Go Down to the Basement: MysteryPeople Q&A with Meg Gardiner

Meg Gardiner comes to BookPeople to launch her latest on Monday, June 26, at 7 PM. She’ll be in conversation with Jeff Abbott. You can find copies of UNSUB on our shelves starting Monday, June 26th – one day before the official release date!

Molly Odintz: You have a Hemingway-esque talent for communicating far more about your characters than would seem possible from the word count—how do you balance creating fully formed characters with the need to always move a thriller’s plot forward?

Meg Gardiner: Plot is what the characters do. Characters spring to life when I put them into action, in conflict, under pressure. What do they want? What do they fear? What will the heroine do when the antagonist threatens the people she loves? In UNSUB, young cop Caitlin Hendrix is hunting a legendary killer. The choices she makes when she’s put to the test—and the choices everyone in the novel make—reveal their character. Revelation is always most powerful when it unfolds through action.

And I’m honored by the comparison to Hemingway. I can only strive to approach the vivid economy of his writing.

MO: There’s a lot of grisly creativity that went into your latest. How did you come up with all those different murder scenarios?

MG: I took what frightens me and turned it into fiction. Slithering things. Sharp blades. Creepy dolls. Betrayal. I also reread a lot of classic literature. Epic poets, I tell you—they wrote some bloodcurdling stuff.

I follow Stephen King’s advice: “Go down to the basement.” Dredge up the dark stuff. Put it on the page. There, it can give readers the kind of thrill they get on a roller coaster.

MO: My favorite character in your latest was the internet savvy housewife who spends her time tracking down serial killers—what was your inspiration for the character?

MG: Thanks to the internet, amateur crime enthusiasts can now run sites dedicated to solving cold cases. Zodiology—the study of the Zodiac killings—is a world unto itself. I’m impressed by the dedication of these online sleuths. They inspired Deralynn Hobbs, the mom in UNSUB who runs FindTheProphet.com. Deralynn is committed to tracking down the killer—maybe obsessed with it—but her heart is in the right place.

“In UNSUB, a legendary killer returns after 20 years. The evidence in the cold case is old. And it’s analog. Memories have faded. Witnesses have died. Physical evidence has been lost or stolen. And the killer is sophisticated enough to turn 21st century technology against the cops.”

MO: UNSUB takes us through reworking a 90s case with current tech—how has crime-solving changed since the initial Zodiac murders, and how did those changes affect your latest?

MG: DNA profiling has irrevocably changed criminal investigation. DNA evidence is definitive—you can’t hide from your chromosomes. Criminals know this, of course. If the Zodiac ever writes another letter to the papers, I doubt he’ll lick the stamp.

Today, video cameras are ubiquitous. Computer forensics can trace a cyber trail across the globe. But CCTV, blood spatter analysis, and cell tower tracking haven’t eliminated crime. Human nature compels some people to keep on killing.

In UNSUB, a legendary killer returns after 20 years. The evidence in the cold case is old. And it’s analog. Memories have faded. Witnesses have died. Physical evidence has been lost or stolen. And the killer is sophisticated enough to turn 21st century technology against the cops.

Criminals have worn masks for centuries. In UNSUB, the killer learns to slip on a new, digital disguise. It puts Caitlin and her fellow investigators at a disadvantage.

MO: You’re a writer who’s done numerous stand-alones, each distinct, yet always featuring a strong female protagonist for your thrillers. I love the focus on strong female characters, and it seems to me there can sometimes be a lack of strong female protagonists in thrillers. As someone who’s immersed in the genre, what do you think is the state of representation of women in the genre today?

MG: The thriller genre has created some exceptional female characters recently, and readers love them. But I want talk about the term, “strong female protagonist.” A friend thinks it’s often shorthand for “Not a girly story.” It can imply that the protagonist is a hard-ass who just happens to be a woman. But I think “strong” means something different. It means the protagonist has brains, guts, skills, and emotional intelligence that she uses to solve problems. It means she has empathy—and that her empathy spurs her to courageous efforts to bring about justice.

My novels feature plenty of action. And my heroines jump into the fray. But “strong” doesn’t mean coldhearted. It doesn’t mean brutal. In UNSUB, it certainly doesn’t mean that Caitlin takes bad guys down without feeling the human cost. In my books, “strong” means that the heroine is resourceful, decisive, and loving—to the point that she’ll risk herself to help others.

My female characters must dig deep and rise to the occasion. That’s what strong means in my book.

MO: Do you get a lot of reader response to your work? From an author’s perspective, what do thriller readers care about most?

MG: Thriller readers love suspense, but they only consider a book nail-biting when they care about the characters. A novel can have car chases, skyscraper shootouts, and explosions, but if readers don’t care about the characters’ pain and longing, the book fails. If readers don’t care about the characters’ desperate attempts to put things right, then it’s just shallow spectacle. A boring one.

“My novels feature plenty of action. And my heroines jump into the fray. But “strong” doesn’t mean coldhearted. It doesn’t mean brutal. In UNSUB, it certainly doesn’t mean that Caitlin takes bad guys down without feeling the human cost. In my books, “strong” means that the heroine is resourceful, decisive, and loving—to the point that she’ll risk herself to help others.”

MO: You started writing crime fiction when you were living in England, if I’m correct—does Texas provide a different kind of inspiration for your writing?

MG:The vast scale and diversity of Texas encourage me to open up my storytelling—to expand its scope, its immediacy, its sweep. At a nitty-gritty level, if I work late, I know Torchy’s Tacos is open until 10 p.m. That spurs me to keep going. And when I go hunting for tacos, Gary Clark Jr. will be blasting on the radio.

Sections of the novel I’m currently writing are set in Austin. How’s that for inspiration?

MO: So I frequently describe your novels as hard to put down, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever gotten a particularly amusing response from a reader in terms of what they missed out on in their own lives when they were busy finishing your books.

MG: One reader wrote to me, saying she got so involved in my novel, she forgot to feed her children. I told her that warmed my heart.

MO: Take us through fact checking for your novels. Do you have a bunch of cops and hackers on speed-dial, ready to answer all your questions? How much does your legal background factor in to your writing?

MG: To get it right, I call on lawyers, internet wizards, rock climbers, pararescue jumpers, psychiatrists, martial artists, and, though you can’t tell anybody this, a couple of spies.

My background as a lawyer gives me a solid understanding of how the court system works. And it’s taught me to write persuasively. Every legal case is a story, and lawyers must tell their clients’ side in a compelling way, to convince the judge or jury of the justice of their case.

MO: It seems to me (without giving away any spoilers) that the end of UNSUB sets us up for a (highly anticipated by me) follow-up novel. Will you be continuing with the same characters, or will you be bowled-over busy with plans for a TV adaptation? (I saw CBS bought the rights—congrats!)

MG: Thanks! I’m thrilled about the CBS deal. I’m currently finishing the sequel to UNSUB. It’s titled Into the Black Nowhere. Caitlin Hendrix is recruited by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, and engages in a cat-and-mouse game with a charming, devious killer as she hunts him across the west.

Meg Gardiner joins us for the official book launch of UNSUB on Monday, June 26th at 7 PM.We’ll have copies of UNSUB for sale a day earlier than the official release date of June 27th – if you’d like an early bird copy of UNSUB, pre-order now or stop by the store on Monday, the 26th.  She’ll be in conversation with Jeff Abbott, so those who’d like to meet Austin’s two most eminent thrillerists, come on by for what promises to be a fascinating evening. 

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