. I’ve never deliberately based a character on a real person with all their attributes. I think of it more as an artist blending different colors to create the correct shade for the story.
Q: What was your profession before you wrote thrillers?
I owned a sign company for several years, then one day I realized that I was a really successful sign person, but my real dream of being an author was falling by the wayside. I had always thought I was going to have a book published before I turned thirty. This is actually a crazy thought, because I really do believe that it’s impossible to get a book published, let alone be successful enough to have it be your full-time job. So, basically, I was really, really stupid to think that this would happen. Anyway, I was twenty-five when it hit me that I was getting older (oh, the humanity!) so I sold my business to a friend of mine, took a drastic pay cut, and knuckled down every free second to work on my writing. Then, I worked on getting an agent, which took another three years, then, at the age of twenty-nine, I had a three book deal. My first book was published the same year I turned thirty, so that was a goal that I got to meet. Many authors point to their creativity and drive as the reason they got published. I can honestly point to my own stupidity. If you put that plan on an Excel spreadsheet, no one would believe it possible.
Q: Karin Slaughter is a great name for a thriller writer. Is it a pseudonym?
It’s my real name, and I paid the price through all the teasing I got during my childhood. Unfortunately, GI Joe was big when I was a kid, so Sgt. Slaughter became my nickname. As an adult, I feel really, really lucky. I don’t know if it was destiny, but I’m glad I’m not writing romances.
Q: How do you research police department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations procedures?
The GBI has been very generous with their time, for which I am extremely grateful. They’ve let me watch training drills and exercises, shoot rifles and shotguns on the range and talk to their field agents and inspectors. I’ve seen the labs, the morgue, the field offices—basically, I owe them a debt of gratitude for being so kind to me. And I think they know that I will never, ever make them look bad, which is something the police sorely need right now. It’s amazing to me how one or two bad cops can make the public turn against the police. There are so many men and women out there who literally put their lives on the line for us every day. We own them more than gratitude—we owe them our peaceful existence. I might have some stray bad cops roll into a plot, but the GBI will always be the good guys in my book. As a resident of Georgia, I’m really glad they’re out there doing the stuff I’d be too chicken to do!
Q: Have you ever ridden with detectives to observe their work?
I’ve never done a ride-along, but I’d love to when I have time. I’ve talked to cops and spent time with them in their offices and toured the morgue and labs. Georgia has a great “Sunshine Law,” which means I can ask to look at any jackets I want so long as the case has been adjudicated. I can read autopsy reports and suspect interviews or anything else that they’ve got in their records. I’ve also talked extensively to death investigators, because that’s my bread and butter. The funny thing is that all of the ME’s investigators are women. Men don’t last long in those positions. It’s really tough work and contrary to the sugar-and-spice attitude we have about what women are capable of. As someone who writes about strong women taking charge, I love that.
Q: What do you think makes Lena such a controversial character?
I think she’s controversial because she’s polarizing. Either readers hate her or they love her. There’s usually no in-between. One of the reasons I made Jeffrey and Sara so likable is because there needed to be a balance with Lena, who is hard to love. But, look at all the crap she’s been through—she lost her parents, she was raised by a drug-addicted uncle, and she was sexually assaulted. In real life, you would expect this sort of woman to be very, very damaged. She was actually my response to what I felt was a troubling trend in crime fiction at the time: a woman who was assaulted (and was allowed to survive) was either a bitch or a saint, and either way, she was only healed through the love of a good man. I wanted Lena to heal herself, which is a much more realistic path. I also wanted to write about a realistic recovery from rape. The truth is that many women who are assaulted punish themselves in horrible ways. They end up in bad relationships. They drink too much or abuse drugs. They put themselves in danger. They lose their sense of self-value. And of course since Lena goes to so many dark places, I had to have Sara, who was sexually assaulted in college, be the answer to that. She had her family close ranks around her. She had her mother, who was strong for her when she couldn’t be. Contrast that with Lena who really had no one and wanted no one, and it makes sense that she’s so screwed up. The thing about her character, though, is even if you hate her, you still want to find out what she does next. That’s the delicate dance, and I love writing her because of it.
Q: On the surface it looked like your debut novel became an instant international success. What was the real story about its path to publication?
I still remember where I was when my agent and editor called to tell me Blindsighted was on the New York Times bestseller list—sweltering in Scottsdale, Arizona, at an outdoor mall. I’d been at a Walden bookstore with spotty air conditioning. People were standing at the entrance instead of sitting down in the chairs because it was cooler outside than in that kiln of a store. I was in the second week of my tour and so tired I wanted to die, but boy, was it easy to keep touring after that! I was so nervous and antsy that first time out because my life had been on hold for almost a year. My first book deal was with William Morrow, but the ink was barely dry on the contract when my agent told me that Harper Collins scooped them up—and me along with them. Because of contractual obligations about promotion and placement, Harper had to move my publication back several months. In retrospect, I think that’s the best thing that ever happened to me because I actually got to write my second book, Kisscut, before Blindsighted even published. That’s a gift for any writer because the sophomore slump is a killer. And I was very, very lucky that Blindsighted published to such acclaim and success all over the world, because that rarely happens to a first-time author. Usually, you toil away in darkness and maybe five or six books down the road, you get a hint of the light coming through, and generally it’s a train, not the end of the tunnel. To get on the New York Times bestseller list with my fist book was almost too much to believe. Add to that the international success and it was like Christmas morning every day. Those phone calls still give me a thrill.
Q: What advice would you give to a young person who would like to be a writer?
I would tell them to write what they want to write and assume no one is ever going to read it. If you love books, then you need to write for yourself. Trying to predict the market is never a good thing. There is no formula for a successful book. The idea isn’t even the hard part. Sitting down at the computer and figuring out how to get from A to B, working the plot and making sure that you’re telling something about the characters, is the hard part. And you have to be okay with the reality that you could go through all of that several times over and never get published. Meanwhile, through all this, you should keep reading. Read good books and bad books and mediocre books. This is how you train your mind as a writer. And don’t keep writing the same book over and over again. If one plot doesn’t work, if a set of characters doesn’t interest anyone, then try something new. Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to a writer is to lose a file on their computer. It’s fate’s way of saying, “you have got to try something else.”
Q: You have had the most bestsellers ever on the Dutch bestseller lists. How do you think life in Georgia translates to the Netherlands?
The Netherlands, like most of America, is just a series of small towns. So, writing about a small town in Georgia is not as foreign as one might think. There are the usual casts of characters: the busy-body, the gossip, the town whore. There is a wrong side of the tracks and a right side. These are universal themes of right and wrong, good and evil. But, I’d say that even writing in a large city, these elements still exist. For instance, you never find New Yorkers saying, “I live in New York City.” They say they live in the Village or the Upper East Side or Brooklyn or wherever. They identify themselves by their individual neighborhoods, not by that massive, eight million-plus island that most of the world uses as short-hand for America. People are wired to be a part of their communities. So, whether it’s the Netherlands or Dubai or Germany or New Zealand, I think my books appeal because I’m writing about people they know in a setting that’s familiar.
Q: Which book was your favorite to write?
I think every author I know says that their favorite book is always the next one they’re going to work on. That’s the case with me as well. I’m knee-deep in Criminal, which will publish next year, and loving every second of it. Most of the story takes place back in 1975 Atlanta. I was barely out of diapers during this time, so I’ve been talking to a lot of people and getting their views on the city. It’s really wonderful as someone who makes a living writing about controversy and social upheaval, because there was so much going on back then—the racism, the sexism, the strife. The Atlanta Police force was just awful, and the living conditions inside the city were disgusting.
Q: What thriller authors have inspired your writing?
Mo Hayder and I were first published around the same time, and I remember quite clearly first reading her and thinking, “holy crap, I gotta up my game.” She’s just freaking brilliant. The same goes for Denise Mina. We’re part of that group of women about whom it is often said, “They write like men,” which I suppose on some level is supposed to be a compliment. I think we write like twenty-first century women. We talk about social issues. We tackle violence—especially violence against women—in a frank way. We are no more or no less violent than men, but because we’re women, and women should only write romances or books where cats knit for their Amish owners, the subject matter of our books is more often than not exclaimed over. We have so many great women authors today who defy categorization, whether it’s Lisa Gardner, Megan Abbott, Tess Gerritsen or any number of others, yet no one has really talked about the fact that we’re transforming the genre. I think that our male counterparts have definitely benefitted from our influence in the field. We’ve made it all right for boy books to have female characters in their stories who are there for more than screwing or saving. Lee Child, for instance, is a great feminist. The women in his books are tough and strong and even if they end up sleeping with Reacher (and who wouldn’t?) he still respects them in the morning. He still has no qualms about going shoulder-to-shoulder with them against the bad guys. Peter Robinson, John Connolly and Mark Billingham are some other examples among many. And while we women still have an uphill battle, it made me feel so proud to see the Edgars list this year and note that for the first time in my memory, at least, there are three women nominated. Generally, it’s four men and one woman, or no women at all.
Q: What makes Atlanta the perfect setting for your novels?
Atlanta is a city rife with crime, political malfeasance, burglary, larceny, murder—we’re talking 24/7. It’s also an extremely integrated and international city. I think at last count there were over eighty languages spoken in the metropolitan area. We’re also sprawling, with no real center point you can point to and say, “this is the middle of town.” That used to be the Five Points area, but over the years, we’ve developed large city centers in four different areas, separated by miles of neighborhoods. I love flying into the airport, because you can see all the different pockets of skyscrapers dotting the horizon with tons of trees in between (Atlanta has the largest urban forest of any major American city). Unless you know what you’re looking for, you can’t point to one Atlanta. This, of course, is great for a crime writer because it gives me almost unlimited access to places I can hide bodies.
Q: What can fans expect from your new book ?
First and foremost, they can expect a rip-roaring read. The first chapter came straight out of a training exercise I watched a handful of GBI agents perform. The agency took over an abandoned school building for a day. They set up a simulated school-shooting event, with an actor playing the shooter and others playing hostages, students and teachers. They turned off the lights, had loud music blaring, people screaming and gunshots popping off. Each agent had to go in by themselves and find the shooter. This is a major shift from their regular training, which, pre-Columbine was to set up a perimeter, then go room by room and clear out the innocent and save the injured, and eventually get to the shooter. Now, the directive is to go straight in, ignore everyone else, even the injured, and either kill or arrest the shooter. You saw this shift during the Ft. Hood massacre, where the MP went straight in and, even though she was injured, unloaded her magazine into the shooter to stop him. So, I followed about thirty agents through this school-shooting exercise and my heart was pounding each time, because I knew—as they did—that one day this might actually happen to them. At the end of the exercise, they were so full of adrenaline that they were literally bouncing off the walls. And I do mean literally. I felt that way, too, and when I got home, I knew that I wanted to open a book with something similar. So, in the first chapter of Fallen, Faith Mitchell pulls into her mother’s driveway one sunny afternoon. She hears her baby crying. She sees a bloody hand-print on the door. She gets her shotgun and goes into the house and… You’ll have to read the book to find out, but suffice it to say, what I write about in the book is exactly what I saw that day at the school.
More About The Author:
Karin Slaughter is the #1 internationally bestselling author of several novels, including the Grant County series. A long-time resident of Atlanta, she splits her time between the kitchen and the living room.