Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Able Cain

I seem to be bumping into American crime writer Chelsea Cain rather a lot recently. First, at the “Bodies in the Bookstore” event in Cambridge, and then again at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival earlier this month. She was over here in the UK to promote her third novel, Sweetheart, which features fictional serial killer Gretchen Lowell and her nemesis, the cop Archie Sheridan.

There was tremendous excitement generated when, after composing the Nancy Drew parody novel Confessions of a Teen Sleuth (2005), Portland, Oregon, newspaper columnist Cain turned her hand to writing thrillers. The first was Heartsick (2007), which Dark Scribe Magazine called “a masterpiece of suspense, a visceral and chilling look into the mind of a female serial killer,” which introduced Lowell, “the best serial killer to emerge since the likes of Hannibal Lechter” [sic]. Heartsick was picked up around the world, setting off fierce bidding wars between international publishers. The hype was justified, as Cain’s novels are articulate, insightful, and offer an unflinching combination of sex and death that illuminates the workings of criminally diseased minds.

Regarding the plot of her new novel, Sweetheart, which picks up the unfinished story of Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan (and will be released in the States early next month), publisher St. Martin’s Minotaur explains:
When the body of a young woman is discovered in Portland’s Forest Park, Archie is reminded of the last time they found a body there, more than a decade ago: it turned out to be the Beauty Killer’s first victim, and Archie'’ first case. This body can’t be one of Gretchen’s--she’s in prison--but after help from reporter Susan Ward uncovers the dead woman’s identity, it turns into another big case. Trouble is, Archie can’t focus on the new investigation because the Beauty Killer case has exploded: Gretchen Lowell has escaped from prison.

Archie hadn’t seen her in two months; he’d moved back in with his family and sworn off visiting her. Though it should feel like progress, he actually feels worse. The news of her escape spreads like wildfire, but secretly, he’s relieved. He knows he’s the only one who can catch her, and in fact, he has a plan to get out from under her thumb once and for all.
After having her sign my copy of Sweetheart at the Harrogate festival, I arranged with Cain to ask her a bit about her new novel, her quite eclectic childhood, her experiences in journalism, her shopping habits while in Britain, and the sources of her fictional characters. In addition, she’s hoping that Rap Sheet readers can help her to find an engaging name for next novel.

Ali Karim: I noticed that you had published a few non-fiction books before entering the crime-fiction realm. Can you tell us a little about your early writing and journalism?

Chelsea Cain: I started in journalism, writing for my college paper. It was great fun. Crazy, smart people and crazy, late hours. Naturally, I thought, this is what I wanted to do for a living. (Having worked for newspapers since, I realize it is not at all like that.) So I went to graduate school in journalism. And I had to write a master’s project. I wrote a book about my early childhood on a hippie commune, and--total fluke--it got published. After that I published a few other books--mostly illustrated humor books, if you can imagine--and wrote for an alternative weekly. I finally ended up in marketing (A writing job that paid! I couldn’t believe it!) and worked as a creative director for a few years. I left that job to continue writing books, and to write a weekly column for The Oregonian, which I still do.

AK: So what books influenced you to take up the pen yourself?

CC: I always loved writing and I was always writing books. Mostly my books were construction paper that was stapled together and drawn on with crayon, but my family seemed to think they were brilliant. The books I loved most as a kid were the Nancy Drew books, by Carolyn Keene--and the Hardy Boys, if I was really desperate.

AK: Were your parents big readers?

CC: My mother was a huge reader and I grew up in a house full of books. We didn’t have cable TV until I was in high school--my mom was determined to resist it--so there was a lot of time for reading. I love TV. But I’m incredibly grateful that we didn’t watch much of it when I was a kid. I was forced to make up my own stories, or find them on the page.

AK: Tell us a little about your unorthodox outh.

CC: I spent my early childhood on a hippie commune. My dad was resisting the Vietnam draft and my parents actually lived underground for a few years. My parents split up and I grew up spending the school year with my mom in Bellingham, Washington, and the summers in Key West, Florida, with my dad. My mom was always very bohemian and creative, and she and my dad encouraged me to listen to my heart. People always ask me how a hippie kid came about to write gory thrillers. But to me, it makes perfect sense. It’s all about fostering imagination and the wild, reckless belief that you can write a book rather doing something safe or practical.

AK: So, can you tell us where the idea for Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan originated?

CC: When I was growing up in Bellingham, there was this serial killer at large dubbed the Green River Killer. He killed dozens of women and was at large for 20 years. There was a task force assigned to hunt him, and I remember following stories about the task force in the local paper. The story really captured my attention, as you can imagine. Not everyone grows up with a serial killer in her backyard. The task force dwindled down to one cop, and he was the one who finally identified the killer, Gary Ridgway. I was really interested in the obsession of this kind of long-term case. Ridgway cut the same deal that Gretchen Lowell cuts in my books--in order to avoid the death penalty, he agreed to give the cops locations of more bodies. So these cops, a few of whom had worked pretty much their whole careers to catch this guy, were still having to work this case. I wanted to explore the kind of power struggle and layers of manipulation in that relationship. And also the intimacy of people who had known each other for so long--Ridgway had been a suspect from almost the beginning. In some sense, the task-force cops and Ridgway had this shared experience--serial murders--that seemed to, at least on the surface, bond them. I immediately thought it would be fascinating to explore that in fiction and make the killer a woman. Everything gets a lot more interesting once you introduce sex.

AK: Heartsick is a very visceral piece of writing. So tell us about how you got this disturbing little book into print.

CC: You know, strangely enough, I really didn’t know how disturbing it was until I started letting people read it and they all started looking at me funny. But there was tremendous excitement about it in the publishing industry, and a bidding war ensued. Thrillers are, obviously, a highly marketable genre, and female thriller writers are especially valuable to the industry, because so many women read thrillers. Plus, everyone seemed to like it that my books featured a female serial killer, something I really didn’t do as an intentional twist. A woman serial killer was just more fun to me. There was more room to play.

AK: Can you tell us how it felt seeing your “debut” crime novel hit the best-seller charts hard both in the UK and the U.S.?

CC: Pretty fucking awesome!

AK: Did you know your British publisher, Macmillan, practically scared the life out of me with its marketing campaign for Heartsick? It sent reviewers Valentine’s Day cards with a scary message.

CC: I loved that Valentine’s card! I still have it up in my living room. Plus, I think it’s always good to put a little fear into the hearts of critics. Publishers are very dangerous people. And they will kill you if you don’t say something nice about me.

They’re watching you right now!

AK: I assume you’ve sold plenty of international rights by now ...

CC: I’ve lost count. Something like over 20 languages, including Icelandic, which I was very excited about. The funny thing about translation rights is that they just translate the book and send it to you. But since I can’t read the languages, I have no idea what the translations are like. They could say anything.

AK: Your books feature some very dark humor. So, how critical is humor in your work?

CC: I think my books are very funny. Few people agree. Maybe the humor gets lost in all the disemboweling. But the people are witty, and I think that’s critical in terms of character. They’re smart, clever people with difficult, stressful jobs, and in my experience people like that tend to have very, very wicked senses of humor.

AK: Do you read much in the crime genre? If so, who do you read?

CC: Val McDermid. I love her Tony Hill books. My two recent favorite thrillers are Sworn to Silence, by Linda Castillo, and The Calling, by Inger Ash Wolfe.

AK: Many people have compared Gretchen with Dr. Lecter. Are you reader of Thomas Harris’ work, and what do you think of his writing?

CC: I read Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs in college and saw the movie version of Silence of the Lambs about that same time. I loved both those books and the movie. He’s a great writer and storyteller, but most of all, he’s great at developing characters and relationships. I’m flattered that my work is compared to his so often, though (to be totally honest) I’m surprised at how often it comes up.

AK: I’ve seen you in Britain a lot recently promoting Sweetheart. Care to tell us a little about what else you’ve been up to here?

CC: I drank too much, and spent too much money at Top Shop. Incredibly, I also found time to do some book promoting. ... I’m completely in love with England.

AK: Sweetheart is less visceral than Heartsick, but is equally hypnotic and scary. What’s your opinion of violence in crime fiction?

CC: I’m all for it--if it serves the story. Sweetheart is less violent than Heartsick, but it’s just as graphic. It’s just more sex, and less violence. That’s not because I was second-guessing the amount of gore in the first book. It was just the next element to explore [in] the relationship between Archie and Gretchen.

AK: And when did you realize that Gretchen and Archie would become the stars of a series of novels?

CC: I was about halfway through Heartsick when I realized that I had way too many stories in my head about these characters for one book. But I didn’t know that it would be a series until we sold Heartsick and managed to get a three-book deal. I expected a publisher to just buy the first book and see how it did, and then if it did well, buy another one. The danger with that is that the first book tanks, and there you are, with a lot of stories stuck in your head. I was really lucky.

AK: What books have impressed you recently?

CC: My favorite book so far this year is Mary Roach’s Stiff, which actually came out a couple of years ago, but which I only just go around to reading. It’s the funniest book about corpses I’ve ever come across.

AK: And what are you working on currently?

CC: The third book in the series. It’s called Heartbreaker, but I’m not so hot about the title, so if you guys at The Rap Sheet can think of something better, let me know. Heartburn? Heart Attack? The mind boggles.

READ MORE:An Interview with Chelsea Cain,” by Michael Carlson (Shots); “Drop Dead Gorgeous” (The Independent).


Anonymous said...

Oh man, I thought Heartsick was the worst thing published last year.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Obviously, not everybody agrees on the value of every crime novel. Thank goodness we have lots from which to choose.