By Jeremy Burns
Katia Lief has been writing for years, and if you haven’t heard of her yet, it’s about time you have. The third book in her hit Karin Schaeffer crime thriller series just hit bookshelves, and fans and newcomers alike are gobbling up her uniquely suspenseful tale. Katia recently took time out of her busy schedule to speak with THE BIG THRILL.
Tell us a little about yourself.
The first thing I ever wrote that received any notice was a one page story for my third grade English teacher. I don’t recall what the assignment was, but I somehow found myself writing about a woman at a dinner party who suddenly realizes her teeth are invisible. She sits there, wedged between two chattering guests, wondering how she will eat, how she will talk, and generally how she will get out of the situation without having to open her mouth and reveal her dilemma. My teacher showed the story to my parents with a note to this effect: Katia could be a writer.
What if her note had instead encouraged me to be a dentist? But it didn’t. And so here I am.
To read more about me, visit my website, where this strange tale continues.
On a more practical level, I live with my family in Brooklyn. I write a lot. And I teach writing as an adjunct at the New School for Social Research.
Tell us about your new thriller, VANISHING GIRLS.
Here’s how the official promotional copy reads:
Girls are vanishing off the streets of New York City, and young women are being murdered. When the violence descends on Karin Schaeffer’s and Mac MacLeary’s comfortable Brooklyn neighborhood, and their best friend becomes the lead investigator, they are drawn into the bewildering series of crimes.
On its surface, the novel is the third installment in the Karin Schaeffer series, about a former-detective-turned-private-investigator and her detective-husband Mac. But on its deepest level, once all the layers are pulled back, it’s a story about human trafficking.
This is your third Karin Schaeffer novel. What makes VANISHING GIRLS different from her previous adventures?
The biggest difference is probably that Karin is farther away in time from the tragedy that started her story in the first book in the series, YOU ARE NEXT, in which she’s suicidal and recklessly tries to avenge the murder of her husband and child. In the second, NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME, she and her new husband Mac have settled down together and had a child, but Karin is still raw from the loss of her first family. In VANISHING GIRLS, she’s stronger, gets drawn back into actively investigating crimes again, and her family and life continue to grow.
Another difference is geographical. In book one, Karin’s life transitions between New Jersey and New York. In book two, she and Mac start off in Brooklyn and end up all over the map: Miami, Cape Cod, Mexico. But in VANISHING GIRLS, they stay put. Karin and Mac have settled into their new life together in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. Aside from some visits to Manhattan, the story takes place in their small urban neighborhood where life is often likened to that of a small town. It’s a village in a big city, and I mined for the best, and worst, of both.
What was your initial inspiration for VANISHING GIRLS? How did the story’s premise develop through the early days of your writing process?
Strange though it sounds, I saw, in my mind, a girl with a blue manicure injured on a dark street. I wondered what happened to her, how she got there, and if she would live. Meanwhile, I had just read a book called HALF THE SKY: TURNING OPPRESSION INTO OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN WORLDWIDE, by journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It was an eye-opener. Their excellent book is about much more than the commercial sex trade, but being a crime writer, I found myself turning to the darkest part of their investigation. I started researching, consumed a lot of statistics, and was horrified by the inhumanity of the math. I didn’t know how, but in some way the girl with the blue manicure was going to be part of that story.
How much of yourself do you put in your characters? With which character in VANISHING GIRLS do you most identify?
To answer your first question: everything, and nothing. Every character I invent gestates in my mind, and in that sense, they are all me. But I never consciously write about myself as a whole person. That would be boring. I have to live with myself, and writing fiction is a way to transport yourself out of your own life. I’m just not interesting enough to be a character in one of my books.
However…if I had to choose one character in VANISHING GIRLS I most identify with, it would have to be Karin. In many ways, she’s nothing like me: I’ve never been the victim of a violent crime, and I’m not tall or all that courageous. But in other ways, because I write her in a first person narrative voice, my thoughts inevitably weave themselves into hers from time to time.
Which character was the most fun for you to write? Why?
Detective Billy Staples, because his character grows so much in complexity in the course of this novel. When I first invented Billy in YOU ARE NEXT, he came out of nowhere, just drove up in his gray sedan, listening to Willy Nelson, because I needed a cop to deliver some bad news to Karin in person. From there, Billy has blossomed in ways I never expected.
Why was he so much fun to write in this book? Probably because of the eye patch.
What is your favorite book you’ve written thus far? Why?
That’s an impossible question to answer. When I’m writing a novel, it’s my favorite. Then I turn it in to my publisher, and start writing a new one, and that’s my favorite.
What is your favorite book by another author? Why?
The list is very long, but I can tell you that among my favorite novels are MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN by Salman Rushdie, TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney, THE PRICE OF SALT by Patricia Highsmith, THE COLLECTOR by John Fowles, IN THE WOODS by Tana French, ROOM by Emma Donoghue…and those are just the ones that spring to mind.
What are some of the ways you’ve conducted research for this novel and/or series? Any interesting stories there?
For this novel, I started to look into the facts about domestic, U.S.-based trafficking, and while the numbers aren’t nearly as staggering as those involved with international trafficking, I learned that the problem exists here as well. Of the approximately seven-hundred thousand people trafficked out of the U.S. each year, the vast majority are women and girls forced into the commercial sex trade. Looking closer to home, I learned that my own city, New York, is also no stranger to trafficking. I read and discovered some appalling facts about where some of these victims end up, and how they get there, and the seeds of the novel were planted. I set the story in my own neighborhood in Brooklyn as a way of emphasizing how close to home this hidden but vast problem can surface.
What is your favorite travel destination? Why?
I’m a traveler; I love visiting new places. But my family and I find ourselves returning often to the Berkshires, which is an easy drive from the city. We also love going to Martha’s Vineyard, though we don’t get there as often as we’d like. And Mexico, to soak in the sun, preferably in February when winter feels most unrelenting.
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
I love sitting alone at the peace and quiet of my desk, opening the door to my imagination and just following it someplace new. It gets most exciting when a character I didn’t plan pops into focus and starts talking. Those characters write themselves, and I just type. I love that.
What is one thing that would surprise your fans about you or your writing process?
Probably the fact that I don’t get up early, don’t work at night and rarely on the weekends; but somehow, I manage to write a new book every year. It surprises me, too.
What is one piece of advice you would give to aspiring/new authors who look up to you?
Write the novels you want to read: please yourself first. If you’re lucky enough to make a living as a novelist, you’ll be happier if you’re writing what you want to write, not what someone told you would be profitable.
What can we expect next from you, and where can readers go to hear the latest news?
Next up is THE MONEY KILL (coming in 2013), in which Karin and Mac are drawn into a financial thicket by people who are less than truthful about what is really at stake. They’re flung from their life in gentrified brownstone Brooklyn to England and then an island off Italy, where things really get interesting.
For my latest news, please visit my website.
Thanks to the author for taking us behind the scenes of her creative process. If you’re looking for a riveting crime thriller this summer, look no further than Katia Lief’s VANISHING GIRLS, in bookstores now.
In the fall of 2010, Katia Lief’s readers were introduced to Karin Schaeffer in a new series beginning with YOU ARE NEXT and closely followed by NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME (HarperCollins). Now, in July 2012, Karin Schaeffer returns in VANISHING GIRLS. The series, which has been called “brilliantly diabolical,” “chilling,” and “impossible to put down” is also published in the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey. Katia is the pseudonymous author, as Kate Pepper, of five previous thrillers. She teaches fiction writing at The New School in Manhattan and lives with her family in Brooklyn.