Author One-on-One: Karin Slaughter and Laura McHugh
Karin Slaughter is the #1 internationally bestselling author of several novels, including the Grant County series and the Will Trent series.
KARIN SLAUTHER: You moved to the Ozarks as a child, which must have been a startling change. I’ve always thought outsiders are the best storytellers—you see things other people take for granted. Which parts of your own hometown did you incorporate into the fictionalized setting of Henbane? Do you think folks back home will recognize it?
LAURA MCHUGH: The main thing that I took from Tecumseh was the striking landscape—it’s beautiful and wild and a bit ominous. I lived near the river, like Lucy, and there was a general store, now long gone, that inspired Dane’s. Folks back home might recognize the Rockbridge Trout and Game Ranch (where Carl goes fishing), the East Wind Commune (which was down the road from my house), and The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (a militia group whose nearby compound was raided by the FBI), all of which are mentioned in passing in the book.
KS: As a southerner, I put the Ozarks on the same plane as the Florida Panhandle or Georgia’s Okeefenokee Swamp: filled with a mixture of lawless rednecks and the salt-of-the earth folks who are trying to navigate around them. I think you capture both sides very well in your story. Were you at all afraid to write about such a complicated region, or did you feel it was a natural extension of “write what you know?”
LM: I was certainly hoping not to offend my Ozark friends! It’s fiction, of course, and my version of the Ozarks is colored by my own ideas and experiences. I was an outsider in Ozark County, but it was also my home, and I wanted to play with both sides of that experience. It’s a fascinating place, unlike anywhere else I’ve been.
KS: You’ve said that the story was partially inspired by a brutal crime in Lebanon. Were you afraid that writing about a similar crime would cut too close to the bone?
LM: The real-life victim was taken to a hospital, and thankfully she survived. Cheri Stoddard, the character inspired by the case, was not so lucky, although her experience pales in comparison to what the real victim endured. I lived in Lebanon for several years, and it’s a fairly small town where most people know each other. Though I didn’t stick to the facts of the real case, I wanted to show that crimes like this can, and do, occur anywhere, and it’s scary to realize how easily they can be hidden in our midst.
KS: Every thriller writer always gets asked what scares them. Ruth Rendell famously posited that if she told someone she was afraid of dogs, the next appearance she did, everyone would bring a dog. So, I’ll ask what you don’t find scary—in books, TVs, movies. What’s that one cliché that just makes you cringe?
LM: I love scary movies, but I’m also a big scaredy-cat—I made the kids and dog sleep in bed with me after I watched Paranormal Activity. The one thing I don’t like in a horror film is when the bad guy wears a mask and doesn’t speak. Michael Myers pulled it off in the original Halloween, but in general, I think it’s much scarier when the villain has a personality and some interesting dialogue.
KS: We’re so saturated in media these days that everyone wants a reference to an actor or actress for the various characters in books. This is an awful question for an author, because one reader’s Ryan Gosling is another reader’s David Hasselhoff. Still, it has to be asked: Have you thought about who might play the Dane brothers?
LM: I think Michael Rooker would be excellent as Crete. I first saw him in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. His performance was so convincing that I’ve been scared of him ever since. I also loved him on The Walking Dead. And since we’re just fantasizing here, I’d cast Joe Manganiello from True Blood as Carl.
KS: A great deal of the suspense in your novel centers around the issue of trust—who can Lucy rely on, who is working against her, who might be dangerous. To me, that cuts to the very nature of living in the Ozarks or any small town where you know everyone’s history if not their intent. In your book, the truth seems to take on its own narrative angle. Can you talk a little bit about how you wove the question of trust into the story?
LM: Lucy is coming of age in this story, and she is starting to question things that she had always accepted. Trust is a big part of that. She’s learning how to follow her own instincts and figure out for herself where her loyalties lie. It’s a difficult but necessary path for Lucy to navigate, a part of growing up.
KS: Your next novel also takes place in a rural setting. With a region such as the Ozarks, there are as many stories as there are pebbles in a river. How do you decide which one you’re going to tell next?
LM: When sifting through story ideas, I gravitate to the one with the most emotional pull. My next novel is set in the small Mississippi River town where my grandparents lived, and though the story is not based on real events, it was fueled by my personal connection to the setting—specifically, the decay and decline of a place that was once quite grand and close to my heart.
McHugh sets her first novel in a starkly rendered fictional Missouri town located in the Ozarks. Lucy Dane is shocked to learn that the dismembered body of her childhood friend, the slow-witted Cheri Stoddard, who had been missing for a year, has been found in the branches of a tree. Desperate to learn how Cheri came to such a tragic end, Lucy begins to look for answers to a mystery that echoes the disappearance of her own mother years ago. Many people in town know more than they’re saying, including Birdie, the local midwife, and Ransome, a weather-beaten farmhand now confined to a nursing home. But only Daniel, her handsome coworker, offers her real help. As her search takes her closer to her own family members and old secrets, Lucy must confront the fact that the people she loves are deeply flawed. This suspenseful novel, with a barn burner of a plot, is told from several points of view, including that of Lucy’s mother. Despite some missteps, McHugh shows herself to be a compelling writer intimately familiar with rural poverty and small-town weirdness; the best is yet to come. --Joanne Wilkinson