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Zodiac Killer spurs thriller writer Meg Gardiner

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Meg Gardiner talks about “UNSUB,” her new novel which follows a serial killer not unlike the Zodiac, at Bookshop West Portal. (Courtesy photo)

For her 13th book, Edgar Award-winner Meg Gardiner decided to take on the Zodiac Killer.

“I grew up in California. As a kid, I was spooked by the whole thing. I remember how bizarre and terrifying it was. I was mesmerized and horrified that he couldn’t be caught,” says the Austin, Texas-based novelist, who comes to the Bay Area next week to promote her latest thriller.

That “legendary killer who tormented the Bay Area, sent freaky ciphers and lusted for publicity” sparked the idea for the villain in “UNSUB,” (the FBI name for an unknown subject), says Gardiner, who claims that what scares her tends to be turned into plots in her books.

The author of Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney mysteries is particularly pleased that “UNSUB” — which is about a young police investigator who takes on a recently reopened case of a serial killer called The Prophet who derailed her father’s detective career decades earlier — has been picked up for TV by CBS.

While both of her other series were optioned, she calls the deal for “UNSUB” a “serious and promising and very exciting” opportunity and says she’s going to be involved in the development: “I’m not just going to toss it over the fence,” she says.

Gardiner, who writes about a book per year, began her fiction career in the early 2000s, when she was living in the U.K. due to her husband’s job transfer to London.

After attending Stanford Law School, working in commercial litigation, then teaching legal writing and research at UC Santa Barbara and raising three kids, in England she at last found time to practice her burgeoning craft.

“I wrote a novel which was terrible and is still in my file cabinet,” she says, adding that she learned “that you actually need a plot” as well as feisty characters and witty banter to make a successful novel.

But, after attending seminars, and reading thrillers by great authors (Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton), she found success with “China Lake,” which was published in the U.K. in 2002.

Still, it wasn’t until 2008, after a “fairy godfather” connected her to Stephen King, who gave it a great review, that she got a U.S. book deal (within 48 hours of King’s comments) and, the next year, an Edgar Award.

Gardiner says her fascination with thrillers is that “they’re often about everyday people invaded by chaos and evil, facing the worst crises of their lives.”

An admitted news junkie, she clearly enjoys the challenge she attributes to her writing task, commenting, “Real life doesn’t have to make sense. Fiction does.”

One person who may agree with that is Susan Tunis, event coordinator at Bookshop West Portal in The City, who says that customers — since even before the 2016 presidential election — have been turning away from fiction and are particularly hungry for non-fiction.

While the store has been proud to host diverse speakers from environmentalists to feminists, she says, “It’s been a little challenging to bring in audiences to our fiction author events. But we still believe there are great novels and great novelists.”

To that end, the store has been offering a 5 percent discount for every fiction author event in June, and, for those who attend all six, a 30 percent off shopping spree on the day of their choice.

Interestingly, she says that two beloved local authors who often come in the store — Cara Black and Martha Conway — have written recent books with distant settings, while authors who are coming in from out of town, Barry Lancet and Gardiner, have set their books in the Bay Area.

Bookshop West Portal
Where: 80 W. Portal Ave., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 564-8080, www.bookshopwestportal.com

Martha Conway: 7 p.m. June 20, “The Underground River”
Barry Lancet: 7 p.m. June 27, “The Spy Across the Table”
Meg Gardiner: 7 p.m. June 29, “UNSUB”

Written by: Meg Gardiner
Published by: Dutton
Pages: 367
Price: $26

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