Chelsea Cain interview: Of crochet hooks and intestines

HeartsickSweetheart
In many ways, Chelsea Cain’s series evokes the same emotions as Jane Campion’s In the Cut – layers of terror and aggression complemented by a sensuality that is so out of place it makes things all the creepier. The main characters are Archie Sheridan, the cop that’s been hunting the Beauty Killer, Gretchen Lowell. When they finally encounter each other it’s not so much the gore factor that sticks in the mind. It’s Chelsea Cain’s success at making us complicit in the sexual obsession that binds these two people together.

We can talk about the things Chelsea Cain did which many other authors have done: studying journalism, flopping from one job to the next, not quite sure what she wanted to do; dying her hair various shades of LOUD; a stint as a PR director and falling hopelessly in love, in Chelsea Cain’s case, with the guy at the video store. Regular girl-next-door stuff, I guess, except, if you go further back in her history, you’ll discover that the macabre streak that runs through her work was already well alive in her youth. You see, Chelsea Cain used to be the neighbourhood gravedigger as a young child. Apparently she created a pet cemetery in her garden for her own pets when they died, then the dead birds she found on her way back home from school, and after that, when the other kids in the neighbourhood found out about it, for their dead animals too.

Me having trained up as a psychologist, and Freud believing that our personalities are set in stone by the age of three, I start our interview by asking Chelsea Cain what the one thing was that scared her as a kid.

Chelsea Cain: When I was five my dad took me to a children’s museum in Chicago and they had this life-size display of Gulliver tied up by the Lilliputians. It scared the shit out of me. For years I was convinced that there was a civilization of tiny people under my bed who would tie me up if I let my hand fall to the floor. But honestly, I was not scared of much as a kid. I had a lot of independence and self-confidence. Probably too much.

Richard Kunzmann: So what convinced you to finally move away from teen fiction and write a thriller? Did your characters come to mind first, or did you decide to shoot for the genre straight away?

Chelsea Cain: Actually, I started with a relationship. I wanted to explore the connection between a serial killer and the cop who’d spent his career hunting her. So it started with that obsession, and then the idea that the serial killer would be a woman. Not just a woman, but a knock-out – the kind of woman that scares the hell out of our culture already, without having killed anyone. The male-female dynamic would instantly complicate the relationship by introducing sexual tension. It seemed like a really compelling set of themes to unravel.

Richard Kunzmann: I see that the Green River Killer investigation was quite close to home when you were growing up. How did those killings impact on your choice to become a crime writer?

Green River Killer Gary RidgwayThe Green River Killer was at large from the time I was 10 to the time I was 30. It was huge news in the Pacific Northwest. He raped and killed young women about an hour away from the town I grew up in, and his name became a sort of code for Really Bad Things That Can Happen to You. So, if you were going to go to a concert in Seattle, your mom might say, “Watch out for the Green River Killer.” Or if you were going to take the dog out for a late night walk, someone might say, “Be sure the Green River Killer doesn’t get you.” What they meant was BE CAREFUL. He became synonymous with things that go bump in the night. You couldn’t escape him—there were countless front page stories. And I was aware, very young, that there was a task force of cops trying to catch him, and that really caught my attention, too. I liked the idea of this team of people working to keep me safe. So the character of Archie Sheridan definitely came from my feelings about that Task Force. He’s sort of my child’s eye hero.

Rather than your series being a serial killer tale in the traditional crime fiction sense, it’s the crackling sexual tension between Archie and Gretchen that’s carried from Heartsick to Sweetheart?

I wanted to explore it from the start. I was surprised when people started using the “serial killer book” label. The books are thrillers, sure. But I don’t think of them as being serial killer books. I mean, obviously Gretchen Lowell is a serial killer and she is in all the books. But the books are not about catching her. They’re about what happens after she is caught. The fallout of this relationship. They are, in their own way, more twisted romances that thrillers.

Your books seem to be doing for the genre what Tarantino did for violent films back in the 90s – putting undeniably funny situations together with horrific circumstances. They expose the absolute parody we’ve made of violence and serial killers, embrace it, and take it into a new direction. Is that a fair comment?

Chelsea Cain: I decided early on to embrace clichés and then I really made an effort to subvert them. My characters are right out of central casting. Cop. Reporter. Serial Killer. The ex-wife. The gruff partner. It’s all been done like a billion times. So I tried to challenge our expectations of these stock characters by making them do and say things that are unexpected. But I do think that the books have a dark Tarantino-esqsue humour. At least that was my goal. And the weird thing is that when I give a reading, I find that I can get a lot of laughs. Maybe it’s because when I’m giving it, I cannot say the line (about a corpse) “her eye sockets were concave bowls of greasy, soaplike fat” without smiling. And pulling someone’s small intestine out with a crochet hook? Come on, people. How is that not funny? I think you have to give the reader permission to laugh.

To me it seems that everyone has been so fixated on the torture scene that they’ve missed both the wider picture, and what actually made the books so horrific, namely Archie Sheridan’s own complicity in his victimisation. As much as we are taken aback by what’s happened to him, it’s made more grotesque that he’s still got a hard-on for Gretchen.

How screwed up can one man get?

Feel free to comment on this series of interviews, especially if you’ve read one of the books. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and we might get Chelsea to comment further.

Next up Chelsea and I talk about:
• Women crime writers and extreme violence
• Why women can’t get enough of Gretchen Lowell

Advertisements

One Response to “Chelsea Cain interview: Of crochet hooks and intestines”

  1. […] Richard Kunzmann’s Blog A place for Crime and Thriller enthusiasts « Chelsea Cain interview: Of crochet hooks and intestines […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: