The Owen Laukkanen Interview with Dan (and Kate)

Dan (& Kate): Congrats on your latest novel KILL FEE hitting area bookshelves this month! What can fans of Stevens and Windermere expect with this, the third entry in their series?

Owen Laukkanen: Thanks! KILL FEE finds Stevens and Windermere on the hunt for the sociopathic mastermind behind an online contract killing website. The chase takes them from the streets of Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Miami, Manhattan and Las Vegas, before culminating in an explosive finale in…well, I can’t tell you where.

Suffice it to say, it’s a fun, fast-paced read (if I do say so myself), and readers who have been following along from the beginning will be treated to a few further wrinkles in the relationship between Stevens and Windermere, as well as another villain with whom they might just end up sympathizing.

D (&K): THE PROFESIONALS focused on a group of essentially good people who turn to crime due to a revenged job market. CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE centers on what extremes a man will go to when he loses his job. KILL FEE shines a light on the horrors faced by veterans returning from active service, and how they can be exploited. What was it about these real-world issues that spoke to you and demanded to be put in your books? And no, we would hope you haven’t set up a murder-for-hire website like in KILL FEE.

OL: I hope that nobody’s setting up criminal schemes like those I outline in my books, but if they are, I hope they’ll pay me a royalty. I’m attracted to real-world issues because I like to write about bad guys whose motivations run deeper than simple malevolence. I want criminals who are doing it for reasons I can understand, if not sympathize with.

D (&K): With THE PROFESSIONALS and CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, the failures of the American economy seemed like a natural way to send otherwise everyday people over the edge, and to see what they did when they found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

OL: With KILL FEE, I set out with the idea that I wanted to make a contract killer into something of a sympathetic character, and, moreover, I’d been reading more and more stories about soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the struggles they face adapting to normal, everyday lives, particularly those who are suffering from PTSD.

It seemed to me that what these veterans are facing is a real problem in our society, with a severe lack of resources and communication about their issues. It was something I wanted to explore, and it happened to make for an interesting wrinkle in the plot as well.

D (&K): Now that we’ve hit Book Three, how do you balance an on-going series that shows growth and development with easy accessibility for new readers?

OL: It’s a delicate balance, and something I’m pretty constantly preoccupied with when I’m writing. Most of the time, I just want to be able to refer back to previous books willy-nilly, and my agent tends to reign me in and wipe away all the spoilers, so that new readers will have a reason to pick up the earlier books.

One of the most rewarding things about writing an on-going series is the opportunity to grow and develop my primary characters. To me, they’re like old friends at this point, and I have to sometimes remind myself that new readers don’t actually know them so well yet. So there’s a lot of tweaking and fine-tuning in the editing stages.

D (&K): What is a Vancouver resident like you doing setting his crime-ridden stories in our fair city of St. Paul, MN? When you looked at a US map, did you actually point to the Land of 10,000 Lakes and say, “Yes. This is the most crime-y state in the Union. I’ll set my stories THERE.” Because really, our reputation is more for Passive Aggression than straight up Aggression-Aggression.

OL: If I’d been planning my career as a series writer at all, I would have set the books in Michigan. I grew up in southern Ontario, Canada, very close to Detroit, and I’m rather more familiar with that terrain than I was with Minnesota when I started writing the books.

As it happened, Stevens and Windermere are based in Minnesota by chance, rather than design; THE PROFESSIONALS featured a group of nomadic kidnappers who happened to find themselves in Minnesota at about the point that I needed a couple of cops to start chasing them. I didn’t intend for those cops to carry a series, but I’m thrilled they’re getting the chance. I’ve discovered I love Minnesota, and whenever I come back for more research or book tours I enjoy myself more. It’s been kind of serendipitous.

D (&K): How do you do research on a city that you don’t live in or near? Lots of time on Google and Google Maps?  Also, don’t you think it’s time that Agent Stevens and his family sat down for dinner over a pan of tater-tot hot dish?

OL: I think it’s high time that I sat down for a tater-tot hot dish, thank you very much. If Stevens is going to eat it, I’m going to research the hell out of it, first (and I will).

As far as researching the Twin Cities, I do spend a lot of time on Google and Google Maps. Street View is amazing – with the fourth book in the series, there are a few scenes set in a little farming town in Romania. About three thousand people live there, but the Google camera cars had been, so I was able to take a research expedition from my couch.

Obviously, there’s no substitution for on-the-ground research, though, and I’ve done a few fact-finding missions to the Twin Cities to make sure I’m catching what Street View doesn’t give me. Fortunately, Stevens and Windermere tend to take cases that send them all over America (funny how that happens), and I like to point them toward locales with which I’m familiar, like Detroit in THE PROFESSIONALS, or Las Vegas in KILL FEE.

In the spirit of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and the Bernard Pivot questions asked of every guest, we have our own set of questions we ask of every interviewee.

D (&K): When did you finally say, “Yeah… I’m gonna write stuff for a living. And it will be AWESOME.”

OL: Ha! I mean, I think I was seventeen or eighteen when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I remember reading a passage in CANNERY ROW for English class about fishing boats, and wanting pretty desperately to be able to evoke the kinds of senses that Steinbeck was evoking with his writing. I’d always been a voracious reader, and writing came pretty naturally.

As far as writing for a living, it’s been a gradual process, not in terms of deciding it was what I wanted to do, but more reaching a point where I was able to take the leap and try to sustain myself with the proceeds from my writing.

For me, the path to becoming a published author was comprised of long stretches of self-doubt and angst, interrupted by brief moments of glorious validation, and that validation would fuel me through the next doubtful stretch. I still feel like my situation, as a working writer is pretty tenuous, though it really is awesome. I suspect it’ll be this way as long as I’m writing.

D (&K): What has been your favorite moment in writing so far? The moment that when you read it on the page, you smiled and said, “That was so cool!”

OL: I find it so cool looking back at the published books and tracing their evolution from that first germ of an idea. I write very much off-the-cuff, without planning or outlining anything, so when I sit down to write a book I generally don’t have much of an idea where the characters will end up.

With THE PROFESSIONALS, I started with the basic idea for a crime, gave it to a bunch of unemployed college kids, and let them take me where they wanted to go, and I still find it really remarkable and kind of mind-boggling that that strategy produced a readable book.

With KILL FEE, on the other hand, I had a collection of ideas and a vague notion of what the book would look like, and the coolest moment for me is holding the book in my hands, three years after I dreamed up that vague notion, and seeing how faithfully the book adheres to that initial idea, despite all of my best efforts to the contrary.

The cool thing about writing, for me, is the journey of discovery. That sounds cheesy, but I like starting a book without having a real idea where my characters will end up. It makes the whole process fun, whereas I find if I outline, it starts to seem a lot more like work.

D (&K): What was the moment that made you say, “Writing books is amazing”?

OL: My writing career has been filled with those moments. I call them “pinch-me” moments, because they’re so surreal and wonderful and out of this world. They’re the moments of validation I talked about earlier, and I’ve been lucky enough that they seem to come faster and faster as my career builds.

If there’s one moment, though, it’s probably pretty simple: holding the first finished copy of THE PROFESSIONALS in my hands and knowing that in a few weeks, it was going to hit bookstores. I’d spent a large chunk of my life dreaming of that moment, and it was just as wonderful as I’d imagined it would be.

D (&K): Our standard Beatles or Rolling Stones question: Hammett or Chandler?

OL: Chandler all the way. I don’t even need a crime if I’m reading Chandler; I could read Marlowe narrating a trip to the grocery store and be captivated.

D (&K): You’re a hockey guy who lives in a hockey town in a country that is kinda good at hockey. Congrats on those Olympic gold medals, btw. But come on. Even you have got to admit that the Sedin twins, who play for your beloved Vancouver Canucks, are creepy. So creepy in fact, that “Sedin twins creepy” is the fourth suggestions when entered into Google. This part is not a question. It’s just our opportunity to rail against the Canucks.

(Note to the readers: Until last season, the Canucks and the Minnesota Wild were bitter Divisional rivals.)

Here’s the question: What do you think are the chances of the Canucks hoisting a Cup in our lifetime?

OL: First of all, I’d like to focus on the Olympic hockey medals, if I could. We won. Both of them. There’s a vast collection of videos on YouTube of Canadians responding to the gold medal winning goal in the women’s hockey finals (Canada 3, USA 2), and your question reminded me it was time to go back and rewatch them all. So, thanks.

Second, I’d like to point out that I’m younger than you. And I think I’ll definitely see the Canucks hoist a cup in my lifetime.

As far as the Wild go, I’ll hold off on predictions. In CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, I wrote a throwaway line about the Wild being a crummy hockey team, which was true when I wrote it, but by the time the book was actually published, the Wild were first in their division. They’re still a crummy team, though.

Dan, Kate, and Owen at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis, MN.

Dan, Kate, and Owen at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis. Owen is the tall one on the right. Photo by Kristi Belcamino