I discovered Karin Slaughter’s work last year when 'Blindsighted' (her debut novel) crossed the Atlantic. It did so with strong endorsements from such major luminaries as Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Steve Hamilton and George Pelecanos. Her new novel 'Kisscut' has had even more support from such heavy hitters as the Connolly/Connelly 'brothers', John and Michael, as well as some red-hot reviews from within the industry.
This was one of the most interesting debuts of last year and what a novel 'Blindsighted' turned out to be. The small town of (fictional) Grant County is caught in the grip of a brutal rapist/murderer who kills a local professor and then embarks on a reign of terror. The real interest in this book is the crystal clear characterisation, and how the crimes cut deep into the community, especially as the brutality of the serial killer is contrasted starkly against the 'safe' landscape that is rural America.
I wondered how she would follow this, and I am amazed at how she leaped over the 'second book' hurdle. 'Kisscut' features an appalling incident in which Police Chief Jeffery Tolliver of Grant County has to make a tough decision which results in the death of a teenager. The depravity of the crime is hideous and the contrast against the backdrop of rural normality, stark. It becomes easy to realise why this particular brand of evil has come to town, for like most evil, it hides in plain sight. To say much more would deprive the reader of a masterful tale of good versus evil, chiselled characters that breathe and bleed and cry as they face up to their own personal dilemmas, while all the while a black cloud circles their small town. I must warn readers that Karin's work is wonderfully crafted, but it is done so with pure steel prose, and her plots will make you check that you dead-bolted all the locks at home. 'Kisscut' is a hard read for those of a weaker constitution and, like 'Blindsighted', it took me to places that sometimes are now hard to erase from my mind.
Full reviews of both books are available in the Shots Big Bad Review Section.
'Kisscut' is a fast and furious read which left me buzzing with questions. Karin kindly obliged with the answers, so buckle-up, as we enter Karin's world of 'Small Towns and Vicious Crimes'.
Hi Karin, thanks for taking time to talk to Shots. Could you start by describing the series to people unfamiliar with your work?
Karin : When I first started working on ‘Blindsighted’, I wanted to write a book that I would want to read. I have always been a fan of true crime, so I wanted to bring a level of realism to my work. I'm not a fan of novels where the protagonist can do everything but fly like Superman.
Sara and Jeffrey are ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. Their roles in cases are clearly defined and you are never going to read about Sara chasing bad guys with her gun drawn. She is not a cop. Likewise, Jeffrey is never going to perform a forensic evaluation. As a matter of fact, in ‘Indelible’, the fourth novel in the series, we find out that Jeffrey is more than a little bit squeamish.
Lena is probably the only character who thinks she is infallible, but that comes at a tremendous cost. As the series evolves, the challenge for me as a writer is to remain true to the direction her character has defined. It's tempting to give her a break every now and then, but Lena wouldn't want hand-outs.
I read that you grew up in a small town not too dissimilar to the backdrop you paint in 'Blindsighted' and 'Kisscut'. Could you tell us a little about your childhood and what your upbringing brought to your novels?
Karin : First and foremost, I am a Southern writer. There is a saying you can see on bumper stickers here: American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God. I'm not particularly religious, but I do think being Southern is a gift. The American South has such a long tradition of oral history, and I can still remember stories my father and grandfather passed onto me when I was a child. I think listening to them spin yarns gave me a sense of how stories work.
I grew up in a small town much like Grant County, where you couldn't go down Main Street without seeing someone you know. As a kid this was pretty bad, because that meant someone would tell my mom I was out where I wasn't supposed to be, but as an adult, I appreciate the novelty of a close community.
You live now in Atlanta - does working in a large city alter the way you look at small town life?
Karin : As big as Atlanta is, the city is divided into parks, or neighbourhoods, so I still feel as if I'm living in a small town. It's the best of both worlds, because I can go next door and have coffee with my neighbour and gossip with him about the crazy woman up the street who wears a tiara and stands at the bottom of her driveway, waving as cars pass by, or I can get in my car and drive ten minutes to see the latest foreign film or dine at a new French restaurant.
You were a sign-maker I believe prior to writing full-time. What did your jobs bring to your writing?
Karin : Signs brought financial stability to my life. The concept of the starving artist is all well and good, but it was not for me. I need to know my electric bill is going to be paid before I can sit down and clear my mind to work. Some of the more mindless aspects of sign making were great, because it freed up my mind to think about stories and plots.
What had you written before you were published?
Karin : I was interested in historical fiction, and wrote a story about two Southern families from the Civil War to the 1960s. My agent shopped it out and I got some of the nicest rejection letters on record. They were all very encouraging and basically said they liked my voice, but the story was not there for them.
How did you cope with rejection?
Karin : As I recall, I got depressed for a couple of days, then re-read the letters to see what I could get out of them. The key to getting published is perseverance.
The reviews for both novels have been very positive. How does it feel?
Karin : I have been amazed by the reaction to both books. It is incredibly flattering to have so many people interested in my stories. For so long, it was just me and my computer with no other input except an occasional remark from my agent. To see people reading the book - and liking it! - is such a thrill, and of course it's a tremendous honour to be keeping such good company.
Century, my UK publisher, has done a fantastic job of getting the book out there so that people can read it. They are doing some amazing promotions for the mass-market edition of ‘Blindsighted’ in September/October. Coming from a marketing background, I am just amazed by some of the wonderful stuff they're doing.
I will be going to London in February when ‘Kisscut’ is out, and they have even more wonderful things planned for that book.
Your books are very strong on characterisation. Can you talk us through your characters Jeffery Tolliver, Sara Linton, Lena Adams and her Uncle Hank?
Karin : Jeffrey was a response to all the overly-sensitive men I was seeing in crime fiction, especially in stories written by women. I think as writers we tend to put our ideals onto characters, and let's face it, most women think their ideal man is charming, sexy, handy around the house and never complains about having to vacuum or take out the trash. Of course, if you look at the men these women actually choose in life, they are far from the compliant, poetry-spouting milquetoasts you read about.
This brings us to Sara, who is a strong woman with a strong personality. It has been my experience - personal and otherwise - that what strong women want most from a partner is someone who will not be overpowered by the force of the strong woman's personality. Sara cannot control Jeffrey, which is something that is both irritating and incredibly attractive to her. She is in charge all day, whether at the morgue or at the clinic. She makes life and deathdecisions. At the end of the day, it's nice for her to come home and let Jeffrey be in charge. Of course, that does not mean that she won't question his decisions. Really, they're both like magnets - sometimes they attract, sometimes they repel.
Lena Adams is hard to describe. She is the first female detective on the Grant Force, which puts a bit of a chip on her shoulder. We'll find out in ‘Indelible’ that she has always had this chip. We will also see that her earlier life with Sibyl, her sister, and Greg Mitchell, her boyfriend, was not as ideal as Lena makes it out to be in the later stories. I had so many ideas about where her character would go when I started the series, and at each point she has headed off into her own direction. Sometimes all I can do is sit back and watch.
Hank Norton, Lena's uncle, raised Lena and Sibyl after they were orphaned. He figures a lot in ‘Blindsighted’ and ‘Kisscut’, but ‘Faint Cold Fear’ has him in the shadows as Lena tries to reclaim her place in the world. In ‘Indelible’, the question of his drug abuse comes up, because Lena is not certain whether or not he is still using. She has a lot of unresolved issues with Hank. Mostly, I think she blames him for being there instead of her parents.
What comes first for you - plot or character?
Karin : Both, really. A novel with one and not the other is pretty boring. The Grant County series rests on the characters, but the books are nothing without plot. I think that it's very much in fashion for writers to talk about character over plot, because it makes us sound Serious and Literary, but at the end of the day, it's the plot that keeps the reader turning the pages.
Do you find that your characters 'write themselves' into the story or do you have to plot their actions?
Karin : Lena tells her own story. There really is no way for me to control anything that she does. Jeffrey and Sara have more responsibility in the books because they are the ones who actually work the crime. Most of their conversations are going to be about forensic or procedural detail. Lena has the luxury of doing her own thing, so a lot of times I just let her do whatever feels right.
One theme that peppers your work is putting strong female leads into situations that alter the way they look at the world, as well as how the crimes alter the characters. Would you care to comment?
Karin : Let's not leave Jeffrey out of this. He's a strong man whose world-view is drastically altered, especially in ‘Kisscut’.
Asa writer I have always been interested in how people react to adversity. The character of a person develops not from the easy, ordinary things, but from the tests that are thrown at us every day. How we react to adversity tells other people what kind of person we are. This is why events that occur in ‘Blindsighted’ carry over into ‘Kisscut’. ‘Faint Cold Fear’, the third in the series, also mentions some events from ‘Blindsighted’. This is not to say that the stories do not stand alone, but that careful readers of the entire series will be rewarded.
The 'soap-opera' aspect of the Grant County series is very interesting as we watch the characters change and develop. Do you see this continuing? Or have you a stand-alone planned anytime soon?
Karin : I wonder, does anyone ever ask Mike Connelly or Dennis Lehane to comment on the soap opera aspect of their novels?
I'll continue the emotional development of the characters throughout the series. As in life, nothing will come easy to Jeffrey and Sara. Of course, Lena has an even harder road ahead of her. I'm working on something particularly horrible for her in ‘Faint Cold Fear’ right now. She has never made good choices for herself, and we'll see in ‘Indelible’, which takes place in the past, that she has a history of letting her pride lead her down the wrong path.
I have a few ideas for some stand-alone novels. The Recidivists is a sort of cautionary tale with a solid murder mystery at its core. It takes place in the near future and is sort of a mixture of the Handmaid's Tale meets Andromeda Strain. I also have a short story collection I am interested in doing. Ideally, I would like to write different novels in as many different genres as I can.
What attracts you to the dark sexual crimes that you feature in 'Blindsighted' and 'Kisscut'?
Karin : I would not call it an attraction so much as a fascination. Most violence against women has a sexual nature to it. I think for this reason it's very important for women to speak out about violence, and to talk about the horrible things that are happening to other women.
I have gotten a few letters taking me to task for writing about violence, and I think it's oddly telling that these letters have been from women. Not talking about violence against women is a very dangerous thing because rapists and attackers use women's silence to protect them.
Both novels feature sexual crimes and sexual predators in a way that contrast sharply against the 'safe' rural backdrop. Would you care to comment on this contrast?
If you follow the news, you'll find that most of the truly terrible things happening here in America are happening in more rural areas. We saw a mass exodus in the nineties, where people left the cities in droves because there was so much violence and crime. The downside to that is they brought the violence with them.
As for the predators, it's easier to be a fox when the hen house is left unprotected.
Do you feel that a woman can write more effectively about sexual predators than a male writer?
Karin : A good writer can write about anything. Peter Robinson has written some excellent women in his Banks series. Mo Hayder's Jack Caffery is incredibly believable.
I think some - and I do mean a very few - male writers write about violence against women with a bit too much titillation. There are certain things about rape, for instance, that men cannot understand. Even a man who has himself been raped deals with different issues than a woman does.
What a woman can write more effectively about is the fear women feel about sexual predators. I call it the "parking lot" effect. A woman walking alone in a dark parking lot who hears a noise is going to quicken her pace toward her car. A man is going to turn around and see what made the noise. I think that perspective is carried over into our writing.
What do you feel when people say that they had nightmares or were frightened when they read 'Kisscut'?
Karin : I would not wish a bad nightmare on anyone, but part of me can't help but feel thrilled that someone was so invested in my work.
The truth is, I'm writing about some really bad things in ‘Kisscut’. People have told me that the subject matter is hard to read about, and my response has always been, "good, it should be." If it's not hard to read about, then I haven't done a good job telling the story.
There is humour in your books, but it's pretty dark. Would you care to talk about your thoughts on humour in the crime novel?
Karin : I think humor has its place in everything. ‘Kisscut’ in particular is a very dark novel, but there are moments that balance the darkness, and some of those moments are made light by humor. Sara has a very good relationship with her family, and that provides a safety net for her. She can go to the morgue and do the things she does because she knows that she can always go home after and talk to her father or eat her mother's friend chicken.
I never try to put myself into my novels, but the bits of dark humor you see are entirely me.
Will we ever see why Chief of Police Tolliver left Birmingham, Alabama? And will we see more of his back-story?
Karin : ‘Indelible’, the fourth Grant County novel, takes place ten years prior to ‘Blindsighted’, when Jeffrey and Sara first get together and Lena is fresh out of the police academy. The crime central to the plot takes place in Sylacauga, and involves some friends from Jeffrey's childhood (we briefly meet one of them in ‘Kisscut’) I think of ‘Indelible’ as being more Jeffrey's book, and we will certainly get a lot of his back-story.
You have a long anticipated short story out in 'Tart Noir' (which was released last month). Could you tell us how that came about? And about the story you wrote?
Karin : Short stories have always been my salvation as a writer. I love the immediacy of the medium, and I always try to work out characters and personalities in short stories if I can. I was worried when I started writing novels that I would not be able to go back to short stories, but thankfully it did not work out that way. It's a real discipline.
I read ‘Necessary Women’ at Bouchercon in Denver. Lauren Henderson, a friend of mine, was in the audience and she asked for the story as soon as I finished reading.
The story came to me when I was at a local restaurant, waiting for my order to be put together. There was a huge vat of chitlins (pig intestines in gravy) cooking, and I thought, "Hm, that looks just like…?" you'll have to read the story to find out.
Have you any other short stories coming out?
Karin : Not at the moment, but I would really like to do a short story collection as part of my next contract. The project would be called ‘Like a Charm’ and I've already roped in some of my friends to contribute stories to the collection. Peter Robinson will do the first story, which takes place back during WWII. A character will find a charm bracelet, something horrible will happen, and then by the end of the story the charm bracelet will be lost or given away so that the next author's character finds that same bracelet and builds a story around it. Each subsequent story will follow this pattern. Denise Mina will write about the bracelet in Scotland, Laura Lippman will write about it in Baltimore, Gary Phillips will take it to Las Vegas.
Basically, all these wonderful regional writers will set their stories around the finding and losing of this bracelet in the city they are most comfortable writing about. I think it will be great fun seeing which author finds the most disgusting place to leave the bracelet for the next writer to find.
I've got a second anthology planned that follows the same pattern called ‘Like a Knife’.
I find a very British feel about your work with strands not dissimilar to Mo Hayder, Val McDermid and Denise Mina in tough female action. Would you care to comment?
Karin : My first comment is that it's a huge compliment to be included on this list of great writers. I thought ‘The Treatment’ was one of the best-plotted books I've read in a long time. Mo Hayder is an excellent example of a writer who does not sacrifice plot for character. You get both in equal degrees in her novels.
I suppose what puts me on this list is that we are all interested in conveying a sense of place in our novels. We don't use a lot of cliché or artifice to develop our characters and stories. British women can get away with writing about graphic violence a lot more easily than American women can. There is still that knee-jerk Puritanical reaction over here that women should stick to cat cosies or books where cooking and knitting are done.
The irony is not lost on me that Patricia Highsmith was more popular in Europe than she was in her own back yard.
I’ve noticed in your website newsletter that you are also an avid reader (like most writers) - so what have been your favourite reads of 2002?
Karin : Like everyone else, I was blown away by ‘The Lovely Bones’. I think that book is just about perfect. I am a huge fan of Kathryn Harrison, and I really enjoyed ‘The Seal Wife’, which is Harrison's sixth novel. I have become addicted to the Falco novels - Lindsey Davis is astounds me with her ability to insert tons of historical information into her books without sounding didactic.
Who would you cite as influential in your development as a writer? From writers (who you have read), writers that have encouraged you, to personal friends who have helped?
Karin : There are so many writers who have inspired me it's hard to keep up. Kathryn Harrison, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Russo, John Irving… the list goes on. When I was a child, I remember finding Flannery O'Connor and being blown away. Harper Lee (‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) had the same effect on me. Like every little girl in the South, I fell in love with ‘Gone with the Wind’. I think it's a shame that no one really reads that book anymore. There is so much more to the story than the movie shows. Scarlet O'Hara is one of the great fictional characters of the twentieth century.
A lot of my friends are writers, and I feel fortunate to have them.
I believe that you are working on the third in the series, would you care to share with us the title and give us a little hint on what the future holds for Jeffery, Sara and Lena? And projected release date?
Karin : ‘Faint Cold Fear’ will be out this time next year in the US and the UK. As for what the future holds - you'll find out when I do!
Congratulations on 'Kisscut' making so much positive noise on the review circuit, and we wish you great future success. So when are you going to come to Europe? And have you ever been to the UK ?
Karin : I lived in Banbury one summer when I was a kid, and I have always enjoyed visiting the UK.
I was in London last July to meet my publisher and do some pre-publication stuff. I will be in London again in February 2003. Century is talking about sending me to Ireland while I'm over. I might go to France and Germany, depending on whether or not I can work it into my schedule with my publishers in those countries.
Karin, thank you for your time, and we look forward to seeing you and 'Kisscut' on our shores pretty soon.
'Kisscut' (Century Publishing Feb 2003) 'Blindsighted' currently available as a Trade Paperback, and due for release as a Mass Market PB from Century Publishing Sept 2002