A Conversation with Karin Slaughter
Patricia Cornwell recently commented how she felt that suspense authors are infusing their fiction with gratuitous violence. Do you agree with this, and what do you think of your treatment of crime in your novels? How do you respond when someone says that they are “too graphic” or “violent?”
I remember Cornwell got much of the same criticism when Post Mortem was first published. The story was shocking, graphic, and gripping. I couldn’t put it down. Some people felt differently–that her retelling of the Richmond “Southside Strangler” case was too titillating. There were particular barbs against her for being a woman and writing about violence against women in such graphic detail. What I saw was a writer using violence to talk about the staggering misogyny that permeated policing back in the late eighties. Like all good crime writers, Cornwell was using violence as an entrée into a greater story: talking about the social condition. She showed a different path by writing about a strong woman facing violence head on. It was very empowering.
I feel so strongly that it’s important for women to write openly about violence. For years in crime fiction, we were the helpless victims, the fragile women who needed a big, strong man to come to the rescue. In my stories, the women save themselves. I don’t flinch from the violence, but I also don’t flinch from how the violence resonates with families, communities, and societies. Every book I’ve written has had an underlying social theme, from domestic violence to poverty to the criminal justice system.
Undone is an exciting new beginning for you and readers–it’s the first novel which brings together characters from both of your critically acclaimed series (Sara Linton from Grant County and Will Trent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation). What was the genesis for this idea, and what were the challenges (and rewards) as a writer you experienced?
I realized while I was writing the fourth Grant County book that something big needed to happen to shake things up. I didn’t want to be sixty years old and still writing about awful things happening in this one small town. At the very least, real estate prices would be in the toilet. At the same time, I had a new story that had been working its way through my mind. I wanted to write about Atlanta, the city where I live, and I wanted to write about a character who is dyslexic. From those rumblings came a long-term plan to shake Grant County to its core, then move Sara, and eventually Lena, into Will Trent’s world. As a writer, I found the idea terrifying, which is what made me even more determined to do it. I want to keep telling fresh and exciting stories. I want to keep shocking my readers. So, this was at once the hardest and the easiest decision of my professional life. I think in the end it paid off, though, because I love how the relationships are working in Undone, and I am so excited about telling more stories about these people.
You’ve received a lot of praise from critics on the forensic accuracy and realistic law and medical procedures in your books. How do you do your research?
I have always relied on textbooks and talking to cops and my friend who is a doctor to get the details straight. I was fortunate enough to visit the GBI this year and got to tour their headquarters over the course of a few days. It was good to know how things really work so that I was conscious of all the rules I’m breaking. If I wrote a book about how cases were really solved, people would be asleep by the first page. One person collects the crime scene evidence. Another person catalogues it. Another person sticks it into the machines (there are a lot of machines) and yet another person analyzes the data. Then, the data is peer reviewed. All the while, the investigators are out in the field doing the gum-shoe work. This is back-breaking and to someone like me who has a bit of a problem with patience, mind-numbing. The guys who stare at fingerprints all day or try to find pieces of fiber on a pair of pants or put together a large pane of broken glass to see if the window was busted from the outside or the inside…my hat is off to them.
I had never seen an autopsy performed until I toured the GBI. Tapes and textbooks, yes, but never in person. I’d always shied away from it because I didn’t want to be disrespectful toward the deceased and their family. I realized very quickly that there’s no way you can be disrespectful in a situation like that. From the moment you walk into the autopsy suite, you’re aware of what goes on there and the awesome responsibility. I know that awesome is an overused word these days, but it’s perfect in this context because you can actually feel the weight of it on your shoulders as you walk through the doors. The work people do there is horrible and soul-taxing and so necessary. I’ve long held that I didn’t really need to be in an autopsy suite to talk about what Sara does, but I changed my mind after being at the GBI facilities. It really opened my eyes, and I sat in my car outside headquarters after my tour and wrote a passage that ended up in Undone.
In Undone, you explore the many ways that women are victimized–emotionally, physically, and psychologically–and you’ve commented that women can be much harder on themselves (and other women) than men. Discuss how you explore this through your characters, especially Faith Mitchell and Sara Linton.
Faith Mitchell is good example of what happens when a young girl who is ostracized grows into a woman. She had a very bad relationship at the age of fourteen, and her response to this over the last twenty years has been to push people away. She is very tightly wound and has no life outside of work. The great thing about having Will in her life now is he makes her see the world differently. He stops that internal monologue in her head that always assumes the worst in people, in situations. I think people erroneously conflate being pro-woman with being anti-man, but I try to show the opposite in my book. Sara, for instance, was bound to her husband, Jeffrey, in every way. The title of the book comes from a passage about how she feels without him. She realizes that he was the center of gravity in her life, and that without him, she has become undone. Not that I am holding up male/female relationships as the pinnacle of good living, because I also want to show that friendships between women can be enriching and empowering. If you look at books and films that have touched the female community, they’re all about positive friendships between women. This is why Faith and Sara are developing a connection in Undone that will continue through the series. They’re both creatures of family, but Sara has lost hers to distance and Faith has never quite felt she was good enough for her family. So, they find that connection through each other.
Do you have a favorite character? Do you become emotionally attached to them, and is it difficult when you sit down to write and you know bad things are going to happen to them?
I really do become attached, and sometimes I think about Jeffrey and feel so sad that all I want to do is sit around in my pajamas and eat doughnuts. As for a favorite, I’m really loving Faith Mitchell right now. I’ve been having a lot of fun in the conversations she has with Will. I think of all of them that Sara is usually my favorite, though. I have to be careful, because there’s this thing in me that wants to make her life too perfect just because I like her so much. I think that’s one of the reasons I chose to take Jeffrey away from her. She was becoming too perfect.
With a last name like ‘Slaughter,’ did you always know you wanted to write suspense novels? What drew you to writing in this genre?
It never occurred to me that my name would be a marketing tool until I was riding up the escalator at Victoria Station in London and saw this huge poster that said, “SLAUGHTER” and I thought, “wow, that’s creepy.” Then, I realized it was an ad for one of my books. Then, I felt really stupid. I grew up with the name, so it’s not anything I really think about on a daily basis. I guess it’s good that I’m not doing romances!
I’ve always loved crime fiction, and I’ve always loved writing, so it was a natural progression to write crime stories. Even my regular stories in school were about loss and death. I had a ninth grade teacher yell at me once, “You don’t have to kill everybody in the story!” She was a great teacher and really taught me a lot about writing about violence, because the skill of writing doesn’t come into play when you’re writing a graphic passage. The true art is the next bit, where you talk about what the violence does to the people who are tasked with solving the crime. You talk about the family left behind. You talk about the subtle ways that violence can change even a tight-knit community. Flannery O’Connor is an outsized example of this. She used the macabre to talk about the human condition.
Some of your favorite authors–Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor–hail from the South. How does this rich, regional literary influence inspire your novels?
I always joke that the reason there are so many good southern writers is because when we were growing up, the library was the only building in town that had air conditioning. I think Walker Percy was probably closer to the bone when, after he won the Pulitzer, someone asked why so many good writers come from the south. He said, “Because we experienced the fall.” We lost the Civil War. Almost all of the battles were fought on southern ground. That was a few generations ago, but southerners still have that sense of loss, and, more importantly to me, they have an interest in violence.
You’ve lived in the greater Atlanta area your entire adult life–is it easier or more difficult to write about a place you know so well?
I think it’s much harder to write about a real place as opposed to a fictional town. With Grant County, which is all in my head, I can do whatever I like. When I write about Atlanta, I suddenly have to be correct about road names and buildings, which is harder than you think for someone who has lived here for almost twenty years. I put a little disclaimer in each book to remind folks its fiction. I don’t need any angry letters about Peachtree Street!