Owen Laukkanen’s 2012 debut, THE PROFESSIONALS, earned rave reviews from critics and readers alike. The story of four recent university graduates who turn to kidnapping in a failing job market, The Professionals was hailed as, “a brutally beautiful piece of work” by New York Times bestseller John Sandford, “a high-octane adrenaline and gunpowder-fueled rocket ride” by bestseller C.J. Box, and, “a first-class thriller by a terrific new voice” by John Lescroart. Mystery Scene Magazine called it one of the year’s best debuts, while Kirkus Reviews named it one of the top 100 novels of the year.
Laukkanen’s second novel, CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, reunited FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota state investigator Kirk Stevens in another explosive blockbuster. Kirkus Reviews raved, “Fans of crime thrillers shouldn’t miss this or anything else with Laukkanen’s name on the cover. The writing is so crisp, the pages almost turn themselves,” while Booklist wrote, “Laukkanen has clearly avoided the sophomore slump.”
Now, Laukkanen is back with a third Windermere and Stevens thriller, KILL FEE. The explosive opening takes place on a beautiful Saturday in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. Windermere and Stevens witness the assassination of one of the state’s wealthiest men. The shooter is a young man, utterly unremarkable—except in his eyes. There is something very wrong in his eyes. The events of that sunny springtime day will lead Stevens and Windermere across the country, down countless blind alleys, and finally to a very flourishing twenty-first-century enterprise: a high-tech murder-for-hire social media website. But just who has the dead-eyed shooter targeted next . . . and who’s choosing his victims?
A graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program, Laukkanen spent three years in the world of professional poker reporting before turning to fiction. He currently lives in Vancouver, where he’s hard at work on the fourth and fifth installments in the Stevens and Windermere series.
Clinton Greaves: Tell me about KILL FEE. It has a very original premise. I was wondering if it’s based on something you discovered in research. Or is it a complete example of artistic license?
Kill Fee is essentially the product of two ideas I wanted to explore. The first germ of the book was an idea I had about an online database for contract killers. I’m always looking for interesting crimes—and motivations for crimes—and it occurred to me that if I can do everything from order a pizza to look for a girlfriend online, it’s almost a natural progression to imagine ordering a murder using the Internet.
I think the first stirrings of this idea came when I was reading Misha Glenny’s excellent nonfiction book McMafia, about the globalization of crime, and how the Internet has really made it easy for criminals to orchestrate their crimes from a distance. And that’s what Parkerson, the villain in KILL FEE, is all about.
The second component of the book is the idea of the hired killers in the KILL FEE scheme being military victims afflicted with PTSD and coerced against their will into killing for Parkerson. This is entirely a product of my imagination, though it draws its roots from the very real struggles that so many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan face when they return to the United States.
I’d been doing a lot of reading about how soldiers deal with PTSD and mental illness after they return from their tours of duty, and it struck me that this was a particularly vulnerable subsection of society, and that it might not be entirely out of the realm of possibility for someone like Parkerson to pray on them.
Clinton Greaves: Sustaining a series is a very difficult endeavor. So far, you’ve managed to make each book in the Windermere and Stevens oeuvre fresh and original. The characters have grown as the series has progressed. Do you have a story arch in mind? A set number of books you would like to complete with these characters?
First of all, thanks. I didn’t set out to write a series about Stevens and Windermere, and when I set out to write CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, the second book, I was pretty daunted at the thought of trying to keep my characters fresh and interesting over a number of books. I’ve really enjoyed the challenge so far, though, and at this point, Stevens and Windermere are like old friends when I sit down to write about them.
I don’t have an arc in mind. Right now, I have a fourth book (THE STOLEN ONES) due to come out next year, and things are still up in the air after that. I’ve been sitting on an idea for the fifth book for years now, and I’d relish the opportunity to write about Stevens and Windermere ad infinitum; they’re a lot of fun to hang around with, and I’m sure I can keep finding trouble to get them into.
Clinton Greaves: Your writing is propulsive. No words are wasted, and there is tension on each page. Do you write and revise with these goals in mind? And have you had any film interest in your books?
I definitely try to cut down on the unnecessary bits when I write. I don’t really care for excessive description; as far as I’m concerned, the reader really only needs to see what’s essential to the plot, and they’re smart enough to fill in the rest.
If I’m setting a scene in a coffee shop, and the point of the scene is that you’re going to tell me there’s a bomb in the sugar shaker, we don’t need to know what kind of light fixtures are hanging from the ceiling. We’ve all been in a coffee shop, and we can call one to mind quite easily, instead of having to hear about the author’s version coffee shop when all we really care about is that bomb.
I edit pretty ruthlessly, too. My first drafts are a lot longer than the published books, and I take great joy in cutting everything I can. I think one of the most important skills a writer can have is the ability to look objectively at one’s own work, and pare out what isn’t working or what’s extraneous. So for me, it’s something I strive for, and at this point it’s quite cathartic.
As far as film interest, there has been interest, particularly in THE PROFESSIONALS, the first book in the series. At one point, one of the stars of the Twilight series was reportedly interested in starring as the villain, but I’m not sure where things stand at this point. I try not to get my hopes up, but it’s fun to fantasize a little.
Clinton Greaves: I believe some of the best writing in America is happening in genre fiction, crime novels in particular. Within the genre you see authors such as yourself dealing with some hot button social dilemmas. What drew you to the genre? Could you see yourself writing outside of crime fiction?
It’s funny, because I didn’t set out to write crime fiction, but I always enjoyed the genre, and when I decided to sit down and write and really try to get published, I decided I’d probably have better luck finding a publisher with a crime novel than with the aimless literary pretensions of an over-privileged white male.
I think writers like Richard Price and George Pelecanos have proven pretty conclusively that it’s possible to write entertaining crime fiction that still tackles big questions about the human condition at large, and I’d say that it’s easier (and more fun!) to find readers when you’re couching those societal explorations within the confines of an entertaining crime novel.
I really enjoy writing crime fiction, because it allows me to write about issues about which I’m passionate, while still having fun with bad guys and, you know, guns. At this point, I’m pretty happy in the genre, and I think the boundaries are elastic enough that I can indulge my need for variety while still writing “crime.”
(For example, I have a Young Adult novel coming out next year, called HOW TO WIN AT HIGH SCHOOL. It’s about a high school loser who decides he’s going to get popular by emulating the rise of Tony Montana from Scarface. It’s not exactly a crime novel, but it’s not not a crime novel either, and I certainly leaned on my crime novelist background as I wrote it.)
Clinton Greaves: To continue with the theme of the previous question, have you considered writing a standalone crime novel outside of the Windermere and Stevens world? I look at the trajectory of Dennis Lehane’s career, with the five PI books and then a switch with MYSTIC RIVER. Could you see yourself taking your career in a similar direction?
I’ve certainly considered the possibility that I might write a standalone novel, though I’ve yet to hit upon an idea that carries sufficient weight. I have this idea that if I’m going to write a standalone (a la MYSTIC RIVER), it had better be about something Big and Weighty and Bold. It’s a little daunting, to be honest.
I have ideas for more Stevens and Windermere books, where I can use the serial nature of the story to develop my characters in greater and greater depth, and I have a couple of other series thrillers that I’m fiddling with. I think once you start writing with a series in mind, it’s hard to get out of the mindset, and everything I write these days, I’m thinking about the possibilities for a second and third book.
Clinton Greaves: Going into a book do you let the story come to you? Or are you a careful plotter with file cards and charts and an extensive story “bible”?
I definitely let the story come to me. I tend to sit down with an idea for a crime and little else, and as the first draft of the novel unfolds, I figure out what the story’s about and where it’s going. By midway through, I generally have an idea about how it’s going to end, but I usually wander down a number of circuitous paths and blind alleys along the way.
This is why I think editing’s so important! My first drafts are usually overlong and messy, and it takes a lot of cleanup and pre-second draft planning and plotting to get everything tightened up.
I wouldn’t do it any other way, though. I like letting the story develop organically, and writing from an outline tends to feel a lot more like work. I enjoy getting up in the morning and knowing the characters are going to take me where they want to go, rather than dictating the course of action to them.
Clinton Greaves: I like to write in longhand first and then move to the computer. This process leads to an inadvertent second draft early in my process. Also, I like for the words to line up a certain way when I’m entering the text on the computer. This results in quite a bit of revising and tweaking and tinkering. It’s a bad habit, but I haven’t been able to break myself of it even after nearly a decade of writing. What are some of the quirks in your process?
Wow! I know what you mean. I think we all have quirks or little rituals we observe as we write. For me (and probably for a lot of writers), the editing is where I get quirky. I’m not sure that anybody edits their work in exactly the same way, but my process is to print the entire draft out and take to it with a red pen, hacking and slashing and marking up the manuscript.
I tend to make a fairly detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown in spreadsheet form as I’m editing, which allows me to analyze what each chapter is contributing to the story, and figure out what to excise and what to combine, move, etc.
When I’ve finished the spreadsheet, I write an outline of the new book as I imagine it, and then I retype everything from scratch, transcribing from my notes on the first draft and adding scenes and elements as necessary.
For me, writing the first draft is a lot like mining the raw material out of the earth; the editing process is where the rough stuff gets refined.
That’s my quirkiness, though. I like to write five thousand words a day, Monday through Friday, and I try to let the first draft sit for a month or so before I tackle it with the red pen.
Clinton Greaves: I love to read as much as write. Do you have much time for reading yourself? What are some crime fiction books that you think should be on everyone’s bookshelf (or Kindle, Nook, etc.)?
I do love to read, and I think it behooves any writer to read as much as they write. I try to carve out an hour or two every day to read, and I try to read across genres. I find it’s easy to get into a rut if I’m reading too much of one kind of writing or another.
I came into crime fiction a huge fan of Raymond Chandler, though I suspect any reader worth their salt already has a full complement of Phillip Marlowe on their bookshelf. I love James Elroy’s AMERICAN TABLOID trilogy, and as a former commercial fisherman, I wholeheartedly recommend Martin Cruz Smith’s POLAR STAR.
I also cannot sing the praises of Hugh Laurie’s THE GUN SELLER highly enough. I was a fan of the TV series House, and found a used copy of the book online after the first or second season. It’s magnificent and utterly hilarious, and it’s just so damned unfair that one man can be so talented an actor and a writer both (and a musician to boot!).
Clinton Greaves: My acknowledgment of electronic reading devices in the previous question naturally moved my mind to the much ballyhooed changes in publishing. How do you feel about the publishing industry these days? Encouraged or discouraged?
I’m encouraged. I think I would have to be an ungrateful wretch not to be, since my publishing story isn’t one that’s supposed to happen anymore. I’m a debut author who signed a deal with a Big 6 publisher who has showed a willingness to spend time and money to build my career. If publishers are putting their resources into writers like me, I can’t help but be encouraged (from a personal standpoint, obviously, but also with a view to the industry as a whole).
I think it’s natural to believe that the sky is falling, and I think there are certainly more changes to come, but I’m naturally an optimist, and I have faith. There will always be people who love books, in whatever form, and I think there will be enough of us to keep this industry alive and moving forward.
Clinton Greaves: What’s one question you wish an interviewer would ask? And go ahead and answer it.
Oh, man. I wish I had a snappy answer to this. I certainly have questions that I’m glad you didn’t ask, like why my characters are always eating at McDonald’s and have I ever heard of Burger King, for instance, and/or why is there a character in KILL FEE named after a silverware manufacturer (not intentional, I’m ashamed to admit).
Otherwise, interviewers and readers tend to be pretty creative with their questions, and I don’t think there’s much they haven’t asked me, though I’m always happy to talk more about my brief career as a commercial fisherman. So if an interviewer wanted to know how to kill and clean a thirty-pound octopus with one’s bare hands, I’d be happy to oblige.
Clinton Greaves: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. Any last thoughts?
Thank you for having me! I’m honored to be the first writer interviewed for your blog. One of the real joys about being involved in the crime fiction genre is the community around it, and I feel grateful for any chance I get to meet and interact with people who are as passionate about this stuff as I am.
To that end, I’m really looking forward to reading the interviews that follow mine!
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