In a meteoric career that has produced two series and 13 crime novels in as many years, Georgia native Karin Slaughter rocketed to international bestseller status by granting women their rightful place at murder scenes and morgues.
Yet while her growing fan base eagerly awaits each new installment of her Atlanta series featuring Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent Will Trent (Triptych, Fractured, Broken) and its country cousin starring Grant County medical examiner Sara Linton (Faithless, Indelible, Blindsighted), the restless Slaughter has kept busy crafting her new novel, exploring time travel—and bracing herself for space flight.
What!? Time travel? Space flight? Whose genre is this, anyway?
Slaughter admits her unquenchable thirst to break new ground has prompted a mid-career interest in exploring neighboring galaxies, literary and otherwise.
How did a small-town Southern girl wind up doing weightless somersaults aboard the infamous suborbital “vomit comet,” much less set her sights on a future space flight aboard the Virgin Galactic?
More about that later, though in a way, the process accelerated with Cop Town, her first standalone novel, which takes place back in mid-1970s Atlanta when cops were men and women weren’t welcome. Slaughter first wrote about the period in Criminal (2012), in which she united characters from her two series.
“I had so much fun that I wanted to visit that time period again,” she explains.
Just one problem: “I couldn’t come up with a good reason to put my characters Will and Sara back there, mainly because they would have been children then,” she says. Slaughter herself was only 3 years old at the time.
So she created two very different protagonists: veteran patrolwoman Maggie Lawson, whose brother and uncle are part of the all-male good-ol’-boy network on the Atlanta force, and her new rookie partner Kate Murphy, a Jewish neophyte from a privileged background whose husband was killed in Vietnam. Together, they battle the blatant racism, sexism and cultural ostracism of the day, while working their way into the search for a serial killer who is targeting their ranks.
Slaughter called upon the best possible resource to bring her characters to life.
“I talked to six female police officers who are now retired and in their 60s. If you want to get the truth about something, talk to a 60-year-old retired woman!” she chuckles.
“I thought it would be really interesting to explore the lives of patrol officers, because that’s something I haven’t really done before; normally, they’re detectives. And because there was so little structure to Atlanta policing at the time, a lot of patrol officers did detective work. Sometimes they had to, because the detectives were passed out drunk in their cars. Honestly, that was a real problem!”
To prepare for her immersion into the disco era, Slaughter chose her bedside reading accordingly.
“One of the books I was reading while working on Cop Town was Fear of Flying by Erica Jong,” she says. “Reading it now, this line stuck out to me: ‘An unmarried woman is taking a vow of poverty.’ And for a lot of women today, that’s true. When you combine households and you have someone—a spouse or partner—it makes things easier. If you look at the number of single mothers who are trapped in poverty, it really resonated for me.”
So did the changes America was facing back then.
“It definitely mirrors what we’re going through today: coming out of a very disastrous war, the economy was in the toilet, women’s pay equality, homophobia, racism. It’s easier to talk about these things in the past, because if you talk about them in the present, then you’re kind of a whiny bitch. But if you say, hey, look how bad it was in the ’70s, then you can let people draw their own conclusions,” she says.
She was shocked to hear first-hand accounts of the outright sexism of the day, which was slowly crumbling, in large part due to federal intervention.
“It was a huge change, and like any change, most of the guys didn’t want it to happen,” she says. “In Atlanta, they were also dealing with the fact that the good-ol’-boy network wasn’t white anymore; it was black, and [women] were excluded from it. As Maggie says in the book, ‘The good-ol’-boy network is fine as long as you’re one of the good old boys.’ They didn’t like being left out.”
Why did the women pursue crime fighting? “I asked every woman I talked to why they did it when no one wanted them to, and every single one of them said they did it because someone told them they shouldn’t,” Slaughter says.
A similar instinct may have inspired the author’s interest in space flight. How in the world did she wind up on the vomit comet?
“I was talking to the people at Virgin Galactic about doing the space flight, but my dad said I would have to let a hundred people go up before I go up,” she chuckles. “But one of the things they sponsored was letting us go on the vomit comet. It was really wonderful! If you plan to do it, do it with somebody you know or make friends with somebody, because you can do stuff together in weightlessness, roll people in circles and all that. I had a really great time.”
Slaughter hopes to not only go up in space, but back to the future as well with sequels to Cop Town.
“Maybe every two or three [series] books, I could do one of these, and maybe take Kate and Maggie into the Atlanta child murders in the late ’70s,” she says. “A lot of women worked on the Atlanta child murders. Although they were still plainclothes officers at that point and weren’t really called detectives, they were given what were called ‘vagina crimes,’ so if it came into or went out of a vagina, a woman was the investigator.” After a series of child murders terrified the city, “Women were the ones who started to put the pieces together, and then, of course, the men said, ‘Oh, we need to take this over because it’s a serial killer.’”
Would she one day take the leap into that final frontier, science fiction?
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” she readily admits. “The Centers for Disease Control are right up the street from me, and my neighbors are doctors there, so I’d like to do something, maybe about a virus and some horrible mishap happens. I’d love to do that.”