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An Interview with Karin Slaughter, Author of Broken

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Karin Slaughter is a fascinating author. Not only does she tell amazing stories with characters with great depth and good plot twists, but it’s the way she writes them that makes it appear effortless

But what I think most people, including me, first notice about her is the level of violence in her books which would not be surprising were it a thriller by a man but, well, there’s just something different — intriguing really — about a female writing about violence on women.

And yet, as we talk about the interview and as she addresses at her Frequently Asked Questions section of her own web site, she thinks it makes perfect sense: if women are more often the victim of violence than men, why shouldn’t female writers be addressing that?

Good question. Read on to learn more about her and check out her books — you can thank me later.

How did the idea for this story develop?

I wanted to talk about rural poverty. We hear a lot about people struggling in big cities, but folks who live in small towns, where there really aren’t any safety nets, are really struggling. So, the character of Allison Spooner came to mind, and of course since she’s in the first chapter of a thriller, something bad happens to her, but her death has meaning throughout the book because it shows a side of life that people don’t normally glimpse. Here’s a girl who is doing everything right, working as hard as she can, and she still can’t raise herself up.

You’ve done books focusing on pediatrician Sara Linton and ones on
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Will Trent. Why did you decide to have them meet?

I didn’t want to spend the next thirty years writing about bad things happening in the same small town — not least of all because people would begin to wonder why anyone still lives there! The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is to the state what the FBI is to the nation, so Will Trent can go anywhere in Georgia to investigate crimes, which broadens the victim pool to almost ten million people. Sara, as a coroner, can also lend her expertise to solving these crimes. Bringing the two together gave me a way to tell new stories.

Which of the major characters in this book — these two plus Lena Adams — is most like you, and in what ways?

I think that each character has a piece of me. Sara is the least like me — she’s a doctor, she’s tall with red hair and she likes to run outdoors. She is more like my ideal. I think her base temperament is close to mine because I tend to be a very calm person. Of course, that can change depending on what kind of day I am having. Sometimes, I can be quiet or more introspective, like Will. The trick is to not catch me on a Lena day!

Wikipedia says of you: “She is widely credited with first coining the term “investigoogling” in 2006.” How do you feel about that distinction?

I’m very proud! “Investigoogling” is to research something deeper than just a quick search (so, looking up whether or not that lump on your arm is cancer rather than just checking for movie times or directions to a new restaurant)

With a name like Slaughter did you ever think that you were fated to become either a killer, a meat cutter or an author about violent people?

How do you know I’m not a killer? I paid for my name a lot when I was growing up because other kids teased me. I don’t know if I was fated, but it worked out. Also, I think it sometimes can do a disservice because people assume that a book with “SLAUGHTER” on the cover will be gory or gruesome, and that’s not the sort of story I’ve ever been interested in writing.

I liked your FAQ — are you getting tired of having to explain and reexplain why your books have so much violence in them or is that just part of the gig as far as you’re concerned? Have you ever written something you later decided was TOO dark?

I’ve never crossed the line where I think I’ve written about a subject that’s verboten. I think being a woman and writing frankly about violence has gotten me some attention, and as someone who wants people to read my books I can’t complain about that attention, but it does puzzle me that this is something reviewers focus on. My books are never about the crimes. They are about how the characters react to the crimes.

A female writer friend thinks your writing is more violent and vicious than most male crime writers. Do you agree?

Not at all. I think women are held to a different standard — especially by other women. (Which makes me wonder what your opinion is as opposed to this woman friend). Stieg Larsson, Jeffrey Deaver, and James Patterson are just a few guys I can think of who write (or have written) very violent, graphic scenes in their books. The Bone Collector had a scene where a woman’s flesh was steamed off her body. Larsson wrote frankly about violent rapes and brutal beatings. But, these are men, and men can get away with writing about violence because it’s considered their “territory,” the same way Jodi Picoult can write about families because that’s her “territory.” That being said, I think the opening chapter of Alice Sebold’s LUCKY is the most horrifying, graphic and gripping piece of writing that I’ve ever read.

I thought it was interesting that you chose to have Will Trent be dyslexic. Did you do that as a way to raise some issues or awareness or did it just sort of “fit” him or both?

Dyslexia is a language disorder that runs in my family, and when I was looking into the symptoms, I realized that they were actually characteristics of a good detective: detail oriented, great memory, the ability to focus laser-like attention on one person at a time. I also wanted to write about a character with a disability who didn’t turn out to be either a maniacal killer or a pathetic loser. Will has dyslexia, and he’s ashamed of it, but what he’s going to realize over the course of the next few books is that it’s made him very good at his job.

Your acknowledgements thank someone for scuba diving research but I don’t recall any scuba scenes. Is this why the acknowledgement reads “thanks for all the free scuba diving research, suckah” I just know there has to be a story behind that comment.

There are divers who pull the body out of the lake in the second chapter. I cribbed some details about how police diving teams work (usually in pairs and always one person on the shore) from my friend Mo Hayder, who is a phenomenal thriller writer from the UK. We have a healthy competition going, so this particular acknowledgment was meant to school her about gettin’ all up in my grill.

If you could have all your readers read three other living mystery or thriller authors who they would be and why?

Denise Mina is probably one of the most gifted writers out there, whether it’s mystery or literary or whatever label you want to give it. She knows how to tell a story and she knows how to make you care about characters. Lee Child is just a great storyteller, too. I think Jack Reacher is an amazing creation, and Lee’s quite a feminist if you look at the way he writes about women.

There’s a tendency among some male writers to make the women in their stories weak and needing of rescue so that their hero looks like a manly man. Lee doesn’t do that. Reacher is a manly man fine on his own. Lee’s books are great reads because of this.

My third choice would be my friend Mo Hayder. She writes very frankly about violence, and there’s a dark tone to her books, but she’s using crime fiction to talk about the human condition. All good books do that, whether you’re reading about bludgeoned and burned prostitutes in Dickens or the tense courtroom scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird. Crime just makes stories better.

What are you working on next?

My next book is Fallen, which will be out in the summer of 2011. I’m really excited about it, because it opens with something that came directly from some research I did in the fall. I was allowed to tag along with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on a training exercise where they used an abandoned school to simulate a school shooter/hostage taker. Each agent had to go through the building, which was messy and noisy and filled with role-players, and take out the shooter. It was exhilarating and scary and a huge adrenaline rush, and I knew as soon as I got home that I had to write about it.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Scott Butki

    Thanks to Karin for the interview. This is the first of three interviews with female crime writers – the next two are Sara Paretsky and Laura Lippman