MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
And we continue our summer series Thrilled To Death, with Karin Slaughter. Slaughter is the author of several international best-sellers. Her latest book, called "Broken," revolves around two strong-willed women: a police detective - the story she's desperately trying to hide - and the medical examiner who finds herself drawn into a murder investigation in the town she used to call home. It's full of twists and turns and technical details.
Slaughter is a master at writing thrillers, and she joined us to talk about her latest book, and the books and authors that influenced her along the way. And with so many types of thrillers - like procedurals, whodunits and howdunits - I asked her which genre best describes her work.
KARIN SLAUGHTER: Well, I think crime fiction is a good place to start but really, every good book has some kind of crime at the center. And for me, I think I'm just a good storyteller.
NORRIS: Well, I would agree with that because your stories do have a certain - they're vivid. They move you forward. But I'm wondering, when you sit down to write a book, where do you begin? Do you begin with a particular character that you want to build the story around, or is it the story itself?
SLAUGHTER: Well, because I'm writing about crime, usually my book has to open with someone having something horrible happen to them. So basically, I start from that point, and then I start to wonder what my characters will do - because I grew up in a time during the Atlanta child murders, and I was really conscious, from a very young age, that crime - or the threat of crime - can change people in very drastic ways.
And growing up in a small town, like I did, and thinking I knew everyone around me and seeing how this crime - or the threat of crime - changed them made me want to talk about that in my stories.
So consequently, when I'm thinking about the dastardly deed that opens the book, what I really want to focus on is how is my doctor, Sara Linton, going to respond? Or how is my detective, Lena Adams, going to change because of this happening?
NORRIS: So does the book have to begin with the crime, or can it begin with the characters and slide into the crime?
SLAUGHTER: You know, I don't know if there's a formula. I try to kill someone off in the first chapter just because I think that's interesting, but I do start with a bit of the character development.
And, you know, in "Broken," there's a young girl who's taking a walk around Lake Grant in my fictional town of Grant County, Ga., and I have an opportunity there to talk about rural poverty. We don't hear about the people who are making ends meet, barely getting by, who live in very rural areas and don't necessarily have the safety net and support of a big city.
So this young girl, Allison, is taking a walk along the lake and she's reflecting on her life, the fact that she's in college, the fact that she's working very hard at the diner - and she's still not getting by. I mean, this is the American dream, really, is bettering yourself through education, and she's found herself stuck in a position where she's had to make some very bad choices.
NORRIS: Since you write crime fiction, do you have to sit around and think about interesting ways to kill people off?
SLAUGHTER: I certainly do and, you know, anyone who's taken the Atlanta-to- New-York flight knows that there are plenty of ways for you to think of killing people when you're waiting to take off.
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NORRIS: So do you get many of your best ideas there in the waiting area at LaGuardia?
SLAUGHTER: Certainly, and that's a great place to think of people to murder because you see all kinds.
NORRIS: So have some of the victims in some of your books been influenced by that particularly loud fellow on the cellphone in the waiting area?
SLAUGHTER: You've read my mind. It certainly has.
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SLAUGHTER: Or someone who cuts me off at traffic or, you know, anyone at the grocery store who doesn't put their buggy back where it belongs. I have - a lot of my crimes are motivated by bad manners.
NORRIS: Help me understand what makes a thriller work. Is it the suspense, the characters? Does there have to be this sense that something scary or truly awful is always about to happen?
SLAUGHTER: I think, really, what makes thrillers work is that they have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. With you - writing crime fiction, when you want a really good story, when you want a compelling read, you have to focus equally on plot and character. And you have to make sure that the reader cares enough about these characters so that when bad things happen, they want to read along.
And being a Southern author, you know, I grew up with Flannery O'Connor, and I love reading her essays because she was such a - not just a wonderful writer, but she was wonderful at talking about writing.
And she said every story has to have a mystery of character. There has to be this peeling away of the onion, where you get to the core of the character as the story unfolds. And with each page, that's what I try to do - is say something different about the character, something different in the reactions when they find these horrible things that are happening, or they figure out a piece of the puzzle.
I want it to change them, and I want my reader to feel that change through the character, as if it's them.
NORRIS: Tell me about the thrillers that have most influenced you.
SLAUGHTER: I'm one of those people who doesn't really think of thrillers in a conventional way. If you think about "To Kill a Mockingbird," for instance, some of those courtroom scenes are more tense than any Grisham novel, you know; or "The Great Gatsby," where you had a lone gunman killing someone.
I mean, you know, crime is such a great tool for talking about the human condition, and that's what I like to do. And when I'm thinking about the books I grew up with - even "Gone with the Wind," you have that scene where Scarlett kills the Yankee, and Mellie comes down the stairs. And you think she's going to fall completely apart but what she says is, we have to bury the body. And the relationship changes because of that.
So when I think of thrilling moments in a thriller, I think of that "Gone with the Wind" scene, or I think of "To Kill a Mockingbird," or I think of these classics where crime really changes your point of view on somebody.
NORRIS: Tell me about one scene in particular - the best all-time scene on the page that you remember - in a book that revolves around a crime.
SLAUGHTER: Well, you know, I'm a big fan of Mo Hayder, and I wouldn't recommend her for the faint of heart. She's an English crime writer. The thing that scared me most was a book called "The Treatment," and there's this serial killer who is stalking families, and they find out that he's been hiding in the attics of these families for days, and listening to them and figuring out their routines.
And this one scene - this cop looks up at the window, and he sees a handprint on the window that was obviously taken from this guy being on the roof and resting his hand against the window where he looked into the house. And that is the creepiest thing I have ever read. I read that book many years ago, and it still sticks with me.
NORRIS: Tell me why it's so scary.
SLAUGHTER: Well, that's just such a violation. And if you think about, you know, sexual predators, for instance, I think every woman is terrified of that. But the violation of your personal space, the violation of your privacy, that kind of thing just gets into my head.
NORRIS: Since you write crime fiction, and you write books about horrible, spooky, terrible, macabre things that happen to people, do people make much of your last name? It's Slaughter.
SLAUGHTER: They do, yes.
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SLAUGHTER: And I never realized - because I grew up with it. It would be like if people asked if Norris was your real last name. And I was in London touring with my book many years ago, and I was on the escalator at Piccadilly, going up, and I saw this huge poster that said Slaughter, and I said - thought to myself, boy, that's pretty scary. And then I saw the Karin in front of it, and that's when it occurred to me that my name might be used for marketing. I guess I was pretty stupid; I didn't think of it until then.
NORRIS: Well, you know, I have a copy of your latest book, "Broken," next to me here in the studio. And Karin is in - you know, it's in sizable font, but Slaughter is really, really big.
SLAUGHTER: Yeah, and I think maybe, in a way, it might do a disservice because someone might think that it's ultraviolent, or something like that. So hopefully, they'll give me a chance, despite the Slaughter.
NORRIS: It's been great talking to you. Thanks so much.
SLAUGHTER: You, too. Thanks.
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