National Writers Series Primer: Q&A with Karin Slaughter

Bestselling author Karin Slaughter will make a National Writers Series appearance on Thursday, June 26th, at Traverse City’s City Opera House. Elizabeth Buzzelli will serve as the guest host for the Northern Michigan book event. Slaughter is one of crime fiction’s most celebrated and award-winning writers, while Buzzelli teaches creative writing at Northwestern Michigan College and at writers’ conferences around the country.  The conversation between Buzzelli and Slaughter kicked off in advance of the Northern Michigan event when the two exchanged a few questions via email.


Slaughter’s first novel, Blindsighted, published in 2001, became an international success, was published in almost 30 languages, and made the Crime Writers’ Association’s Dagger Award shortlist for “Best Thriller Debut” of 2001. Her most recent book, Cop Town, is an epic story of a city in the midst of seismic upheaval, a vicious murder, and a divided police force tasked with bringing a killer to justice.

I’m fascinated by your work. Real people. No sugarcoating. Can you tell me what you’re after in your books?

Thanks! While I enjoy all types of books, it’s important to me to make my work as realistic as possible. I am keenly aware when I write a story that the crimes I generally talk about are crimes that have happened and continue to happen to people every day. I don’t want to make it feel exploitative or seem as if I am glorifying the perpetrator. I want to tell stories about how people survive awful things—and not just the victims, but the families, the cops who work the cases, and the communities.

There is so much that seems mysterious about you—a nice Southern girl writing deep, dark mysteries. Who are you? Where did you come from? Childhood?

I think you hit the nail on the head—I’m a nice southern girl who enjoys dark mysteries. I had a pretty normal life growing up in south Georgia with two older sisters and a mother and father who encouraged my love of reading. I think a lot of women enjoy dark mysteries, though. The fact is that we’re over 80% of the book buying public and we’ve been reading these dark stories for years. It’s natural for us to finally be writing about them from our point of view.

Anything buried there that makes you seek the dark side?

I was around eight or nine years old when the Atlanta Child Murders were in full swing. Though I lived far from Atlanta and was as far from the victim profile as possible, I was terrified. I saw first hand what crime can do to communities—how it makes people wary of strangers as well as each other. I think that’s what got me interested in crime. Then of course I read Ann Rule and never looked back.

Your characterizations are deep—we know these flawed people intimately by the end of the books, and care about them. Where does your knowledge of the undersides of life and the people who exist there come from?

When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to take me to church with her. She would introduce me to her friends, but as soon as they turned their backs, she would tell me something terrible about them—this one’s a drinker, that one’s cheating on her husband. This is a typical southern kind of thing. We love to gossip about other people, but Lord help the neighbor who gossips about us. When I think of my characters, I guess I’m thinking about people the way my grandmother did. Everybody has secrets. The fun of writing about a group of people is I know things about them that no one else does.

You’ve been compared to Stieg Larsson with his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Why, do you think? Grit? Or the female characters?

I’m not wild about Lisbeth Salander as a feminist icon. If you create a character who has to get breast implants to “improve her quality of life” (as the translation says), is that really feminist? Further, there are so many women authors who are writing fantastic, strong female characters and no one really recognizes them for it. Denise Mina, Lisa Gardner, Mo Hayder, Gillian Flynn—these ladies have been writing believable, heartbreaking, strong, nuanced and fascinating female characters for years and no one singles them out for that feat. Even Gillian, who has an impressive body of work behind Gone Girl, gets more credit for the shock of her story than for creating a woman that every single woman who reads the character has not only met, but probably has been friends and/or enemies with at some point in her life. Hypothetically, if you see Lisbeth Salander walking down the street, your first thought is that she probably has a knife and you should avoid her at all costs. With Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, you think the things that women think about other women the way that we think about breathing (which is to say it happens somewhere in the midbrain). Is she a good wife or a bad wife? Is she nice or mean? Does she deserve her husband? Her success? Her failure? If she’s thin, is she too thin? If she’s a little overweight, has she let herself go? Is her hair colored or natural and is it a good job or a bad one? Is she wearing too much make-up or would she be prettier if she wore more, but not too pretty because then she’d be slutty and so on and so on. With some excellent exceptions (Peter Robinson, Wally Lamb, Lee Child) men tend to write about women who care about things men care about. If Kathy Reichs writes about breast implants, it usually involves tracking down the serial number on the inserts to identify the victim of a crime.

Since you wrote Blindsighted in 2001, you’ve written at least one book a year. These aren’t small books, nor are they easy books. They are amazingly deep and intricate. How do you work? Do you have a method you use to make the process any easier? How many hours a week do you write?

I think about the books in twos and threes, so with a novel like Criminal, I was already thinking ahead to Cop Town. And of course with Cop Town, I’m thinking about the next Will and Sara (which will come in 2016 with a different book in between). The fun part about writing a series of books is that you can make sure that whatever line or scene doesn’t work for one story can be used in the next. So, there’s no rush to put everything into one story. That’s a relief in a lot of ways because I think about these characters all of the time, and I see them as my brain’s best friends, so knowing that I’m going to tell a little bit about them with each book is a real treat for me. There’s really no method to make the process of writing easier. I am not a writer who can write every day, but I block out two or three weeks at a time and just sit down and work every day on the characters and the story until I am exhausted and then I get up the next morning and do it again. This was a lot easier when I first started, but now that I’m older, I have to make sure I stretch every few hours, otherwise I’ll end up with a hump on my back.

Let’s talk Cop Town—a terrific book—deep and dark and touching on so many aspects of a cop’s life in the nineteen-seventies. These cops are awful. No beating around the bush about their blatant racism, misogyny, and basic corruption. Yet there is something heroic about this band of brothers who watch each other’s back and put camaraderie before even the law they serve. What did you feel about the cops in the book? Any flak from Atlanta Cops on this one?

Thanks very much. I have to say that this is one of my favorite books. I actually liked a lot of the cops in the story, but for different reasons. As a writer I have the luxury of liking awful people just because it gives me something interesting to write about. Also, it’s fun to explore the duplicity of awful people, because they’re not awful all of the time. Gail, for instance, is crude and racist and a little bit sexist, but she really helps Kate learn how to be a cop. I spoke to a lot of retired female police officers who came up in the 70s, and some of the stories in the book about the treatment women received came directly from them. One of them wrote to me as she was reading the book and talked about how hard it was because she’d let herself forget the wall of hate she had to crash through every single day. The surprising thing has been the handful of young women who’ve said, “this can’t be true,” because it’s so hard for them to believe there was a time when this barbaric treatment was acceptable. To me, it’s important that we have books like Cop Town to remind us of what it looks like when women are disenfranchised not just from work, but from society.

The two protagonists in Cop Town are Maggie, who has been on the Atlanta Police Force for five years, is rough around the edges, and comes from a dysfunctional cop family, and Kate, from a wealthy suburb, from a sound, professional family. These two are very different, yet alike in some ways. Why are they compelled to function in what was, in the seventies, very much a man’s world? What’s driving them?

I think Maggie and Kate have the same moral compass. That’s a big connection for them. Their sense of right and wrong hues very close. As a writer, it’s a challenge to write characters who are different, yet share similar values. If you think about real-life friendships, it’s very boring to be around someone who thinks exactly like you about everything. The differences are what keep us talking.

During my research for Cop Town, the one question I asked all the female cops I spoke with was, “why on earth did you want to be a cop?” In the 70′s, no one wanted them on the force—not their families, not their friends and certainly not the good ol’ boys on the force. The only thing black and white male cops could agree on was that women did not belong. Every single woman I asked this question of had some variation on the same answer: they took the job because someone told them not to. If you climb into the way-back machine and remember the limited job opportunities acceptable for women (nurse, teacher, homemaker, secretary, librarian), then becoming a police officer was a really radical choice. With an Oprah-tuned eye, you can see where it makes sense that a certain type of woman would be drawn to the police force. As cops, they had something close to autonomy on the street. They had power. They had respect. Most importantly, women had to be paid the same salary as men who were doing the same work. It was perfectly acceptable in 1974 for women to make less because they weren’t “the breadwinner” in the family. There were lots of debates about pay equality and physical limitations and so on. My how things have changed!

Do you have time to read? Who? Why?

I make time to read. I consider it part of my job—not to anticipate what’s marketable, but because reading trains your brain. Even if it’s a bad book, you’re learning something. The best thing about summer is all the big fall books are already in galleys, so I can bug my editor for them. Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Denise Mina, Lisa Gardner, Kate White, Alafair Burke, Mark Billingham…and of course I don’t just read crime novels. Two of my favorite authors are Kathryn Harrison and Barbara Gowdy. Either one of them could write about paint drying and make it into the most fascinating story ever told.


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