Karin Slaughter is back with a new installment in her popular Will Trent series, and it’s the kind of book you’ll want to clear your schedule before reading. The Last Widow continues the story of Will Trent and Sara Linton and transports readers into a charged conflict featuring a highly organized white supremacist group and a dangerous terrorism plot. Slaughter chatted with Bookish about her latest novel, the challenges of getting the pacing just right, and how Will and Sara have changed over the years.
Bookish: The opening scene of this novel really subverts readers’ expectations: We see a mother worrying about her daughter, and assume that something bad is about to happen to the young girl. Instead, it’s the mother who is abducted. Why did you decide to open with this reversal?
Karin Slaughter: I thought it would be fun to play with because the innocent young girl is the obvious target. When an older woman is abducted, it raises questions, because statistically a woman in her 40s is unlikely to be abducted for any reason. They’re not taking her to traffic her, because a young girl would have been much more lucrative. As a society, we place more value on a younger girl and her innocence and the possibility of taking that innocence. I thought it would be a really interesting twist, and it brings up questions about why they want her and who she is.
Bookish: In the early chapters of The Last Widow, the aftermath of a car crash turns into an abduction. This scene is long, tense, and complicated, and gets narrated from multiple perspectives. How did you choreograph this scene and keep all of the characters and their actions straight?
KS: A lot of people focus on the violence, but it’s the setup to it that’s really difficult. With Sara, most of my books start with her having a normal day until something awful happens. (I don’t know how she gets out of bed at this point!) In this book, she’s having a normal day with her family, and her boyfriend Will is cutting the grass. Then, they meet in the shed and the scene gets narrated from multiple perspectives. For Will, it’s sexual. For Sara, it’s emotional. They each understand it differently. When they get to the accident shortly after, Sara picks up really quickly that something bad is happening, much more quickly than Will does. I like the tension of that, because you know from Will’s perspective that something bad will happen, and then you learn more from Sara. With Faith, there’s this tension around when she’ll find out about this terrible explosion and kidnapping. That was really fun from a technical point of view. I always have to think about how to tell readers who Sara, Will, Faith, and Amanda are without it being boring or repetitive. It’s a challenge in a series: How do I give new information to old readers, and old information to new readers?
Bookish: You’ve been writing about Sara Linton and Will Trent for years now. How has your understanding of them as individuals and as a couple changed? Have they surprised you?
KS: I’m not one of those authors gets surprised. It’s all in my head. The biggest challenge is writing a relationship where a couple really respects and loves each other. We know that when they get in a fight, they’re not just going to break up for tension in the book. I hate that kind of book–in some series, it’s like “here’s the book where they break up, and here’s the book where they make up.” I think it’s lazy to have suspense come from that. Having Sarah and Will be physically apart in this book after they’ve worked so hard to be together felt like an interesting thing to do.
Sara’s voice has changed because of the position she’s in in this book. She’s always been removed from the action, in a way. She gives the medical report, and as the medical examiner, she talks through the case with Will or Faith, but she’s never right there in the action. That was by design, as medical examiners don’t do that. In this book, I made her really uncomfortable by putting her in the field and making her feel threatened. I had her do something she’d never done: use medical knowledge to actively hurt and kill people. This was a real challenge, and it opened up a new side of her personality.
I also think that who Will is with Sara and who Sara is with Will are very different from who they are without each other. There’s this thing called folie à deux: It’s when two people get together and do really bad things they otherwise wouldn’t have done. When Sara and Will get together, they do really good things. Will opens Sara’s eyes to the fact that life isn’t all black and white: There’s gray in the world. Sara shows Will he can be vulnerable.
Bookish: Much of this book takes place during a single week in August of this year. Did those dates have any significance to you when you chose them?
KS: It wasn’t arbitrary when I chose the day and the year. Normally, I don’t put the year in my books. I try to avoid anchoring the story in a particular time period. I felt strongly that this book needed to be anchored in time because of the material. I had the idea over four years ago, and I started writing this book over a year ago, and we’re seeing this problem with white supremacy and white supremacist groups in the news now. I wanted to say, “Hey this is happening right here, right now.” That was deliberate on my part. It also created some problems, because the book is already out in some countries. We chose to keep the dates the same.
Bookish: Were you inspired by any particular fringe groups when you wrote about the IPA and their camp?
KS: Actually, I got a tip-off from one of my longtime FBI agent people who give me inside baseball information on the workings of different agencies. They said that the groups they’re most terrified of are domestic terrorists. We’ve had more than one conversation about it, and about how domestic terrorism is a massive issue. Last year, the director of the FBI said that domestic terrorism was the number one threat. I thought, all of these groups are out there wanting to feel validated. Meanwhile, the budget to find them has been cut back severely. Something is going to happen. Something always happens––it’s the nature of these groups, they get more and more extreme. When these groups feel empowered or threatened, they’re most violent.
Bookish: Pacing is a real strength of yours as an author: Opening one of your books is like getting on a ride, knowing you’re going to be thrilled (and maybe a little nervous) until it’s over. How do you manage the pacing of your books?
KS: It’s something that comes naturally to me. I’m a big fan of the cliffhanger, and pacing is something I think about very carefully. I think of it as a rollercoaster. You have to really strap in, and there are peaks and valleys. When you write about topics that are particularly violent or horrifying or frightening, you always have to have a lull. Michelle being taken wouldn’t be as shocking if the first sentence was “She was taken.” We’ve all been to Target, we’ve all been in parking lots. When the setting is familiar, atmospheric grounding on the page gives you a false sense of security. And that’s what I think about. I think, “Ok, this is the part where I give the reader time to recover,” where I’m building up to the next thing.
Bookish: Which aspects of this book required the most research? How did you go about conducting that research?
KS: I read a hell of a lot of books. I didn’t just read books I agreed with. I thought I needed to read both sides. I’ve read a lot of literature and articles, and I went down the rabbit hole on Facebook. In terms of researching white supremacists, Frontline did some amazing work with ProPublica on the rise of the alt right and Neo Nazi movements.
Bookish: What thrillers have you read and loved recently?
KS: One of the most fascinating books I’ve read in the last year actually isn’t a thriller: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. It’s nonfiction, but the theme is something that I’ve tried to do in my work from a very early period, which is not to focus on the killer but instead to focus on the victim, the family, and the circumstances. That’s exactly what this book does. It takes five women–only one of them was really a prostitute, while some had fallen victim to addiction or husbands had run out on them or were mothers. For a woman of that time period and a lot of women today, life without a man bringing in a salary and contributing to childcare is a life of poverty. These women were so impoverished and so desperate, and it really is a reflection of how horrible it was to be a woman in Victorian times without someone to take care of you. Everyone knows Jack the Ripper but no one knows Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane.
Published in 37 languages, with more than 35 million copies sold across the globe, Karin Slaughter’s nineteen novels include the Grant County and Will Trent books, as well as the Edgar-nominated Cop Town and the instant New York Times bestselling novels Pretty Girls and The Good Daughter. Her most recent novel, The Last Widow, features Sara Linton and Will Trent. A native of Georgia, Karin currently lives in Atlanta. Her novels Cop Town, The Good Daughter, and Pieces of Her are all in development for film and television.