Interview with Chelsea Cain
TSM: Tell us about One Kick.CC: One Kick is the first book in my new Kick Lannigan thriller series. Kick was abducted when she was six and rescued five years later. Now she is twenty-one, infamous because of the case and in possession of a unique skill set. Her abductor taught her the criminal trade, the cop who rescued her taught her self-defense, and she has made herself a master of both. Now she is approached by a stranger named Bishop who wants her to help him rescue two missing kids. Let’s just say that it will be the beginning of an interesting partnership.TSM: Did your journalistic career have an influence on your writing?CC: I have a graduate degree in journalism, but I wouldn’t say I was ever a journalist. I wrote freelance copy for alt weeklies and a first-person weekly column for The Oregonian. But I was never on staff anywhere and I never actually did any reporting. That would have required talking on the phone to strangers, and I try to avoid talking on the phone to strangers as much as possible. The journalism training probably hurt more than it helped, actually, because fiction writing requires an entirely different table setting of utensils and I had been writing with a fork my whole life. I had to learn to use the soup spoon and the butter knife. I had to learn point of view and plotting and how to make stuff up. I also did a lot of marketing writing and that was probably more useful ultimately because it kept me exercising my writing muscles (where are the writing muscles exactly?). I learned to write in a lot of different voices and to write when I didn’t want to. There’s a school of thought that writers should have day jobs that don’t require them to write at all so that they arrive home brimming with literary stamina. I am not a part of this school. I attend the school that says write all the time, take every opportunity, learn every kind of writing you can, and practice, practice, practice. It’s a nice school. It has a very pretty quad.
TSM: What were some of the books you read growing up that made an impression on you?
CC: Every single Nancy Drew book, but especially The Mystery of the Glowing Eye, which opens with an unmanned helicopter crashing in Nancy’s front yard. Nancy and her friends Bess and George find a note inside from Nancy’s special friend, Ned. The note reads: “Beware of Cyclops, Ned.” Nancy surmises that Ned has been kidnapped. (I mean, what other explanation could there be?) It really is the most awesome opening of any book ever.
TSM: Were you surprised by hitting the bestseller lists?
CC: All six of the Archie/Gretchen books have debuted on the NYT bestseller list (if we’re counting the extended list, which I totally am). I am a basket case the Wednesday that the list is announced. At this point, I feel like a big failure if a book doesn’t make the list. But that first time—with Heartsick—that was absolutely awesome. When I got that call from my editor—she literally called me from a bar—telling me that Heartsick had debuted at number 8, well, it was one of the best moments of my life. Not best professional moments—best moments ever, period. I was in a hotel room in San Francisco and I seriously considered going out and finding a tattoo parlor and getting a tattoo of the number 8 because then, for the rest of my life, every time someone would ask, “Why do you have that number 8 tattooed on your shoulder?” I could say, “Because I’m a New York Times bestseller!” Unfortunately I didn’t have time to get a tattoo because I had an event that night. I showed up at the bookstore, and no one came. Not a single person! So I was brought back to earth pretty quickly.
TSM: You worked for The Oregonian. What do you think the future holds for the newspaper industry?
CC: I wrote a weekly column for The Oregonian but I was never a staffer. I didn’t want to be because I was pretty sure they’d make me talk on the telephone and plus I was busy doing other things, like trying to learn how to use a soup spoon and a butter knife. My husband, Marc Mohan, is a film critic for The Oregonian. He’s not a staffer either, but we know a lot of people who work/ed there. Seeing the consumptive demise of the newspaper industry up close has been brutal. Stories are now called content. Enormous energy is spent on search engine optimization; it’s all about the headline and click bait. All traffic is monitored and everyone is under pressure to hit certain goals. Online journalism has tremendous potential, but right now there’s a public service element—a mission—that the online business model doesn’t support. Newspapers are a curated bundle of information, and we tend to read them and come across information we might not know or think we would care about. The Internet tracks what we’re interested in and spits it back at us so that pretty soon every ad is for that pair of boots we looked at once online and every story is about a Kardashian. The Web offers us the world and narrows it at exactly the same time. As the last print newspapers wheeze and die, online journalism has to find a way to transcend this paradox.
TSM: Who was your inspiration for Archie Sheridan?
CC: Every Byronic, brooding detective with a romantic streak and talent at self-destruction who came before him. I started Heartsick with a simple concept: a cop who spent much of his career hunting a serial killer. What would that be like? He’s obsessed. How did that manifest? What if the serial killer were a beautiful woman? Sex! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! (That was an insight into how my mind works.) I grew up in the Pacific Northwest when the Green River killer was on his murder spree, and I was always fascinated by the task force that had come together to catch him. So the setup of the long-term hunt for a killer and what happens once you finally catch the killer—that’s inspired by the Green River killer case. But Archie-the-guy is made up. He lives in my head. We have very little in common, in fact. I share a lot more traits (and clothes) with Susan Ward, the reporter in that series, but I feel much closer to Archie, I guess because he’s more vulnerable and I want to protect him, even though I keep stabbing him, which isn’t very nice of me.
TSM: Are you an outliner or do you write a draft and then the novel comes forth?
CC: I am not an outliner, but I have found that sitting with my fingers poised over the keyboard and just typing as my mind wanders tends to produce lame drivel. I do a lot of mental outlining, or as it is more popularly known, daydreaming. I start with a character. It took me years to come up with a character I wanted to write another series about; it’s hard to compete with Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell. But then Kick came to me, a young woman who was abducted and spent years with her abductor before being rescued. Okay. That’s interesting, right? I want to know more about that person. What happened to her? How was she rescued? What was her re-entry into her family like? What is her relationship with her family now? What drives her? What does she know that is different from what the rest of us know? How do you move on from something like that, etc. Then I think about the characters in her orbit: Kick’s mother, Kick’s best friend, the cop who rescued Kick when she was a kid, Kick’s abductor. I want to see her interact with all these people. But I still needed an instigator, someone who will show up to make Kick’s story change. So I came up with Bishop, a rich and enigmatic figure who appears near the start of the book and pulls Kick into the investigation of two missing kids. Bishop is a mystery; we aren’t sure of his motivations and Kick doesn’t trust him, but she also ends up needing him. Relationships devoid of trust are excellent at illuminating characters, by the way, because characters reveal who they are through their suspicions and projections and the distance between who they are and how they want to be perceived. This also gave me a mystery—two missing kids who need rescuing. There is an arc to the whole series—a big picture—but each book needs its own satisfying resolution or readers will attack me with pitchforks. In each of the Archie/Gretchen books, I have what I call my B serial killer, who is at large and must be nabbed by the last page, so that my A serial killer (Gretchen) can come and go as she pleases. With the Kick Lannigan series, Kick and Bishop will have a case to solve in each book, while bigger secrets and conspiracies are slowly revealed over the life of the series.
I guess a simpler way to answer the question is this: I don’t outline, but I cogitate. I work all the big stuff out in my head long before I start writing; I know the backstory; I take a ton of notes; I know what needs to happen to get where I’m going; I map out scenes like footholds on a rock-climbing wall. I can see the path. But if I’m halfway up the wall and I see another foothold, I take it. And I might end up finding a different route to the top, or I might fall on my ass. You know what I love? Throwing characters into terrible situations without any idea of how to get them out of it. I have to figure it out, just like they do, which is probably a metaphor for my whole writing process.
TSM: Who are some of the contemporary authors you enjoy reading?
CC: Bill Bryson, Megan Abbott, Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Lidia Yuknavitch, Mary Gaitskill, and Suzy Vitello, to name a few.
TSM: Are you working on a novel now?
CC: I am working on the second book in the Kick Lannigan series (look for it in August 2015) and then I will go back to the Archie/Gretchen books and alternate from there. I have a book due every year, so I am always working on a book or at least supposed to be, which means that if I weren’t working on a book, I’d lie and say that I was. I’m no dummy; my editor might read this.
TSM: What’s the best thing about being an author?
Chelsea Cain is the author of the New York Times bestselling Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell thrillers Heartsick, Sweetheart, Evil at Heart, The Night Season, Kill You Twice, and Let Me Go. Her Portland-based thrillers have been published in twenty-four languages, recommended on the TODAY show, appeared in episodes of HBO’s True Blood and ABC’s Castle, been named among Stephen King’s top ten favorite books of the year, and included in NPR’s list of the top 100 thrillers ever written. According to Booklist, “Popular entertainment just doesn’t get much better than this.”