Author Karin Slaughter took the standard schooling route, including college at Georgia State University, where she studied Renaissance poetry. Then, things got a little more interesting — in a standing-out-on-a-limb sort of way. She dropped out with just two classes left before graduation to work exclusively on her start-up sign company. But when the urge to write got so intense, she sold the sign company and turned to writing full-time. The result? Since 2001, which is when her first published novel, Blindsighted, was released (the first title in the Grant County series, shortlisted for the Barry, Macavity, and Dagger Debut Awards), she has been on several bestseller lists and sold 17 million books in 30 different languages.
The Grant County series is set in the fictional Georgia town of Heartsdale and features Dr. Sara Linton, the town’s pediatrician and part-time medical examiner; her ex-husband, Jeffrey Tolliver, the county’s police chief, (who took a controversial exit from the series in Beyond Reach); and Detective Lena Adams, who has a perennial chip on her shoulder. Slaughter also writes a series with Will Trent and Faith Mitchell, special agents for the George Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta. She merged the two series, first in 2009's Undone and again in her latest novel out this month, Broken.
Broken focuses on Special Agent Will Trent who arrives in Grant County and finds a police department determined to protect its own and far too many unanswered questions about a prisoner’s death. He doesn’t understand why Officer Lena Adams is hiding secrets from him or her role in the death of Grant County’s popular police chief. He doesn’t know why the chief's widow, Dr. Sara Linton, needs him now more than ever to help her crack this case.
Karin Slaughter is on a whirlwind tour, both online and "off," and took some time to answer a few questions for In Reference to Murder.
IRTM: Before you started writing thrillers, you owned a sign company—but then you sold it so you could start writing. You've said it was important for you to cut that safety net of a steady job and paycheck. Most "experts" advise writers to not quit their day jobs. Was this a difficult or smooth transition for you?
KS: The transition was actually pretty smooth because I had a lot of things going for me: I already had an agent. I’d already written a book. I had money saved up so that I wouldn’t starve. So, it was a calculated risk, but it was still a risk. I think each writer has to make the decision of when to go it alone, if ever. I’ve got a risk-taking personality, so it worked for me. For someone else, it might make them turn to the bottle or hide under the bed, neither of which is conducive to good writing.
IRTM: You've likened book writing to a "short but passionate love affair." So how do you keep the passion alive in that love affair, book after book?
KS: I try to tell something new about the characters in each new book. I also have a lot of secrets about my characters that I don’t always share with my readers. In Broken, for instance, we learn some new things about Lena Adams, whom I’ve been writing about for over ten years. I’ve always felt very strongly that if you don’t have anything interesting to say, you shouldn’t say it, so a lot of times when I’m plotting out the books, I’ll deliberately throw obstacles in the way of characters so that their personalities have to change. Lena has certainly benefited (if I can use that word) from this over the years.
IRTM: You are proud (and rightly so) of being a southern writer and get annoyed with stereotypes toward southerners. (I'm from Tennessee and when I traveled to New York City once, had a cabbie ask in all seriousness why I was wearing shoes and did I have a moonshine still in my backyard.) Do you feel you're educating those stereotype-holders through your writing in some way?
KS: I hope I am, but let’s face it: New Yorkers tend to have their heads up their butts, as we say Southerners like to say. If you hired a hundred people to walk around Midtown in red shirts, all the newspapers and all the news shows would have stories the next day about how everybody in America has started wearing red shirts. They think what they see outside their window translates to the rest of the world, when really, the city is extremely segregated (especially in the publishing business), extremely antiquated and very hard to live in unless you’ve got a lot of money. That’s not the America I know, but that’s who represents us to the world. I’m glad to do my part in disabusing readers of those notions.
IRTM: You killed off a major character in your Grant County series and got hate mail for it. Yet you say while killing off Jeffrey was one of the hardest things you've ever done, you think it was the best thing for the series. (For the record, one review I read of Broken said that, "although the Jeffrey is certainly missed, this book proves the series can move forward without his presence." So there.) Can you explain a little more about that "best thing for the series" idea?
KS: When I talk about the “best thing for the series” what I mean is the best thing for me as a writer. Let’s face it: it would’ve been very easy for me to write the same stories over and over again. That’s the basis of a lot of crime series, and while I have no problem with that, in my own work I was afraid I would get stale. One of the things readers (hopefully!) like about my books is that I’m telling fast-paced, emotionally gripping stories. I think the fact that folks had such an extreme reaction to Jeffrey’s death means that it resonated for them, and that I did a good job of developing him as a character. But, it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t contrived to sell more books (generally, authors don’t equate hate-mail with increasing sales). It was organic to the story, and it gave me an opportunity to pull Sara into a new and different world. Also, in Broken, it gave me the opportunity to show Lena without Jeffrey’s influence, which was very interesting.
IRTM: You write detailed and believable characters, both men and women, and also from both male and female POV's. Do you find it's harder to write men or to write women characters?
KS: Men are actually easier for me because women think in a much more visceral way. For instance, when I read Lee Child and Reacher comes upon a body, it’s going to be very mechanical in the telling. “Here’s the knife. Here’s the blood. Here’s the body.” If I read something by Tess Gerritsen, it’s going to be, “This is the smell in the air. This is the taste. This is how the victim looks. This is probably what the victim was thinking when he or she died.” I’m not saying either approach is right or wrong, and thank God they’re different because these are two authors I love reading. I’m just saying it’s different, and when I’m writing Will I am conscious of that.
IRTM: In that same vein, I like what you once said about the great thing about being a man is if you get mad at someone, you can kick their ass, but women have to spread rumors and give them nasty glances in the hallway. Also, you get complaints about your female characters cussing but not your male characters. How do you deal with and/or get around these gender traits and
biases in writing?
KS: Well, the new thing I’ve been getting is, “you write like a man,” which I suppose is a way of saying that I am a good writer, because women only write chick lit and knitting mysteries where Amish cats solve the crime. I once heard Carol Shields interviewed wherein she said that anytime a man writes something, it’s considered more valid. I recall thinking, “crap, and she won the Pulitzer.” It’s hard out in crimeland if you’re a female author writing about what some view as “male” themes, but here is the interesting dichotomy: over 85% of all books are purchased by women. One look at the bestseller lists tells you that the majority of books being bought are crime fiction, and not just crime but realistic crime of the sort I write. Now, what does that tell you about women? Obviously, we are interested in these stories. It follows that we would start writing about them.
IRTM: It's been said that your heroes are extremely flawed and messed up, but still ultimately likable. Do you find yourself putting qualities in characters that are part of you, or rather traits you wish you had, or do you even consciously think about those types of parallels?
KS: I’m sure some of my characteristics show up in the characters without me thinking about it. I think one thing about most if not all of them—even the bad guys—is that they have very good manners. Maybe that comes from me being southern, or maybe it’s just because I know that there is no such thing as a 100% bad or 100% good person. We all have strengths and flaws. But, you know, as a child I always went to church with my grandmother, and after the services she’d introduce me to her friends, and as soon as the friend turned her back, my grandmother would tell me this dark secret about her. “You know her husband drinks,” or “You know she came home from church last week and found her son trying on her underwear.” I love that sort of thing. It’s those little peccadilloes that make us interesting. Some more than others, of course!
IRTM: You knew for years that Jeffrey was going to die but didn’t give a lot of thought to what would come after. Following that event, you combined the Grant County series with the Will Trent/Atlanta series in Undone and now again in Broken. When did you decide to blend the two series as the next progression in Sara's life after her husband's death?
KS: I couldn’t think about what would come after because I knew I would never be able to write the lead-up to the tragedy. It was very hard touring for a few years because I am basically an honest person, and I had to lie to folks about Jeffrey and to some degree Sara. Even though they are fictional characters and I get paid to make things up for a living, I had a hard time with that. I knew when I wrote Triptych, the first book with Will, that he would end up meeting Sara and Lena. So, I laid a lot of groundwork into putting together his character and making sure that he wasn’t just a carbon copy of Jeffrey, because what’s the point if I just throw in a guy who is exactly like Jeffrey? Will lacks the self-confidence and sexual prowess that made Jeffrey who he was. He’s not the kind of guy who wants to be the center of attention. He’s a team player and doesn’t want the spotlight. A lot of this comes from his dyslexia. When you have a secret that big to hide, you avoid scrutiny at all costs.
IRTM: You feel it's import to be realistic without moving into sensationalism regarding the violence in your novels, something a lot of crime fiction authors deal with. How difficult is it to find such a balance?
KS: I don’t find it difficult to find a balance at all because I have one rule for both the scenes of sex and the scenes of violence in my work: if I can take out that scene and it doesn’t change anything in the book, then it doesn’t belong there. I think what I get nailed on is that I am writing so frankly about these topics and I am a woman. Not that I’m complaining too much, because of course it gets me a lot of media attention, but I’ve never written a story where a serial killer inserts a snake into a woman’s private areas, and I’ve never had a victim who was burned alive by a broken steam pipe so that the skin peeled off, but James Patterson and Jeffrey Deaver have, yet you don’t see stories about them mentioning these things.
IRTM: Your books are described as being quite dark—has writing the novels changed the way you look at the world, made you more pessimistic about the human species (or our chances of surviving into the next century)?
KS: Believe it or not, I’ve got a fairly laid-back outlook on the world. I think most crime writers do. We get our angst out on the page, then we go along with our lives in the normal way. I really don’t think of my books as dark. There’s a psychological component that makes you feel connected to the characters and stories in a deeper way, but all good books should do that. And, let’s face it—at the end of the day, the bad guys are caught and our heroes go on to fight another day. You can’t get a more positive outcome than that!
IRTM: You're a stickler for research, but have said you still make up a great deal of things since you're not writing textbooks, and that it's important to know the rules so you can break them in a way that keeps it realistic. Are there any rules that aren't made to be broken (or that you won’t break)?
KS: I have learned the hard way that you’ve got to get every single gun detail correct or people will absolutely jump on you with both feet. They will call you names and accuse you of all types of mental disabilities. They have no problem believing this one small Georgia town has been the stomping grounds of a serial rapist, a child porn ring, a serial killer and various murderers and bad folks, but get a gun fact wrong and their suspension of disbelief is very unwilling indeed!
IRTM: I believe your next book (or an upcoming book) is set in the future and titled The Recidivists. Can you tell us more about that?
KS: The Recidivists is a graphic novel project I’ve been working on for a few years now. It’s not ready for the presses as I have to write my regular books in between, but it’s in the pipeline. The next book is tentatively titled FALLEN, and it opens with Faith coming home to some bad stuff and having to kick some butt. I love it!
IRTM: I'm jealous you had a chance to try out weightlessness in the zero-G Vomit Comet. And you have plans to enter sub-orbital space via Virgin Galactic's space program? Have you already pre-booked a flight? Can I come with?
KS: The Zero-G thing was a fabulously fun time, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to be weightless for a few seconds at a time. I’m ready to go on Virgin Galactic, but they’ve had some set-backs. I promised my dad I wouldn’t fly until at least 100 people have gone before me. The ship carries six people at a time, so that might be sooner than my dad thinks!
IRTM: Is Gimme Goobers going on tour?
KS: Lookit, send us some plane tickets and we’ll be there. We are all about the road.
Karin will be appearing at Houston's Murder by the Book store tonight (Tuesday, June 29th) at 6:30 to sign and discuss Broken. MBTB will donate a percentage of the sales to The Women's Home, whose mission is to help women in crisis regain their self-esteem and dignity.