Karin Slaughter is the New York Times and #1 internationally best-selling author of 14 thrillers, including “Unseen,” “Criminal,” “Fallen,” “Broken,” “Undone,” “Fractured,” “Beyond Reach,” “Triptych,” “Faithless,” and the e-original short stories “Snatched” and “Busted.” Here, the Georgia native discusses her latest opus, “Cop Town,” a riveting murder mystery set in Atlanta in 1974.
Kam Williams: Hi Karin, thanks for the interview. As a long-term reader of classic murder mysteries, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie to Dorothy Sayers to Dick Francis to Donald Westlake to Edgar Box (aka Gore Vidal), I must say that I really loved Cop Town and would rate it right up there with the very best of the genre.
Karin Slaughter: That is high praise indeed. Thanks so much!
KW: What inspired you to write the book?
KS: I wrote a novel called Criminal a few years ago that was partly set in the 1970s, and I had the great pleasure of talking to all these incredible female police officers who came up during that time. There were so many more stories that I wanted to tell about them. What they went through was just amazing, and I think it’s important for people to remember exactly how bad it used to be.
KW: How would you describe your creative process? Do you do map out the plotline or focus on character development first?
KS: It really depends on the story, but all of my books are about characters. The plot is very important because writers have to play fair with their readers, but no one would care about the plot if
the character work wasn’t there. So, basically every book I work on starts with me thinking not just about the bad thing that’s going to happen (spoiler alert!) but how that bad thing is going to ripple through the community, the family of the victim, and the lives of the investigators. I am keenly aware when I’m working that the crimes I am writing about have happened to real people. I take that very seriously.
KW: How much research did this project entail? I know that the story is set in your hometown of Atlanta, but the events take place at a time when you were just a toddler. And when I Googled some of the names, I discovered that you interweaved some real-life characters and events with the fictional ones.
KS: I love weaving in fact with fiction, and I know that many of my readers were alive and paying attention in the 70s, so it’s my job to reward them for paying attention with little touchstones from that decade. I have Sears catalogues for clothing, Southern Living for architecture and entertaining, and of course all the tremendously helpful people who talked to me about what it was really like to live in Atlanta at that time. That being said, I write fiction, so there were some instances where I had to bend the story a little bit to suit my needs.
KW: Is there someone you bounce your early drafts of chapters off of in order to know whether it’ll work with your readers?
KS: I only work with my editors because pointing out a problem, a slow passage or a character who needs more to do, etcetera, is very easy, but knowing how to have a discussion about fixing it is alchemy. Many times, it’s something earlier in the book, or later, that needs to be tweaked and then it all makes sense. A good editor is one of the sharpest tools a writer can have in her toolbox.
KW: Do you write with a demographic in mind?
KS: I write with me in mind, because as much as I love my readers, these are my stories. I am a voracious reader myself. I don’t stick to one genre. My only criteria is that it’s a good story. I try to bring that to my work because I think people can read your excitement about a story.
KW: How long does it take you to write a book, and how do you know when it’s finished?
KS: It depends on the book. For a story like Cop Town, it takes years to do the research and come up with the plot and really immerse myself in that time period. Since Kate and Maggie were new characters, I had to do a lot of sitting around and thinking about them. What’s important to them? How has money informed their lives? I also have to bend my thinking, because I write books about strong women who are in control of their lives, and Maggie and Kate aren’t really in control, but they are getting there. I didn’t want to have this revisionist moment where they stand up and say, “We’re not going to take it anymore!” That sort of thinking wasn’t in the average woman’s vocabulary. Change is always incremental, so they might say, “We’re not going to type your reports for you until the weekend!” As for when it’s finished, I think about this quote I heard a long time ago no idea where it’s from: An artist is a painter who knows when to stop painting.
KW: Was the protagonist of Cop Town, Kate, based on anyone you know?
KS: I think Kate is an amalgamation of some women I’ve known in my life. That’s really where all characters come from, though. The thing I wanted to show with Kate was how different the world is if you’re raised with money. That sort of cushion frames your thinking. Interpose that with Maggie, who has been raised to think that at any moment she might be living with her family on the street, and you begin to understand why they look at crime—and criminals—differently.
KW: I know you’ve already sold the film rights. Who’d you like to play Kate in the movie?
KS: Rosamund Pike is amazing. I also love an actress named Dominique McElligott. As for Maggie, how fantastic is Grace Gummer?
KW: Where did you learn how to ratchet up the tension so skillfully?
KS: Can I say Gilligan’s Island and not lose all my readers? I was a latchkey kid, and instead of doing my homework, I watched reruns on TBS until a car pulled into the driveway. I think that cliffhanger/dramatic arc got programmed into me, along with a predilection toward infomercials.
KW: Is there a message you want people to take away from the book?
KS: First and foremost, I want them to have a good read, because I want everything I write to entertain people. There are always different layers to the story, though, so if you want to think about social justice, or sexism or racism or homophobia, or really drill down into why the world is a better place when the police force looks like the people they are policing, then that’s there, too.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
KS: Why are you so young and thin?
KW: Have you ever become embroiled in a real-life murder mystery?
KS: No, thank God. I am a bit of a Dudley Do-Gooder, though, because if I see a car accident or something bad happen, I am one of those idiots who runs toward the problem instead of away from it. Not that I would recommend this behavior. I once stopped my car on the street because I saw a man hitting a woman and I jumped out and started yelling at him. I was fine, but it later occurred to me that that is a good way to get your butt kicked.
KW: Have you ever accidentally uncovered a deep secret?
KS: No! And I spied on my sisters All… the… time… I think it’s just because they’re really, really boring. I could’ve so been the Erin Brockovich of my family.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
KS: My friend Alafair Burke wrote a book with Mary Higgins Clark, and I was really blown away by how fantastic it was. Michael Connelly’s new one is fantastic. I loved the latest Jack Reacher. Lisa Gardner, Kate White, Mo Hayder, Jane Smiley, Phillip Roth…we are all spoiled for choice.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
KS: Flaws, just like every other woman my age. You know, it really sucks getting older. Sometimes I’ll be walking along and I’ll just glance over my shoulder to make sure nothing has fallen off.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
KS: I know I should say world peace, but right now I’d just really like for my neighbor’s dogs to stop barking. Oh, and good health, for me and my family, not the dogs.
KW: The Jamie Foxx question: If you only had 24 hours to live, how would you spend the time?
KS: I’d want to be with my cats and my family at home. Wow, Jamie Foxx, that’s really depressing.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
KS: I went to a Christian School, and when I reached a certain age, I wasn’t allowed to wear pants to school anymore. There was a big conference about it with my parents about how unladylike it was for me to wear pants (this was a school where the principal and once of the coaches stood at the front door with a wooden ruler to make sure girls’ skirts were an inch below their knee). So, from that day forward, I had to wear skirts, which meant that I couldn’t play on the playground like I used to. I really feel like I could’ve been the next Serena Williams if not for that. Or the pre-Serena Williams. I mean, let’s be honest, she would totally be thanking me every time she won a match if not for that.
KW: The Melissa Harris-Perry question: How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
KS: It was a seminal moment in my life, because I was with a real jerk, and once I did the prerequisite eating an entire cake and singing “All By Myself” in the shower, I realized that people treat you badly when you let them, and that I had to respect myself and not let anyone else treat me that way again. If someone really loves you, they are your biggest champion, not your biggest detractor.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
KS: I saw this thing on TV that makes breakfast sandwiches and I ordered it immediately and now I can pretty much make you any breakfast sandwich you want.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
KS: People who are interested in life. I don’t understand people who say they’re bored. Look out your window.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
KS: I’m afraid of the general things that everyone is afraid of: a bump in the night that could be a cat or Death dragging his sickle across the room; losing my health; becoming homeless, never meeting George Clooney.
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
KS: You know, it’s crazy, but I laugh all of the time. It is painfully easy to amuse me. An author friend of mine and I trade jokes pretty regularly. And they’re these really witty, intelligent jokes that you’d expect from the literary descendants of Dorothy Parker and the Round Table, like: Q: what’s invisible and smells like carrots? A: A rabbit fart. You’re welcome, Edna Ferber.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
KS: The thing is that I never feel guilty about my pleasures. I love watching television. I love reading all kinds of books. I love cupcakes. Okay, maybe I feel a little guilty about the cupcakes. They’re kind of a problem.
KW: The Mike Pittman question: What was your best career decision?
KS: Choosing to be ethical and fair with people. My agents are the same way. We just don’t screw people over because it’s not right. This is very important to me, because I am a big believer in the Golden Rule. Though, a lot of times when people are crappy, they get away with it, so I just have to remind myself that life makes you pay for your personality. They might win on point, but they tend to be miserable human beings.
KW: The Anthony Anderson question: If you could have a superpower, which one would you choose?
KS: Flying. Unless there’s a gluttony superpower I don’t know about, because in case it’s not clear, I really love cake.
KW: If you could have a chance to speak with a deceased loved one for a minute who would it be and what would you say?
KS: I would tell my grandmother that she has hemochromatosis and that she should go to the doctor because it’s treatable.
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
KS: Determination. I think a little bit of arrogance, too, but determination is a big part of it. Every successful author I know faced crushing rejection early on, and they got back up and kept going. I love watching those family tree shows because all of these famous people generally come from a long line of over-achievers. I don’t think this necessarily answers the question about nature vs. nurture, though, because people who have opportunities pass those opportunities along to their children. This is actually a theme I tried to explore in Cop Town with Kate.
KW: The Gabby Douglas question: If you had to choose another profession, what would that be?
KS: I would love to be a watchmaker. I love putting together puzzles, and the thought of delving into all those tiny gears really puts me in a happy place.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
KS: Don’t try to follow in my footsteps. Make your own footsteps! No one else can tell the stories that are inside of you except for you.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
KS: I want to be remembered as kind.
KW: What’s in your wallet?
KS: Two credit cards, my license and my Delta Airlines Diamond membership card, because l earned that with my blood.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Karin, and best of luck with Cop Town.
KS: Thank you for your thoughtful questions!
To order a copy of Cop Town, visit: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345547497/ref=nosim/thslfofire-20