Interview: Owen Laukkanen, author of The Professionals and Criminal Enterprise

Owen Laukkanen is the author of the spectacular thriller, The Professionals, and his newest book, Criminal Enterprise, will be out on the 21st! Owen kindly took some time out of his very busy schedule and answered a few of my questions about the books, his writing, and more, so please welcome him to the blog!

owenlaukkanenOwen, your first book, The Professionals, debuted to rave reviews! Have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us a little about your background?
I think I first realized I wanted to be a writer in my junior year in high school. Before that, I’d always believed I was the kind of unimaginative kid who could never come up with a decent story, but I remember reading Cannery Row by John Steinbeck novel for class and wanting to be able to evoke the kinds of feelings and environments he did. I was always a pretty voracious reader, so I had a decent vocabulary and I could put a sentence together; I think I had the technical stuff down pretty early, and in hindsight I’d say I actually had an overactive imagination, rather than a lack thereof.

After I got out of high school, I was pretty set on being a writer, though I didn’t believe I’d ever make any money at it, so I went to university for two years of sciences before I realized I hated it and applied to a creative writing program, thinking if I was accepted it would mean I was a real writer. My teens and early twenties were always full of those “If I accomplish this, I’ll be a real writer” moments, but to this day I feel like my relationship with writing as a profession is quite tenuous.

What inspired you to write The Professionals?
I’d been working as a poker journalist after graduating from the writing program. It was a fantastic job, but after three years of it, I’d had enough of casinos and quit to try writing fiction. That writing program, in a backwards way, had inspired in me a desire to write crime fiction—they forbade writing anything genre-related, which made me want to write as much genre stuff as I could—so I sat down and wrote a hardboiled poker novel, and while I was finishing that, I was watching TV one night and a program came on about professional kidnappers in Latin America. I started to wonder what it would take to earn a living as a professional kidnapper in the United States, and that was the genesis for THE PROFESSIONALS. I finished the poker novel and immediately started work on the book.

criminalenterpriseI’m very excited about Criminal Enterprise, which will be out this month! Will you give us a bit of a teaser?
The book takes place about a year after THE PROFESSIONALS, and Minnesota state cop Kirk Stevens and his FBI counterpart, Carla Windermere, have settled back into their lives in the Twin Cities. They’ve fallen out of contact with each other, but not for long, because…

Carter Tomlin, a wealthy accountant in St. Paul, has just been laid off from his job. Desperate to keep up with the mortgage, he robs a bank, then another, and soon he realizes he has a taste for the violent stuff. The case falls in Windermere’s lap, but Stevens has his own connection, and soon both Stevens and Windermere are caught up in Tomlin’s ever-increasing reign of destruction.

It was a lot of fun to write. I really enjoyed writing from Windermere’s perspective; she was kind of enigmatic in THE PROFESSIONALS, and CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE gets deeper into her own personality. She’s a lot more human in this book, I think.

Are any of your characters based on real people?
To a certain extent. The kidnappers in THE PROFESSIONALS were based on good friends of mine, but not so much in CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE.

One of my best friends is a successful accountant with some marked similarities (superficially at least) to Carter Tomlin, and I was kind of afraid that he would be offended by the comparison, but he actually got a kick out of it. I use my friends’ names a lot in my novels, but usually only for the good guys.

What are some of your biggest literary influences?
I think in terms of developing my style, I was influenced a lot by Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and also by the Cherokee-Canadian writer Thomas King, who was one of my favorite authors even before I took his senior creative writing class in university. He taught me to edit ruthlessly, which I think is one of the most important skills a writer can have.

I’ll also admit to cribbing from James Patterson’s techniques for writing thrillers. He writes short chapters that always end on cliffhangers, which really seems to propel the reader through the book. I tried to emulate that in THE PROFESSIONALS.

As far as writers whose work I admire, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Michael Chabon, John McFetridge, Russell Smith…

thebigsleepWhat do you like to see in a good crime novel?
For me, it’s the writing. I like to be wowed by technique. A few weeks ago, someone sent me an advance copy of Robert Galbraith’s debut, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” which is about a former British military policeman-turned-private eye investigating the suicide of a beautiful young supermodel.

It’s a compelling plot, but what really got me was the way Galbraith used the mystery as a way to paint a portrait of modern London, replete with exquisitely-drawn characters and a really fantastic grasp on the peculiarities of class structure over there.

Anyway. I’ll rave about that book for days, but the point is, I like technique, and a mystery that aspires to something more than just solving a murder. Raymond Chandler’s facility with language is unparalleled; I’d read anything he wrote, regardless of genre.

Philip Kerr is another writer whose work seems to carry a bit more weight than the average. “Prague Fatale” is essentially a locked-room mystery, but set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, it’s devastating stuff.

What makes you want to put a book down in frustration?
I rarely, if ever, put a book down without finishing it, but I’ll whine whine whine about a book while I’m reading if the writing is lazy. That’s my biggest pet peeve. You can tell when a writer is cutting corners, because a book starts to read more like a treatment or an outline than an actual story, and that kind of thing drives me nuts. Don’t tell me so and so had a conversation, write the damn dialogue yourself!

If you could read one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Hmm. Probably “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler. It was the first of his novels I’d ever read, and one of those books I had to constantly force myself to slow down while reading, just to make sure I savored every turn of phrase. I’d come from something of a literary background, and Chandler really blew me away as far as redefining what a writer could accomplish in the crime genre.

professionalsYou’re a commercial fisherman by trade! Will you tell us about that and how you got into it?
Sure! The first thing people want to know is if it’s at all like the Deadliest Catch guys on TV, and it really, really isn’t. It’s far more tame. That said, I come from a family of fishermen: my grandfather was a fisherman and a boat builder on the Pacific Coast for years and years, and my uncle has been a commercial fisherman all his life.

I fished summers with my uncle in university, which was a particularly wonderful summer job: you’d work two months in an absolutely beautiful wilderness, make a pile of money and have a couple months off to blow it all. In a similar vein, it’s great for a writer, because you can work hard for a few months and then have the time and the bankroll to write.

And fishing is so markedly different from writing. You’re outdoors, you’re working with your hands, you’re surrounded by real, hardworking people instead of sitting alone on your laptop while your muscles atrophy.

Anyway, I fished with my uncle after I quit the poker job, and meanwhile, my father, who’s a doctor in Eastern Canada, had purchased a lobster boat, so after I got the book deal I went and fished with him in the summer while I worked on CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE. These days, the books come out just around the start of the lobster season, so the scheduling is tricky, but I imagine I’ll be out there a few days this season, helping out.

The worst part about the whole fishing thing is that I don’t particularly like seafood, which is unfortunate because the best part of fishing is the endless supply of fresh seafood coming across the galley table every night.

If someone were to visit you in Canada for the first time, where would you take them?
Good question! I’m going to cheat. My favorite Canadian experience is the trans-Canada train ride, which takes four days from Toronto to Vancouver and covers the Canadian Shield area in northern Ontario, the prairies and the Rocky Mountains. It’s a total throwback: you get a sleeping car, a bar car, gourmet meals in the diner and you meet all kinds of interesting people. It’s my favorite way to travel and in many ways the quintessential Canadian experience.

What’s next for you?
At the moment, I’m making final preparations for the launch of CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, while editing the third book in the Stevens and Windermere series and working on the first draft of the fourth book, and my dad’s asking when I’m going to come out to help build traps for the start of lobster fishing, so I’m a little busy!
Keep up with Owen: Website | Twitter

About THE PROFESSIONALS:
Four friends, recent college graduates, caught in a terrible job market, joke about turning to kidnapping to survive. And then, suddenly, it’s no joke. For two years, the strategy they devise-quick, efficient, low risk-works like a charm. Until they kidnap the wrong man.

Now two groups they’ve very much wanted to avoid are after them-the law, in the form of veteran state investigator Kirk Stevens and hotshot young FBI agent Carla Windermere, and an organized-crime outfit looking for payback. As they all crisscross the country in deadly pursuit and a series of increasingly explosive confrontations, each of them is ultimately forced to recognize the truth: The true professionals, cop or criminal, are those who are willing to sacrifice . . . everything.

About CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE:
From the outside, Carter Tomlin’s life looked perfect: a big house, pretty wife, two kids—a St. Paul success story. But Tomlin has a secret. He’s lost his job, the bills are mounting, and that perfect life is hanging by a thread. Desperate, he robs a bank. Then he robs another.

As the red flags start to go up, FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere homes in on Tomlin from one direction, while Minnesota state investigator Kirk Stevens picks up the trail from another. The two cops haven’t talked since their first case together, but that’s all going to change very quickly.

Because Carter Tomlin’s decided he likes robbing banks. And it’s not because of the money, not anymore. Tomlin has guns and a new taste for violence. And he’s not quitting anytime soon.

One Comment:

  1. David Kannas (Yes, that is a Finnish name.)

    What brings you to St. Paul and Minnesota as locations for your novels?
    I published Still Life with Badge in 2013. I am from northern MN and include that in the novel, although it is set in Seattle. My Finnish heritage plays a role in the novel.

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