Who can ever predict the genesis of a bestselling crime writer?
When Karin Slaughter was still in kindergarten, she told her friend that when she grew up she wanted to be a writer.
The friend replied that when she grew up she wanted to be divorced from a really wealthy man. Just like her mother.
Years later, the pair met again at one of Slaughter’s readings and, yes, as the friend pointed out, here was Karin, now a number one bestselling author, and here was the kindergarten friend, now a very wealthy divorcee.
Slaughter, who grew up in Jonesboro, a small town in Georgia, about 40 miles from Atlanta, was deeply affected by the Atlanta child murders of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“A serial killer was murdering young African-American boys; as a child it made me very aware of crime. I think it was a kind of beginning,” she recalls.
Then there was her car dealer dad and his penchant for the macabre: “In retrospect his stories were quite awful – eg, the story of the little girl who left the fridge door open and died.” Slaughter recalls.
The Grant County town of Heartsdale, in which her Grant County series of international bestsellers are set, is partly based on her hometown, which also had its own community college.
It was a happy, small-town childhood: A Jonesboro child who misbehaved could fully expect his mother to be informed of her child’s misdeeds by the time he arrived home. It was just that kind of place, she says, “though my dad says it went to hell when we got a shopping mall”.
The town of Blue Ridge in North Georgia where Slaughter has a holiday cabin – and where she often goes to write – is also an influence.
“The books are about small communities where there is still strong tradition and a strong sense of religion,” she says.
Slaughter likes crime; she knows cops and enjoys the research involved in preparing the background.
But she also has a strong social conscience. While her books provide more than enough blood and violence for those who want it, her writing also probes the social problems of modern-day American life.
“There’s always an issue I want to tackle; domestic violence, child abuse, why men hate women and why women hate men.”
In her latest novel, Broken, Slaughter’s theme is poverty: “I wanted to talk about rural poverty, abut the people living in these small towns who are barely getting by. There are no social ‘nets’. The book opens with a girl who is barely getting by, even though she’s doing everything right. She’s in college and has a job, but can’t really manage and now has put herself in a very desperate situation because money is so tight.”
Then, of course, there’s one of her most memorable characters: Lena Adams, the small town detective, a volatile, complex and difficult mix of good and bad.
“People are not usually all bad and all good. Lena was raised by an a uncle with alcoholism and she has a child’s view of it; she makes excuses,” says Slaughter.
Lena has also been sexually assaulted and had to cope with the horrific murder of her only sister.
“Now she is more mature, a little more cautious. In Broken she makes mistakes and we see what she sees. I feel everyone knows a Lena. With Lena I wanted to write about a woman who has been sexually assaulted and lived.”
However, Slaughter didn’t want to make her into a martyr or a catatonic: “I wanted to see her recover – but like a lot of women who have been sexually assaulted Lena makes very bad choices; she looks to punish herself and what happens is she puts herself in bad situations.”
Lena also struggles for acceptance in the male-dominated business of policing.
Slaughter knows what this can be like: “After I graduated from college (where she studied Renaissance poetry) I ended up owning a signage company. This is a very male-dominated business, but I get on very well with guys.
“Lena is in a very male world and has found a way of getting on by being tough. I think that in Broken she’s finally found the balance between being a woman and being a cop.
“I talk to a lot of cops; they tend to think in terms of good people and bad people and Lena does that, she tends to elevate the good and lower the bad.”
However in Broken, Slaughter believes Lena has arrived at a place where she is a little more mature. Maybe this emotionally scarred and volatile woman has come to a point where she can envisage happiness, though if the last line of the novel is anything to go by, you can’t be sure that she’ll ever allow herself to have it.
Now aged 30, Slaughter herself is no nine-to-five girl where work is concerned: “I do my writing in bursts. I go up to my cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains and for two or three weeks I would write for 12 or 15 hours a day. I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner and I could get 20 or 30 pages done a day. In between, I tour a lot and I potter around doing useless things.”
As for the surname? “People never believe Slaughter is my real name. It didn’t occur to me that it was ironic until I was in Piccadilly one day and I saw a big poster for one of my books. It had Slaughter in very big letters and Karin in very small letters.”
Among her favourite authors are Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky.
“Paretsky writes about a very strong women who does not need to soften herself to be accepted by society.
“I grew up in a very small town where you were told to sit down with your legs crossed. It was very liberating to see a woman who didn’t have that inner dialogue between her and her mother.”
With no medical or policing background, Slaughter depends on solid research and has a good relationship with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“The research is very important. I read textbooks, medical texts and watch videos. For a long time I resisted seeing an autopsy and then one day I was in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and they invited me to come into the morgue and I realised very quickly that there’s nothing there that you can take lightly. There was one person there who was opened stem to stem and everything was taken out except for the spinal cord.”
This lady doesn’t let the grass grow under her feet: “I’m already working on the next book, Fallen. It opens back in Atlanta and features Will Trent and Sara Linton.
“I have three or four books planned out for the future; if you read my books back-to-back you’ll see one thing following on from another. I look ahead.”