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Chelsea Cain – Stumptown’s Serial Thriller
Climbing the concrete stairs to “the house that Heartsick bought,” you may step around a child-sized mass lying discarded on the porch. The pale violet coloration may be due to the ever-wintry nights, besides, who knows how long it has been neglected since the rains began.
But, upon closer inspection, it may just be the purple bicycle of a six-year-old girl, the kind that might have a clamorous bell and a white basket affixed to the front. As soon as you notice a pair of training wheels on a nearby patio table, the excited yips of two ankle-snorting Boston terriers greet you through the glass door.
Welcome to the petrifying, SE Portland house of New York Times bestseller and thriller author Chelsea Cain.
Penning gruesome tales of serial killers, Cain has written four bestselling thrillers in her Gretchen Lowell Series, but she points out that she may be the only “serial killer fiction” writer who does so with a pink Disney pop-up palace in the corner of her third-floor, attic office. Publishing almost a book a year since 2007’s debut Heartsick, Cain likes to refer to her genre as “detective fiction,” and with her fifth book now completed, she’s already beginning to nurture the seeds of book six, ready to “watch it grow,” as she puts it. “There’s not a story I want to tell any more than this one,” she swears.
But remember, her four-part series which also includes Sweetheart, Evil At Heart, and The Night Season, is the sadistic saga of a psychopathic, violent, female serial killer (named after her childhood elementary school) and the cops who hunt her—all conceived by a smiling, sociable wife and mother. But it’s possible that these all-too-common designations make Cain even more apt to write murderous thrillers… along with a few other peculiarities.
A childhood adoration of Nancy Drew alone will not craft a serial thriller. More morbid childhood fascinations with forensic pathology and disturbing medical texts help, but so does having a “formative serial killer of your youth” and presiding over the neighborhood pet cemetery. Cain’s thrillers are engulfing page-turners with a cinematic quality, which she calls her “big love letter” to British cop shows. So when she says, “My life is very much defined by movies, and also by TV shows, good and bad,” she means it. She married her local video store clerk and there’s a Gretchen Lowell film in the works. She has the ability to “get away with a lot” while terrorizing her audience just enough to enthrall, crafting thrillers that are guilty pleasures for all parties involved.
A NW native, spending her childhood in Bellingham, WA, Cain first came to Portland under “dark and muddy” circumstances when her mother’s cancer had metastasized. After trying to leave on several occasions, she’s not only found a home in Portland but also the setting for her bestselling thrillers—from the isolated corners of Forest Park to the flooding Willamette River.
“I had to come back enough times that I was choosing it rather than circumstances forcing it on me,” explains Cain.
What about Portland kept bringing you back?
There was something essential about this place. A lot of it is the natural beauty. And there’s something in my books that explores this feeling, in particular to the Pacific Northwest, of the danger and beauty of our surroundings. Many people move to Portland and sacrifice financially, but they live here because they want to be here and be a part of all that this city and the area have to offer. So they go up on the mountain and they’re killed by avalanches or killed by sneaker waves at the coast; they drown in currents, they get lost on timber roads, and I love that. And then new people put on their jackets and go out into the forest the next day. I think that the metaphor of the danger of beauty is very much at work in the serial killer I write about in my series.
Portland plays such an important role your in writing, not only as the place where your stories are set but also with regard to the events that happen in your novels. How much of your writing is based on real life events or actual experiences you’ve had?
A lot of it is based on real life. The whole Vanport backstory is all true in The Night Season, and the present-day flooding is based on the 1996 floods, which I was here for and paralleled my mother’s death—as she was dying the city was flooding. That probably influenced me a lot. But I wrap in a lot of what I love and know about Portland in the books. And in my version of Portland there are a lot of serial killers [laughs], and yet I hope that I still communicate a real love of this city despite that. I love that in my books—all of these people are being murdered right and left, there’s a new serial killer in town every two months menacing Portlanders, but in the book people still feel lucky to live here. I think that speaks to a certain sort of Portland spirit.
Have you ever thought about choosing a different location as the setting?
No. I think this is such a great location. It’s a pleasure to live in a city that makes a great setting for these books because if I get stuck I can just walk to a street corner and look around. In the next book, book five, there are some scenes that are set in St. Helens. I’m trying to get out of town a little bit but not too far [laughs].
Do you have a title for the next book?
No. I have some working titles, but not one that’s set.
Will it have the word “heart” in it?
I’m actually trying to decide if I should go back to “heart” or not in the next book. Gretchen Lowell is back, but we moved away from the “heart” thing with the last book.
I saw a blog post you wrote that said, “Don’t put the word ‘heart’ in the title of your book if you want lots of men to buy your book.”
[Laughs] Right. And then there’s that.
There’s an inherent contradiction in Chelsea Cain. How does a polite, buoyant.
[Laughs] Buoyant? Ouch.
No, no, you’re very cheery.
I know, I get this a lot [laughs].
So, how does a friendly, warm mother and wife come to write about a twisted serial killer?
I used to think that this stuff went on in everybody’s head and I was just writing it down, but I think that that’s not right [laughs] based on the small sample size of people I’ve polled. I think I have a pretty violent imagination. It’s why I’m a vegetarian. Even as a little kid I always loved those books that would show pictures of terrible tumors and conjoined twins and things that could go wrong. When I would go out walking I would always keep an eye peeled for a dead body.
Yeah! When I found roadkill I would always want to bury it. I had a pet cemetery. I thought all of this stuff was very middle of the road until people started asking me questions… actually I was kind of a macabre little shit [laughs] now that I think about it. But thriller writers are some of the happiest, funniest people I know and I think it’s because: one, we’re very well compensated, and two, we get it all out on the page. There have been times when I’ve been stuck in traffic trying to get over the Interstate Bridge, and the only thing that stops me from going ballistic is knowing that I can murder someone later that day. I can take all that—
In your writing?
No, no. Literally. [Long pause]… in my book! [Laughs] I can take all of that rage and I can find some really creative way to kill somebody.
So, how many of your ideas come from pent up personal rage?
Oh, I get ideas from all over the place—a lot from the Metro section of the Oregonian actually. Just the weird little paragraph stories that you see about the demented way people behave in public toward one another. I think that my mind goes to murder sooner than most people’s. We’ll be talking about something and I’ll immediately think, how can that be used to kill somebody? So, I think I’m in the right profession [laughs].
As you sat down to write the first book, Heartsick, were you planning on writing a thriller? Had you ever written anything that gory before?
No. When I first sat down to write that book I was pregnant with Eliza, so I definitely think hormones were to blame for part of that. I came up with this idea and started writing it, but I actually had a contract to be working on another book, Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, a parody of a Nancy Drew book. I think part of what drove me to write Heartsick was that it was something that I wasn’t supposed to be doing. I wrote the first half of it without even telling my husband I was working on it; it was totally this book on the sly. I kept working on it and after a year of editing, I became a lot more attached to it and started seeing it as a series because I had all these ideas and I didn’t want to ruin that first book by cramming them all in. I took, what I considered at the time, a great personal risk by writing it as if it were going to be a series in the sense that I didn’t answer a lot of the questions. You can say you want to write a series but publishers kind of like to throw one out there and see how it does before they agree to sign a contact for multiple books.
Have you ever regretted writing certain details in a previous book because you want to change something in the current story?
Oh God… constantly! Here’s my advice to anybody out there who’s thinking of writing a commercial thriller series: Don’t ever mention a date. That is my greatest regret in Heartsick. I had all of these dates and once you do that then you are tied to them forever. You’ll notice as the books go on I become more and more oblique about time… “It was about two years ago…” [laughs] from whenever you’re reading this.
You began writing your first novel while pregnant and, amazingly, finished it after giving birth to your daughter.
Yeah, Eliza was a baby in the bassinet asleep by the desk as I was finishing it.
Did being a new mother influence or even change the ending of your first book?
Umm, no. Maybe it should have [laughs]. And she’s—for the record—a very well-adjusted child [laughs].
Because it is a story about teenage girls being brutally raped, mutilated and strangled before being ditched in the Willamette River.
Yeah… I think it will be harder to rape and mutilate teenage girls when Eliza is a teenage girl. Until then, frankly, they’re thrillers; teenagers are fair game. But I think it certainly will be harder. When she’s thirteen I doubt I will be murdering thirteen year olds.
Or maybe you’ll have more material to work with?
Right. I’ll be murdering scads of thirteen year olds! [Laughs] There’s something about pregnancy; my husband and I took these classes at the hospital before Eliza was born and they’d show these childbirth videos over and over again. They’re really graphic bloody, gory videos in which nothing ever went right. There’s that aspect to pregnancy, something kind of essentially violent to it. And there’s something about the way that your body changes that I think definitely changed my relationship to gore.
In what way?
When you’re pregnant and certainly when you have a little baby, your life is all about body fluids. You know, it desensitizes you in a way that’s very natural. You’re just up to your knees in it all the time. In some sense that may have been why I was able to be as graphic as I was in a way that I didn’t really even see. When I sent that book in my agent made some comment about it being “graphic” and I wrote back, “Really? Graphic? Moi?” [Laughs] I wasn’t aware of it because my world was very graphic. The books on pregnancy I was reading were much more graphic than anything I was writing.
Tell me how the Green River Killer inspired your first book.
I was watching this episode of Larry King in the middle of the night and he was doing this show on the Green River Killer. Having grown up in Bellingham, he was sort of the formative serial killer of my youth. [Laughs]
I don’t think I have a formative serial killer of my youth.
I’ve only just now learned that other people don’t have formative serial killers of their youth. I also have a favorite serial killer, John Wayne Gacy. Some people probably haven’t thought about this. I was ten when they found the first bodies, so growing up he was just the thing that went bump in the night. As kids we thought that it was quite possible that each of us might be his next victim. I was very aware of them finding some new victim every couple of years and that there was this task force of people looking for him. That narrative just played out on the periphery of my childhood. They caught him 20 years later, and so I’m watching this and it’s all sort of coming back to me.
On Larry King they had footage of one of the cops talking to Ridgway [the Green River Killer] in an interview room, and I was so struck at just how convivial it all was on the surface, that they seemed like old friends, laughing. On one hand, they were two guys who had known each other for 20 years on different sides of the same case. And on the other hand, there were all these levels of manipulation and this high-stakes agenda, and I loved that from a narrative point of view. I immediately thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if the killer were a woman? Because it adds that sexual complication, and that is where the idea of Archie and Gretchen sprang from. So, I have Larry King to thank [laughs].
Technology is really changing the publishing world right now. Do you know how many of your sales are electronic?
Evil At Heart, which came out two years ago, was 11% ebook sales. A year and a couple months later The Night Season came out—52% ebook sales. [Imagine] that growth in a year, and sales for The Night Season were way up. In my genre, ebooks do very well because people really want to read them right away but they don’t need to keep them.
I have very mixed feelings, like every author. I think ebooks are great—it’s content. We’re not in the business of selling paper, right? We’re selling content. It gets people content and makes it easy for them to read books. I worry a lot about bookstores because bookstores are where record stores were ten years ago. Just like there are still some really cool record stores, there’s still going to be some really cool bookstores but there’s going to be 90% fewer out there. People get to choose now with their wallets which bookstores they want to keep. We’re already making a choice by ordering from Amazon rather than walking six blocks to Powell’s or some other independent bookstore. And that’s fine, but I think people need to be aware that they are making those choices.
[Laughs] That’s a very political question for me. I grew up in Bellingham, WA so Village Books is not only one of my favorite bookstores, but I literally spent hours there every day. My mom had a garden nursery right next door. When I was a kid, they just let me sit there and read books for hours every day, so I owe them a great debt of gratitude. The smell of downtown Powell’s when I walk in that store—there is no more beautiful elixir to me, all those used books. That is my favorite smell in the world.
What’s your place in the literary world? Do you ever see yourself writing something besides thrillers?
Writing a “real” book? [Laughs] No, I’m very happy here. I don’t have a nagging desire to write something “important” because I wrote that book. I was 23 years old. It was called Dharma Girl. It was a valentine to my parents, and especially my mother. She died two months before it came out, and touring with that little book was a way to keep her alive a little longer. I am lucky to have found a place in the world for that book when I was so young. Now I get to entertain myself. And I get to murder people for money. Why would I ever want to do anything else?