Good Reading : September 2008
SEPTEMBER 2008 ı goodreading 33 up close word of mouth Everything about books www.goodreadingmagazine.com ONLINE she’s baaack ... CHELSEA CAIN’s debut novel Heartsick introduced the beautiful but terrifying serial killer Gretchen Lowell, now safely incarcerated in prison for life. Or is she? Her creator talks to ALISON PRESSLEY about her latest book to ‘star’ Gretchen, Sweetheart. If you survived reading the heartstoppingly frightening first chapter of Heartsick you would have come to know the most compelling and chilling serial killer since Hannibal Lecter first gave us nightmares. Gretchen likes to kidnap and torture people for two or three days before killing them.You would also have made the acquaintance of her would-be nemesis, Detective Archie Sheridan, who’d spent ten years searching for the prolific murderer they called the Beauty Killer but who descended into his own nightmare of addiction to both painkillers and Gretchen after she kidnapped and tortured him. Sweetheart is set nearly three years later. Archie is trying to get back with his family, but is still obsessed by Gretchen, who has been gradually revealing details of more murders from her prison cell. Then one day comes the news everyone has dreaded: Gretchen has escaped. And the fun begins again. The gruesome nature of Chelsea Cain’s self-described ‘gory thrillers’ is all the more remarkable when you know that the author is a personable young mother who writes a charming weekly column in The Oregonian about the antics of her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. ‘I worry about my column fans who buy these books, having no idea what they’re getting themselves into!’ Cain laughs over the phone from her home in Portland, Oregon. But the gore is, crucially, tempered by humour, likeable characters and a well-described setting. Cain’s oddball, offbeat, engaging characters include many based on real people.When I ask her if journalist character Susan Ward is based on herself, she says: ‘Yes, all the good parts! As I was conceiving the first book I realised that I have never been a cop, and I’ve never killed anyone – I didn’t really have any of those experiences. I could research all I wanted on the internet but I wasn’t going to be able to bring any authority to any of those scenes, so Susan was my way into that world. I have been a features reporter, so I could bring some authority to her experience, and she could come in and serve as the eyes and ears of the reader. She’s navigating this world that she’s not comfortable in, she’s finding out things – she serves as the device to let the readers know what’s going on.’ Susan has a delightful hippie mother, Bliss, who revels in all things New Agey and who is based loosely on Cain’s own mother – ‘She’s my mother times ten!’ Cain was raised on a hippie commune in Iowa and has written and compiled three books based on her memories of that time. The Hippie Handbook is very funny, with advice on how to smoke a banana and how to grow tempeh in your bathtub. Dharma Girl is about a road trip back to Iowa with her mother. Cain also edited Wild Child: Girlhoods in the counterculture, which has a foreword by the memorably named Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of the late great Frank. These books, and her journalism, have obviously given Cain the confidence and maturity – and ingenuity – she now brings to her fiction. ‘When I started thinking of really terrible ways to kill people – which I spend a lot of time doing now! – I just looked around my house,’ she told me. ‘I don’t have a gun, but I have a hammer and nails and I have drain cleaner – items that people are familiar with. I think it makes it scarier.When you use drain cleaner it evokes a smell, people know what it smells like. And using a hammer and nails as an instrument of torture – most of us have used a hammer and nail, we know what that feels like in our hands, the sound of the hammer hitting the nail. It’s more terrifyingly evocative.’ The setting of Portland, Oregon acts almost as an extra character, brought vividly to life. ‘It is such a beautiful city, surrounded by so much profoundly beautiful nature. At the same time, the nature is very dangerous.’ Sweetheart climaxes in a frightening bushfire. ‘I wanted to explore the theme of beauty and danger, which is what Gretchen embodies. And the environment does too.Yet it draws us out again and again.We put on our hiking boots and tromp out. Even if two people in the party never come back, we still put on our hiking boots and go back out into it!’ By the same token, we crime fiction buffs frighten ourselves silly and go back for more. ‘It’s a terrible thing to say, because I feel as though I should be more disturbed by some of the stuff I write in my books, but I really enjoy it,’ Cain confesses. ‘There’s such a sense of entering the dark enchanted forest – that sense of adventure. It’s a lot of fun. Maybe too much fun!’ Ah, but despite the gore, Cain’s books are great fun to read, too – and you can never have too much fun. Sweetheart is published this month by Macmillan, rrp $32.99. Heartsick is now out in small-format paperback by Pan Books, rrp $19.95.