10 Questions with Owen Laukkanen
Image by Alex Urosevic via National Post
I can’t say I’m exactly the biggest fan of traditional thrillers. The fact is, unless I’m being paid to read and review them, I don’t read thrillers. (By the way, if you’re a thriller fan, don’t get your panties in a bunch, because I’m not saying you shouldn’t read them, or that I think they’re bad, they’re just not my cup of coffee.) But there are exceptions. Okay, there’s one exception, Owen Laukkanen’s Stevens and Windermere series. The Professionals, Criminal Enterprise, Kill Fee, and the newly released, The Stolen Ones, are intelligent, fast paced, and read like a combination of the best of Stephen Hunter and Elmore Leonard. Simply put, they are intense, one-sitting novels, and if you haven’t discovered Laukkanen, get yourself to a bookstore ASAP.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
I wrote a short story for a mandatory young authors competition in grade six. It was essentially nonsense, a collection of inanities and in-jokes that my friends and I had cooked up that year. We were supposed to illustrate the stories and get them bound in hardcover format; I never bothered, because I was lazy, and also because I’d never really considered myself the “writing the book” type, anyway.
The story survived, though. I was at my parents’ place for Christmas and I found it on their bookshelf, still unbound and unpresentable, a mortifying artifact. I expect it will outlive the rest of my published work, and survive as the sole example of my creative contribution to the world.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
Good question. I was staying with my parents in the Canadian hinterlands when I sold The Professionals, and I may have celebrated by taking a long walk. Or maybe we drove into town and celebrated together over beer and butter-chicken poutine (this is something we actually do). Either way, it was a pretty muted celebration. I remember being really, really happy, though, and I guess that’s the main thing. These days it’s more hookers and blow.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
My process involves cycling through Facebook, Twitter, Grantland and The A.V. Club until I’ve exhausted all procrastination possibilities. Only then do I write. I try to write five thousand words a day, five days a week, until the first draft is done, and then I give the book a month or so to breathe before I print it out and attack it with a red pen. I retype it all from scratch, working from the remains of my first draft, and then tidy and polish until it’s ready for my agent to read. My girlfriend and I adopted a rescue pit bull a few months ago, though, so lately my process involves taking the dog out for as long as it takes to exhaust her, and then writing as much as I can while she naps it off. If I don’t get my word count in before she wakes up, I’m pretty well hooped.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Huh. Based on my reader mail, I’d say my biggest mistake has something to do with taking the Lord’s name in vain too often in my last book, Kill Fee. But aside from that, I always say my biggest mistake is writing Carla Windermere, my FBI agent protagonist, as almost unbelievably beautiful in the first book.
I didn’t expect to be writing a series, least of all with Windermere. She was more of a plot device than a character in the first book, so I figured it wouldn’t matter so much if I went overboard. Four books in, though, I can hear the eyes rolling every time I try to describe her from a physical standpoint.
The last thing I want is to write one of those “strong female characters” who are essentially male fantasies brought to life, so it’s actually kind of a fun challenge walking back the more fantastic aspects of her character, and writing her as someone with depth and personality. She’s become a really interesting character, so it’s a mistake I don’t really regret, after all.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
I would say the catharsis that came out of The Stolen Ones, my latest, had less to do with the subject matter, and more to do with the writing process itself. Of the four books in the series, it’s the one that caused me the most stress and self-doubt, and I really had to work a lot harder to mold it into a solid and cohesive work.
I came out of the editing process doubting not only the book’s quality, but my own abilities as a writer, and it’s really only now that the first reviews are coming in and people whose opinions I trust are really liking the book that I’m feeling like the pain was worthwhile, and that the process worked as it should.
I’m working on the fifth book in the series right now, and the editing stage is pushing me in the same kind of dark direction, but it’s helpful to look back at The Stolen Ones and realize that this is normal and okay, and that it’s something I can work through.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Hmm, I have a few who spring to mind, but I’m going to go with Boo Malone from Todd Robinson’s The Hard Bounce. This is partially because I like Todd a lot, and he’s a hell of a lot of fun to be drinking with, and I can see a little bit of Todd in Boo Malone—he’s one tough hombre on the outside, but, you know, a really warm and decent human person at his core.
Also, people don’t tend to mess with Boo, and I think he’d be a wonderful tour guide through Boston’s seedier drinking establishments, where I’d likely get my ass kicked if I wandered in alone.
Where do you buy your books?
Everywhere I can. There’s a wonderful indie bookstore in Vancouver called Dead Write/White Dwarf, which is awesome. I spend a lot of money at Chapters, too, which is essentially the Canadian Barnes & Noble. And I’ve been lucky enough to tour around to a bunch of the great American independent bookstores, including the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Murder By The Book in Houston, Nicola’s in Ann Arbor and Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis. I’ll max out my credit card in any one of those fine establishments.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
Poorly. I would like to get to a point where I can read a bad review (or even a positive review with a caveat or two) and not feel personally injured, but I’m not there yet. My strategy is to avoid reading reviews at all, and by and large, that tends to work, though I’m not sure it’s the healthiest way to operate.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
I can’t remember ever hearing an author give any really bad writing advice, but whoever is telling writers to lay siege to each others’ Facebook and Twitter inboxes with spammy auto-messages needs to check themselves.
Also, I think it’s pretty crummy counsel when certain personalities try to conscript new writers into blindly taking up their cause in the traditional vs. self-publishing debate, but that’s more political than anything else. The whole sky is falling/us versus them polarization really stressed me the hell out when I was breaking into the business, but so much of that stuff is manufactured and not worth indulging.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the hype, but as far as I’m concerned, the writing itself matters a hell of a lot more than the delivery mechanism.
Here’s a two part question: [That's cheating, Keith! -Editor]
1) Why is a guy from Canada writing about two law enforcement officers based out of Minnesota?
For the money, at least partially. There’s an axiom in Canada that in order to succeed as an artist, you have to make it in America first. And with the exception of Louise Penny, people don’t generally read books that are set in Canada, whether they’re Canadian readers or American. I knew I wanted people to read my work, and I wanted at least a passing chance at earning a living, so it was kind of a no brainer to set the books in America.
Moreover, nearly all of the culture we Canadians consume comes from America, and I’ve spent a lot of time traveling in the States, so I felt pretty comfortable setting my books south of the border.
As to why the books are set in Minnesota and not, say, Detroit or Seattle, that’s largely a function of chance. I’m not a plotter by any means, and my books kind of develop organically. My bad guys wound up in the Twin Cities at about the right time in The Professionals for the police to start chasing them, and that’s how Stevens and Windermere came about. I didn’t expect to land a series deal for the law enforcement characters; they were initially supposed to be foils for the real protagonists, the bad guys in the book.
2) Why did you decide to publish your YA novel, "How To Win At High School", under another name?
That wasn’t a decision that I made, necessarily. How To Win At High School is published by Harper Collins, and the Stevens and Windermere books by Putnam, who were pretty set on keeping the “Owen Laukkanen” brand focused on the thriller market. So Harper Collins and I came up with a pen name that at least draws some parallels with my already-published persona, and that’s how that came about.
There is another “Owen Matthews” who publishes literary novels for adults, apparently, so I figure I’ll just poach some of his readers and confuse the hell out of them with the YA stuff.
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