'Pretty Girls,' A Conversation With Karin Slaughter

Karin Slaughter's first book,, became an international success published in 30 languages, and made the Crime Writer's Association's Dagger Award shortlist for "Best Thriller Debut" of 2001.
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Photo Alison Rosa

Karin Slaughter's first book, Blindsighted, became an international success published in 30 languages, and made the Crime Writer's Association's Dagger Award shortlist for "Best Thriller Debut" of 2001. More than 30 million copies of her books have been sold in 32 languages. Her Grant County series has been very popular, as has her Will Trent series of novels. She's also written standalone novels.

Pretty Girls, a standalone novel, focuses on two sisters, Claire and Lydia, who haven't spoken for more than twenty years. Claire is the glamorous wife of an Atlanta millionaire; Lydia is a single mother dating an ex-con and is struggling financially. Neither has recovered from the disappearance of their sister, Julia, two decades earlier. When Claire's husband is murdered, the horror of the past invades both their lives. Is there a connection between these two events separated by more than twenty years? The sisters form a truce and struggle to unearth the secrets that destroyed their family years ago.

Pretty Girls focuses on the psychological devastation experienced by families of crime victims. This seems to be a different area of concentration for you.
Yes, it absolutely is. It was a very conscious departure on my part. For years, I've written about Will Trent, a cop; and my other narrators have been either cops or doctors specializing in forensic medicine. I wanted to tell a story revealing the toll crime takes--what crime leaves behind, and how it can tear families apart.

What struck me is how both Claire and Lydia evolved over the course of the story.
I wanted to do that. I made a purposeful choice that the characters you meet in the first few chapters would have some sort of evolution. They would not be the same people they were at the beginning of the book. I think that's another important aspect of crime-- people change because of it. I wanted very much to include that in the arc of the story.

You're very well known for the Grant County and Will Trent series. How does writing a standalone novel like Pretty Girls differ from penning a novel in a series?
It's somewhat easier in a series. You have first-hand experience with the characters and know who they are. In a standalone novel, you have to create all the characters from the start. A writer has to do a bit more work, which is very rewarding, but you don't have to pull any punches. You can have the characters deeply affected by the events in the book, knowing you don't have to continue with them on their journey after this horrible thing happened. You can take risks with the characters and their development in a standalone novel.

Speaking of horrible things, I'm sure you agree the hallmark of a good story is conflict.
Oh, absolutely. That's why I love crime novels so much. When I write a crime novel, the conflict is built in.

What thoughts do you have about being labelled a genre writer?
I don't have a chip on my shoulder about that. I think it's all literature. As for genres, I write in the bestselling genre in every western country. If that's the ghetto, then I'm in the top-selling ghetto. (Laughter). Also, I think it's just interpretation. I know Gillian Flynn was upset that people said Gone Girl wasn't in the crime/thriller genre. That's because some people who find themselves reading and enjoying a crime novel, end up saying, 'I only read literature. I don't read commercial fiction.' They give themselves permission to enjoy something like Gone Girl by saying, 'The book transcends the crime genre and isn't part of it.' But, look at Gone with the Wind with a brutal murder; or The Great Gatsby, and its murder; or To Kill a Mockingbird with tense courtroom drama and allegations of rape. Or, for that matter, look at Crime and Punishment.

Crime is really a great way to tell a story. I think a hundred years from now, the novels remembered will be crime novels.

You've written fifteen novels and other works. What's the most important lesson you learned about writing?
I want to be a better writer. I want to learn and grow, to know how to tell stories in a different and more challenging way. I've learned it doesn't get easier each time. It actually gets harder. I always want to make sure the book I'm writing is the best book I can deliver. I've learned with each book that I always want to say something new. I've grown as a writer, and my characters have evolved. The benchmark of success for me is to be able to feel I've accomplished those goals.

What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
I love puzzles. I always wanted to learn how to make watches. I'd be a watchmaker. People always say something's just a cog in a machine. But if you understand watches, every single cog is vitally important.

This question isn't related to writing, but as a baseball fan I have to ask, is it true you're related to the great right fielder and Hall of Famer, Enos Slaughter?
Yes. He was my grandfather's brother, so he was my great uncle. My grandfather was a ne'er-do-well and they didn't get along. In addition to being a terrific athlete, Enos was very smart and equally driven. My grandfather wasn't, so there was a rift in their relationship. I think there may have been a woman involved in their feud, because with male Slaughters, there's usually a woman in the picture.

What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
Not a lot. I'm a really good sleeper, which is great when you travel as much as I do. I do worry about political things. I really worry a great deal about the income inequality gap, and fear it's not going to be adequately addressed no matter who wins the election. One person can't do it. There has to be a societal shift for that change to occur. I think we need more people to understand the seriousness of the problem, and to become engaged in solving it. Nothing changes in that regard until something like the Great Depression comes along. Or something like 9/11 happens.

Then people pull together.

Do you ever worry about writing-related issues?
I do. I work out most of what I'm going to write in my head before I sit down and actually write it. If, when I sit down to write, it still doesn't come, I think it's not ready to be written. Some people call that writer's block. I just give myself the excuse to take more naps, watch television, or read. It's sort of like what happens if you're looking for your keys. The minute you stop looking is when you find them. So, by doing something else, the plotline or story comes to me.

What advice would you give to writers starting out?
I would say...read. It sounds like a simple thing, but I know so many people who want to be writers who say, 'I don't have time to read.'

Reading trains the brain. If it's a bad book, you learn even more than you do from a good one.

Writers who don't understand that don't ever really grow in their craft.

You're hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
To begin, I'd invite Flannery O'Connor. Then, I'd have Margaret Mitchell and Truman Capote, two Southern writers. I'd invite Bill and Hillary Clinton because they could get any one of those other guests to talk and be interesting, even if some of them had a little too much to drink or if they were typically shy writers. I've met both Clintons. Bill has an amazing mind, and Hillary really has it together. It's incredibly impressive when you're a woman and meet another woman who has so much to offer. It may be hard for a man to understand, but I was even more impressed by Hillary than by Bill Clinton.

What's coming next from Karin Slaughter?
Well, I've just finished a book tour promoting Pretty Girls. Soon, it'll be back to the drawing boards for my next novel.

Congratulations on writing Pretty Girls, about which Gillian Flynn said, "Karin Slaughter's eye for detail and truth is unmatched...I'd follow her anywhere."

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