Karin Slaughter has been writing smart, action-packed thrillers and procedurals for nearly two decades, ever since her debut, Blindsided, took the crime world by storm in 2001. Her latest, Pieces of Her, is a standalone thriller that begins with a shooter halted mid-spree by Laura Juneau, an older woman with surprisingly quick reflexes, caught on camera and leading, inevitably, to a feminist twist on A History of Violence. Her daughter, Andy, who’s been stuck in a slump for years, must go into action mode to help her mother defeat the old enemies emerging from the woodwork in the wake of her mother’s heroism.
Andy’s investigation into her mother’s past is a path for Slaughter to explore the complex dynamics of mothers and daughters, the nature of violence against women, and the changing experiences of womanhood and coming of age over the past thirty years. Andy’s quest to defend her mother and discover new information is interspersed with flashbacks detailing how her mother came to be a woman capable of stopping a shooting spree with just a few well-timed words and movements. I asked Karin a few questions over the phone about the new book, her influences, and the power of crime fiction to address feminist concerns. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.
MO: Your latest thriller is concerned with a villain, who at first seems motivated by higher ideals, but turns out to be a sociopath motivated by misogyny. What did you want to explore in your book about hatred against women, and the seeds of violence?
KS: Any good author empathizes with every character they write, and while I certainly wouldn’t make excuses and justify a murder, a rape, or a violent crime, understanding the genesis of these actions is important; and statistically, a lot of these crimes start with a focus on women, and a hatred of women. You look at a lot of the school shooters, or spree killers, or the incels, they are really angry at women. They are angry that the world is evolving and they feel like don’t have a place in it. There’s a certain sense of entitlement, they feel they deserve to be with the most beautiful woman in the world, or they deserve to have obsessions returned. In a lot of these cases, the first victim tends to be a woman.
That’s one thing that I really wanted to talk about in this book, is that core hatred of women, and how it drives a lot of crime, and the belief that some people should have rights, and some people shouldn’t have rights, or that some people are good, and some people are bad, and therefore we’re justified in how we treat them; that was prevalent in the 80s, and it’s prevalent now, and crime fiction has a job to talk about those things.
MO: Absolutely. That crime fiction has two jobs with women characters; it has the job of creating these very admirable heroines that we can look up to, and then there’s another job of creating these complex, subtle women who are not easily defined and are not particularly in the camp of good or evil. You seem to have merged those in your latest book with the character of Laura. Can you talk a bit about where that character came from, and how did you balance making her admirable but also making her complicated?
KS: I understand Laura’s need, especially as a young woman, to identify herself with something that felt relevant and righteous to her. When you’re in your 20s, that’s kind of what you do. You don’t want to be like everybody else, and you don’t realize that in not wanting to be like everybody else, you’re just like everybody else. For Laura, the way she started out her life, as a prodigy, the best thing to happen to her was getting attached to this murderous cult. A lot of child prodigies burn out by the time they’re Laura’s age, or Jane’s age, rather, when she’s a young woman. She has this quest to do something greater than herself, in such a way that fulfilling this hole she has in her soul, for lack of a better word, and it’s something that she talks to Andy about, she had something that was missing inside of her, and it wasn’t so much that she was being altruistic as she was desperate to fill that hole.
The best description of her comes from Laura Juneau when we’re in Norway and Laura Juneau sees her. She clocks Jane for exactly who she is, that she’s this octopus reaching out to people, because she’s just so desperate for love and approval, and she just needs. A lot of young women are that way. When you get into your 30s, you realize all you need is just some time alone and to get your shit together. And I could really relate to that. And it’s also a book that is having such a great response because it’s time for women to be able to be multifaceted. Well, it’s acceptable now; I think women have been this way for a very long time.“One thing I was very conscious of when I first started writing 20 years ago with my character Sarah Linton was I couldn’t make her too accomplished, I couldn’t make her too attractive, or too smart, because people would hate her for that….People accept men as superheroes, they don’t tend to accept women as superheroes.”
One thing I was very conscious of when I first started writing 20 years ago with my character Sarah Linton was I couldn’t make her too accomplished, I couldn’t make her too attractive, or too smart, because people would hate her for that. You read about Jack Reacher, and the guy could literally hold onto a stair railing and survive an explosion and the worst thing is his shoulder hurts in the next book, and people are totally great with that. I love Jack Reacher, he’s a great character, and I love Lee Child, he’s an amazing man, but people accept men as superheroes, they don’t tend to accept women as superheroes. They don’t accept them as highly accomplished. If they are highly accomplished, then they’re kind of a bitch, or there’s a coldness to them, or they’ve made sacrifices. It’s just not something I could easily write about when I started writing Sarah, because she’s a pediatrician, she owns her own business, she’s got this great guy interested in her, and she also solves crimes. That’s not something that a lot of female characters could do when I first started out. Now of course, it’s much more acceptable, and we’re also more open as a society to really accomplished women who we also find relatable.
MO: What do you think are the next frontiers of feminist crime fiction? Are there ways you’d like to see the genre continue to evolve?
KS: What I really love about Gillian Flynn is that she’s been writing antiheroes for a really long time. She wrote the books she wanted to write, she still writes the books she wants to write, and she didn’t care if you liked the character or not—the thing was, you had to find them interesting. Megan Abbott is another great example of this. She writes about women who are horrible people, and they’re not horrible in a very stereotypical, black and white way. There’s nuance to them. There’s something about them that makes you root for them, in a weird way.
MO: It’s definitely a very exciting time to be a part of the genre. Part of what I like about your book, though, is the timeless approach to research. You’re very focused on bringing in historical detail, and researching very thoroughly; what do you see as the place of history in crime fiction?
KS: It’s very important. Crime fiction is very topical, but it’s not dated. I can go back and read Daphne du Maurier, for instance, or even Agatha Christie, and they’re very much of a time and of a place, but they’re still great stories. And you can even go back to Dickens, and the wonderful thing about Dickens is that he wrote about crime and criminals all the time, and he was writing popular fiction, and we can still read that for a snapshot of what the world was like when Dickens was alive. It gives us a very realistic, day-by-day existence for his characters, and what the criminal justice system was like, what it was like to be impoverished, what it was like to live in a trash heap. All these things that we know about Dickens’ time are wrapped up in stories.
When I’m writing a crime novel, when I’m writing about the past, I want to make sure I get it accurate. Especially because I’m writing about the 80s, I know a lot of my readers are conscious of the 80s; even if they weren’t alive, there’s still a lot of pop culture still around about the 80s. I don’t want them to read a detail in the story and think wait a minute, this product wasn’t available until 1989, and this is set in 1984, or 86; I want to make sure I’m as accurate as I can in the context of writing fiction.
MO: I feel that you’re being really true to the mid-80s transitional moment in feminism, in your book—I love how the section set in the 80s discusses the reaction against feminism, and the position of women academics, and there’s a lot of context of thought. When you’re starting to write, do you think of a context first, or a character, or a plot; where do you usually start?I wanted to talk about those differences, and how for women my age, it seems so much easier to be a young woman today, because there’s so much opportunity, but I also wanted to understand and write a little bit about how all that opportunity can be stifling in some way.
KS: With this, it started for me with wanting to write a mother/daughter relationship, and not just because I’ve been writing about father/daughter relationships for a while. I wanted to talk about the differences for young women in the 80s versus the choices they have now. To a certain degree, women in their 30s [now] are equivalent to women in their 20s when I was at that age range. I was told at age 18, you can do anything you want, you just can’t live at home. There was no choice, there was a great stigma to staying at home with your parents, it signaled that you were a loser. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to stay with your parents, and kids have student loan debt that my generation never dreamed of carrying, there are just so many different things in society. The thing for women is, the choices were very limited when I was a young woman. No one was telling me that I could be a doctor or a lawyer. They were saying, you could be a nurse or a stenographer, you could be all these support roles, not the chief of the business. For women like Andy, she’s 31 years old, she has so many choices that she’s paralyzed and she’s also afraid of making the wrong choice. I wanted to talk about those differences, and how for women my age, it seems so much easier to be a young woman today, because there’s so much opportunity, but I also wanted to understand and write a little bit about how all that opportunity can be stifling in some way.
MO: I thought you represented that really well through Andy’s difficulty speaking. What was the inspiration for that choice—was it a way of representing her internal chaos and her difficulty making decisions?
KS: Yes, absolutely, and also, I wanted to write a different kind of character. I tend to write women who are like me. I’m extremely opinionated, and I’m very decisive, even though sometimes I make the wrong decision, but by god, I’m going to make a decision, and so I wanted, with Andy, someone who internalizes things so much that she kinds of screws herself with her own silence. The silence is, in some ways, fear of saying the wrong thing, but it’s also a control mechanism, because it shuts down the conversation that she doesn’t want to have. To put her in situations where she not only has to talk to people but engage with them, get them to talk back to her, and it’s literally a matter of life and death, was a way for me to pull the character out of herself.
MO: And her silence ends up being an asset in the life of a fugitive, at various points too, so she’s able to break out of her limitations, but also see the strengths in some of the aspects of her character she disliked before. It’s very empowering.
KS: Yes, she learns to wield that in a way that benefits her, rather than pushes people away.
MO: There’s so many different kinds of relationships in the book. You talked about wanting to write a mother/daughter relationship, there’s also a wonderful father/daughter relationship, and those are the pathways to representing healthy love, as opposed to the very unhealthy love, elsewhere in the book. Did you deliberately set out to contrast these healthy relationships with these very unhealthy ones?
KS: Absolutely, and I often do that in my books. Very occasionally, an interviewer will bring up the question, how can you write about violence against women? I always say, I write about it because it’s happening, women should have a voice in how it’s depicted, and why don’t you focus on the women in my books who are strong, and who are not the victims of violence, who help solve crimes and help investigate? I always want to counterbalance things, and a great way to do that is to give the character a strong foundation, whether it’s through family or friends, where they have a community around them.
MO: When it comes to your influences, we talked earlier about this continuum going back to Dickens, but you’ve also talked about how important the works of Flannery O’Connor are to you. Do you see your writing as part of the Southern Gothic tradition as well as crime writing?
KS: I love living in Atlanta, I don’t think I’d ever live anywhere but the south. There is a great tradition of storytelling, and gothic is a way to describe a way of telling a story that’s kind of shocking, that you just don’t get in other regions of America. Southerners are raised with shocking stories, where violence occurs, and horrible things happen to people, and it’s pretty typical for children to hear those types of stories growing up. There’s no sense of needing to shelter grandchildren from the fact that grandpa was out in a bar fight and got his arm chopped off. It’s just all out there.
MO: So it’s the kind of everyday violence that brings the Southern Gothic tradition in line with psychological thrillers, and rural noir, and all of these subgenres today that are drawing on that tradition.
KS: Yes, absolutely; in all of my work, in the opening chapter, I try to make things as normal as possible, and to make the touchstones very familiar to the reader, and to set up the atmosphere and the people so that the reader has a sense of comfort, and so that when the awful thing happens, it’s even more shocking.
MO: Speaking of shocking moments, what’s the plot twist you’re most proud of?
KS: You’d have to go back several novels, to the biggest one I’ve had, where something really horrible happened to a main character that I still get letters about (it was 10 years ago). In Tryptych, which is my first novel with my series character Will Trent, there’s a great twist because you think that one character is going to be the hero of the novel that you think you’re going to follow throughout, and then you are about 50 pages in and the character isn’t who you thought he was. I read a lot of crime fiction, I love it, it’s my favorite genre, so I’m kind of familiar with how these stories can sometimes go if you go with the obvious thing, so one of the things I try to do when I write is think, okay, well this is what would normally happen, what can I do that is not the normal.
MO: And, last question—what’s the book or series that first brought you into the genre?
KS: It started early with Encyclopedia Brown. I loved those books. There was a character, Sally Kimball, who sometimes was allowed to be the smart girl. She never completely solved the crime on her own, because that was Encyclopedia Brown’s job, but I loved the puzzle aspect of that. I liked Nancy Drew, but I wasn’t totally into her. What really made me sit up and take notice was Sara Paretsky, because I thought, holy crap, all these novels written by men with men as the stars that I’ve read for years, here’s a woman who’s turned that on its ear, and she’s made VI Warshawski a woman. She’s not just a prototypical male character with a woman’s name, she’s writing her as a woman, thinking the way women think. It took my breath away. I thought, I’ve been waiting so long for this, and I didn’t even know it.