|Name: OWEN LAUKKANEN|
Owen Laukkanen graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program before spending three years as a reporter in the world of professional poker. He lives in Vancouver, where he writes the successful Stevens and Windermere series.
Thank you, Owen, for taking the time to chat with us.
My pleasure! Thanks very much for having me.
The Stevens and Windermere books are set in and around Minnesota’s Twin Cities. It seems an odd location, not as instantly-recognisable as, say, New York or Los Angeles, especially to us non-Americans. What’s the logic behind the setting and why choose it over those other places, or even your native Vancouver?
There’s kind of a funny story about how the books came to be set in Minnesota, which was not something I’d planned to do. I’d spent very little time in the Twin Cities before I wrote The Professionals, so I was really unprepared to have to go back and set a series there.
I’m one of those writers who doesn’t think before he types, which is to say, I like to start with a character and a crime and let the story unfold as it wants to. The Professionals is about a group of nomadic kidnappers, and I started the book somewhat arbitrarily in Chicago.
Being nomadic, they needed somewhere to go from the Windy City, and I (again, pretty arbitrarily), sent them north to Minnesota, whereupon I needed some law enforcement to act as foils for the group, and voila, in came Stevens and Windermere.
I’d really intended for the kidnappers to be the main characters of the book, and it wasn’t until the book was finished that my American publisher broached the idea of creating a series around Stevens and Windermere, and I found myself suddenly having to do a lot of research about the Twin Cities as I prepared to write the second, and later books.
That said, I feel pretty lucky to have happened into this Minnesota locale, as it gives me plenty of excuses to visit Minneapolis and Saint Paul, both of which are wonderful. And the state as a whole is a lot like Canada, where I’m from, so it’s not an entirely alien place to be writing about.
As far as setting a book in Vancouver, or anywhere in Canada, I confess to being a little bit of a mercenary. Put plain, books set in Canada don’t seem to sell very well, internationally or at home. There’s a notion that in order to succeed in Canada as an artist, you have to be seen to have succeeded in America, and I wanted to reach as wide a readership as I could.
I’ve spent enough time in the United States that I feel I can write about it credibly, but I do sometimes think wistfully about setting something in Vancouver, which is certainly rife with its own criminal possibilities.
In the early books of the series, at least, Kirk and Carla aren’t your average police procedural partners, given that they work for different agencies (Stevens for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; Windermere for the FBI). The job titles inform a lot of the dynamics between the pair. How did the relationship develop as you began writing the series, and did you have a specific goal in separating the pair?
Essentially, the relationship developed out of jurisdictional necessity. Stevens is a state policeman, and I imagined that he would be the first agent called to deal with The Professionals’ band of kidnappers, but I knew he would need FBI help.
As I said, I initially intended for the pair to act as foils for my criminal protagonists, so I didn’t give very much thought to their relationship at first. In fact, I think Windermere is a little one-dimensional in the first book, as I figured she would be more of a plot device than a main character.
It was really a lot of fun to go back and explore their relationship, and especially Windermere as a character, in the second book, Criminal Enterprise, though obviously it’s difficult to keep coming up with reasons that an FBI agent and a state policeman would work together on multiple cases. I think I’ve come up with a workable long-term solution by now, but it’s been something of a challenge to keep them together without straining credibility too much.
Speaking of dynamics: the sexual tension between this pair is palpable from the outset; despite this, the relationship remains (reasonably) professional throughout. Do you feel that the sexual tension is necessary, or important, in helping you develop the characters?
That’s a good question, and it’s certainly something that readers seem to have strong feelings about, one way or the other! I think the sexual tension served a purpose, especially in the early books, as it helped to flesh out the characters and give them lives outside of the investigation they were conducting.
Obviously, characters are more interesting to read about when they’re fully realized and have relatable wants and needs, and I think it’s easier to make a bad guy into a compelling character, simply by virtue of their reasons for committing crimes. I wanted to give the reader a reason to tune into the police chapters, too, and sexual tension seemed like a pretty straightforward way of making them interesting.
That said, readers do tend to take sides, and I’ve received more than a few emails asking when Stevens and Windermere will finally hook up, or begging me to cut the tension out entirely so Stevens can focus on his wife. I think as the series moves on and the characters grow and develop a bit more, the romantic element might wax and wane, but I do think it’s been useful.
You’ve written (or, at the very least, published here in the UK) the first four books of the Stevens and Windermere series in fairly rapid succession. Do you have plans for future volumes in the series, or any plans to write non-series books?
I do! At present, I’m revising the fifth book in the series, which will come out in North America in 2016, and I’m under contract for a sixth book as well. The fifth one is quite dark; the series seems to be getting darker as I go, but I think it might be the best book of the lot.
And I actually have a young adult novel coming out under a pen name very soon! It’s called HOW TO WIN AT HIGH SCHOOL and is written by “Owen Matthews,” and comes out in North America on March 3rd. I have no big plans to jump ship to the YA side of things completely, but it was really fun to work on something completely different. It’s actually the first novel I ever wrote, when I was about nineteen or twenty, and I kept it in the proverbial drawer for a decade or so before dusting it off and realizing it wasn’t as embarrassing as I might have feared.
My real dream, though, is to write a series of nautical adventure novels, and I’m tinkering with the first one right now, though finding time has been difficult with the Stevens and Windermere series, and this YA novel.
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
I remember reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in high school and really admiring the language and the imagery it evoked, and wishing I could create something so vivid and alive. I think that’s the book that first made me want to be a writer.
I probably tend to hew closer to the James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard models, with their short, punchy sentences and minimal description. Bret Easton Ellis is another writer whose minimalist style I admire, though I find the content kind of hit-or-miss.
And I was lucky enough to have one of my all-time favourite authors, a Cherokee-Canadian writer named Thomas King, as a creative writing professor in university. He’s probably been the most influential, just as far as the technical aspect of writing is concerned. He taught me how to look critically at my own work and to cut, cut, cut anything that doesn’t serve the story, which is invaluable knowledge for any writer.
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
I find that the writers I admire most are those who can seemingly pull beautiful, evocative, lyrical sentences out of thin air. I’m not one for much description in my writing, in part because whenever I try to wax rhapsodic about anything, it comes off as purple and overwrought.
But I really envy writers like Michael Chabon, Raymond Chandler, Patrick DeWitt and Amor Towles (among many, many others) for the beauty of their prose, where my own work, in comparison, serves a rather more workmanlike function.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Owen Laukkanen look like?
Typically, a day in my life involves a lot of procrastination! I work five days a week, Monday through Friday, and I try to get about five thousand words written each day, which allows me to get a first draft of a novel hammered out in about four to six weeks. Mind, they’re not particularly good words, but at the very least, I get a draft out and then can settle into the more difficult task of editing my pile of words into something resembling a novel.
Last September, my girlfriend and I adopted a puppy, a year-old rescue pitbull named Lucy, and as my girlfriend works a normal job, it usually falls to me to keep the puppy occupied. So I take the dog for a long walk along the ocean in the morning, and in the afternoon, I write while the dog sleeps it off. If I time it right, I can get the five thousand words in before the dog wakes up and demands her evening walk.
That said, I do find it a little tough writing when there’s a giant mass of sleeping dog cuddled up against me, or better yet, wanting to play. I generally can’t resist her, so the writing is coming a little slower as of late!
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
My main advice is to finish the damn draft. In my experience, there are a lot of aspiring writers out there who spend their time tinkering with the first ten chapters of their novel, but whose desire to get the beginning perfect prevents them from actually finishing the thing.
I’m a huge advocate of giving yourself permission to write an absolutely horrible first draft, because then at the very least you have a novel with a beginning, middle and end, and you can then set about revising it into something publishable. But if you’re stuck with the first thirty pages of something, no matter how beautifully written, you’ll never get your book published. So my main piece of advice is to write a first draft, no matter how awful.
My second piece of advice is to learn how to edit your own work as critically as you would your worst enemy’s, and to pick out and cut anything extraneous from your text. This often requires a lot of holding one’s nose, as it’s painful to cut out wonderfully written passages that do absolutely nothing to further your plot, but the sooner you learn to do this, the better.
If you can identify the flaws in your own work and learn to correct them, you’re miles ahead of the game.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
I’m reading a novel called Where All Light Tends To Go, by an American author named David Joy. It’s partly for business and partly for pleasure, as he and I share an American publisher and will be doing a couple of events together when The Stolen Ones, my fourth, comes out in March.
The publisher sent me a galley of his book, and so far it’s really good, unflinching rural noir. I’d have read the book even if I’d have had to pay for it, so I’m doubly lucky.
If the Stevens and Windermere should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
Oh man, this is a question I’ve been asked a fair bit, and I never have any good answers for it. I like Aisha Tyler (from Archer) or Zoe Saldana for Windermere, but for Stevens, I’m lost. As for directors, The Professionals was influenced to a pretty major extent by Michael Mann’s Heat, and I would go nuts if he ever got his hands on a Professionals script.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
Oh, good question, and impossible to narrow down. I’d like to have a beer with John Steinbeck, preferably on the docks in Monterey, and since my tastes skew to the nautical, I also wouldn’t pass up a drink with Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad, either.
I also confess a weakness for, ahem, British theatre of the late 19th century, so I would happily drink with Oscar Wilde and/or George Bernard Shaw, as well. In all of the above instances, the drink would be alcoholic, and my contribution to the discussion would mostly be my attempting to avoid saying anything foolish, which actually sums up most of my interactions with other people, be they literary titans or otherwise.
Thank you once again, Owen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.
Thanks again for having me! This was a lot of fun.