Chelsea Cain 3: Women and violent crime fiction

Switching off the light and forcing readers to imagine exactly what that is, scratching under their beds, is the height of our art as crime writers. And if an author can do it so seamlessly that readers are convinced they actually read the scenes they imagined in your book, you can open a bottle of Moet. Michael Connelly achieved this in The Poet. The PoetTo this day, he tells me, he has people commending him on the terrifying paedophile he wrote about, but in actual fact, the character never directly touches a child, nor is he the main bad guy. And yet, that’s how people remember it. Take the movie Event Horizon, when Lawrence Fishburne’s salvage team finally discover the captain’s log of a ship that’s mysteriously reappeared after disappearing seven years ago. The clip is only about ten seconds long, and nothing in it is clear, but every hair on your neck stands up straight.

Chelsea CainSimilarly, Chelsea Cain’s much talked-about torture scene isn’t actually all there, if you look hard. Instead, we get it in snippets and rags as Archie Sheridan remembers those dreadful moments. And yet it’s the one story that readers remember. So the question is, how far is Chelsea Cain responsible for it, and how much of it comes from the darkest recesses of your own mind?

Richard Kunzmann: At Harrogate you were asked to justify women writers writing violence. And in many interviews you’re asked exactly how sick and twisted you are in real life. It’s almost as if you’re a dirty secret in crime fiction that everyone loves talking about, but no one wants to own up to. Why do you think that is?

Chelsea Cain: Honestly, I don’t think my books are that violent. Isn’t that funny? Because I get that EVERYONE ELSE does. But, with the exception of bad guys, we don’t see any murders. The bad guys are shot quickly in the head. The other murders all take place “off stage” to people we don’t know. We hear about them. We see the aftermath. But we don’t see good people get killed. As for the torture – they’re in flashback, people. You know that Archie is going to be okay. (Fucked-up, pill-addled and nuts, but alive.) The books are graphic, which to me is a different thing than violent. Corpses are described. We see scars and blood and gore and sex. But writing is about description, about unpacking an experience, and I think that getting your spleen carved out by a serial killer deserves as much attention as the layout of a character’s living room. Also, I think if you’re going write about murder, it’s important to make it seem horrible. I have dead teenage girls in Heartsick. We don’t see them murdered, but we see their bodies. And that’s not pretty. To make it anything less than horrific feels irresponsible to me. And to understand what the books are about – the sick romance between Archie and Gretchen – you have to understand that she tortured him and it wasn’t very fun. These characters are really damaged. And to get at that, we have to see a little of what made them that way.

CSIRichard Kunzmann: In a world were CSI and ultra realism has become a benchmark for many readers and TV viewers, how do you reconcile the fact that psychologically and forensically speaking, a character like Gretchen Lowell is even unlikelier than Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter.Hannibal Lecter

Chelsea Cain: First of all, I’m not so sure that CSI is ultra realistic. They make stuff up all the time. They just add in a lot of lingo that makes it SEEM realistic. Gretchen Lowell isn’t realistic at all. Not a bit. In any universe. She’s not even a realistic psychopath. In real life she’d probably be a very successful corporate lawyer and living in Connecticut. I don’t care about that at all. I care about making her a compelling, enchanting, scary and charismatic character in a series that is clearly fiction.

Richard Kunzmann: So your writing is about being convincing, not really about being realistic? How do you as a writer and reader deal with these two forces when you write a novel?

Chelsea Cain: The trick is to find enough that’s true so that the reader will go along with the stuff you make up. I will do a lot of research and then pull out a few tiny things and ignore the rest in service to the story. The story is what is important to me. And if I need to overlook some fact in order to get the characters into the situation I want them in, then I’m completely comfortable with that. And my goal then becomes to figure out how to ignore that fact without distracting readers.

Richard Kunzmann: Are you worried about taking liberties with poetic licence and leaping over gaps in logic?

Chelsea Cain: I worry about readers looking up from the book and saying, “Wait just a fucking minute.” Because then you lose them. Gaps in logic are fine if you can get the reader on board. It’s another universe. Readers know that. They’re willing to forgive a lot, as long as they don’t feel you’re taking advantage of them.

Richard Kunzmann: The violence is maybe not as explicit as in films like Hostel or Saw, but only just. Are you a big fan of horror?

Jack Nicholson in the ShiningI’m not a fan of torture porn at all. I love cheesy horror movies, and really good horror movies, like The Shining and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But I’m not a fan of the Saw movies. I know there are probably people reading this thinking that I’m a total hypocrite. Some would put my books firmly in the torture porn category. But here’s my defence. I don’t think that label can even apply to books. The thing about movies is that you can’t get inside anyone’s point of view. You, the viewer, are always, by definition, on the outside looking in. You are a voyeur. That’s what makes it porn. All the torture scenes in Heartsick are from Archie’s point of view. We experience it through him. We are on his side. And I think that transforms the experience into something a tiny bit less seedy and exploitive.

Richard Kunzmann: You’ve admitted in a previous interview that films have played a big roll in your life. Which films stick out as having influenced your work?

Law and orderChelsea Cain: My books are more directly influenced by TV shows. Wire in the blood, Law and order: Criminal Intent, Touching Evil. But my head is full of movies and books and TV shows (I am a pop culture sieve), and my characters are all combinations of hundreds of portrayals I’ve seen elsewhere and liked and recycled. The books are often described as cinematic, and I think I tend to construct and portray narrative in a film style rather than literary style. The transitions and props I use are much more movie-ish than book-ish. If a chapter ends with one line, I like to open the next chapter with something that references it, even if we’re now across town, in someone else’s point of view. And everyone is always smoking or drinking coffee or waving pens around – so that they have some props to illustrate how they’re feeling, which is very much an actor’s trick.

Richard Kunzmann: When I first came across Susan Ward, I immediately thought of Kate Winslett’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She’s also a character that’s a lot more real to me, someone that I might have hung out with most of my life. How did she enter this series, because she’s so different from all the other characters?

Chelsea Cain:It’s the colorful hair. And you have hung out with her. In that hotel bar in Harrogate. (Blush.) Susan was my way into the story. I’ve never been a cop. Or a serial killer. But I have been a quirky features journalist. I know how that works. She was the last character I invented because I needed some authority. Susan acts as the eyes and ears of the readers, because she’s new to all this, she’s sort of figuring it out with us. In my defence, I am not nearly as fucked up as she is. Nor do I share her, um, complicated past. But we do have a similar worldview. We worry about many of the same things. And we have all of the same clothes.

Oh that night at the bar in Harrogate. I have fond memories of us flooring everyone else with a few rounds of tequila. I just couldn’t believe how fresh-faced Chelsea looked the next day when everyone else looked like they’d been through a war. She was ready for the day’s first round of debates, looking fresher than water, but with a glass of burgundy at hand, of course. Only journalists have that fortitude. But it seems Susan Ward and Chelsea Cain have more than a career in common; as a young Chelsea Cain had a secret crush on the task force detectives hunting the Green River Killer, so Susan Ward has fallen hard for the detective she shadows all over town. Archie Sheridan, it seems, is the kind of screwed man women just can’t leave alone. Read Russell Crowe rather than George Clooney. Russel Crowe

As the conversation draws to a close, I think of Chuck Palahniuk and Stephen King who have both complained about the creepy fans that pester them at signings. So I wondered what kind of people might be following Chelsea Cain around, now that she’s widely known as a sick and twisted writer. Her answer seems to hit the nail write on the head.

Chelsea Cain: I am amazed at how many young women will come up and tell me how “inspiring” they find Gretchen Lowell. Which I think sort of speaks to the lack of powerful female archetypes in pop culture. Gretchen is a black-hearted serial killer with a sado-masochistic streak a mile long, but she’s in control. And young women respond to that. Which is a tiny bit sad for all of us.

Next up:

Evil at heartChelsea gives us a few fast facts about Evil at Heart, due out in four months.

Advertisements

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: