Karin Slaughter, FALSE WITNESS

Karin Slaughter, FALSE WITNESS

Zibby is joined by illustrious crime author Karin Slaughter, whose books have sold over 35 million copies in 37 languages. The two talk about how Karin’s experiences with the pandemic and babysitting factored into her latest book, False Witness, as well as how writing stories throughout her childhood about her sisters disappearing led to her current career. She also shares what it has been like to watch her novel, Pieces of Her, go through the adaptation process with Netflix, and a few behind-the-scenes secrets from her visits to the set.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Karin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss False Witness and your just amazing career in general.

Karin Slaughter: Thank you.

Zibby: False Witness, how would you describe this book to people who haven’t read it?

Karin: It’s really hard to describe it without giving so much away. In essence, it’s about two sisters who experience something super traumatic in the early part of their lives. We catch up with them twenty-something years later. Of course, this being a thriller, that horrific thing is knocking on their door again. We find out what has happened to them subsequent to that. I’m really interested in trauma, particularly childhood trauma and how it affects you as an adult. We know all kinds of terrible things. It can lead to depression or a predilection toward alcoholism or drug addiction or things such as heart disease, diabetes, all this stuff. I wanted to really put in a microcosm how this trauma changed the trajectory of these two sisters’ lives in very meaningful ways and still haunts them. We’re all going through a worldwide trauma right now, so it seemed kind of a relevant thing to talk about.

Zibby: It wasn’t just the trauma for the girls, but also for the child they were babysitting at the time. I won’t give anything away. I loved how you fast-forwarded into the future. As someone who used to babysit a lot and who employs babysitters now — I have four kids — this whole scene that you depicted and then how it all got interwoven later, to see the kid you babysit grow up and what happens and the whole family and all of the interrelations, there just seems to be an overwhelming amount of trauma for all the characters involved.

Karin: Absolutely. I never really babysat because I was the youngest of three girls. There’s a scene in the book where a guy who one of the characters is babysitting for is listening to Hall & Oates and his hand wanders to her leg. That actually happened to me. I remember telling my sister who used to babysit for him. “Hey, this happened.” She’s like, “Oh, yeah, he just does that,” like it was no big deal that this thirty, forty-year-old man was putting his hand on a thirteen-year-old girl’s knee in the car listening to Hall & Oates. It was so crazy that it was something we just totally accepted as, that happens. It’s gross and weird. Don’t tell anybody.

Zibby: Wow. In the book, too, it was so repressed, as you mentioned it. She pushed it down so hard that she never thought to warn her other sister that this might happen to her too even though it wasn’t exactly the same as your experience.

Karin: It’s weird. I think that as women, we just get these silent messages all our lives, some of them not so silent. I grew up on V.C. Andrews. There’s some really horrible messages in there. Not a lot has changed. If you look at some of these vampire books for young girls, it’s like, yeah, it’s okay if he almost kills you when you have sex because he really loves you. We’re continually reinforcing these messages that how a man feels is more important than how a woman or a girl feels. That was something I really wanted to expose and talk about in a way that showed you, this is what happens to that girl who felt gross because this old man put his hand on her knee.

Zibby: Even in the most horrific scene that you have in this story, when it first opened, I didn’t realize how young the character was. Did you do that on purpose?

Karin: I did, yeah, absolutely. It was just kind of a play with the reader about how we — when young women are sexualized, they lose their right to be young women, particularly if they’re women of color or girls of color. We do this with men too, or young men. They’re not boys if they commit a crime. Suddenly, they’re men. The time period this is set in is shortly after the Amy Fisher story became international news. Amy Fisher was a young teenage girl who was seduced by this child molester. Joey Buttafuoco was in his thirties or forties. He trafficked her, but she was the villain. In one way, you can say, rightfully so, because she did try to kill Joey’s wife. Also, she was a child. She was manipulated. As soon as this happened, the focus was on her being Long Island Lolita. We gave her all this agency and all this ability to control this poor married guy who ended up having an affair. The guy’s a douche. There’s nothing sexy about this guy. She wasn’t attracted to him the way a young girl is attracted to a young boy. She was attracted to him because he had money. He was telling her to do things that were crazy. He was grooming her for all the things that she did for him. That kind of got lost in the sensationalism of it. Though, I will say, I did love the Drew Barrymore movie. She was the best Amy Fisher.

Zibby: I didn’t see that movie, but I do remember this being in People magazine every week as I grew up. Do you remember in People magazine, back in the day they had the little corner images? I used to collect those. I haven’t thought about this in a hundred years. I used to cut those out and save all the little corner features. Yes, I well aware of the story.

Karin: There’s a scrapbook somewhere that will be very embarrassing if your children ever find it.

Zibby: I don’t have them anymore. I don’t have them. Although, that would’ve been very interesting to reflect back on. No, now they’re gone. All to say, yes, that was all over the news and all over everywhere, especially during the time when I was growing up and all of that. It’s very formative. I think it’s also interesting how in your book, you take this very accomplished lawyer who’s in her element and has done good with her life, so to speak, and has a kid. You’re at the school play. She’s just full of confidence in the way you want a child to grow up to be a woman. Then immediately, the rug is pulled out from under her. The way you even say that she answered that first question in her teenage voice, you completely take us back to how she felt. Oh, my gosh, your ability, to be honest, of getting someone in a scene is amazing. I’m sure that must be why you’re just so uber-successful. You put us all in there. I tried to read this book — my husband was sitting next to me. He kept interrupting me. I’m like, “You don’t understand what I’m going through right now. I’m fighting on the kitchen floor. There’s a knife. Oh, my gosh.” How do you do that?

Karin: What you’re talking about with the prologue, it was just really playing on people’s expectations. I wanted to set up that character in a very loveable way, in a very relatable way because I knew that you’re going to have to take this — I hate to say journey of a character because it sounds like such an asshole writer thing to say. I’ll just say you’re going to go through some shit with her. She’s going to be doing some stuff that you would not normally root for. I wanted her to have this humanity. I wanted the reader to understand, almost from the first paragraph, who she was. One of the things I have to do a lot of research on is mothers because I don’t have children, that I know of. I can research head trauma and all this other stuff. I find it fascinating. When I look at kid stuff, I just feel a cold sweat. I literally never even held a baby until I was in my thirties. I was doing a book event. Someone wanted me to hold their toddler. First, I was like, Jesus, his head won’t even stay up. What is going on here? The woman looked at me like, what is wrong with you? I looked at her like, have you read my books? Do you really think that I should have a baby? That’s another story, though.

I was doing a lot of research for that first chapter where you meet Leigh, one of the sisters, into mommy blogs. One of the things I saw was this cartoon that said, the kid you see at the school play. It was the nosepicker and the mama’s boy and the stage hog. My first thought was, it had never occurred to me that people actually do that. I thought that was a trope on television where you have to go to a play. That’s like bin Laden stuff, terrorists. Why would you have to sit through that? I just started thinking about Leigh. Maybe she’s got her husband Walter playing fantasy football on his phone. Maybe she’s like, if there’s an apocalypse, what mom fantasy team would I want? I’d want the one who always has snacks and who punched a dog who tried to bite her kid or made the math teacher cry or who will screw anybody. She’s building out her team. To me, I think that’s something that everybody’s done at some point. If it’s an office or at the grocery store or whatever, if things start to get real, who’s going to be with me? Who’s going to be running away? Maybe that’s just me because I watch a lot of Walking Dead shows. I thought, that’s a really good way to show her as a survivor because she’s thinking about that all the time. She’s thinking about where the doors are. Who’s the strongest one? Who’s going to be able to run with her shoulder to shoulder?

Zibby: You definitely have a dark side, I have to say. Have you always had this? Were these the kind of stories you were drawn to forever?

Karin: Oh, absolutely. When I was a kid, I started writing books. Before I was in kindergarten, I would write books. I told you I have two older sisters. Most of the stories were, my sisters get mutilated. They’re kidnapped. I didn’t really understand storytelling because the happy ending was, they would disappear. No one cared. I was an only child. My dad loved these books. He would give me a quarter for each one. I’m writing sequels more than Fast & Furious at a certain point. I have all these things about my sisters being murdered. That’s also a Southern thing. We just really have a sense of — maybe it’s because it’s when I was growing up more so — a kind of agrarian culture where horrendous farm accidents happen. I got a lot of redneck uncles who smoke pot and do heavy machinery stuff, so they’re missing fingers and feet and things like that. That’s totally, totally a Southern thing. Everybody’s got an Uncle Scooter who got hit in the head and he’s just not right since then.

Zibby: How did your sisters feel reading book after book about their own demise?

Karin: Well, you know, they weren’t really my demographic. When I did my little sales charts, they were not included in my demographic. One of my sisters is dyslexic, so she had no idea. The other one was so much older than me that she had nothing to do with me anyway, so I got away with it. I love those kinds of stories. I love puzzles. Everything I read generally has a puzzle to it. I love Erik Larson, but a lot of his books read more fictionally than nonfiction used to read. He has somebody’s eyes gleaming. I’m like, excuse me sir, this is nonfiction. I don’t think so. I love that kind of fictionalized nonfiction. Generally when you read history, there’s a lot of murder and violence. Look at the Bible. It’s so violent. There’s a lot of good stories that you can find in other genres too, but they don’t call them crime fiction because smart people like them.

Zibby: I’m just curious, was there anything in your own childhood, aside from wanting your sisters to disappear, that caused you to — I’m imagining little you going to a child psychiatrist, what that person would’ve said at the time. Was there anything going on that sort of led to ?

Karin: Not really. When I was growing up, you didn’t send a kid to a psychiatrist. You just popped them in the back of the head and told them to straighten up. I do remember when I was in junior high, those Baby on Board signs were really popular. I had a Volkswagen Beetle. I put “dead” at the top, so it said Dead Baby on Board.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you are too much.

Karin: I parked it in the parking lot. I’m at lunch. I get called to the principal’s office. My dad’s there. He’s got his own space by then. This is not the first time something like this has happened. The principal told him what was going on. My dad was like, “Is there a rule against that?” “No, it’s just in poor taste,” like when I taped a picture of Marilyn Monroe after the autopsy to my lunchbox. My dad said, “You know what? She’s weird. She’s always been weird. We love her. Don’t call me up for this shit anymore.” He just walked out. He put his hand on my shoulder like, come on, kid. The principal — what can you do to that? You can’t punish someone for being weird. It’s something that everybody’s always known about me, I suppose. I will say, when I first started writing, I would have so many women come up to me and say, I can’t tell anybody I like reading these books. I was like, why? My grandmother was that way. She read this magazine called True Crime magazine that was basically snuff porn. All of these things were, the last line was, she should’ve listened to her husband, or her father was right, that sort of thing. These women would get slashed and raped and murdered. She was so embarrassed that she read it that one year when we got her a subscription for it — she would have to go to the Piggly Wiggly on the bad side of town to get it. They didn’t have it at our Kroger. They didn’t carry that trash. She would get it every Sunday. We’re like, let’s get this for Christmas so doesn’t have to go to the Piggly Wiggly. We gave her the subscription, and she burst into tears. She said, “I don’t want the mailman to know I read this.” Now women are like, yeah, I’m interested in this. Look, podcasts, true crime stuff all over. People are more open to it. When I first started out, people were weirdly embarrassed about being interested in it. It’s like, hey ladies, this shit’s happening to our people. Maybe we should know more about it.

Zibby: How did you become a writer, just the brief version? You knew you always wanted to do this. You started writing stories. Then what happened? You went to college. Maybe you started writing.

Karin: I don’t know about you, but college made me never want to write or read again. I was a really poor student. I took all my English classes I could. I remember I got called out — I got called out a lot — of a graduate-level English class. They said, “How did you get in this class?” “My professor signed off.” “You have not taken any core classes,” like math or intro to whatever. I dropped out because I just didn’t — I knew I was a bad student, such a bad student, so I didn’t belong there anyway. I was just having fun wasting my hard-earned money. I did a lot of different jobs. I started back writing again. When I got really serious about it, I owned a sign company. I had done a lot of things. I was an exterminator, a house painter, just crazy stuff. I sold my sign business so that I could concentrate on writing. At the time, I thought thirty was really old. I was twenty-six. I was like, I got to get published by thirty because I’ll be dead by then. I got my contract at twenty-nine. At twenty-six, that’s when I really thought, I need to really pay attention and hunker down and do this before I am too elderly to hold a pen anymore. I got my first book deal at twenty-nine. It was published when I turned thirty. Here we are.

Zibby: Wow. Do you just have so many stories always circulating in your head? How do you even decide which one to write next? How do you decide when you’re going to — I know you have these two series about specific characters versus some of your standalone work like Pieces of Her, which is being made into Netflix. I want to hear about that too. How do you decide? It sounds like you have a bazillion ideas and scenes and everything in your head and they’re all just screaming to come out.

Karin: That’s about how it is. It has to be something I feel really passionate about because when I’m actually writing, I’m going to spend a year with that story, with those characters. There has to be a hook in it for me that makes me want to write about them. You’re right. I do have a lot of different ideas, a lot of different stories. I’ve got a new one for Will and Sara that’s not quite there yet. I’m working on this one that I came up with maybe four or five books ago. It’s just an idea I scribbled down that I thought might be really interesting. That’s the one I’m working on. I think when you’re a writer, you don’t choose to be a writer. It chooses you. I think the stories choose you as well.

Zibby: Interesting. I also love how in this book you overlay the COVID experience and the pandemic and how you found a way to weave that into fiction without having it hijack the story.

Karin: That was really important to me because I wanted it to be set during the pandemic but not about it. Fortunately, I have written a lot of books, so I’m pretty good at encapsulating certain details. Everything, as you know, was shifting and changing. I just wanted to capture the flavor of it because there are things that we’re going to forget. In Atlanta, all the distilleries stopped making booze and started making hand sanitizer. When I was a kid and the teacher would pass out Dittos, we’d all smell because the ink would make you high. We were all smelling the Dittos. The teacher would scream, “Stop smelling the Dittos!” With the sanitizer, people were like, oh, that’s rum. That’s tequila. It smelled like under the bleachers at the prom. I think that’s going to be lost in a few years, those little, small details, or when someone coughs, you look at them like, are you trying to kill me? that kind of thing, and also the difference between the privileged, like I’ll say myself who works from home — I’m very introverted. I’ve been preparing for the pandemic lifestyle my entire life. I don’t have insecurity financially, or food or all that stuff. It was still very anxious for me, but not like someone on the frontlines. With the book, Leigh has a privileged life. She’s in a white-shoe law firm. Everyone around her takes the virus very seriously. Her sister Callie kind of lives on the margins of society, and taking her health seriously is a luxury she does not have. She has to be out in the middle of it. She has to be hustling trying to get food and rent and that kind of stuff. Wearing a mask and being able to stop and wash her hands and be socially distanced is laughable to her because her life is not built for taking care of herself. That’s what we see a lot in society even pre-pandemic. We have this dearth of healthcare for people who really need it because they just don’t have time, resources, any of the support that people who are a little better off do.

Zibby: You compared it so interestingly to the AIDS crisis in your author’s note, which I know has been sort of bandied about or bantied about or whatever that word is. You talked a lot about it and the shame behind it and the transmission and how everybody just kept changing their mind about what the rules were. I feel like you also put that in so well.

Karin: It’s crazy because I make mistakes all the time. I don’t know about you.

Zibby: Yes.

Karin: When there’s something new, I have to learn what this new thing is. I don’t understand why people don’t understand science is the same way, especially people who have been through the AIDS crisis. At first, they’re saying, don’t kiss anyone. You need to sanitize utensils. Don’t hug them. Don’t touch them. There’s that iconic picture where Lady Diana hugged an AIDS patient. Everybody was like, ahh, she’s going to die. She didn’t. She knew she wouldn’t die because of the science. We just have to learn as we go along. One thing the pandemic has done is it just has sucked up all the forgiveness that people have, which is really crazy. People are just so angry and so ready to pounce. I can have a short temper at the grocery store just like the next person, but I find myself saying, wait a minute, is this person who dropped a grape I stepped on, is that really genocide, or should I just back off and let it go? I feel that too. There’s just this lack of compassion that we have in a really strange way, especially as an American. I was raised, we’re all in this together. If you don’t believe in my political party, you’re like my crazy uncle. You’re still my family. I’m still going to have Thanksgiving with you. I might talk about it. We may make fun of you, but we’re all in the same family. It’s kind of crazy right now.

Zibby: I agree. It’s actually quite frightening to think about too much, so I try not.

Karin: That’s why we have good books.

Zibby: That’s why we have your books. You can go all the way with your doomsday scenarios and the worst-case and what-ifs. I’ll be over here reading lovely memoirs or something. No, I’m kidding. Is Slaughter your real last name, by the way?

Karin: It is, yeah. I come by it honestly.

Zibby: All right, just had to ask. Wait, so tell me about all your film stuff now. How’s all that going?

Karin: It’s so exciting, primarily because it’s a predominantly female-driven team, the show writer, the producer, most of the production staff — the producer’s husband obviously is a man — the director. It’s really cool. Thank you, Me Too, for letting this happen. I think five years ago, a set with all women, it would’ve been this little niche. Oh, how weird. Whereas a set with all men, it’s like, yeah, that’s going to be fantastic. I’m real excited about that, to be honest. I actually got to go to the set when they were filming in Atlanta and see how it was done. It was so crazy. This thing that three or four years ago I worked on in my pajamas all alone, suddenly, there’s hundreds of people acting it out. It’s like, wow, I cannot freaking believe this. It was a very surreal moment. I’m super happy with what they’re doing. They had to make some changes. People always say, it’s different from the book. In Pieces of Her, Andy, who’s one of the main characters, she’s driving around a lot in her car for many chapters. That is not riveting film, so they had to make some changes. People have to talk. You can’t just have someone sitting there staring at the road. You have to have communication and all that. I really like what they’ve done. Toni Collette is freaking amazing. Bella Heathcote, who plays Andy, I got to meet her. I’m super excited. I don’t know when it’s going to come out. They never tell you these things. I can’t wait to see it.

Zibby: That’s so cool. That’s just so neat. It’s just crazy, A, that you can take it out of your head and even put it on the page. To have the page then become the screen, it’s wild. The whole thing is wild.

Karin: It is, but people forget that people who do television and film are also creative people. It’s not an adaptation. It’s an interpretation. They want to put their creative mark on it too. Each iteration, someone’s going to put something different on it, and then the actors and the actresses. Toni Collette had a lot of input asking questions about her character and all that. It’s very collaborative in a way that would make me run screaming because I like my book and being in complete control of everything. When I deliver it, my editor, of course, gives me notes. We talk about it. Having a hundred people look at it and give me notes, I’d be like, no, can’t do this. Going to go back to making signs.

Zibby: Grabbing the exterminating equipment back up.

Karin: That’s right.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Karin: Read. It’s so crazy, but your brain is a muscle if you’re a writer. If you read a bad book or a book you think is bad, you’re learning why you think it’s bad. If you’re reading a great book, think about and analyze why you think it’s great. That’s my first advice. The second advice, people are like, screw you, that’s horrible advice. Sit down and do it. That is the hardest part. Everybody on earth has at least one fantastic idea for a book. That is not the hard part. It’s sitting down and figuring out how to express it with character, how to move the plot along, how to build suspense. Even if you’re not writing crime, you have to have suspense. There has to be the mystery of character, as Flannery O’Connor called it. That is the work of being a writer. Unfortunately, you have to sit down and do it.

Zibby: Amazing, and perhaps, just be a little weird.

Karin: Yeah, or a lot.

Zibby: Or a lot. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for discussing False Witness. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Karin: Great. Thank you. It’s been a delight.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care.

Karin: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Karin Slaughter, FALSE WITNESS

FALSE WITNESS by Karin Slaughter

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