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Chelsea Cain Slays Portland: The Powell’s Interview

Chelsea Cain has a great laugh. It's contagious (Wait, why am I laughing about corpse decomposition?) and she unleashes it more often than I assumed the author of grisly thrillers would. But then again, she's got good reason to be in high spirits. Chelsea Cain

Heartsick, her debut novel, was a New York Times bestseller, and garnered enthusiastic praise from... basically everyone. In the New York Times Book Review, Kathryn Harrison called it a "dizzying novel. Lurid and suspenseful with well-drawn characters, plenty of grisly surprises and tart dialogue." Stephen King placed it, along with its follow-up, Sweetheart (now in paperback), on his ten best books of 2008 list.

Set in Portland, the series follows Archie Sheridan, a detective who spends a decade chasing the infamous "Beauty Killer," Gretchen Lowell, only to be captured by the beautiful psychopath. After 10 days of atrocities in a basement, Gretchen inexplicably releases him, and turns herself in. Archie emerges scarred (literally), with an addiction to painkillers and an obsession with the killer that reaches beyond the realms of his job description. Susan Ward, a zealous young reporter with an attitude, is handpicked to document Archie's troubles, and in the meantime, there are new murders to worry about in the Rose City.

Booklist gave a starred review to the recently released third book in the series, Evil at Heart, saying "Popular entertainment... just doesn't get much better than this."

Chelsea Cain took some time during her book release mayhem to talk about the role of Larry King as muse, Heartsick the movie, and why disembowelment is sometimes funny. (Or at least, why it should be.)

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Megan Zabel: This series has been heavily lauded for its originality. How did you come up with the idea of Gretchen and Archie's unorthodox serial killer/police detective relationship?

Chelsea Cain: Twisted love...

Megan: Yes. I want to know about the twisted love.

Cain: It started with the Green River Killer. I grew up in Bellingham, WA and was ten years old when he started killing people — or at least, when they started finding the bodies. And as a kid, that was something I was really aware of. This was a guy who was killing people, and not just any person, but young women, some of them 15, 16 years old. Even though many of them were prostitutes, as a kid I just thought, "He kills kids." So I think that any kid would have monitored that, but I was also a kid with a pet cemetery and a morbid imagination, so I took an acute interest.I was also a kid with a pet cemetery and a morbid imagination, so I took an acute interest. [Laughter]

I'd read the Bellingham Herald daily, just to catch up on the Green River Killer and the Green River Killer task force. He was at large for 20 years, so by the time they caught him I was 30. I ended up watching this episode of Larry King when he was interviewing those cops that had been on that task force for so long and I was really intrigued by the obsession that would result when you've been working on a case for your entire career. Especially that kind of case where there's so much emotionally riding on it. These cops got to know the families of the victims so well, and the lives of the victims themselves; the cops worked such long hours, for so long, to catch this guy. They finally caught him, and he cuts this deal, which is the deal that I have Gretchen cut in the book: to avoid the death penalty, Gary Ridgeway agreed to tell them where more bodies were. So even after they caught him, it didn't end. If anything, the relationship intensified. There was this footage of one of these cops, in the interview room with Gary Ridgeway after this deal had been cut, and they just seemed like old friends, you know? They had this sort of convivial relationship. On the surface, it just seemed like they were hanging out together at a bar, chatting and laughing, but underneath there were all these different levels of manipulation. I was really intrigued by that, in the middle of the night, watching Larry King.

[Laughter] And I thought, you know, it would be really interesting if the killer were a woman, because you look at that relationship, with all of its complexities, and then add sexit would be really interesting if the killer were a woman, because you look at that relationship, with all of its complexities, and then add sex. Which immediately complicates everything.

So that's what it started with — an episode of Larry King. I think I started writing within a couple days, and that first chapter I wrote ended up being the first chapter of Heartsick.

Megan: And that kind of explains why Heartsick starts with Gretchen already in jail.

Cain: I've always been more interested in what happens after the bad thing has happened — the fallout of the bad thing, when people are already damaged. I'm less interested in seeing people when they're fine, and following their journey to becoming damaged.

Megan: What are the challenges involved when writing about a female serial killer — specifically a beautiful one, whose strength is psychological, not physical? Did you grapple with how realistic this was, at times?

Cain: I did. When I first started out, doing all this research, thinking that I'd be very realistic, I quickly discovered that, in fact, it turns out there aren't very many violent female serial killers. And even just researching psychopaths, textbook psychopaths, if you're going to be really honest about it, aren't that interesting. We think they're interesting, because they're portrayed in the movies in an interesting fashion, but in actuality they're not. It makes for sort of a flat pathology. There's not a lot of arc in an actual psychopath. So fairly immediately I freed myself from being tied too closely to the textbooks, because I wanted her to be this sort of charismatic, beautiful, sexy, brutal, complex killer... and I couldn't really find one like her to base her on. Curiously enough, there haven't been a lot of super hot, smart, devious psychopaths.Curiously enough, there haven't been a lot of super hot, smart, devious psychopaths.

Megan: So the story is set here in Portland, and from what I can tell, you stick closely to the real names of establishments and general truths about the city. First: why Portland, and why didn’t you fictionalize more?

Cain: So many thrillers are set in the same three cities, and it becomes tiresome to write an original thriller that takes place in LA or New York. Portland is off the beaten path, from a pop culture perspective — enough to make it interesting, but still big enough that we can earn a couple of serial killers. It's not totally preposterous. We're not Cedar Rapids. And obviously I live here, so it's very convenient for me. I think there's something about Portland, something about the natural beauty here, that so many people come to the city for and take jobs that we're overeducated for, so that we can live in this place. And we go out hiking, and camping and go to the beach, and go up to the mountains, and 10% of those people never come back. I'm interested in that. The fact that we're drawn to this natural beauty, and people get lost on timber roads, and killed by sneaker waves and avalanches and get lost in the woods. And yet people continue to go out there. I thought that sort of theme — beauty and death and danger and the tension between those things — really fit with the book, specifically Gretchen, and Archie's compulsion to be near her.

Megan: I remember this scene in Sweetheart that took place on the Fremont Bridge, where you wrote about how when you're looking at Portland from that perspective, it can be the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. I was thinking about that while biking over the Broadway Bridge this morning, having this "I love my city" moment, and then caught myself scanning the water below for bodies.

Cain: Welcome to my world. [Laughter] There's something about the Pacific Northwest, the scale of it, and the fact that not so long ago people came here and died getting here, and then died the first winter they were here. There's this breathtaking beauty, just a little bit of moss on the tree, just this little thread of danger, and the sinister. And I really like that.

And you asked about real places — and that's something I really tried, with Evil at Heart specifically, to do more of. There are definitely real Portland locations, but I also make some up, when I needed them to be there. One, because it's easier. I used the Herald instead of the Oregonian, besides not wanting to piss off a lot of people at the Oregonian, was the fact that if it were the Herald it could function how I wanted it to. From a physical point of view, I could have Susan work on the floor I wanted her to work on and have the building be where I wanted instead of having to adhere to exactly how the Oregonian is. I find myself making those decisions — if I want a scene at a bar and a bar doesn't come to mind that functions physically how I want it to, then I'll make one up. But I'm trying to do less of that. Because Portland does have so many great locations and I do think it's fun for readers to find the familiar. And it's fun to go to that bathroom in the Providence Medical Center and take notes.And it's fun to go to that bathroom in the Providence Medical Center and take notes.

[Laughter] It really freaks people out.

Megan: Heartsick, your first novel, was a New York Times bestseller. How does one deal with overnight success?

Cain: I've become a total asshole. [Laughter]

Megan: No one would really blame you if you did.

Cain: I know, right! I was in San Francisco on book tour when I got the call that Heartsick had made the bestseller list. They get a call in New York at 5 pm on Wednesday with the list. So it was 2 pm in San Francisco and I get a call and it's my publisher. They were already at a bar, and so I could barely hear him. He told me that we'd made #8 on the New York Times bestseller list and I could hear all this hooting and stuff, and we got off the phone and my first thought was "I want to get a tattoo." [Laughter]

I wanted to get a tattoo with the number eight on it. Which is kind of a cool number, sort of like infinity, you know? Mostly I wanted to get a tattoo so the whole rest of my life people could say, "Oh, cool tattoo." And I could say, "Yeah, it's from when I made the New York Times bestseller list." Just an excuse to be able to brag for the rest of my life.

But yeah, it was one of the greatest moments ever. I know it sounds very trite to say, but I'd never imagined it. It's one of those things — it's your obituary, in that moment. I'm a New York Times bestselling author, and when I die, that's how I'll be described.It's one of those things — it's your obituary, in that moment. I'm a New York Times bestselling author, and when I die, that's how I'll be described. Feeling that happening in that moment, feeling your obituary being written, it's a remarkable feeling.

Megan: Of course you thought about your obituary. [Laughter]

Cain: "Chelsea Cain, New York Times bestselling author, was murdered in her sleep last night... "

Megan: Besides now knowing the obit, has your life completely changed?

Cain: It has. It totally has. From just a financial perspective and the fact that I do this now, and I know that I do this. I've written books for awhile, but always on a pretty small scale and always pretty self-indulgent. I chose projects that I thought would be really fun to work on, and found friends to work on them with me, and it was all about the process. And I always had to be thinking about the next project that I could sell, so I could spend another six months without getting a real job. And now this is my real job, and that's different.

Megan: So are you on the lookout for a new side project?

Cain: I am! I always have to have something going on the side. It's weird. So I'm trying to think of another thriller series. That's going to be my adulterous project right now. I like to have something else that I can sneak away with.

Megan: How do you do your research? You get pretty specific when it comes to corpse descriptions.

Cain: I have a lot of really great forensic pathology textbooks that have some pretty remarkable photographs of bodies at various stages of decomposition. There's a great website that shows dead pigs at different points, like you can track it, week to week. You can find a lot on the internet, really inappropriate for children. I've seen a couple dead bodies for real in my life and I've certainly drawn on that. But for the most part it's just forensic pathology.

Megan: So no field trips to the morgue...

Cain: No, I would love that. I would love to go to a morgue. Can you get me into a morgue?

Megan: I'll see what I can do.

Cain: That would be great!

Megan: Could you talk a bit about your writing process?

Cain: We have a third floor attic, so I have an office up there. I sort of go in fits and starts. Sometimes I'm up there all the time working, and sometimes I like to work downstairs because it feels like I'm working from home. [Laughter] In terms of process, my big breakthrough was to write dialogue first. So when I write a chapter I will just go through and write the dialogue, unattributed, no quotation marks. And that helps me get the scene out, just the general arc of the scene, and then I don't find myself getting distracted by description, which is sort of what bogs me down. If I'm going to get stuck, that's where it's going to happen. If Susan has a sip of margarita in the book, I need to go out and taste a bunch of margaritas, and then the next thing you know the day is gone... [Laughter]

So I sort of layer. I do the dialogue and then I go back and add the attributions and action and then I'll think about props. A lot of the characters in my books are always smoking or drinking coffee.

Megan: I've been watching a lot of Mad Men, so that just seems normal to me.

Cain: Right! And I think about that, with actors in a scene. If you give an actor something to do with their hands, they can do so much, beyond the dialogue. And I try to do that in the book. So I give characters little actions to perform that illuminate something that the dialogue doesn't. It's just lazy on my part but it works.I give characters little actions to perform that illuminate something that the dialogue doesn't. It's just lazy on my part but it works.

Megan: I've heard, but can't seem to verify that you were in a writing group with Chuck Palahniuk. Is this fact, or urban legend?

Cain: I'm tempted to go with urban legend, that sounds so dramatic! But it's true, and still is true.

Megan: So did Chuck workshop Heartsick? Did you get feedback from him?

Cain: Oh yeah. Yeah. We've been friends for eight or nine years. I had been in another writing group that has disbanded — someone moved, people got busy, and Chuck was like, "You should come and join my writing group." And I was like "No..." and I got all nervous. But he kept asking, and I had Heartsick, and I'd probably written the first 80 pages at that point, in secret, not telling anybody. Literally, not telling anyone that I was working on this book. And then I was like, "You know, fuck it, I'm going to go to the writing group." I'm not a very scared person, which is why I think I'm able to write such scary stuff. I don't get nervous very easily. But seriously I was ready to vomit my guts out going into that writing group. To read the first couple pages of my tawdry pulp thriller, in front of accomplished writers. But I did. I sat there and I read it, and they liked it. It was in that moment that I thought, "I can finish this book. I can turn it into something and actually publish it, maybe even under my own name." And that had not occurred to me until that moment.

We followed the [Tom] Spanbauer model of reading aloud, and everyone follows along on a hard copy, then makes comments. So I basically read Heartsick aloud over a year period. It was like a weird, serialized radio play. And I think that's why there are so many cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. I wanted to leave everyone hanging so they'd be excited to hear me come back next week and read a little bit more. But Chuck was a huge influence, from a writing point of view. And I think many people underestimate how smart he is about his process. Because he's so productive, I think that many people think that his writing is really intuitive, like he sits down and it just sort of funnels through his body. But he's one of the smartest editors that I've ever been around.

Megan: And a nice guy, to boot. Whenever he comes in to sign books everyone's like "Shhh, he's coming..." expecting some sinister, creepy guy, and he shows up and is super congenial.

Cain: He's very unexpected in many ways.

Megan: How do you distance yourself from the creepiness in your books, and keep it from seeping into your consciousness when it shouldn't be there?

Cain: You know, I get asked that question, and I feel like I should have a different answer from the one I do. But I don't creep myself out. I really don't. I find that it's all fun. It's TV, you know? It just makes me giggle and rub my hands together happily. I think that I should be more unsettled by what I do write down.It just makes me giggle and rub my hands together happily. I think that I should be more unsettled by what I do write down.

Megan: Oh, I don’t know...

Cain: No, I must be, because you guys keep asking me this question! [Laughter]

Megan: When I was reading them, I'd get up at 1 AM after putting the book down, to make sure that all my windows were locked. [Laughter]

Cain: I'm sorry!

Megan: It's OK, it was completely worth it. And it's a statement to how effective you are. But I was thinking, "If she’s thinking about this stuff all the time... "

Cain: I think, because I'm in control of it, I know when I'm writing a scene who lives and who dies. And I think that pulling someone's small intestine out with a crochet hook is kind of funny. And it's supposed to be. I'm always interested by the people who find my books funny, and the people who don't. Because most people don't. But I do. And I intend for there to be dark humor in the books. And I find when I read at events that I get a lot of laughs and people will come up to me after and say, "I read that book and didn't think it was funny, but now I'm going to reread it." I think I give permission for people to laugh. When you're reading some of these horrible scenes, I think people feel awkward about laughing. But if you're given permission, then you can. I officially give everyone permission to laugh while reading the books. They're supposed to be funny in places.I officially give everyone permission to laugh while reading the books. They're supposed to be funny in places.

Megan: You recently launched a new promotional website, IHeartGretchenLowell.com, which touches on the elevation of Gretchen as a celebrity figure, which plays a big role in Evil at Heart — and honestly I think that disturbed me even more than the violence. It seemed like a pretty strong statement about how screwed up society is. What was your inspiration for that?

Cain: A couple of things. One, just researching serial killers. You type in the name of a serial killer and up pop all of these fan sites where there actually are people who really like John Wayne Gacy. And I was really interested in that, and just kept running into these people who are serial killer enthusiasts. Also, I found it interesting that while I was doing tours and media stuff, that the hook that seemed to fascinate, at least the media, was Gretchen Lowell. In some of the foreign editions, it's called the Gretchen Lowell series. Which surprised me, because to me the books are not about Gretchen, they're about Archie and Susan. Gretchen was something that defined Archie. Gretchen doesn't have a point of view. Archie does and Susan does, but Gretchen doesn't. And I was interested in the fact that she caught so many people's attention, and everyone wanted to talk about her, more than any other character. And you know, I get that, but it surprised me. I wanted to play with that idea, that she became the story. I wanted to comment on that. And just our cultural obsession with sex and violence, which is what she represents. Thank God for it, I don't know where I'd be without it. [Laughter]

Megan: I read somewhere that you've had a lot of people come up to you at events who tell you how much they love your books, and follow with how they normally don't read this type of thing. I'm wondering A) if you believe them, and B) if you do, why do you think your books have that crossover appeal?

Cain: Yeah, people often say, "I never read this type of book, but... " And I think some of them must be lying, because they're selling pretty well. Who's reading them, I ask you? I think people do feel that thrillers in general are their guilty pleasure, their secret. Something they read on airplanes when they're away from their families. But I hope that my books have crossover appeal. But I don't know... I feel like the people who say that are people who know me, and that's why they bought the book. [Laughter]

For me, the books are about characters and relationships. And I read this somewhere, that the thriller setting is just a way to illuminate character quickly because you're putting people in extreme situationsthe thriller setting is just a way to illuminate character quickly because you're putting people in extreme situations. You find out who they are right away. And I think that's true. When I think about the thrillers that I like to read, I think they're about character. So in that sense, people who aren't big James Patterson fans, who is more plot driven, could find something in these books that's appealing.

Megan: What thrillers do you read?

Cain: James Patterson. [Laughter]

Well, my favorite thrillers are Val McDermid's Tony Hill and Carol Jordan books. I had read the first three of those when I saw that episode of Larry King. And there wasn't a fourth one at the time. I actually remember going to Powell's to try to find the fourth one, and there wasn't one. I swear if there'd been a fourth book I wouldn't have written Heartsick. I met Val McDermid later, which was crazy since just a couple years prior I was reading her books in my basement. I was in London, hanging out with her and I told her that story. She was like, "You know, that's not how most people would react to there not being a fourth book."

Megan: What's the weirdest piece of fan mail you've gotten?

Cain: I've only gotten one that was truly scary. Where I actually thought that maybe I should call the cops. It's sort of surprised me, I'm a little disappointed actually, the first year I didn't get any scary mail. It was all just really nice letters from people. "I never read these kinds of books, but..." Then I started to get mail from people who really do read these books. But yeah, I've gotten a couple scary things. Not threatening to me, but people who have very violent fantasies who want to share them. Like kidnap and rape fantasies. I got a call a couple of weeks ago, a voicemail from someone in Canada. And my number's not listed so I have no idea how he got my number. He called, and left a couple of messages, "Hi, I'm your number-one fan... " and I was like, "Awesome. Yeah, I'll call you back."

Megan: So, urban legend #2....

Cain: Ooh! How many are there?

Megan: Just two. Sorry. I'll try to come up with more. I heard that you've sold the movie rights to Heartsick?

Cain: I did.

Megan: Do you get a say in the cast?

Cain: Contractually, no. But the producer stays in pretty close touch. They bounce ideas off me.

Megan: Is there anyone that you've pictured in the roles?

Cain: It's funny, that's a question I used to get all the time in Q&As, and I had no idea. I have a picture in my head of these characters and to superimpose actors over them is just really hard. I think there are some writers who write with actors in mind, they sort of cast roles just so they have a clear visual image in their head, and I don't do that. It's just sort of this composite. So people would suggest actors and I'd say, "That sounds great!" It totally didn't matter who it was. Kathleen Turner? Sure! Charlize Theron? Why not! [Laughter]

But then I was sitting across from Storm Large at this charity function about six months ago, and I'd met her before, sort of peripherally, but we'd never really had a conversation. She was saying that she read Heartsick and really enjoyed it. And I was looked at her and thought "God. She looks just like Gretchen Lowell." It was the first time I'd ever had that experience where I met someone who looked like a character I'd made up in my mind. So we did this photo shoot, and she's playing Gretchen for the website, iheartgretchenlowell.com and some other stuff in town. So that was cool. And very strange, a little bit alarming.

Megan: How'd she react to that?

Cain: Well, it's Storm, so she took it as a great compliment. "You think I look like a hot, sick, murderous fuck? Thank you!" She was elated. [Laughter]

Megan: So you just signed another three book deal with your publisher, two more books about Archie, Gretchen, and Susan, and the start of a new series. Any clues on what we can expect in book #4?

Cain: Book #4 will involve flooding. I'm excited to add a natural disaster. That seemed like a good sort of tension in Portland.I'm excited to add a natural disaster. That seemed like a good sort of tension in Portland. It's just rainy, and the Willamette is at its banks, the storm drains are full. We've all been there in Portland. The way that affects the city, and people's moods, the way the creeks start overflowing in the suburbs. So that's sort of a secondary tension in Book #4. It will focus more on Archie and Susan. I want to move away from Gretchen being such a focus. Do you think that's OK?

Megan: That's cool. You have my permission.

Cain: No, seriously! As a reader? On one hand I feel like she's sort of played out, and that I'm going to start getting pretty repetitive, from a narrative point of view. And she'll always sort of be present in the way that she affects Archie, but I want to grow Archie and Susan's characters, and create some new bad guys. I feel like if I'm going to maintain the series, something else has to happen.

Megan: For me, it's all about Archie.

Cain: OK. Good.

Chelsea Cain spoke from her home in Portland, Oregon, on August 28th.

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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.

Books mentioned in this post

3 Responses to "Chelsea Cain Slays Portland: The Powell’s Interview"

    adrienne September 8th, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Great interview, thanks. I love these books, my favorite character is Susan, the reporter. Chelsea, is Susan your good reporter side and is
    Gretchen your evil beauty side? "Evil at Heart" gave me a nightmare!

    Miss Gretchen September 8th, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Well, to be honest, really I don't usually read mysteries or thrillers. But thanks Powell's. . . I guess now that I've read this interview I have a bunch of Christmas gifts I don't have to think about. . .a number of my friends would be interested in a serial killer named Gretchen. . .(PS I love the promo website. . .must get one of those tee shirts!)

    Jennifer July 6th, 2010 at 5:34 am

    I LOVE YOUR BOOKS. I actually don't think I can wait for the fourth book without killing someone first! Haha, I used to read stupid love stories, now I've read your books I've been going into town and buying loads of crime and murder books :) Your books have really changed me as a person, and my friends often point out how twisted my thoughts are now whenevr I have an idea or an opinion on something haha! Thank you for writing your books. They truly are amazing and I praise your work with all I can! I CAN'T wait for book#4 :D :D :D

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