Until 2007, Meg Gardiner was an American living in London, writing low-profile thrillers that she couldn’t get published in her native country. Then Stephen King, who came upon one of her books nearly by chance, wrote a column for Entertainment Weekly hailing her as “the next suspense superstar.” A decade later, Gardiner, who relocated to Austin in 2014, has an American publisher and fourteen novels under her belt, and her Unsub series, featuring the fictional FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix, is being developed for television by CBS. Her second Unsub book, Into the Black Nowhere (Dutton, January 30), which follows Hendrix as she tracks a serial killer who operates along Interstate 35, is her first book set in Central Texas.
Texas Monthly: You were born in Oklahoma but moved to Santa Barbara, California, when you were three. Do you have memories of this part of the country?
Meg Gardiner: My grandparents lived in North Texas when I was a child, so I visited them every summer. And most of my family is still in Oklahoma. I know this area very well.
TM: So moving back to Texas felt like a homecoming?
MG: In some strangely familiar ways it did. I meet a lot of people who remind me of my grandparents’ generation, women like my maternal grandmother, who could repair a tractor and read Foreign Affairs.
TM: Your grandmother really did both of those things?
MG: She thought you should live an examined life. She read novels in French and dug in her garden and owned a farm.
TM: Your new book is set in Texas. What kind of research did you do to get the place right?
MG: I applied for a ride-along with the Austin Police Department, and I got an email back that said, “We’re sorry, we can’t have you ride along because of your criminal record.”
MG: That was the face I made! They said, “If you want to contest this decision, you can come down to police headquarters and look at your criminal record.” So I went, and they took my fingerprints and said, “We’re going to pull your jacket.” And then they came back sixty seconds later and said, “Ma’am, you don’t have a jacket.” I guess they mistook me for someone with a similar name or something.
TM: What was useful about going out with the officers?
MG: You can talk to cops about what their lives are like, why they like the job, why they don’t like the job, how it affects their family. There are young guys who just want to be on patrol. I asked them, “Do you hope to be a detective someday?” And they were like, “Are you crazy? Detectives take files home at night, detectives do paperwork. Why would I want to do that when I can drive around in a fast car?”
TM: Is CBS’s adaptation of the Unsub books going to be like Game of Thrones, where each season is based on one book?
MG: It’ll be more episodic than that. CBS loves crime dramas, and it does them extremely well.
TM: What’s your role?
MG: Producer. Which means I’m consulting with an extremely knowledgeable, experienced screenwriter who’s writing the pilot. She knows what she’s doing, and she bounces ideas off me.
TM: In real life we’re not really in a moment when Americans are focused on serial killers; we seem like we’re in this mass-killer moment. But mass killers aren’t very fertile ground for a thriller—the killing usually happens out of nowhere, and the killer usually dies right afterward or is captured.
MG: I haven’t been interested in writing about mass killers or spree killers. It’s very raw at the moment, and I wouldn’t want to write anything that’s so raw or that could be seen as exploiting someone’s tragedy.
TM: We’re also at a moment when there’s a great deal of public discussion of the victimization of women. In your books there are a lot of male villains preying on women. Do you feel like you’ve been tapping into an undercurrent that’s suddenly front-page news?
MG: I do. I’m very aware that women are exploited, even in a twenty-first-century Western country. If I can expose some of that and some of the ways that even a seemingly normal person can exploit people, maybe it’s valuable. But I also wanted to feature female investigators who have agency—literally and metaphorically—to tackle the issue.
TM: Right now there’s also a very nationalist and violent right wing on the rise in America. Is that a subject that interests you?
MG: Absolutely. My family is from Oklahoma City. The morning the [Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was blown up by Timothy McVeigh, in 1995], my aunt was driving down the street and was injured in the bombing. My grandmother was volunteering at a hospital just blocks away and was there until one in the morning as they brought people in. It rocked the city, and I don’t think it rocked the country enough.
TM: There were two double murders in Santa Barbara while you were growing up there that happened close to your house. Both have been credited to the man known as the Golden State Killer, who has never been caught.
MG: Nobody had connected those murders to the Golden State Killer until decades later, when DNA was examined, and that just shocked me. A lot from that went into the first Unsub book, thinking there’s this killer who uses maps, who’s traveling on creeks and staying off the road. I started looking back at where all these crime scenes were and thinking, “Oh my God, he could have been a construction worker next to the supermarket where my mom still goes to shop. Who was this guy? How well did he know the neighborhood? How close was he to the house where my little brother and sister were sleeping with their windows open?” It sets you on edge. And reminds you that there aren’t any certainties, even in a safe suburban neighborhood.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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