Chelsea Cain steps into a crowded, blood-soaked genre with Heartsick
, a riveting, character-driven novel about a damaged cop and his obsession with the serial killer who...let him live. Gretchen Lowell tortured Detective Archie Sheridan for ten days, then inexplicably let him go and turned herself in. Cain turns the (nearly played out) Starling/Lecter relationship on its ear: Sheridan must face down his would-be killer to help hunt down another. What sets this disturbing novel apart from the rest is its bruised, haunted heart in the form of Detective Sheridan, a bewildered survivor trying to catch a killer and save himself. --Daphne Durham
Questions for Chelsea Cain
Amazon.com: Gretchen Lowell haunts every page of Heartsick. Even when she actually appears in the jail scenes with Sheridan, she reveals nothing, and yet it's obvious she's anything but one-dimensional. What is her story?
Cain: I purposely didn't reveal Gretchen's past, beyond a few unreliable hints. I thought there was a really interesting tension in not knowing what had driven this woman to embrace violence so enthusiastically. The less we know about killers' motives, the scarier they are. Maybe that's why people spend so much time watching 24-hour news channels that cover the latest horrible domestic murder. We want to understand why people kill. Because if we can peg it on something, we can tell ourselves that they are different than us, that we aren't capable of that kind of brutality. Plus this is the launch of a series and I thought it would be fun for readers to get to learn more about Gretchen as the series continues. I just finished Sweetheart, and I promise there's a lot more Gretchen to come.
Amazon.com: As a first-time thriller author, you've got to be elated to see early reviews evoke the legendary Hannibal Lecter. Did you anticipate readers to make that connection, or are there other serial series (on paper or screen) that inspired the story of Gretchen and Sheridan?
Cain: I thought that the connection to Lecter was inevitable since Heartsick features a detective who visits a jailed serial killer. But I wasn't consciously inspired by Silence of the Lambs (or Red Dragon, which is the Harris book it more accurately echoes). I grew up in the Pacific Northwest when the Green River Killer was at large, and I was fascinated by the relationship between a cop who'd spent his career hunting a killer (as many of the cops on the Green River Task Force did) and the killer he ends up catching. I'd seen an episode of Larry King that featured two of the Green River Task Force cops and they had footage of one of the cops with Gary Ridgway (the Green River Killer) in jail and they were chatting like old friends. They were both trying to manipulate one another. The cop wanted Ridgway to tell him where more bodies were. Ridgway is a psychopath and wanted to feel in control. But on the surface, they seemed like buddies having a drink together at a bar. It was kind of disturbing. I wanted to explore that. Making the killer a woman was a way to make the relationship even more intense. Making her a very attractive woman upped the ante considerably.
Amazon.com: Reading Heartsick I was actually reminded of some of my favorite books by Stephen King. Like him, you have an uncanny ability to make your geographical setting feel like a character all its own. Do you think the story could have happened in any other place than Portland?
Cain: Heartsick Hawaii would definitely have been a different book. (Archie Sheridan would have been a surfer. Susan would have worked at a gift shop. And Gretchen would have been a deranged hula girl.) I live in Portland, so obviously that played into my decision to set the book here. All I had to do was look out the window. Which makes research a lot easier. But I also think that the Pacific Northwest makes a great setting for a thriller, and it's not a setting that's usually explored. Portland is so beautiful. But its also sort of eerie. The evergreens, the coast, the mountains--the scale is so huge, and the scenery is so magnificent. But every year hikers get lost and die, kids are killed by sneaker waves on the beach, and mountain climbers get crushed by avalanches. Beauty kills. Plus it has always seemed like the Northwest is teeming with serial killers. I blame the cloud cover. And the coffee.
Amazon.com: In a lot of ways, Heartsick is more about the killer than the killings, and its hard not to suspect that Gretchen killed only to get to Sheridan. That begs the question: is the chase always better than the catch? As a writer, is it more exciting for you to imagine the pursuit--with its tantalizing push-and-pull--than the endgame?
Cain: The most interesting aspect of the book to me is the relationship between Archie and Gretchen. Really, I wrote the whole book as an excuse to explore that. The endgame is satisfying because it's fun to see all the threads come together, but it's the relationship that keeps coming back to the computer day after day.
Amazon.com: Your characters--Susan Ward in particular--are raw, tautly wired, imperfect but still have this irresistible tenderness. It's their motives and experiences that really drive the story and ultimately elevate it way beyond what you might expect going into a serial killer tale. How did you resist falling into something more formulaic? Did you know what shape Susan and the others would take going in?
Cain: I knew I wanted flawed protagonists. I'm a sucker for a Byronic hero. Thrillers often feature such square-jawed hero types, and I wanted a story about people just barely hanging on. The psychological component is really interesting to me, and I liked that Susan's neuroses are, in their own ways, clues. In many ways, I embraced formula. I love formula--theres a reason it works. And I decided early on that I wasn't going to avoid clichés for the sake of avoiding them. Some clichés are great. My goal was not to write a literary thriller, but to take all the stuff I loved from other books and TV shows and throw them all together and then try to put my own spin on it. Heartsick is a pulpy page-turner with, I hope, a little extra effort put into the writing and the characters. Basically, I just wrote the thriller that I wanted to read.
(photo credit: Kate Eshelby)