Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Chelsea Cain is one scary writer. And one very cool lady.
And perhaps those two attributes help describe her success… in the first three of her first fourbestselling novels (Heartsick… Sweetheart… Evil at Heart, the fourth being The Night Season), she brought us the sinister Gretchen Lowell, the most beautiful and sadistic serial killer to have stalked the pages of any thriller, ever.
That alone is a killer idea. And look what happened. One word: superstar.
These novels, when considered together, become a clinic in not only writing a crime series, but one with a recurring antagonist (not an easy trick) that tries to push the hero (the cool, calm and very manly Detective Archie Sheridan) off center stage. Will Gretchen return? Only Chelsea knows for sure. (Sidenote: the movie is in development.)
By the way, Archie does just fine in the fourth book, while Gretchen is safely behind bars, with critics raving.
Here’s what she has to say for herself.
SF: Your books are on the dark side. Is there anything you are exploring within yourself, or your past in your stories (ala Dennis Lehane with his consistent themes of child abduction and abuse), or is this stuff coming from some other place?
No. Except maybe a childhood love of mysteries and TV cop shows.
I had a very independent childhood. I was raised by a single mom, who was also a feminist and a bohemian, so I was given a lot of freedom. Even as a young kid, I went where I wanted, and was left to my own devices a lot. I think this gave me an absurd sense of self-reliance and a sense of being safe in the world. (It also meant I had to learn to entertain myself, which made me good at making up stories in my head.) When you protect kids from everything they tend to grow up thinking the world isn’t safe. When you don’t protect them (ironically) they grow up thinking the world must be very safe.
I don’t have the base level of fear that many of my female friends have (about being alone in the house at night, or walking in an “unsafe” neighborhood alone, that kind of thing). So because of this, because I am not afraid, I am able to go to dark places in my imagination and then leave it on the page.
Interestingly, I also have a very violent imagination. (This is why I am a vegetarian, I think.) Even as a kid, I loved sneaking into the medical book section at the library and pouring through the pictures of terrible deformities or surgeries. It seemed at once forbidden and compelling. I like going places that make me feel a little uncomfortable. I think I just have to go farther than most to reach that point.
SF: When people ask if you are Gretchen, what’s your response, and do you kill them later?
What’s incredible – and it’s taken me a few years to realize this – is that these people mean the comparison as a compliment. I am not Gretchen. She is made up completely. She is the most made-up character in the books.
When I first started writing Heartsick and started researching violent female serial killers (of which there are few) and psychopaths (who are, as a group, not nearly as interesting as Gretchen is) I knew I was going to have to just go for it and make her the person I wanted her to be, and throw the criminology textbooks out the window. She is beautiful. And she’s clever. And witty. And seductive.
So I get that readers like her. And they really do. I had no idea when I started the books that they would become The Gretchen Lowell Series. I thought of them (and still do) as The Archie Sheridan Series. But I think that fiction has so few strong female archetypes, you know? So Gretchen really resonates. She sucks all the power in the room (and on the page). So, as a person, when readers tell me they love her, I am troubled, but as a writer I love it.
SF: Do you read within your genre for pleasure, or is it all business? If not, what/who do you read?
I read much more for business than I ever did before the series – this is one of those things you don’t think about when you dream about hitting the big time. There are SO many ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) to read. I probably get asked to read an ARC a few times a week. Those books pile up. Also, I read a lot of non-fiction criminology or medical stuff – always looking for inspiration. So I have to choose my pleasure books very carefully because I don’t have time to read something lame.
Right now, and this is surprising even to me, I am reading “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis. It’s about baseball, which I don’t care about at all, but it is so well written and smart that I am completely intrigued. Maybe I will have to have Gretchen murder someone with a baseball bat. See that – I am always working.
SF: What’s your take on the current trending in publishing toward self-posted ebooks, the difficulty in getting and keeping a contract, and the explosion of Kindle and other digital formats?
That’s a big question. I think that self-publishing will do quite well for a few people for a short amount of time, but that it’s not a viable long term solution. Someone needs to cull and aggregate. Or we end up with this glut of unformed work and no way to sort through what’s good and what isn’t.
When I buy a book, I like knowing that an agent had to reject 500 manuscripts before accepting this one, and that an editor worked on it and a copy editor and a graphic designer, etc. I cannot believe the number of people who work on my books. And because I work with a publishing house I have to work on my own book long after I think it’s done. I’ve gotten incredibly important editorial advice that has made the books so much better. I think too many self-published author put their work out there before it’s cooked.
My disclaimer, of course, is that there are some terrific self-published books out there as well. As for the difficulty of getting and keeping a contract, I’ve been really lucky, so I’m a bad person to weigh in on this. It’s a tough market out there and the industry cuts a lot of people loose too soon, and agents reject a ton of amazing manuscripts because they don’t think they’ll float in the current economy. I have friends who have written incredible books and they can’t get anyone to represent them. So I get the frustration. I get why people just want to put it online and say, okay, it’s in the world, it’s for sale. And I have friends who go this route, too.
Honestly, it’s the Wild West right now. We’re developing a whole new platform (e-readers) and the industry is going to look like something else completely in five years. What it will look like, I don’t know. No one does. So there is a lot of scrambling. I think e-readers are great. Anything that will get people reading is great. Half of my sales are electronic. But it’s a game changer. So it makes me nervous. And while I have a Kindle and an iPad, I only read books electronically when I’m traveling. Then I love the format. It’s terrific and easy and convenient. But when I’m at home, I like to pick up a book-book. I stare at a computer screen all day long. The last thing I want to do when I’m sitting down with a good read, is to look at another screen.
SF: Are these self-published books viable, or is this all a watering down of the marketplace?
Some self-published books are indeed quite viable. But, in my opinion, many are undercooked. The trick is in finding the ones worth reading, which has historically been the job of the “legacy” publishers.
I think the numbers we hear are a little misleading. They’re selling books for a dollar. People will buy anything for a dollar. With the right marketing you can get a million people to buy a rock for a dollar. So you’ve made a million dollars off of rocks. It still doesn’t say much about the product. How many people are reading the books they’re buying for a buck? And as long as I’m ranting, the whole Amazon delivery system worries me. The feds broke up the movie studio monopolies that made the product (the movie) and then sold it (through the theaters they owned), and I wonder sometimes if Amazon isn’t positioning itself as another monopoly. What will writers and readers do when it is the only place to self-publish and the only place to buy books?
SF: What will you be writing five years from now, and if different than your current lane, what is taking you there?
I will be finishing book 10 of the Archie Sheridan series. And I will have another thriller series (also set in Portland, but with occasional mysteries in Hawaii, which I will have to visit often for research).
And be sure to check out her newest, The Night Season, for the latest Archie Sheridan caper.
Also… if you prefer your villains seductive and gorgeous and deliciously female, please consider The Dark Lady in my USA Today bestseller, Darkness Bound. She’s not exactly a serial killer, per se, but she’s in Gretchen’s league when it comes to pure feminine evil of the sadistic variety. And, like Gretchen, she’s smokin’ hot.