Karin Slaughter: ‘I have a lot of readers who probably are Trump supporters’

Karin Slaughter has spent 20 years writing books about violence against women, and the silence that surrounds it. She wrote her first novel Blindsighted in 2001 and has gone on to sell more than 35 million books worldwide. Her 21st novel, False Witness, is out later this month. It is the story of two sisters and a childhood secret. It explores the legacy of child abuse and rape, and the rage and revenge of the survivors.

Slaughter is speaking to me on the phone from her home in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s early in the morning there, but she’s fine with that. “I’m very disappointing as an author. I’m not an alcoholic. I get up early.”

Known for writing about rape and murder in unflinching detail, Slaughter likes to confront darkness head on. She recalls her early career when she was often described as “writing like a man” but she was in fact tired of reading about violence against women from a male perspective. Some 85 per cent of readers of crime fiction are women. “Just knowing the things that women are afraid of. . . Guys aren’t built that way. I wanted to write realistically about what that violence looks like. It’s not sexy. It’s not titillating.”

What’s wrong with us that if she’s a white pregnant woman, suddenly our heart goes out to her but if she’s a person of colour, we’re like, what was she doing in that neighbourhood?

There was also a very personal reason to rail against the silence surrounding violence and abuse.

“My grandmother was abused when I was growing up. We teased her about being clumsy when I was a kid, but as I got older, I was like, nobody’s that clumsy. She had broken bones and black eyes and cut lips. Not saying anything only helped my grandfather. It only protected him, it did nothing to protect her. So I thought, I’m going to write about this. I’m going to tell these stories realistically. I’m going to show the nuance of abuse. I’m going to show how it affects men and women around the abused person, and how it affects police officers and medical examiners and how women feel when they hear these stories and how sometimes the woman isn’t particularly sympathetic, right?

“And what’s wrong with us that if she’s a white pregnant woman, suddenly our heart goes out to her but if she’s a person of colour, we’re like, what was she doing in that neighbourhood? That’s the kind of thing that I wanted to talk about in my fiction. And as I’ve got older, it’s become more important, because it just seems like even after ‘me too’, not a hell of a lot is changing.”

Slaughter’s new novel is set in the now, with all its attendant masks, sanitiser, Zoom and doom. Given that we have only just emerged blinking into the beer garden, are we ready for a pandemic novel?

She once aspired to write timeless novels but “as the world has got crazier, I felt more of an imperative to write and include present-day stuff”. While some people might look to a novel for escape, it is intriguing to watch characters grapple with history as it’s happening.

Conservatives are drawn to very black-and-white sort of books where the bad guys are punished, and the good guys live to fight another day. I didn’t want to turn them off on the first page

“Fiction tells us more than history books do. It gives us the taste and the sight and the feel of what it’s like to live through these moments. Dickens tells you more about what was going on in London then than a textbook,” Slaughter says.

The challenge lay in the evolving information landscape. “As I was writing, what we knew about the virus changed, how we adapted to it changed, the insanity and politicisation about not wearing masks. I had to make choices about what to include, especially in America because it’s so polarised.”

And a character’s reaction to the pandemic can read as a sort of shorthand for a reader – all you might infer from someone refusing a mask.

“I wanted to be careful, because I’m aware that I have a lot of readers who probably are Trump supporters. Conservatives are drawn to very black-and-white sort of books where the bad guys are punished, and the good guys live to fight another day. I didn’t want to turn them off on the first page. I think I’m saying some important things about what this pandemic brought out; the disparity between the haves and have-nots.”

Having Trump supporter fans doesn’t faze her. “I think it’s great, because I’m not a conservative. It gives me an opportunity to talk to them. Nobody recognises themselves in fiction.” And while she is keen to explore both sides of an argument in her writing, there is a line. “I feel very strongly about anti-vaxxers because it’s such a white western privilege. Go to India and Brazil and tell me you don’t want a vaccine.”

The way we treat addicts, particularly in the US, is horrible. We’ve been punishing them for years. And no one’s saying, this isn’t working

 

Slaughter’s books are often inspired by true crimes but her latest was inspired by the pervasiveness of sexual abuse of young girls. Slaughter set the novel’s inciting incident in the early 1990s, just after the infamous Amy Fisher case in the US (a 16-year-old girl shot the wife of a man with whom she was having an affair). “She was called the Long Island Lolita. She was a teenager having an affair with a much, much older man who was married, and the entire country was on the older man’s side, like she seduced him. No one thought, hey this guy raped a child, and that perception hasn’t changed a hell of a lot. We don’t allow young girls to be girls. Immediately, if they’re involved in something like that, they’re called women. And they’re not women. It is not her fault. I’ve never been on the Nabokov train.”

Describing her work as “socially conscious storytelling”, in False Witness, Slaughter also explores the effects of the US opioid crisis, having witnessed them first-hand.

“We’ve had family members struggle with addiction,” she says. “I did want to humanise addiction in a way that maybe my readers haven’t seen before. The way we treat addicts, particularly in the US, is horrible. We’ve been punishing them for years. And no one’s saying, this isn’t working. They’re saying let’s double down and make it even harder. There are people in Mississippi who are in prison for 25 years because they had a bag of pot in their car. That’s insane.”

I mention the recent success of Mare of Easttown with this new sort of female detective hero who, like Slaughter’s female protagonists, does not have to dial down the feminine. She might still be a little hardboiled and whiskey-swilling, but also maternal and empathetic.

I think what we need now is normal people surviving horrible s**t, which is kind of what we’re all doing at the same time

Slaughter says that for a long time, strong women were portrayed as having “masculine attributes, they’re smoking cigarettes and wearing leather and driving motorcycles”. Now, women can write “in a way that is true to how the strength of women is, rather than the fantasy. As a readership and an audience, we want people who are more believable, because there are plenty of Marvel and DC movies if we want superheroes, but I think what we need now is normal people surviving horrible s**t, which is kind of what we’re all doing at the same time.”

She recalls going to the cinema as a younger woman with her stepmother to see a film based on a Sara Paretsky novel (author of detective fiction, best known for her novels about VI Warshawski). Her stepmother hated it. “She said, I just don’t think a woman could get punched in the face and not cry. This perception that women are so delicate. My God, if women really talked about the shit they go through, and we don’t, we’re trained to just take it and not talk about it because then it’s whiny. And if a man goes through something like that, it’s just heart-breaking and what a powerful story. Hopefully, it’s another thing that’s changing. If I could get one thing back from my 20s, it would be all the emotional energy I spent making men feel okay about themselves.”

The day after I speak with Slaughter, Jeannette Winterson burns her own books because, she tweets, the blurb made them sound like “the worst of wimmin’s fiction”. Debates about genre and snobbery bubble up again. Slaughter is no longer interested.

“I love big commercial fiction. I write big commercial fiction. I’ve never been upset to be in that genre because it basically comprises the bestseller list in almost every single country. It’s funny when people say I don’t read sci-fi, but they love The Martian, or dystopia, but did you like The Handmaid’s Tale? Then they say it ‘transcends the genre’. If that keeps you thinking you’re smarter than everybody else, have at it. I write what I’m interested in. If people want to call it a thriller, chicklit, whatever. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about that. I think good books are good books.”