Chelsea Cain is the author of the brilliant thriller-series that stars Gretchen – one of the most splendid and at the same time gruesome serial killers of all time. You’ll love Gretchen and shudder to think what she might do next. (Photo: Copyright Laura Domela)

Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

Your Gretchen-series has been a tremendous success. To be honest I cannot even think of a more splendid and at the same time horrifying female killer. How did you develop her? Is she based on a true crime case?

Gretchen is a product of my warped imagination.  I did so much research on female serial killers before I started writing, and honestly I didn’t like anything I found.  Women don’t usually kill violently. We’re much more likely to stew for years and then kill with poison or a well-placed pillow.  (We’re also more likely to get away with it.)  Also, true psychopaths, while they are often charmers, are really not all that complex. (Apologies to any psychopaths reading this).  I wanted a beautiful, charismatic, witty, killer who killed violently, like a man, because she liked it.  So I made her up.

But the relationship between Gretchen and her detective-pursuer Archie Sheridan is loosely based on a case in Pacific Northwest, where I grew up.  In 1982, when I was ten, police found three women who’d been raped and murdered.  Over the years they kept finding bodies.  They dubbed the killer The Green River Killer.  They created a task force to hunt for him.  Every year or so they’d find a body or two.  When I was a kid, the Green River Killer was what was under your bed at night, or around the next dark corner, or hiding in your closet.  He’s what we used to scare the shit out of each other at slumber parties.  After a while the bodies stopped turning up.  And the task force was whittled down to just one guy – Det. Tom Jensen, who’d been on the task force almost from the beginning, spent his career on this one case.  Then, twenty years after those first bodies, they finally caught him.  His name is Gary Ridgway.  He’d been a suspect from almost the beginning, so the cops who’d worked on the task force all those years had known him forever.  Ridgway cut the same deal that Gretchen cuts in Heartsick – to avoid the death penalty he agreed to tell them where more bodies were buried.  (He’s been convicted of killing 49 women, and claims to have killed twice that.)  So these cops – including Jensen – were put in the position of having to interview him again and again, trying to get information out of him.  At one point they all stayed in a safe house together.  I saw some footage of one of the cops interviewing Ridgway and the two of them were laughing like old friends in a pub.  And in a way, they were old friends.  They had both spend 20 years on different sides of the same case. They had this shared history – a history that they couldn’t even share with their families.  But at the same time there were all these layers of manipulation going on in that room.  These huge stakes.  And I immediately thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if the killer were a woman?  Because that takes this already really complicated relation, and instroduces a sexual tension.  And that was when I came up with Archie and Gretchen.  I started writing HEARTSICK the next day.

Gretchen retains her status of standing above everyone through the narration of Archie and Susan. Thus she gets a kind of nimbus. Was that planned and will we ever read a book with her POV?

Oh, it was planned.  I realized early on that I could never offer Gretchen’s POV because what makes her interesting as a character is that we never know exactly what she’s thinking or what drives her.  Her motivations are a mystery.  Does she care about Archie?  What is she up to?  What’s her next move?  If we were ever to get into her head, that mystery would be lost and the tension would be out the door.  Also, I like the fact that we, as the readers, are trying to figure her out, just as Archie is.  It’s important that Gretchen be enigmatic.  I don’t want to explain her.  I know readers want to know more about her – and I will offer glimpses of information about her, believe me.  But I never want to offer up her POV or – even worse – write the prequel “Gretchen As a Child” book.  Her strength is that she offers no apologies or excuses.  And her power is that she is a master manipulator.  But once we’re in her head she loses that power.  She can no longer lie to us.  And I won’t rob her of that.

Archie is a very tortured character. How did you feel writing him?

I love Archie.  And I do feel bad about being so hard on him.  Sometimes I do something terrible to him and I feel him look up at me and sigh and say, “Really?  Again?  Haven’t you done enough to me?”  But he is also punishing himself.  He puts himself in harm’s way.  So I can’t be entirely blamed.

How do you research for your novels?

I read a lot of forensic pathology textbooks.  I am a master Googler.  I talk to people.  But I also make stuff up.  Real homicide investigations make for pretty boring books.  So I take liberties.  I hope that if I can find enough details that feel absolutely true, the reader will join me on the more fantastical aspects.  I’m much more interested in character and relationships than I am police procedural stuff or protocol.  But I do try.  I especially work to make Portland feel real for the reader.  It’s such a great city and such a great setting.  I’m very lucky to live here – because it would be a lot harder to set books here if I didn’t.  Strangely, the more popular the books become, the more careful I have to be about specific settings.  In THE NIGHT SEASON there’s a terrifying scene at a house, and I had to give an address because it’s important to the narrative.  I was very careful to place that house on a block that only had businesses on it.   The rest of the neighborhood is residential and the house as I describe it is actually one a few blocks away.  But I didn’t want some poor homeowner to look out his window one morning and see people standing around in his yard with copies of my book in their hands.

Do you scare yourself sometimes when you write bloody scenes?

Never.  Is that terrible?  Here’s something worse:  I love the bloody scenes.  I have so much fun writing those.  I grin and giggle and rub my hands together when I write those.  From a narrative perspective, everything is really slowed down and rich with details and there is a tremendous amount of tension, so the writing just clicks right along.  Plus, I’m the boss.  No one does anything without my say-so.  So, as long as I’m in charge of the carnage, it’s not that scary to me.  Having said that, I’ve certainly come across true crime details in my research that haunt me now and again.  It’s the true crime stuff that I find harrowing – more than fiction.  The twisted things people do to one another in the real world is far scarier than anything you’ll ever read in a novel.

In the TV-series „Luther“ there is a woman who hasn’t been murdering as many people as Gretchen but she’s very similar in her character and view of the world. Do you know this series? And do you watch crime series?

I love LUTHER.  I get asked about it all the time.  I write about a dogged obsessed cop and his complicated relationship with a beautiful serial killer.  Luther has a complicated relationship with Alice, a beautiful killer (who is very Gretchen-y). A lot of people see an echo between LUTHER and my books.  I take that as a compliment.  And yes, I love crime series (or “cop shows” as we say in The States).  Especially British ones.  They really do some great dark grisly crime stuff over there.  Lots of dimly lit alleys and overcoats and brooding and blood spattered walls – right up my alley.  I was a big fan of WIRE IN THE BLOOD and before that, TOUCHING EVIL.  Also, CRACKER.  The list is long.  Truly, I think I’m just a sucker for an English accent.

What do you read in your sparetime?

A lot of non-fiction.  Right now I’m on a Bill Bryson kick.  I’ve read five Bryson books in the past two weeks!  I like a book that’s smart and funny and that lets you learn something along the way.  One of my favorite books of all time is Mary Roach’s book, STIFF.  It’s all about how we deal with dead people – organ donations, crash test dummies, etc.  It’s the funniest book about corpses you’ll ever read.  Fiction wise, I’m all over the map — Literary fiction, classic fiction, smartass fiction.  I don’t read as many thrillers as people think I do – they’re probably 10 percent of my literary diet.  I LOVE Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books.  I wrote my first thriller, HEARTSICK, because of those.  I was pregnant and on a thriller kick and I’d read the first three in her series and there wasn’t a fourth, so I thought, well, hell, I’ll just write my own book then.  (This is what hormones do to you when you’re pregnant.)  Also, I’m a sucker for the private investigator genre from Chandler and Hammett on to Robert B. Parker.  I have a soft spot for romantic wise-asses.

Here in Germany the fourth novel, „Totenfluss“ (The Night Season), is being published as a paperback in Mai, 2012. What can your readers expect of this novel?

I wrote The Night Season so my grandmothers could finally read one of my books.  It’s full of page turning tension, but it is a lot less gory than the first three.  It’s also a great entry point for new readers – you don’t have to have read the first three books at all.  This is a book for all those people who’ve picked up one of my books and then felt a shiver run down their spine and their stomach turn and thought better of buying it.

Portland is flooding and a serial killer is loose, so Archie and his reporter pal Susan Ward, are kept busy.  But Gretchen is in the background for much of the book.  It’s sort of Archie and Susan’s turn to shine.  I thought it would be nice to give them some time to themselves.  Having said that, they are in mortal peril during much of the book, so I guess they don’t really have much of a chance to enjoy themselves.  There’s also an historical aspect to The Night Season.  Part of Portland – a city called Vanport – was washed away by a real life flood in 1946.  The entire town was swept off – not a structure remained.  And this presents Archie and Susan with a cold case to deal with.  I’ve been interested in the story of Vanport for a long time, so it was fun for me to get to explore it a little, and I hope that readers will find that part of the story interesting.  As I said, I always like to learn a little something when I read, so this is my attempt to provide readers with some useful tidbits they can break out at cocktail parties.

In August 2012, „Kill You Twice“, the fifth novel, will be out in the States. What plans do you have for further books about Gretchen?

Gretchen is back in a big way in KILL YOU TWICE.  Honestly, I missed her terribly when I was writing THE NIGHT SEASON.  In KILL YOU TWICE Archie gets drawn into a case involving Gretchen’s past – so readers looking to find out more about her will finally get some clues on that front.  And there are some really good meaty scenes between the two of them. I’m working on book six now and plan to keep writing about Archie and Gretchen until my publisher makes me stop.  Even then, I suppose, I will keep writing these books – my publisher will just stop publishing them, and at some point I will suffocate here in my office under mounds of printer paper.  I’m just so in love with these characters – I want to keep watching what they do.  KILL YOU TWICE has sold in Germany, so look for it at some point in the future.

What novels have you – aside from your thrillers – always been aching to write?

I sort of came to thrillers late, at the hardened age of thirty-four.  I’d published a memoir, and several humor books before getting it in my head to write HEARTSICK.  So I’ve gotten those other books out of my system.  I really don’t pine to write anything else.  I just love writing this series.  It’s the best job in the world.  My only regret is that I can’t write these books faster.

Thank you for your time. I am already very excited to get my hands on the fourth installment of Gretchen – and maybe then I cannot wait and will get the fifth in August.

Thanks!  Great questions.

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