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Interview: September 19, 2003

September 19, 2003

Karin Slaughter has written two thrillers based on the adventures of pediatrician and part-time medical examiner Sara Linton. A FAINT COLD FEAR is the third and latest installment in the series, which is set in Grant County, Georgia. In this interview conducted by reviewer Bethanne Kelly Patrick, Slaughter talks about the characters in her novels and the relationships among them, her writing routine, and news about a exciting new work of crime fiction due out in May 2004.

BRC: Your fictional terrain, Grant County, is based on your real-life turf in Georgia. What are the challenges you've faced in respecting your friends and neighbors while creating this novel?

KS: I think that when you're talking about a small town, be it in the American South or Southern Czechoslovakia, you're going to have roughly the same cast of background characters. There's always going to be the town slut, the gossip, the bad families and the good. So, I felt pretty comfortable putting these people into my stories. What you read in my books is stuff I noticed when I was a kid. On the weekends, my dad would take me with him to the hardware store and I'd sit around and listen to the old guys talk. Those old guys are at every hardware store in America. What I hope to bring to these folks is an appreciation for their lives. I also want to honor the South; that's probably the most important thing for me. I don't know when it became unfashionable to be from the South, but I'm extremely proud to be from the same state that gave the world Margaret Mitchell and Flannery O'Connor.

BRC: Lena is a complex and complicated character; you've said that you already know what happens to her. Without revealing too much about her or about the future of Grant County (your next book is set in the past), can you tell us if what happens to her is a result of her own past, her actions, a combination thereof, or something completely different? Can you talk a little about the ways in which Lena has defied you, as you mentioned in the interview with Laura Lippman posted on your website?

KS: Lena is a wily character. As a writer, I like to think in my head that I have control of my stories and where they're going, but she's always going to mess things up. With KISSCUT, I learned to listen to her and let her speak. I know that sounds schizophrenic, but I think we all hear different sorts of things in our head, and for me, listening to the Lena voice has become an important part of writing. I knew her general story before I finished BLINDSIGHTED, and I knew how she would struggle to overcome losing her sister and recovering from the other things that happened in BLINDSIGHTED, but with KISSCUT, I was still surprised by how much of the narrative she got. I think she adds a layer to that story, which is about abuse, and shows the reader what happens to these kids when they grow up.

I wish I could say that Lena is an exception to women who have been abused, but she is more the rule. This is not to say that all women who experience an attack are going to turn into Lena, but the statistic Sara talks about in A FAINT COLD FEAR is true: over eighty percent of all women who are assaulted experience some other form of assault in their lives, be it sexual, verbal or physical abuse. Lena is angry, and she is internalizing that. In A FAINT COLD FEAR, she starts to push some of that anger to the surface, and what she ends up doing is hurting herself. She is not always the character you like or root for --- some people get really angry with her for the choices she makes --- but I never want anyone to give up on her. She's a survivor, but you don't recover from something like that overnight.

I'd also like to add that she does appear in INDELIBLE, the next novel in the series. Most of the story does take place in the past, but she gets the present-day narration. I think people are going to be surprised what she's been up to since we last saw her.

BRC: In this same interview you described writing a book as a short but passionate love affair. At what stage is the affair with the book you're currently writing? Do you work on more than one book at the same time?

KS: Oh, yeah. I'm in the throes of passion right now. I just finished the main part of the story and I'm going back and touching up in places before I send it to my editor. I really am pleased with INDELIBLE. It tells us a lot about Sara and Jeffrey, and why Sara has had such a hard time getting over his betrayal.

As for the second part of your question, I am not a multi-tasker. Chewing gum and walking is a challenge. I like to do one thing at a time, do it as well as I can, then move on. If I leave something half-finished, then I'm incapable of functioning in the real world. I'll miss exits when I'm driving, order too many life just goes to hell.

BRC: Again and again the capsule reviews refer to how graphic your books are --- "not for the faint of heart," "for readers who like their crime fiction on the dark side," etc. Is this a deliberate choice on your part? Or does it flow from the action as you write?

KS: I don't know that my novels are any more graphic than what is out there. Only one person is murdered in each of the first two books, yet people have this notion of carnage. Jeffrey Deaver's THE BONE COLLECTOR (which I loved) had a woman whose skin was burned off by a steam pipe and I don't remember anyone saying that was particularly violent. I think I get that rap in part because I am a woman, but I will admit that I work hard to keep the details of crimes in there. For me and my work, I feel it is important not to flinch when you write about violence. If those parts are hard to read, then I have done my job. It shouldn't be easy to read about. Especially with KISSCUT, where I was writing about violence against children, I wanted to make sure that no one could read that book and get off on it. I am not here to titillate. I'm here to show the facts, then move on to what happens next. It's never been what people do that interests me so much as WHY.

BRC: In your new book, A FAINT COLD FEAR, sibling relationships, particularly those between Sara and Tessa and between Lena and Sibyl, are very important. What kind of relationships did you/do you have with your own sisters? What intrigues you about siblings, and how do you try to use what intrigues you in your work?

KS: My sister Jatha works in an auto parts department at a Mercury dealership. On the surface, people who meet us think we are absolutely nothing alike. I have a very fair complexion while our grandmother's half-Cherokee roots are extremely evident in her dark hair and olive skin. She is pretty outspoken and I am more quiet. The thing we share is a common upbringing and common values. We have the same work ethic, and most of our conversations center on how startled we both are by the things people do.

I think we show part of ourselves to our families that we would never show another human being. You can't hide your true nature from the people who were there from the beginning. With Sara and Tessa, you see a lighter side of Sara's personality. She is a well-respected doctor, but her family knows she's fairly goofy at times. I would caution people, though, to take with a grain of salt what Lena says about her relationship with Sibyl. You have no way of knowing whether or not she's telling the truth...

BRC: To continue in the same vein, the relationship between Sara and Jeffrey is also very important, perhaps paramount, at least in this new book. And in your next book, INDELIBLE, you'll be describing a time in the past when they were still together. Talk about what they represent, and what kind of people they are (be figurative and literal, as it were).

KS: Jeffrey was a clear response to what I felt was a perplexing trend in crime fiction. I love novels with strong female characters, but I can't stand when the woman's love interest has the spine of a jellyfish. I consider myself fairly strong, and I know that at the end of the day I want someone who challenges me and keeps me interested, not someone who agrees with everything I say. Jeffrey does not always do the right thing with Sara. He does not always anticipate her needs and give her exactly what she wants. That's true of any relationship, and I wanted to show that dichotomy as realistically as possible.

In INDELIBLE, we see the beginning of their relationship and how Sara sometimes puts her own feelings and needs on the back burner for Jeffrey. They are both younger and less experienced, and what we see from them is how their initial attraction blossomed into something larger. I always use them as a counterpoint in my novels, where no matter what horrible thing is happening in the plot you know that they will be there for each other. In INDELIBLE, we get to see how that started and why it means so much to them.

BRC: What is the hardest part of your books for you to write? Violent scenes? Procedural moments? Dialogue? Has this changed over the years?

KS: I don't find one part more difficult than the other. I love writing dialogue, but I also enjoy the research that goes into what you're calling my violent scenes. I guess the challenge is always, "What is the cliché here and how do I avoid it?" When you get right down to it, none of us is telling a new story. There are no new plots. What authors bring to the table is their own perspective. For instance, we could both write a book about a monkey who likes to wear hats, but because we are different people, we would tell a different story. I, for one, would wonder where his cigar is.

BRC: You've said you read a great deal, two or three books a week when you're writing, more when you're not. What do you read for style? For plotting? Etc.

KS: I try very carefully not to pick up anyone's style, which is why when I'm writing I cannot read crime fiction. I know this sounds arrogant, but I have never finished a book and thought, "Wow, I wish I had written that." I know what goes into writing a novel and I would never take that away from anyone.

BRC: When BLINDSIGHTED was first published, it was touted as the first of a three-book series about Grant County. Obviously, that's been extended. . .will you continue to write about Grant County indefinitely, or do you have an endpoint in mind?

KS: You know, I don't know why it was touted as a three-book series. That was never my intention, and when Morrow, my publisher, signed me on they were very keen to make sure I had more. I have plans for another Grant County book called FAITHLESS after this one, and then I will probably write what people call a stand-alone. I want more than anything to honor the characters that I have created, and I never want to get to a point where I'm writing stories because I have to instead of because I want to.

BRC: You're out on tour at the moment, and you've discussed before, there is a pull between your life as a solitary writer and your life as an author who loves to hear from your fans. How's it going? What are the differences between, say, your first tour and this one, now that you're more established?

KS: I think with my first tour I was just terrified that people would throw eggs at me or something. Now, being honest, the travel is so grueling that by the time I get to an event, I just want to talk to the folks who make it all worthwhile. I have met some of the most interesting and energetic people on the road, and we all have this great common bond: we love reading.

BRC: Titles are very important to you, and each of yours has an interesting story behind it. Can you tell us about INDELIBLE, or would that be premature?

KS: It's a little premature right now. I don't want to give too much of the plot away. I can tell you it's about how things in our past never really go away.

BRC: What comes first for you? Setting? A particular murder? Does your title give you your story, or vice versa?

KS: I have to have the title before I can write anything. For me, the title says what the book is about and what the focus of the story will be. Until I get that title, the story makes absolutely no sense to me.

BRC: Can you share anything about LIKE A CHARM: Voices from the New Noir, the crime fiction collection that you are heading the collaboration on? We hear it is due out in May.

KS: Well, first off, I want to say that it's a novel, not a short story collection. I know that sounds hinky, but it really does read like a novel. Basically, I borrowed the idea from one of my favorite books, THE RED PONY. Each story is about the same charm bracelet, and the trick is that by the end of the story, the author has to leave the bracelet somewhere for the next author to find. For instance, Peter Robinson leaves it in a bomb crater in Leeds, and Fidelis Morgan has to have her character find it there and then by the end of the story leave it for the next person. I have been going over some of these stories and I have to say they just blow me away. Laura Lippman, Mark Billingham, John Connolly, Lee Child, Lynda LaPlante --- these are people who know how a story works and they are masters of short fiction.