August 4, 2008

Heart of Darkness Chelsea Cain’s Second Novel Swaps Graphic Violence for Graphic Sex.

By Lesley McDowell

SWEETHEART Chelsea Cain Macmillan GBP12.99

Thanks to Chelsea Cain, I realise, making my way through the Harrogate Crime Writers' Festival to my interviewee, I know how to make men fall in love with me! All I have to do is surgically remove the object of my affection's spleen without anaesthesia, and hey presto, he's mine.

Or at least that's what indiscriminating serial killer Gretchen Lowell, star of Cain's first crime novel, Heartsick, does.

Her victim is Archie Sheridan, a detective on her trail. Gretchen tricks him, then performs the operation, described in intimate, gory detail. He survives, even more obsessively in love with her than before.

That fi rst novel caused a sensation - critics raved about this female Hannibal Lecter while interviewers pondered how a woman as beautiful as Cain could write this kind of gruesome torture porn (as though writers' appearances should somehow reflect their material, a frankly terrifying thought). Now Oregon-based Cain is in the UK to publicise the muchanticipated follow-up, Sweetheart, where a damaged Archie is trying to save his marriage, while engaging in many lustful thoughts about his real amour, the now safely imprisoned Gretchen. But then Gretchen escapes, and sure enough, she's after Archie once more . . .

When I meet Cain, she may be hungover from partying too much the night before, but she's still got a laugh or two in her, as her publicist frantically scours the place for a special kind of veggie sandwich for her expensive new writer (million-dollar deals mean you get publicists doing things like that). The craziness of it all prompts my first question: would I be right in thinking she had a lot of fun writing these two books? More laughter.

"Yeah, I did. It's funny you ask, because usually I get asked if it's depressing to write this kind of thing, and I feel terrible because it's not. It's fun, I love it. I sit in my office and giggle to myself as I unpack these scenes of depravity - which probably says something about my mental condition!"

Cain uses the words "unpack" and "depravity" often, probably what happens when you spend a lot of time poring over anatomy books so your serial killer gets her dismembering just right. She wanted, she says, to "explore the relationship between a cop who has an obsession with a case, and the killer", and that once she came to that relationship she knew "the serial killer had to be a woman, it makes it so much more interesting, much more sexually complicated." Where Heartsick was noted for its graphic violence, Sweetheart puts its emphasis more on the graphic sexual encounters between Archie and Gretchen. Gretchen is beautiful, sexy, clever, and of course, a random killing machine. The absence of any historical real-life precedent for this kind of individual, the fact that few serial killers are stand-alone women full stop - never mind women who target everyone: men, women and children are all Gretchen's victims - didn't bother Cain. "It allowed me to use my imagination, conjure up something that hadn't really been around before."

The writer Chuck Palahniuk, best known for Fight Club and Choke, is thanked in her acknowledgements, and is part of the Oregon Writers' Group that Cain belongs to. What parts of the book did he help her with?

"He encouraged me to go further with that kind of stuff, especially with the first book. Less so with Sweetheart, because by then I'd got the hang of it. Before, my instinct was to fade to black and Chuck isn't about fading to black.

He'd always say: 'No, no, no, we have to know what that corpse smells like.' Chuck and I have been friends for about eight years, long before we started doing the workshop together. I think his infl uence has been to make me more graphic, not only specifically but also in anticipating. I'd have his and the others' voices in my head while I was writing, my instinct was always to scale it back. Even with Sweetheart, I expected someone to say, with all that hot cop- serial killer action, no way."

Does she believe in her character, Gretchen Lowell? Cain pauses for quite a while, seemingly unsure how to answer. "You know, " she says at last, "I come from a non-fiction background and it took me a long time to figure out I could just make stuff up. Especially with this genre, and that's what attracts me to it, the idea that it's television. So I don't believe in any of them as people.

Which probably sounds like a terrible thing to say. I love them all, but they're TV characters, and that's what's fun."

Does she think her readers get that aspect of it? "I don't know. I don't think about the reader when I write. I'm very self- indulgent in that I like to tell a story to entertain people. The idea is, if I'm entertained, then other people out there who are as depraved as I am will be entertained as well." So she thinks crime fiction takes itself too seriously, and should lighten up?

"I really do! I think there are certainly a lot of crime writers who are maybe a little bit defensive about what they do, and so they sort of create that conversation, wanting to be taken seriously, wanting to talk about it in terms of metaphor and society and it's all bullshit. It's TV, and I love TV and I love writing TV. It's a story, a fairy tale, an entertainment, that's all. And that's okay."

Before launching Gretchen Lowell on an unsuspecting public, Cain made a living from writing very different kinds of books.

Her hippy upbringing was reflected in The Hippy Handbook: How to Tie-Dye a Tshirt, Flash a Peace Sign, and Other Essential Skills for the Carefree Life while her fondness for Nancy Drew books produced Confessions of a Teen Sleuth: a Parody.

Her humour is the constant in what to many seems like a bizarre kind of culture shift, from fond memoir to torture porn.

"It surprises other people more than me, I think, " she says. Dressed in loose clothing, make up-free, long-haired, munching her veggie sandwich, her hippy upbringing is still a part of her. "I was raised by bohemian, artistic, hippy parents who taught me I could make a living as a writer. And encouraged me to have an imagination and live inside my head. So the fact that I tell scary stories makes perfect sense to me.

It's not like I became a butcher! The fact that I'm vegetarian, too, surprises people - but you write such violent crime fiction, they say. But to me I'm a vegetarian because I have a violent imagination, I can't eat a hamburger without picturing the slaughtered calf."

Do people from her background think she's sold out? "If they do, they've not said so to my face. But I do get asked a lot when I'm going to write a real book. There's an assumption that doing this is a means to an end, that it isn't what I really want to do. But I love it."

In spite of her repeated enthusiasm for what she does, I wonder if the discrepancy between what she's being paid - Cain signed for Dollar1m for the Gretchen Lowell books, which have since been translated into 25 languages - and what she believes they're worth, when she says they're "just entertainment", troubles her at all, and affects the way she writes.

"Everything is different now, " she admits.

"Everything. I had never had a book that was this important to publishers before.

What alters how I write is that fact that I'm rich. I treat my time differently, they've bought me a lot of time to write."

But surely the clash between the hippy values of her upbringing and this milliondollar life shocks her, just a little? "Yes, the difference shocks me. In that way, with having hippy parents, I've never been comfortable having money. Part of that is just growing up with that ethos. I always knew I'd live a creative life, I could choose to do that, which is a powerful thing for a kid to be told. But I always thought I'd be poor, because when you choose to live a creative life you are poor.

I had made that compromise and I'd grown quite happy with that."

I suspect Cain has made a different kind of compromise, the kind that immense wealth can bring, but which is probably a lot easier to live with. But that's possibly just my own concern at the public's appetite for ever-more gruesome and graphic crime fiction. The phrase "laughing all the way to the bank" springs to mind when one thinks of Cain's success. "The public gets what the public deserves" is another.

Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.

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