‘When I was little we had these puzzles, “One Doesn’t Belong”,’ says Karin Slaughter, on the phone to Time Out from her home in Atlanta, Georgia. Ah yes, “One Doesn’t Belong” – it’s like spot the odd one out? ‘Yeah, like there’d be a bunch of penguins and one of them would have a candy cane or something to indicate it didn’t belong,’ Slaughter continues, sounding surprisingly chipper considering it’s early morning in her part of the US. ‘Well, I’m the candy cane penguin.’
Slaughter is rather modestly referring to her place in the line-up at Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (EAIFL), the first of its kind ever to take place in the Middle East. Launching at Festival City on February 26, the event has a startling array of world famous authors and poets set to appear. But Slaughter shouldn’t feel too intimidated. One of the world’s most successful writers of crime/thriller fiction, she is probably most famous for her Grant County series, centring on murder mysteries investigated by the same three characters in a fictional Georgian town. She has sold more than 12 million books globally – impressive when you consider her literary career started only seven years ago – and recently delivered her ninth novel, Grant County-based Genesis, to her publisher.
But there’s more to Slaughter than statistics. As a woman writing about violent crime, she has attracted controversy for her brutal descriptions and storylines. ‘It’d be petty for me to complain, because the fact I’m writing these books and I’m a woman gets me a lot of press,’ Slaughter points out, good humouredly. ‘It’d be like whining about winning the lottery.’
Still, you can appreciate why she might be tempted to complain. Male authors write about violence all the time and don’t tend to provoke the shock Slaughter has. After causing a storm in the supposedly liberal West, how does she feel about discussing her work in what is considered the more conservative Middle East?
Slaughter points out that she has no personal experience of Middle Eastern culture – attending EAIFL will be her first time in this part of the world. Though she concedes it would be difficult not to talk about violence, because it is such an intrinsic part of her work. ‘But there’s a way to talk about that kind of fiction without being graphic,’ she says. ‘When you think about all good stories that endure, whether it’s Beowulf or Hamlet, they’re stories about how violence changes communities. My stories aren’t about violence – they’re about what happens to the characters because of violence. And I think I write about it in a responsible way.’
It could be suggested that Slaughter ruffles feathers precisely because she is subverting the crime/thriller genre, and very successfully, too. In an arena where male writers dominate, and where female characters stereotypically either need saving or are villains themselves, Slaughter has turned things on their head. ‘It’s very empowering to me,’ she admits. ‘In my books, more often than not women are going to save the day. There’s never going to be a point where any of my female leads needs a man to bail her out. She’s going to bail herself out.’
That EAIFL has been conceived on the premise that ‘literacy is the key to knowledge’ is a big draw for Slaughter. She references the Middle East’s long-held tradition of storytelling – her knowledge gleaned, she confesses, from The History Channel – as a shining example of how reading moves cultures forward. ‘Reading isn’t something we genetically need to do,’ she muses. ‘We don’t need it for survival. It’s something we do purely to educate and bring joy, and that helps our minds develop. If you look at societies that aren’t thriving,there’s not much reading going on. Reading is a gift we give to ourselves. I love the idea of an event that celebrates that gift.’
Not all of Slaughter’s motives are quite so noble, though. At EAIFL, she has another chance to meet her heroine, legendary writer and activist Margaret Atwood. Slaughter was supposed to appear on a TV show with Atwood in London some years ago, but it fell through. How will a self-perceived candy cane penguin handle meeting such an intimidating intellect? ‘I suppose it’ll feel the same way as when I met Bill Clinton. He’s met so many people and they’ve all felt nervous around him, so I just decided to be really cool and I was able to pull it off. So hopefully I’ll be able to do my Clinton cool.’
Meeting Atwood and attending EAIFL are high points in what is turning out to be a surprisingly broad career. Not content with subverting a genre, Slaughter now hopes to transcend it, with her next project, graphic novel The Recidivists, due for completion next month. Set in a dystopian future, it’s a brave move considering her last foray outside of crime/thriller, novella Martin Misunderstood, was widely panned. But there’s a steely determination and ambition in Slaughter that hasn’t let her down yet. ‘People don’t like it when you do different stuff,’ she agrees. ‘But that’s certainly not going to stop me.’
Slaughter appears at EAIFL on Feb 28