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Interview: September 7, 2007

September 7, 2007

Chelsea Cain's HEARTSICK is quite a departure from her previously published books --- such as the humorous Nancy Drew satire CONFESSIONS OF A TEEN SLEUTH --- and her weekly newspaper columns. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Cain discusses what may have prompted this shift of genres and reflects on how fans of her work will respond to this change. She also sheds light on the complex relationship between her two main characters, describes which authors have impacted her writing and shares plans on future projects. HEARTSICK is a horrific thriller involving Gretchen Lowell, a serial killer of epic proportions, and Archie Sheridan, a police detective who is badly damaged on several levels. It also is a love story, of sorts. Is HEARTSICK a thriller that turned into a love story, a love story that turned into a thriller, or is it exactly what you intended it to be from your initial conception?

Chelsea Cain: The relationship between Archie and Gretchen was always what drove my interest in the story, so in that sense, it is exactly what I intended. I started with their back story and, in fact, wrote many of the Archie/Gretchen flashback scenes first, before I started the rest of the book. HEARTSICK was basically an excuse to explore their relationship.

BRC: Much of the attention in HEARTSICK naturally is focused on Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan. However, I also found Susan Ward, the reporter from the Oregon Herald, to be an extremely interesting character, as damaged in her own way as Archie and Gretchen. Do you have any plans to expand or diminish her role?

CC: Susan will be in all the books. She’s a hugely important part of HEARTSICK not just because she plays a prominent role in the plot, but also because she works into a couple of themes. The kind of metaphorical question at the center of the book is “Have you ever been attracted to someone who was bad for you?” Susan has; in fact, she’s rarely attracted to anyone who’s good for her. Also, she compliments Archie’s character. Archie is someone who has just found that he can’t live up to his expectations of himself. And Susan is someone who has just found that she can be better than the person she thought she was. There’s a tension between those two realizations that I think is really interesting.

BRC: I have read that you were raised in a hippie commune. Is this true? How much of yourself did you infuse into Susan Ward, who has a similar background and is a reporter?

CC: I spent my early childhood on a hippie commune and my mom was very bohemian, like Susan’s mother Bliss. Only Bliss is my mother times a hundred. I actually added Bliss late in the process because Susan wasn’t coming across as very likable. I figured a sure way to make a character more likable is to give her a crazy parent. That way, we can see how incredibly stable the character is by comparison.

BRC: Your newspaper columns are, for the most part, much different from HEARTSICK. Do you plan on advising your newspaper readers that they should expect the book to be somewhat darker than your weekly columns?

CC: I write a sort of gentle, nostalgic, confessional weekly column for The Oregonian. Very few gory murder scenes. It will be interesting to see how my readers react to HEARTSICK, which is quite different. I’m counting on them to self-select. The first couple of pages pretty much prepare you for what you’re in for --– so if you can stomach those, you’ll be okay.

BRC: You started writing HEARTSICK while you were pregnant. While your first novel, CONFESSIONS OF A TEEN SLEUTH, was a satire of the Nancy Drew mysteries, HEARTSICK is so dark by comparison. Any insight as to why you were drawn to the dark topics of HEARTSICK during your pregnancy as opposed to the lighter writing?

CC: Hormones?

BRC: What is the biggest difference between writing HEARTSICK and your newspaper columns? Or between writing HEARTSICK and CONFESSIONS OF A TEEN SLEUTH?

CC: They couldn’t be more different. The columns are nonfiction and 700 words. I turn in one a week and then it’s gone. Out of my head. CONFESSIONS was a parody, and a quick write (a few months). The character already existed and my job was to create little stories around them that referenced stories that had already been told. HEARTSICK is a novel. I had to create characters, a plot and a tone, and a whole universe for it all to exist in. Then I spent two years living part-time in this world. It’s a much bigger commitment. And because of that, it’s much more satisfying.

BRC: I understand that you plan to follow HEARTSICK with at least two more novels featuring Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan. When you originally created Lowell and Sheridan, did you see from the beginning that it would take more than one novel to tell the story you wanted to tell? Or did you finish HEARTSICK and realize that these folks weren’t done by a long shot?

CC: I knew about halfway through HEARTSICK that I wanted to write a series. I love to read series books. It’s just so much fun to pick up a book and know that if you like the characters, there’s more. (I think this goes back to my love of Nancy Drew books.) Of course, I didn’t know if I’d be able to sell a series, so I was very relieved when we got a three-book deal. I didn’t know what I’d do if someone wanted to publish the one book, and no others. It would have killed me. I probably would have had to write the next few anyway, just to get them out of my head.

BRC: Who came first: Gretchen Lowell or Archie Sheridan? And how?

CC: As I mentioned above, they came about at the same time, because it was the relationship between the two that I found compelling. Alone, Gretchen and Archie don’t interest me. But together, I could write about them all day long.

BRC: You look so wholesomely normal. HEARTSICK is so wonderfully twisted. Which is the real you?

CC: I’m probably somewhere in between.

BRC: What authors, if any, have influenced your work? And if you weren’t writing for a living, what would you be doing?

CC: I’m influenced by Val McDermid’s gore and character relationships, and Robert B. Parker’s attention to dialogue. As for my alternate profession, I have this secret fantasy about being a doctor. As you know, I love to cut people up.

BRC: What plans do you have beyond HEARTSICK and its two successors with respect to writing? Do you expect to do any more satirical work, such as CONFESSIONS OF A TEEN SLEUTH?

CC: I’d like to write about Gretchen and Archie and Susan for the next 20 years. I love writing these books, and I will write them until someone tells me to stop. I will probably continue to write humor books, too (CONFESSIONS is just one of several that I’ve published). But from now on, I’ll have to do those under a pseudonym. So next time you’re in the humor book section, see if you can guess which ones are by me.