As Netflix becomes increasingly popular, more and more people are experiencing the phenomenon known as “binge-watching.” Almost everyone who watches streaming TV has taken part in this. You say you’re only going to watch an episode or two of Breaking Bad or House of Cards and end up watching five straight hours of Frank Underwood crushing his political rivals. But before Netflix even existed, people were still “binge-watching,” but it wasn’t TV shows that led to sleepless nights of entertainment. Instead, it was great thriller novels.
There are few writers in the world who know more about crafting a great thriller more than Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher novels, and Karin Slaughter, author of the Grant County series. These two genre titans sat down to discuss their work, baseball and celebrity authors.
Given the kind of books you write, Slaughter is just the greatest name ever. And it’s your real name, correct?
Yes, it is.
And is it true that Enos Slaughter, the baseball Hall-of-Famer, was your great-uncle?
Yes, my dad used to tell me stories about him, because he was the Slaughter that did well. But athletes didn’t make much money back then, and Enos grew up like my dad in a house that had a dirt floor, and even after the baseball career the house he lived in wasn’t much better. But there was always a family rumor that he hid his money in the walls, and one time he got sick, he got home from the hospital and his whole family had taken axes to the walls and broken up the inside of his house.
So you had a genetic advantage when you threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium.
It didn’t help. It bounced. But 50 Cent had gone the week before and I did better than him. So I felt OK, but there was a lot of pressure because I was the first woman thriller writer to do it.
Karin Slaughter & Lee Child Talk First Baseball Pitch
Who knew that kind of thing would be part of the job?
Who knew it was a job at all? Everything I had read said you couldn’t make a living as a writer, so I didn’t really think it was possible - and actually it isn’t, usually. There’s only about 100 of us who write full time, and don’t teach, and don’t have spouses who support us, so I thought, okay, I’ve got to have a career, and then I’ll write on the side. But I wanted a book published. I wanted to see it on the shelf in my local store. I never thought about going to Germany or Poland or wherever and seeing my books there.
That’s a big thing about your career - you are very equally spread all across the world. You’re everywhere, which is interesting, because you set your books in a part of America that is not internationally famous. Georgia is not LA or New York City.
Gone With the Wind did pretty well for us, but it’s true that in a lot of countries that’s their only impression - that and the 1984 Olympics. People assume the South is very racist, and we’re still burning crosses. But the fact is Atlanta has the largest African American middle class of any major American city, and a history of black politicians who’ve done extremely well. We’ve got the world’s busiest passenger airport. We’ve got tons of Fortune 500 companies. I guess it’s the same for you when people think MidSomer Murders is how England really is, and everybody is drinking tea.
Yes, outsiders think England is London, and then a few thatched cottages in the Cotswolds, and then Scotland, where there are golf courses.
So did you have limited expectations for your first book?
I had actually written my first two and a half books when I got the three-book deal, and my agent did such a good job that immediately my expectations went through the roof. I was the new thing, and everybody was excited, and the possibilities seem endless. Even so, the international aspect was not something I ever anticipated.
Your first book was pretty powerful, and I guess that’s the book a lot of people discovered you through. So do they still like that one the best?
It depends. That book was the first in the Grant County Series, and then I ended it and started the Will Trent series. And there are still people who haven’t forgiven me for ending Grant County, and they still say that series is their favorite. But then there are people who say the Will Trent series is better.
I love Will Trent. Partly because I think he’s based on me.
Yes he is.
He’s expertly drawn. He has a functional problem in his life that he has worked around, but other than that you’ve sketched him with restraint, and I think that’s the key to making a good character - don’t over-explain, don’t over-sell, just say here he is, like him or not.
I knew in my fourth Grant County book how the series was going to end, so I had time to think about Will and what made him tick. And in his first book “Triptych” he gets described from another man’s point of view, and it’s not very generous, and that was deliberate on my part because I wanted you not to know who you were supposed to root for, until you realize halfway through the book, oh wait, this is the guy I’m supposed to be rooting for. And I just thought it would be fun to play with that as an introduction, because I do think intrinsically he’s very likeable. And the key to that is he doesn’t feel sorry for himself even though he’s had an extremely shitty life. I wanted him to be that kind of guy who made a choice to be a certain type of person. I like that sense of predestination for him, and I think that’s really the key - he grew up in a really crappy way, and if he followed the path set in front of him he’d probably end up in prison, and he’s just not going to do that.
Will was not the first great male character you wrote. But you killed the first great male character you wrote - which is a big step to take.
I didn’t want to be writing these Jessica Fletcher type novels where the same thing happens over and over again, and sooner or later everyone in town gets murdered. I knew about the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, where Will is an agent, so he can go anywhere in the state. That opened up 159 counties. So he could be the Jack Reacher of Georgia.
Karin Slaughter & Lee Child Talk Being Celebrity Authors
Pretty Girls is set even beyond that.
As much as I like writing about Georgia, I wrote the story without being specific to place because I wanted people everywhere to have an uneasy feeling, like what’s my husband really looking at on his computer, you know? Whether they’re in Georgia, or England, or wherever.
Writers hardly ever talk to each other about what they’re doing at the moment. I certainly don’t, and I know you don’t. But we came up with one common element in both our latest books. People are going to say we must have talked, but we didn’t.
No, we didn’t. But I’ve had that happen with author friends before. Maybe we read the same news story, and we’re all on the internet too much. The same facts are presented to all of us, and sooner or later a theme is going to coincide. I’ll be curious to see what your reviews say about the subject matter versus what mine say.
So far they say mine is darker than normal.
I would agree with that.
I’m venturing into Karin Slaughter territory.
That’s right - I read one passage and I thought, I could have written that.
Some reviews I’m getting are saying it stretches credulity to a breaking point. As if the thing I made up at the end - which is the same thing you made up at the end - can’t exist. But I’m pretty sure it does exist.
I know it exists.
And people are reluctant to face that. They want to think the world is a good place and it isn’t. Where did Pretty Girls come from?
I was writing a completely different book, but I slipped a disc in my back, and I started taking pain pills, and I’ve never smoked, I don’t really drink, I don’t take drugs, so the pain pills knocked me sideways, and I started having really crazy dreams, and one of the dreams was the plot for Pretty Girls.
Wow, a drug induced plot. What were the pills? Can I have some?
They were Tramadol and Meloxicam - what you would give a baby, basically. You could take 6 right now and be fine. You wouldn’t even notice.
It doesn’t take much to get you going.
No, I’m a cheap date.
I loved Pretty Girls - I thought it was very powerful, very suspenseful. But that’s true of all of your books. They’re all serious, heavyweight stories. Do you get sideways glances, like, oh a woman wrote this?
Many of our women peers disguise their gender with initials and so on, and really, since we’re talking to Playboy which we assume is largely a male audience, we need to put these guys right, because speaking as a reader, fundamentally, women have always done the best thrillers and mysteries and suspense books.
Thank you on behalf of my sex.
Karin Slaughter & Lee Child Talk Libraries
How much of an annoyance is it about male attitudes towards women writers?
Well it’s good and it’s bad, because it gets me attention, and that’s what you want if you want to be successful, but you write about dark things too and no one thinks twice, so I think there are two different rules for men and women when they’re writing these types of stories. But I will say that women are really good at that psychological, torturous sort of writing, because let’s face it, Reacher can fight his way out of a bad situation. But a woman’s first instinct generally is not to fight her way out, so she’s going to use more psychological ways to get out. And I think that’s the same way we approach stories. I probably shouldn’t say this to a Playboy audience, but for men who won’t read books by women - your penis will not fall off if you do, you know? And you might actually enjoy the book.
I probably read women writers one book out of two, and my penis hasn’t fallen off.
No. It’s actually gotten larger. But the awful part is most guys are really great. It’s women who can be really nasty toward other women. Some women don’t like it when other women succeed.
Publishing is run by women, largely, and I like them. Things have changed over 20 years, but it’s still the last bastion of decent people.
Yea, I agree with that.
All they want to do is publish great books. Which is the same thing I find in Hollywood. They can be weird people but at the end of the day all they care about is making the best movie they can. So you can forgive them a lot. What about your TV and movie experience?
Well, you know, it takes forever. It’s inching along.
The Reacher movie took 14 years. And that’s quick compared to certain things. I just had dinner with a guy who was finally getting his movie made after 18 years.
That’s why I like television. I think most of the interesting stories are being told in television now.
They say cable series are the new novels.
They take a novelistic approach, but the novel is still the novel. It’s a completely different experience, because your brain is doing all the work when you read.
The difference between active consumption and passive consumption. Television is presented to you. You just sit there and soak it up. Books don’t feel like work necessarily, but actually it’s the reader’s brain that is creating the story at that point. Which I think makes books so powerful because it’s literally uniquely your own vision, inside your own head.
Using more of your head. There are MRIs of people reading and all levels of their brain get involved, but just passively watching television very few levels are involved.
Therefore the book readers have their own personal vision of what the characters look like and how they act, which means when we do transfer to television and movies inevitably whatever actor they chose is not the person’s vision, and so they get upset about it.
Like with Tom Cruise. Somebody asked me about that, because they know I know you. Like, what did I really think? I said, I thought it’s Tom Fucking Cruise. That’s fantastic. I mean he’s the biggest action star on the planet. He’s the Lee Child of action movies. So it doesn’t matter what he looks like. What matters is can he pull off the role? And I thought he did a great job.
Karin Slaughter & Lee Child Talk College
Me too. I was very happy with it. But whoever it was would have been criticized. You must have mental pictures of what your characters looks like. Would you be defensive about the casting?
I think it’s about whoever would do the best job. I mean, a movie is an interpretation, and you don’t have control over it even if you wrote every single word in the script. How it’s performed is going to make it specific to that actor or actress. It’s exciting as a writer to think about somebody taking what you’ve done and changing it into something uniquely their own.
How long was it before you felt that you were getting somewhere?
I think about 5 years in. I went to my editor’s house in London for lunch and ended up staying for dinner. I remember riding in a cab back to the hotel, and I thought holy crap I remember when I was a little girl watching Diana and Charles get married. I got up early to watch that and always wanted to go to England and here I am. I just left my editor’s house and I’m successful. I’m a number one bestseller.
Have you found that as you’ve become more successful you’re regarded now as some kind of a corporation or institution, and people feel they can say things to you that they wouldn’t say to you as a person?
Absolutely. People say, I really don’t like that character, and I think Oh my God, what have I done wrong? How can you not like that character?
It’s the hardest thing to manage. Whoever said you can’t please all the people all the time was right, but it’s still disappointing when you meet one you’re not pleasing. You always feel like a fraud. Graham Greene said “Success for a writer is merely failure delayed”. You always think you’re going to fall off the cliff.
Writers have to be stubborn.
It’s a hell of a thing to face that blank screen and come up with the right 100,000 words, all in the right order, and all spelled right, too.
We both managed it this year, though.