On June 26th, author Karin Slaughter sat down with Elizabeth Buzzelli for a conversational book event as part of the National Writers Series in Traverse City. Slaughter shared insights on her genre of choice—crime fiction—as well as recounted her childhood in rural Georgia that inspired her work as an adult. The following content was written by Jacob Wheeler, courtesy of the National Writers Series.
Georgia native Karin Slaughter is regarded as one of the best crime novelists in America today. Her 14 novels have sold over 30 million copies worldwide and have topped bestseller lists in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, the Netherlands and Germany.
But, as she told guest author Elizabeth Buzzelli during a National Writers Series appearance in Traverse City on June 26, Slaughter’s books explore more than bloody murders and harrowing mysteries, they examine gender stereotypes and sometimes shatter glass ceilings.
Her newest book, Cop Town, features Kate and Maggie, two women from different backgrounds who try to wear the badge and carry the gun for Atlanta’s macho police department as the city faces a seismic upheaval. It’s 1974, and a brutal killing and furious manhunt have rocked the divided police force.
Cop Town is inspired by true history: in the 1970’s, 12 officers were murdered in the southern city; in ’74 Atlanta went from majority white to majority black, and elected its first African-American mayor. The book has already garnered rave reviews: “Cop Town shows the author at the top of her game,” writes the New York Times. “Relentless pacing, complex characters, and gritty realism, all set against the backdrop of a city on the edge.”
“People ask why I write about strong women,” Slaughter told the National Writers Series audience. “They say, as a compliment, ‘you write like a man’. Mostly, men are shocked, and a little concerned, that we buy these books,” she laughed with Buzzelli, herself an accomplished crime novelist.
“It bothers me when men get revved up about strong women in literature. We’ve been doing it for a long time.” Slaughter named fellow Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor, and referenced the scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett shoots the Yankee deserter.
Before writing Cop Town, she interviewed female officers on the Atlanta police department whose bosses had thrown phones at them and tried to rape them. In the 1970s, many women couldn’t get credit cards or home loans. And those who did make the force had to work harder. Slaughter described an officer who wasn’t able to relieve herself during an entire shift (the men could just pull off the road and go), so she “developed bladder muscles like a bison.”
“Why are women interested in crime novels?” Buzzelli asked.
“I think some woman are judgmental and think, ‘those awful things will never happen to me’,” answered Slaughter. “For so many years women couldn’t go play touch football, but we could read or do other social work. Women also aren’t wired to take time for themselves, because they have to raise families. But reading is our own time.”
Crime novels are enjoying an epoch in popularity, to Slaughter’s benefit but also to her credit.
“People are reading again, and they’re very bloodthirsty, which is good for us,” she joked.
Slaughter’s interest in crime novels, and the inspiration for her popular Grant County and Will Trent series, stems from real murders that happened in rural Georgia during her childhood and changed her life. She couldn’t bike down certain streets, she remembered.
“I wanted to write about that. Not just crime, but how it changes people – for example the doctors and detectives who work on a case. They say ‘write what you know’. But I also think you should ‘write what you want to know.'”
How does Slaughter seamlessly weave each book together so they fit neatly into a series? Buzzelli asked.
“The first chapter is important,” offered Slaughter. “Usually when I finish one book I immediately start the first chapter of the next book. I want the tone to be similar. … Even while writing Cop Town, I was thinking about the one that comes after that.” Slaughter is always looking for clues or imagery.
“I was at restaurant recently and saw someone open a bottle with their shirt, and I thought, ‘I’ll bet Sarah (a frequent character in her books) could find a clue in that!”
Slaughter also touched on the importance of genuine character development and warned the audience against treating a crime novel like a who-done-it.
“I make sure every character has some sort of story. You don’t bring out the butler with the knife in the last scene. You have to hide the killer in plain site. If you have great plot, but nobody cares about the characters, then nobody’s gonna read it.”