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Bee Book Club choice: Crime writer Karin Slaughter

Published: Monday, Jul. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 9, 2013 - 7:46 am

For someone born and raised in small-town rural Georgia, Karin Slaughter doesn't speak in the "y'all come" Southern accent one would expect.

Which perhaps isn't too surprising. After all, the best-selling crime novelist is a world traveler who lives in cosmopolitan Atlanta, the South's most progressively minded center of commerce and culture. Still, the metaphorical tastes of sausage biscuits and turnip greens linger in the city's social fabric.

Which made me wonder: What's for supper?

"I wish fried chicken, but unfortunately it's going to be baked chicken," Slaughter said by phone from her rambling home. "We were going to barbecue, but it's 9,000 degrees outside and miserably humid. Anyway, I'm a really bad cook."

But a really accomplished writer. Slaughter has written 14 crime novels, four novellas and several e-stories, and has sold more than 30 million books worldwide, translated into 32 languages. Her book tours are global, her fans are legion. If there were a Fortune 500 list specifically for novelists, she would rank in the top 100.

All of Slaughter's stories are set in Georgia, naturally. Her first series, the six-title Grant County, takes place in a small town and its environs. She moved her second (and closely related) series, the eight-title Will Trent, to Atlanta in order to paint on a bigger canvas.

Between the two series, Slaughter has created a crossover universe of well- defined characters whose lives intertwine and whose dramatic arcs overlap. Some become romantically involved, others are strictly crime-fighting partners, a few come to bad endings.

"Grant County is a very small place where everybody knows everybody else, so the crimes were kind of interrelated in that people knew the victims and the killers," Slaughter said. "You can't repeatedly have your friends die if you're a character in a book. That's one reason I moved the story to Atlanta."

That's where one of Slaughter's main protagonists lives and works. Will Trent is an agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a dyslexic loner whose social skills are limited but who always catches the bad guys.

Trent stars in Slaughter's newest adventure, "Unseen," in which he goes undercover in Macon, Ga., posing as an ex-con biker. His assignment: Identify and bust the redneck leader of a violent drug ring, a murderous sociopath nicknamed Big Whitey.

"Unseen" is the Bee Book Club's choice for July.

An early love of books

Slaughter's career path was shaped by her love of books. Early on, her father made a point of taking her to the local public library, though he wasn't much of a reader himself.

"That was around the time my passion for reading took off, and he was a major influence," she recalled. "He said I could read any book, as long as I talked to him about anything I didn't understand.

"I grew up with the appreciation that having a book is a luxury. It was the greatest gift he ever gave me."

Slaughter's passion for all things bookish is personified by her Save the Libraries foundation (www. savethelibraries.com).

"Libraries are really hurting, so I try to give back (through) grants and special projects," she said. For instance, the proceeds from her 2011 e-short story "Thorn in My Side," written specifically for the Kindle e-reader, were donated to libraries.

Slaughter knew she wanted to be a novelist ever since she was a young girl writing mystery stories that mostly ended with everyone being killed.

As a high-schooler, the story goes, she taped an autopsy photo of Marilyn Monroe to her lunch box, an image she found in a book in the school library.

"I moved recently and found it," she said with a chuckle. "I said, 'What the hell is this?' It's shocking. I was probably trying to freak out my (two older) sisters."

Slaughter attended Georgia State University for a few years and then turned to a series of jobs that included house painter and pest- control technician. She took a job at a signage company "to avoid being outdoors in the summer."

"I was good at it, so later I went out on my own and became fairly successful," she recalled. "But my goal was always to be published by the time I turned 30. I was 26 and it was getting close, so I sold my sign business to a friend and worked for him so I could take time off to write.

"Of course, I had an agent at that point, so I wasn't completely stupid. Still, it was a risk."

One that paid off. Slaughter's historical-fiction debut "didn't sell, fortunately," she said. "So I told my agent I'd always wanted to write a thriller, and she said, 'Give it a try.' "

The result was "Blindsided" in 2001, which became an international best-seller and was nominated for a Dagger Award for Best Thriller Debut by the Crime Writers Association.

"Yeah, it was pretty amazing," she said.

Penchant for violence

Slaughter, 42, is a diminutive woman with a mischievous grin, tousled blond hair and eyes as blue as the sky. On the surface, it seems counterintuitive that she conjures scenes in her novels that are as dark as any in popular fiction. Her penchant for putting sudden violence and extreme brutality on the page is an issue that follows her.

For instance, "Unseen" opens with a man being shotgunned by intruders in his home, followed by his terrified wife killing one of them with a hammer and maiming the other. In a later scene, a kidnap-torture victim is stabbed multiple times with a long-bladed hunting knife.

"Every writer draws on stuff inside themselves that we don't necessarily see when we look at them," said Jennifer Hershey, editor-in-chief of Ballantine-Bamtam-Dell and Slaughter's hands- on editor.

"Karin is better than most writers at translating the full breadth of human emotions onto the page, and really capturing both the dark and the light," Hershey said. "Her scenes are very cinematic, and every moment gets you in the pit of your stomach. It's a particular skill she has."

"Because I'm a woman, people pay more attention to (the violence) in my books than they do to violence in (similar books by male authors)," said Slaughter, whose surname seems apt in this instance. "But the fact is that 80-something percent of all readers are women, and we've been interested in these stories forever. I mean, 'Beowulf'! My God, is there a more violent telling of a crime than that?"

Slaughter's stories aren't just about the dark side, she said, but about "what the violence leaves behind and how the characters deal with it, how it affects and changes them. The violence isn't the focus, the fallout is. To me, that's the whole point of telling a story."

Slaughter's books are notoriously well-researched, with characters expertly navigating through investigative procedures and the forensic sciences. To make the character of Will Trent as real as possible, it was essential for her to get inside the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

"They have been amazingly open," she said. "They've let me watch training drills, I've talked with agents, and I've been out with the director, who's a law-enforcement guru. I went with him to the GBI shooting range, and they showed me how to use different guns, which I hadn't handled since I was a kid."

Slaughter owns a Springfield XD-S 9 mm carry pistol.

Making her mark

As popular as Slaughter is in the United States, she's even more of an attraction overseas. Why?

"Because to (most foreigners), anything that happens in America (and in her books) that's violent, scary or over the top is completely believable," she said. "They really think we can run down the street with a gun. Certainly we have our share of crazies, but terrible things happen in every country."

Slaughter recalled the "reassuring" advice she was given a few years ago while preparing to tour a new book in Finland, Switzerland and Sweden.

"Don't worry, they don't have guns," she was told. "They use knives, but they only murder people in their own families and only when they're drunk."

"So the violence is there," Slaughter said. "The difference is the accessibility to ways to wreak havoc with it."

Last year it was announced that two production companies had bought the TV rights to the "Grant County" series, to feature the town's pediatrician-coroner, Sara Linton, and to be filmed in Georgia.

"The plan is to start filming this year, but these things are a crapshoot," Slaughter said.

What can the author tell her fans about the next book?

"It's called 'Cop Town' and takes place in the 1970s with three new characters – two white female police officers and an African American woman who works in the district attorney's office," she said. "I had so much fun in 'Criminal,' writing about policewomen in 1970s Atlanta, that I wanted to do it again."

Some authors are so identified with the cities in which their stories are set that it's said they "own" them. Robert Crais owns L.A., for instance, and Laura Lippman owns Baltimore. Does Slaughter own Atlanta?

"I hope so, but only time will tell," she said with a laugh. "I know there are other people writing mysteries set in Atlanta, but I could probably take them in an arm-wrestling match."

Bee Book Club appearance Thursday

Karin Slaughter will appear for The Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento. Her presentation is a free event, but tickets are required. To get them, go to www.beebuzzpoints.com and click on "Bee Events."

Barnes & Noble will be there to sell her newest thriller, "Unseen," for 30 percent off the retail price (Delacorte, $27, 400 pages).

Through Thursday, these stores will offer a 30 percent discount on the title: Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, Time Tested Books, Underground Books, Carol's Books, Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.

For information: (916) 321-1128.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Allen Pierleoni



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