The novelist Karin Slaughter, whose thriller “Pieces of Her” will be published in August, says school contests made her an insatiable reader: “I’m incredibly competitive, so perhaps my early reading passion came from wanting to humiliate my closest reading rivals by volume.”
What books are on your nightstand?
A galley of Lee Child’s upcoming “Past Tense”; “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic,” by Benjamin Carter Hett; “The Lost Life of Eva Braun,” by Angela Lambert; “Circe,” by Madeline Miller; “So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know,” by Retta; “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer; “Atticus Finch: The Biography,” by Joseph Crespino.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Atlanta is razor-hot right now, so I blast the air-conditioner in my office for pretend winter, snuggle under a blanket with my cat, Dexter, and make sure the reading lamp is on high, because for some crazy reason the words on the page look tinier without light. Maybe it’s because of global warming, because I’m too young for that crap.
What’s your favorite book of all time?
This is complicated because “Gone With the Wind” exists as one of the main pillars of the odious Lost Cause narrative, but it’s also one of the pivotal books I read in childhood that helped shape me as a writer. When I came across it in the library, there were not a lot of novels where women were allowed to be confident and commanding without being violently murdered by the end of the story.
Which books got you hooked on crime fiction?
I discovered Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series in my teens and found them to be inspiring as well as an excellent counterbalance to my headier teen reading: “Flowers in the Attic,” by V. C. Andrews, and “Lace,” by Shirley Conran.
Who’s your favorite fictional detective? And the best villain?
Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski kicked butt well before it was acceptable for ladies to do that kind of thing. There’s an entire generation of women writing strong women because of Sara. For villains, I’d have to say Mayella Ewell from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” though with some reservations. On one hand, she was horribly abused by her father; on the other, she contributes to the spurious apologue of the vindictive woman who uses false rape allegations to strike out at a man.
What makes for a good thriller?
Character has to matter as much as plot. If they’re not equally strong, then no one really cares what happens.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to? And what do you steer clear of?
I’ll read anything — nonfiction, true crime, historical fiction. As long as it’s well told, I’m there. While I enjoy a lot of science fiction, when it gets into the nitty gritty of the tensile strength of the titanium cables threaded into the wings of the automatovelociraptor, you’ve lost me.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
People are always surprised that I read a lot of history, but I feel that good crime fiction holds a mirror up to society and tells readers what’s going on in the world. You can’t do that effectively without understanding history.
Who is your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer?
Clare Chambers (“Learning to Swim,” “The Editor’s Wife”) is an English author who’s fantastic at writing about crazy, eclectic families. What keeps Clare from being the English Anne Tyler is there’s always someone who is acutely aware of not quite fitting in. There’s something heartbreaking about the fact that most people who are unusual only ever long to be normal.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Insatiable — though to be honest there were lots of reading contests in my school, and I’m incredibly competitive, so perhaps my early reading passion came from wanting to humiliate my closest reading rivals by volume.
Favorite childhood literary character or hero?
I loved Encyclopedia Brown and aspired to be him, which endeared me to exactly no one in my family (he’s clearly overeducated for his intelligence). There’s been a lot of chatter about Sally Kimball’s place in the Brown canon because she was sometimes “allowed” to contribute to the crime-solving, but she was arguably a violent bully. Thank God she was also the prettiest girl in school; otherwise, they would have beaten the hell out of her every day.
What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?
“Grief Is the Thing With Feathers,” by Max Porter. It’s part bereavement counselor, part anger management.
What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?
“Slammerkin,” by Emma Donoghue, was given to me a few birthdays ago. I was going on and on about “The Crimson Petal and the White,” by Michel Faber, and a friend said, “This will knock the breath out of you.” He was right.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein, about a Low-IQ Tree that lets a WEAK kid take Everything starting with all of his big, beautiful Apples and, the tree is so Pathetic, because he used to be the strongest tree but now the World is laughing at him.
What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
“Orlando,” by Virginia Woolf, answers both of those questions. Good God, even two lifetimes is not enough to grit through the pages.
If you were to write something besides thrillers, what would you write?
The terrific gift about thriller-writing today is that the books can exist as hybrids. In some iteration, I’ve written love stories, polemics, historical novels, family sagas … The fact that people are murdered and the reader is told why slots me into the thriller category, and I’m absolutely fine with that. I have always loved thrillers — you can get away with anything in them.
Whom would you choose to write your life story?
I want to say Alafair Burke because she would make the truth interesting, but then I know she’d tell the truth. So maybe James Patterson, because I think my life lends itself to short, pacey chapters.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
Flannery O’Connor has always fascinated me. Growing up in a small town with weird thoughts and being constantly told that it wasn’t ladylike to write dark stories and that I’d never make much of myself if I didn’t learn how to blend in, it was stunning (and gratifying) to find an example of a woman from a small town with weird thoughts writing dark stories who was celebrated throughout the world. What I’d want to ask her is which stories came from happiness and which came from sadness, because only she would know.
What book do you think everybody should read?
“Ethan Frome,” by Edith Wharton, though any Wharton will do. She embodied the dictum that the difference between a painter and an artist is that an artist knows when to stop painting.
What do you plan to read next?
“Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South,” by Keri Leigh Merritt. I read an interview with the author a few months ago and was intrigued by the scope of her work. I’ve lived in the South my entire life and I love it here, but I am acutely aware that people who think they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps often forget that someone had to make the boots.
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