Karin Slaughter is one of my favourite authors. I’ve been a fan for years, but never thought I’d get the chance to meet her in the flesh – until tonight, when I saw her interviewed by Hearst Publications.
It was slightly surreal, seeing this petite, unassuming woman from Georgia interviewed in the wholesome surroundings of the Good Housekeeping Institute, but GH’s Books Editor, Joanne Finney, is an accomplished reader and very evidently a Karin Slaughter super-fan.
Unsurprisingly, I loved their conversation. Beginning with Slaughter’s childhood, early love of writing and eventual move into crime fiction, it then embraced her new novel, ‘The Last Widow’, of which I now have a pre-publication copy. Yay!
She always, Slaughter told us, wanted to be a writer. Aged six, she wrote her first book, about her sisters being murdered (yikes); her father loved it and rewarded her with 25 cents. And so, a career was born…
Aged 12, Karin’s English teacher told her that she was a good writer – but that “she could be better”. “I was stung”, recalls Slaughter, “but she challenged me to read books other than ‘Lace’”. ‘Gone with the Wind’ was an early influence; unsurprising, given that Slaughter grew up just down the road from Margaret Mitchell and their two families knew each other. Mitchell, so I learned, was in an abusive marriage for years and eventually managed to divorce her husband at a time when women of that social class did not get divorced. She was also, refreshingly a suffragist.
After graduating from high school, Slaughter went to college where, we were surprised to learn, she was “a bad student: I wasn’t ready for it”. She went on to try out a number of jobs including being an exterminator, a house painter (“with a feminist crew who sexually harassed me when I knew nothing about sex”) and, eventually, owning her own signage company. Successful in her day job, she wrote, in bursts, everywhere she could.
Always, Karin has been interested in the darker side of life: “People assume that women aren’t – but we always have been” (nods from the predominantly female audience). We all like the sense of justice that most crime fiction novels deliver – and Slaughter makes a point, in her own books, of ensuring that victims of sexual violence are believed.
Interestingly, Slaughter stated that it’s rarer for people to be interested in lightness these days – a point which hadn’t occurred to me but, on reflection, I believe is true. Isn’t that strange? You’d think that, in this era of political turmoil, we’d be desperate for some light relief, yet gritty crime dramas have never been more popular.
A number of factors drove ‘The Last Widow’, which features Will Trent and Sara Linton. Slaughter was blunt in explaining them: “Americans have a dream about the American dream”, she began, “and it’s bullshit. It’s only now, for example, that small towns such as the one featured in my novel are finding out that being in a minority sucks”. This is a subject close to Slaughter’s heart, but one that she has shied away from in the past, as with anything overtly political.
She also wanted to “do something different with Sara” – and ‘The Last Widow’ puts Sara in a position where she uses her medical knowledge to hurt people. We see her much more vulnerable than usual.
And then there’s the subject of cults, with which we are all, let’s be honest, fascinated. Slaughter told us that she wanted to understand why people join cults. “You see cult-like behaviour everywhere: we gravitate towards one leader, who we think knows everything”. Finally, she had fun figuring out how Sara and Will can be close to each other without being too secure: “That would be boring!”
If you’ve read any of Karin Slaughter’s novels you’ll understand that there is some violence in them, although she never, she insists, sets out to shock. Every detail is carefully researched; Slaughter draws on the case notes from autopsies, post-mortem reports and witness statements, always mindful that a crime happened to an actual person, whose families are still involved and which were investigated by police officers who gave everything to secure a conviction.
Slaughter sets her books in Georgia because it’s where she’s from – and because of the misconceptions that many people have about it, particularly that it’s full of racists. I, for one, hadn’t realised that Georgia is 65% African American and also, thanks to Coca Cola, has a large expat population. “I’ve never voted for a white person in an election. I love the history of the city and believe it has been misunderstood for a long time”.
She has, Slaughter believes, changed as a writer over the course of the past 20 years and sees the world differently now, as do her characters. Sara Linton, I wasn’t completely surprised to learn, is loosely based on Karin herself, but with some embellishments: “I always wanted to be tall, and a doctor”. Over the years, Sara’s character has evolved and picked up other people’s characteristics. “She has my moral compass”.
What next for Karin Slaughter? Excitingly, ‘Pieces of You’ is being made into a Netflix series, with to be announced soon. She also teamed up recently with long-term friend Lee Child, which “was fun; we’ve grown up together”. Child loves Sara and Will and Slaughter loves Jack Reacher, which meant they were able to write each other’s characters in a believable way, once they’d identified a storyline which honours all the characters.
“It’s a crazy life, being an author”, concluded Slaughter, and she’s grateful to be able to escape to her cabin, secluded in the woods with a creek outside. From time to time she’ll open her front door and find food packages that her father, who lives just down the road, has left for her.
Wherever and whomever she is with, though: “The story is always the thing”.