Karin Slaughter | 'I get gendered questions about the violence in my books'

Karin Slaughter | 'I get gendered questions about the violence in my books'

Karin Slaughter’s most recent novel, Pieces of Her, starts with a bang: 31-year-old Andrea (Andy) is at a restaurant with her mother when they are approached by acquaintances, another mother and daughter. Suddenly a shooter bursts in, gunning down the two other women, then turning towards Andy. Before he can fire, Andy’s mother steps in and kills the gunman with almost action hero-like brutality. The incident shakes Andy: how was her mother, who she only knows as a doctor and pillar of the community, able to do that?

This is classic Slaughter. Her books often start with an innocent thrust into danger by an act of shocking violence, plunging them into a knotty mystery. Slaughter does not shy away from the gore, such as that opening scene in Pieces of Her: “Pop. Andy saw the back of the woman’s throat vomit out in a spray of blood. Pop. The side of Betsy’s skull snapped open like a plastic bag. She fell sideways onto the floor. On top of her daughter. Onto her dead daughter.”

That Slaughter’s books are violent should not surprise; she is a crime writer. But she is often asked about it, and it chafes a bit. She says: “I get gendered questions about the violence. I’ll give you a case study: a few years back, I got an email from Lee Child—who I love—saying he just read my recent book and he had just finished writing something with a similar theme. When I was doing press for that book, I got a lot of questions about the violence; Lee didn’t get any. And there’s Jack Reacher, going around killing around 3,000 people and beating everybody up.”

She stresses there are nuances to crime writing and violence. “With Reacher, you’re never really scared he’s going to get hurt. My characters are more vulnerable, so if I kill one person in a horrible way, it resonates. Keep in mind that 85% of crime readers are women. It makes sense that women reading about women being murdered is going to resonate more, probably because the real world is a very dangerous place. Something like 50% of the murders of women are by our intimate partners—just being in a relationship can be a scary thing.”

Spanning the globe

Slaughter is returning to the London Book Fair for the first time since 2015 when it was revealed she was moving to HarperCollins UK from Random House, following her long-time principal editor, Kate Elton, executive publisher for HarperFiction and Non-Fiction. Slaughter thus became the marquee author in HC’s then relatively new Global Publishing Program, in which it aims to secure world rights so that HC companies across the world can collectively publish authors.

That Slaughter joined Elton should not have been a surprise: Elton has edited Slaughter since her second book, Kisscut, in 2002. The two have “a sort of shorthand”, Slaughter says: “Part of it is that we are kind of the same age and grew up in this business. But when you get to be a successful author, I think it’s really important that you have someone who tells you when you’re full of shit.”

The Global Publishing Program appeals to her business sense as it streamlines areas such as editorial and covers meetings, gives her a concerted global strategy and reduces the time on publicity. She says: “When I go to LBF this year, HC Germany, Holland, France and a few other territories will be sending reporters for interviews, which is a seamless way to do promotion. If I was with, say, Hachette in France, I don’t think it would be happy if during the fair HC in Holland said they needed me for a day of interviews.”

Reading the signs

Slaughter has a “nerd origin story”. She grew up in a small town outside Atlanta—yes, her real name is Slaughter—and as a child she was so beset by allergies that she could barely go outside. (“I was even allergic to the sun, and to sun cream.”) The local library, books and writing were her solace. She grew out of most of those childhood allergies and attended Georgia State University, but left before graduation to launch a business that designed and manufactured signs. It was a successful venture, but she longed to be published, so she sold up: “I was writing at nights, on weekends. But I needed to remove that safety net and write full time.”

Her début was Blindsighted, the first of her Grant County books featuring paediatrician and part-time coroner Sara Linton. It was released in 2001. The follow-up, Kisscut, hit the bestseller lists and her career was up and running. Most of her books take place in Atlanta and Georgia and one of the things she likes about setting her books there is to show what the “new South” is like. She points out that Atlanta is a diverse, progressive city, and a cultural beacon: it’s one of the busiest places for film and music production outside Los Angeles and New York.

She says: “Atlanta hasn’t really been written about that much, outside of Gone with the Wind... the Scarlett O’Hara thing kind of weighs heavily. I think there is the assumption, outside Atlanta, that it is ripe with racism. But it probably isn’t as racist as, say, England or the northern part of the US. America has this narrative of racism being a Southern thing... if there was any good thing about the election of Donald Trump, it was a reality check—like saying, ‘Hey, guess what? Racists can be from New York.’”

Window seat

When Slaughter and I speak, the New Yorker piece on Dan Mallory, a.k.a. A J Finn, had just been published, detailing the publisher-turned-thriller writer’s allegedly bizarre and duplicitous behaviour. While at William Morrow, Mallory had worked as an assistant editor on a few of Slaughter’s books. Slaughter says: “The first thing I would say is that he was extremely professional and he was really one of the best advocates I could have had. He wrote fantastic copy, he was great with jacketing. He really understood the business. That’s my honest impression: he was just a great guy to me.”

She continues: “The other thing is, [the New Yorker article] just felt like a hit piece, [it felt] beneath the New Yorker, more like the National Enquirer. And really, why write a nasty 10,000-word piece on someone who no one will know or care about outside the very small world of New York and London publishing? There is obviously some mental illness there. What I would have liked was a more balanced approach and someone saying ‘look it’s very difficult to separate the underlying personality from the mental illness.’”

Up next is The Last Widow, Slaughter’s latest in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent Will Trent series (in which Sara Linton also appears), which launches in the UK in June. Pieces of Her, meanwhile, is currently being adapted by Netflix. And Slaughter is plunging into her next standalone based loosely around the Unabomber case of US terrorist Theodore Kaczynski in the 1990s.

She thinks her books are successful when she has the right balance between character and plot: “I’m striving for that midpoint. I love character-driven books but hate when the crime is almost secondary. But I never want to go the opposite way. I think James Patterson does a really great job at what he does, but you’re never going to close a book of his and wonder what’s happening with those characters a week later. I want my characters to be strong enough that they live on in readers’ heads for a while.”

Karin Slaughter’s The Last Widow (9780008303389, £20) will be published by HarperCollins in the UK on 13th June. The e-edition of the title will be priced at £9.99. Slaughter will speaking at the London Book Fair on 12th March at Noon in the Fireside Chat Theatre.