Chelsea Cain
Interview by email in November 2010
(Since this interview, The Night Season was published, in March 2011)

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed”. –Ernest Hemingway

## What put you on the path of becoming a writer? Can you pinpoint one specific event, person, or particular book that started it all? 

C.C.—That’s a tough one. I was always a bookworm, and I always loved to write. I remember the first word I ever learned to spell.  It was “Flower.” (My parents were hippies, what can I say?) I wrote that word over and over again on every scrap of paper I could find. It felt enormously powerful to me at the time. Books and stories were very precious in our house. And I was a library rat. I would spend hours at a time at the public library and at the college library in the town I grew up in. I was always working on a book. My grandmother likes to tell a story about when she visited me when I was eight and I left a family event, announcing that I was going to my room to “work on a my novel.” In seventh grade my grandfather bought me an electric typewriter and I wrote hundreds of pages of various stories, most of them about private eyes. But I never anticipated writing books for a living. I had no idea how one went about that. I didn’t know any authors. So I ended up pursuing journalism, which seemed more accessible to me.  Then, at graduate school, we were supposed to write a master’s thesis. I think it was supposed to be 40 pages. Some sort of non-fiction. I wrote a memoir. It was like 200 pages long. Talk about ignoring the assignment. But it got published. And that was the beginning of that. 

## Were you more of a reader than a writer/storyteller before adulthood?  

C.C.— I guess I sort of answered that above. I really did both. I read all of the time. I was one of those kids who read a book while I walked to school. It’s amazing I was never mowed down by a car. I read books under my desk during math class. It took me years to understand long division. My idea of a perfect Saturday was to stay in bed all day and read eight or nine library books. I also loved TV and movies, incidentally. I think many book snobs looks down on anything that isn’t printed, but I have always loved a good story in any form. Yet I was always writing, too. I wrote plays I would coerce the neighborhood kids into performing. I wrote “books” that I would bind with cardboard and wallpaper. And I was an epic Barbie player. I loved Barbie dolls. I had about ten of them and I would play for eight hours at a time with those dolls, acting out elaborate spy fantasies. I think playing with those dolls was my first long form narrative. 

## What is your best memory of reading a book? 

C.C.— Wow. I have so many. I am tempted to be fancy and tell you about the time I read Jane Eyre while I was stranded at the Atlanta airport. But I’ll go with The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot. It’s this vampire novel. I read it in fifth or sixth grade. It was one of the first “grown-up” books I read. I have no idea where I found it. I’m guessing a yard sale. It was this mangy paperback. It’s probably really cheesy – I haven’t read it since. But at the time it rocked my world. I was riveted. I thought it was the best book ever written.   

## After a few years in Iowa, you grew up in Bellingham, WA. There was the 20-year search for the Green River killer (Ted Bundy, the Hillside Strangler and others were also not too far). What was the general feeling among girls you knew; was it more “it only happens to someone else” or more like “it could be me”? How much did it affect your daily life?

C.C.—We were all very certain that the Green River Killer could nab us at any minute. It’s funny, because the guy killed prostitutes, so really, we were not exactly up his alley. But some of the prostitutes were really young – teenagers. So to us, he killed kids. And I think there was something very powerful about the fact that they couldn’t catch him. He was this huge mystery. They had put together this expert task force and all these adults were working really, really hard, and still they couldn’t catch him. So beyond the obvious fact of the danger he posed, I think we were frightened by the failure of all of these adult institutions to protect us

## How has it influenced you in writing the Archie/Gretchen books? Is it more from the killer perspective; the investigative side of it, or maybe the relation between the two?

C.C.—Well I was always really interested in the task force aspect of the investigation, all these people working so hard for so long on this one case. After Gary Ridgway was finally caught, I saw a TV show on the Green River case and I recognized a few of the detectives they interviewed. I remembered them from these newspaper photographs from when I was ten. These guys had worked for so long to get this killer. Ridgway had been a suspect from very early on. They finally caught him and he cut a deal to avoid the death penalty and agreed to tell them where more victims were. There were so many missing women in the eighties in the Pacific Northwest that were considered probable victims, but they could never find the bodies. So after all those years hunting this guy, these detectives now had to go sit with him in prison and try to get him to tell them his secrets. They had some footage on this TV show of one of the cops in an interview with Ridgway and on the surface it seemed so convivial. Like they were old friends, chuckling and discussing old times. But underneath all that were all these layers of manipulation and power play. I was fascinated by that, and I immediately thought – wouldn’t it be interesting to explore that relationship, but make the killer a woman? There’s already so much power and obsession and manipulation and high stakes – why not add sex? The next day, I started writing Heartsick. 

## You studied political science at U. of California (at Irvine) and went to the graduate school of journalism at U. of Iowa. In what way(s) do these studies help you today in your fiction writing?

C.C.—School is great for writing because it makes you read a lot of stuff you might not pick up on your own, and exposes you to different people and experiences. But the best reason to go to writing school is to make contacts. It was because a professor of mine took an interest in graduate thesis – and got it in the hands of an editor – that I was able to publish that first time at all

## After getting your thesis published, you wrote a few non-fiction books (for the humour section of bookstores). Will you write more of these? If so, will it still be under Chelsea Cain or would you go with a pseudonym, now that you’re certainly better known as a fiction writer?

C.C.—I think I’d probably have to go with a pseudonym. For brand clarity and whatnot. Or maybe I could write a humour book called How to Slaughter Annoying People With Tools You Have Around the House. Knitting needles. Nails. X-acto knives. Or would people find that un-funny? Those humour books I used to write were a delight because they involved creative collaboration – working with an illustrator. But right now I’m focused on the thriller writing. It’s incredibly fun to do, and pays a ton – why on earth would I want to do anything else?

## What was the eureka moment when you started thinking about the story that became Heartsick? Did you see it as a possible series right from the start?

C.C.— I think I answered this in the Green River question above. I always end up answering questions too early during interviews.  Sorry. I decided it was a series about halfway through. There was just so much to the story in my head and I didn’t want to cram it all in one book. It would be too pat. So I wrote that first book with the idea that there would be more. Then I found out that publishers do not usually buy a series. They like to publish the first book and see how it does, which is quite reasonable of them.  Luckily, Heartsick inspired enough interest that there was a bidding war, and we were able to leverage that into a multi-book deal. 

“It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood”. –William Shakespeare

## You certainly kept some of the humour (mostly the darker side) and mixed it with the gruesomeness of the Gretchen/Archie stories. The risks in having too much humour, or at the wrong moments, could make the stories fall into parody and you’d lose your credibility. How do you balance the humour and the darkness, and do you set yourself some limits—either way?  

C.C.— Me? Limits? Surely you jest. 

## There were predictable comparisons between Gretchen and Hannibal Lecter in reviews of your books; you certainly had The Silence of the Lambs in mind while writing Heartsick (when Susan asks Gretchen her opinion about a serial killer on the loose, Gretchen answers “Want me to get inside his head for you? Sorry, Clarice. Can’t help you.” Were you deliberately trying to distance Gretchen from Hannibal, or was it just a way of saying to the reader “listen, I know you’re thinking about it too, but hey, this is not the same”? 
C.C.— The latter.  I was writing that scene, and I was like, oh shit, it’s The Silence of the Lambs.  I knew everyone’s head was going to go there. So I threw that reference in as a way to acknowledge it.  But frankly I was amazed at how much the comparison came up when Heartsick was published.  Mostly because if it’s like any book it’s more like Red Dragon, an earlier Harris book.  But also, Heartsick and Silence of the Lambs are not that similar.  But I think there’s sort of a media group-think and once it gets out there, it comes up again and again.  Of course my publisher was delighted to promote the comparison, because Silence of the Lambs sold about a zillion copies.  

## The relationship between Gretchen and Archie is what your readers are more interested with, and it was probably your intention too. But with Archie getting slowly rid of his infatuation, you seem to be going towards something else, and maybe a brighter future for him. Did you get tired of Gretchen, having maybe explored every aspect of that relationship, at least for the time being?

C.C.—I could never get tired of Gretchen.  She is so fun to write.  That being said, she does fade to the background a bit in the fourth book, The Night Season.  We get to see Archie and Susan and Henry more.  Which was an interesting exercise for me.  Also, I can’t have Gretchen busting out of prison every other book, and there’s only so much she can do from a cell.  But I have to tell you, I missed her so much in The Night Season.  I’m working on book six now and she’s back in true form.  It’s a challenge to try to keep her character compelling, but it’s one I want to keep working on for a while longer.  As you say, these books are about this relationship, and it will, as with any relationship, change over time.  But it is the relationship that interests me, and I don’t think that I would want to write many more of these books without it. 

## How did you research, or at least thought out, the complexity of the love/pain feelings of Archie towards Gretchen? (I think it is really well done because as a reader, you feel frustrated with him; you wonder why he’s still infatuated, after having been tortured and almost killed. But you also try and want to understand.)

C.C.—I used to say that I based their relationship on my marriage.  But after about a year of using that line my husband asked me to stop.  I don’t know – I guess I’m just demented because their relationship makes a certain amount of sense to me.  I looked at Stockholm Syndrome, sadomasochism and addiction, and then added a dash of high school.  Really, their relationship is a lot like everyone’s relationships, just magnified by a thousand.  Relationships are about tiny exchanges of power.  Or, in their case, very large exchanges of power.

## How did this relationship evolve in your mind from the moment you started thinking about Heartsick, until now?

C.C.—I really had it mapped out from the beginning.  Everything else is just filler – a reason to explore this relationship. 

## Do you enjoy more being in Gretchen’s head or in Archie’s? Where are the challenges in creating these characters?

C.C.— We’re never actually in Gretchen’s head.  She doesn’t have a POV, though a lot of people think she does, because her character feels so important to the books.  But her power comes from the fact that we never know what she’s thinking.  As soon as I were to go inside her head, she’d get a lot less interesting.  I love writing from inside Archie’s head because he’s so different than I am, as well as being male, so it’s a little bit of a creative challenge.  Writing sex scenes from a male POV is a very curious exercise.  Also, I like him.  He’s smart and he’s a brooder, and I like figuratively hanging out with him.  But Gretchen is the most fun to write lines for because she’s charismatic and witty and completely unhinged.  Also, she can say just about anything and get away with it.
## The readers don’t know much about Gretchen’s past and Archie’s background (although we know a bit more about him than about her). Will we eventually learn more about where Gretchen comes from or is it something that you have decided not to do? Maybe you haven’t found out more about her yet?

C.C.—I know a lot about Gretchen, but I’ll never write the prequel about her childhood.  Seriously.  If I ever do that, someone shoot me in the head.  You have my permission.  I know that readers want to know about her, but as soon as I laid it all out, she’d be half as compelling, and no one would want to read the books anymore.  I’ll dispense nuggets of information now and again.  Clues for the careful reader.  But the thing about Gretchen that you have to remember is that she’s an unreliable narrator.  It’s hard to know what’s truth and what’s manipulation

## After Evil at Heart I sensed that the focus would be turning towards Susan (at least for a book or two). Would you have been ready to accept it if your thinking/creative process had concluded that you were definitely done with Gretchen? How difficult would it be for you to get rid of her, even if the right storyline was there?  
C.C.—I’m not getting rid of Gretchen, but as I did with The Night Season, I will fade her out now and again.  It gives the other characters, like Susan, some more time in the spotlight, and keeps the Gretchen/Archie relationship a little less stale.  But I want to keep Gretchen around for now.  Maybe that will change in a few years.  But for me she’s still a big presence for Archie – and therefore for the series.

## Did you try out different names for Archie Sheridan and Gretchen Lowell? Is naming characters an important part of your storytelling?

C.C.—I came up with those names pretty quickly.  I liked how “Archie” and “Gretchen” played off each other, with that matching hard consonant sound in the middle.  “Lowell” was the name of my elementary school.  I liked “Archie” because it’s such a solid middle-of-the-road name, but it isn’t Jack, which I think is way over-used.  “Sheridan” is just a nice English/Irish surname, which I thought would be a clever nod to the historical fact that in the US a lot of cops were Irish.

## How does inspiration work for you in general? Do you need any ritual or a certain style of music, a specific room, time of day, etc?

C.C.—Right now I am in my pajamas on the couch writing on my laptop with a blanket on top of me and a dog on either side of me.  My feet are on the coffee table next to my second cup of coffee.  I don’t write well with music.  I wish I could.  I find it too distracting.  Pretty soon I’m listening to the lyrics, and not writing anymore.  I write best alone in a room.  I am loathe to write on airplanes, mostly because I write such gory stuff and inevitably someone reads over my shoulder and thinks I’m psycho. 

## Do you write full-time or do you keep busy with another job, like teaching or being a writer-in-residence, etc?

C.C.—I write full time.  Commercial thrillers are extremely lucrative.  I recommend that everyone quit their jobs and start writing one.  

## How does your research process work; only before writing or as you write?

C.C.—Both.  I’ll research big topics before I get started.  For instance The Night Season has a storyline involving a flood that actually happened here in the Portland area in 1948, so I did a lot of research into that before I started writing.  I am always reading crime stories and forensic pathology books, looking for ideas.  But a lot of research comes up in the moment.  I don’t know what writers did before the Internet.

## I’m guessing you did some research on the psychology of serial killers. From what you found out, what was the most disturbing aspect; the most unexpected one; and the one that you thought was a cliché but was true?

C.C.—The most disturbing aspect is the disengagement.  Serial killers really dehumanize their victims.  There is just no remorse or connection whatsoever.  The most unexpected aspect?  Honestly, how many serial killer there are out there.  I have this book titled The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers and it is this big textbook size hardback filled with entries.  There have been a lot of serial killers.  And there are a lot of them still trolling for victims.  The aspect I thought was a cliché but turned out to be true?  Returning the scene of the crime.  They actually do this.  Do they not watch TV cop shows?  It seems like it should be rule one – don’t go back.  But they do. 

## It seems that women writers are more often criticized than men when they write about violence, or at least violent scenes and gruesome murders. What is your experience with that in particular and with critics in general?

C.C.—I think it certainly gets a lot more attention.  I don’t feel I suffer more criticism for it, but I am asked about it more than a male counterpart.  It always comes up.  “How does it feel to write violent scenes?”  I think people want me to suffer more for it, you know?  Be more disturbed or haunted.  I am always told, again and again, that I seem so nice.  It surprises people endlessly that I am not some drooling lunatic.   

## Chuck Palahniuk got you to participate in a writers circle; it works for some, not at all for others. How does it work for you in general and where does Chuck in particular help you the most?

C.C.— Chuck is a brilliant, brilliant editor.  He’s taught me much of what I know about writing fiction.  And he has this amazing recall.  He remembers everything from ever book he’s ever read and every movie he’s ever seen.  So he’s really good at bring lines or props back several chapters later, to pay them off.  And he’s terrific at finding the perfect one-liners.  He’s also really good with props.  “Use your objects,” he always says.  I am really lucky to be a part of our writing group.  Every member is extremely smart about some aspect of the work.  I think it’s crucial to join a writing group, if you want to be a writer.   It forces you to produce work, and it forces you to deal with feedback. 

## You’ve created a Gretchen website; any marriage proposals for her yet? Or weirder stuff maybe?
C.C.—My cousin made her an eHarmony page – that’s a dating website.  And she started getting all these emails from guys wanting to ask her out.

## And what about fan mail for you, any disturbing feedback?

C.C.— I’ve only had one letter that really disturbed me.  It was from a young man with a very explicit kidnapping/rape fantasy.  Sick stuff.  And I was worried that he might actually do it.  But he hadn’t committed any crime.  And fantasies aren’t against the law.  I didn’t write him back though.  I don’t need that kind of pen pal. 

## Have you received feedback from real detectives about Archie?

C.C.—I have a few detective fans, which amazes me because my books are not exactly heavy on the realism, and I think that a cop might find all the liberties I take somewhat distracting.  I think they would also find it unrealistic that Archie doesn’t just shoot Gretchen in the head at the first available opportunity.

“The problem with the cutting edge is that someone has to bleed”.  –Zalman Stern
## Do you outline before you start writing a novel—or do you mostly drive without a map? Is it true that you usually start with dialogues?

C.C.—I map out the A story and most of the B story.  Not in proper outline form.  I just brainstorm a few pages of notes.  Then the rest of the B story and the C story get filled in along the way.  It’s a compromise.  I think you need to figure out where you’re going with a story.  I don’t buy that whole idea of creating characters and just following them around.  But I also don’t want to figure the whole thing out and then just spend a year fleshing out the outline.  There has to be some discovery process – that’s part of the fun.  And yes – I am a big fan of starting with dialog.  This was a huge breakthrough for me.  I almost always write a chapter out just with the dialog.  No attributions.  Just what the characters say.  Like a play.  It gets the arc of the scene on the page.  Then I go back and add action and props and setting and everything.  It cuts down on the writer’s block in a big way.  I really recommend that aspiring writers try it out.     

## When you write torture scenes, murders, violence in general, you expect/hope the readers will react; but on the other hand, did you ever scare yourself or think “how in hell did this come from my brain?”…

C.C.—Never.  But I scare a lot of other people who wonder how it came out of my brain.  Personally I am always amazed that other people don’t think about this stuff too

## Did you ever censor yourself, thinking you were going too far?

C.C.—I always tell myself to put it all in, and remind myself that I can always edit a scene out later.  I never do.  But I tell myself that, and it gives me permission to put it on the page.  And the stuff that makes me the most nervous when I’m writing it, always turns out to be the parts people like the most. 

## Do you fuss a lot over words and sentences, rhythms, etc? Do you find it difficult to edit your own writings?

C.C.—I don’t fuss nearly enough.  I have a book due every year and honestly I don’t have the time to linger as much over the finished product as I’d like to.  I am always rewriting my work.  Even when it’s printed and I’m reading at an event, I’ll scribble edits in the margins and cross out words.  It’s never done.  And I have terrible writing ticks that make me crazy – I get stuck on a word or description and I will use it endlessly until you want to stick a fork in your eye.  But I do like to edit my work.  That’s one of the fun bits--when it’s all down, and I get to play with it

## Do you write many drafts or do you re-write one chapter at a time, one paragraph at a time, etc?
C.C.— I write small and then flesh it out.  My first drafts are usually 200 pages long.  My final drafts are 360 pages.  But almost every word of that first draft is still in there, I’ve just added to it layer by layer. 

## What is the most difficult part of writing a book? (beginning, ending, middle, re-writing, dialogues, plotting, etc.)

C.C.— The last quarter, probably.  It’s where everything has to come together.  The first half is the easiest because you can throw as many balls up in the air as you want to, but by the end of the book you have to catch them all, all while ramping up the tension and giving readers a satisfying climax

## Do you write short stories? How different is your writing process for those, if you do?

C.C.— I just finished my second short story today.  The first short story I wrote has never been published.  This one is for an anthology.  I should never have agreed to do it.  I am not a short story writer.  It’s such a completely different form.  Each word is so important.  In novels, maybe 1 out of 50 words is important; with short stories it’s more like 25 out of 50.  In poetry, every word is important.  I guess I find novels more forgiving.  Plus I like long form narrative (remember the Barbies?).  I like to live out a story for a while.  I just don’t find writing short stories that satisfying.  Plus, they’re too hard for me.

## What sort of writing schedule do you keep most of the time?

C.C.— I write weekdays from about 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  Then I pick my daughter up from kindergarten.  As deadline looms, my writing day expands to 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

## Do you write while on a promo tour?

C.C.— I always bring my laptop and have high hopes of keyboarding away in my hotel room, and it never happens.  I have a hard time being productive when I only have an hour or two to write.  So I end up raiding the minibar and watching TV instead

“The future ain’t what it used to be” –Yogi Berra

## What do you want to achieve as a writer?

C.C.—I feel like I’ve achieved it – now I just want to maintain it.

## What’s next for you? Do you have plans for stand-alones?

C.C.—I really like the series format.  It’s that long form thing again.  I’d like to continue writing the Archie series, and also start another thriller series.  I have this fantasy that I might be able to write two books a year.

## Do you have a career plan for the near future or do you simply go year by year, book by book?

C.C.—I sign for three books at a time, so I have a pretty good sense of the next few years.  I still have a lot of Archie/Gretchen stories in my head, so I have a good sense of where that series is going.  My publisher is terrific and very supportive.  They’d like me to write a bunch more of these books

## What are your favourite book and movie set in Portland specifically (or Oregon in general)?

C.C.— Movie: My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant.  Book: the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary (there for kids, and I read them long before I ever lived in Portland, so it was a big thrill to discover that there really was a Klickitat Street).    

## What is the most interesting part of Portland as a setting?

C.C.—One, it’s underused, so it feels fresh.  Plus we have a lot of dramatic scenery here that routinely kills people.  Every day someone gets caught in a riptide and drowns, dies up on the mountain, gets lost in the woods, or get washed out to see by a sneaker wave.  And the next day, we all go back out there again, la di da.  There’s also the fact that it’s overcast and rainy here nine months a year, which tends to provide a nice sinister ambiance as well as an epidemic of seasonal affective disorder

## Which one of your books would you most want to see as a movie? Are there projects in development?

C.C.— I think that the next book, The Night Season, would probably make the best movie because there is a lot of action in it.  But Heartsick is the one in development.  They have a star attached to play Gretchen – sorry, I can’t tell you who! – and they have someone writing a script, so stay tuned.
(March 2011 update: January Jones (from TV's Mad Men) has apparently optioned the rights and would play Gretchen. We're waiting for a confirmation.)
January Jones

## If you could write a sequel to any books out there, which are the two that you would pick? And why, of course?

C.C.—I would write a sequel to Where the Red Fern Grows, a children’s book that distressed me greatly when I was eight, and in the sequel the two dogs that die in the first book would return.  It was all a dream or a misunderstanding!  They’re fine.  Then I would write would write a sequel to Black Beauty in which the horse survives.  Basically, I would rewrite all the dead animal stories of my youth and give them happy endings. 
It’s a trick question of course, because great books shouldn’t have sequels, and crappy books don’t deserve them. 

## What’s in store (or in the morgue) for Archie, Gretchen and Susan? Anything you can share, a little teaser?

C.C.—The Night Season has all kinds of drama. Flooding.  Kidnapping. Murder. A main character in a coma. A little Portland history. And – wait for it – an octopus. I swear to God. AN OCTOPUS. Pre-order now.

## If I could ask them, what would Gretchen & Archie have to say about the life you gave them?

C.C.—I think they would be pretty infuriated with me. And I wouldn’t blame them.

## And the last question, the one that I ask to every writer I interview: if there’s a crime novel written and you are the main character, what would be the first sentence of the book, and how would your character die?

C.C.—First sentence:  Chelsea Cain’s legs were a mile long, and as her deftly delivered throwing star severed the killer’s carotid artery, he couldn’t help noticing that her slim strong body pressed against the ninja suit she was wearing in all the right places.

Death:  I would sacrifice myself to save the world, naturally.  

JF April 2011

A huge thank you to Chelsea Cain for doing this interview; I was persistent and she was very patient. I'm glad I persisted and I hope she doesn't hate me.
I will review The Night Season very soon.


  1. Lots of excellent reading here, many thanks! I had been searching on yahoo when I identified your post, I’m going to add your feed to Google Reader, I look forward to a lot more from you.

  2. Thank you Anonymous for taking the time to leave a comment and for the nice words. Lots of good things are coming to the blog, I promise; I have more interviews lined-up (some already done but with some editing needed). I can't be full-time on this, unfortunately, but I try to do updates at least once a week.