Author Owen Laukkanen proves that living the dream comes with its nightmares.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Owen personally at Noir at the Bar events on both sides of the Canadian border. He’s like a literary matinee idol - young, handsome, vibrant, creatively brilliant and commercially successful. He likes dogs, too. That’s one thing we have in common, at least.
But in deeper conversation, another side of Owen’s professional experience is revealed, and while it’s hardly discouraging, it is sobering. As with all levels of life, “success” and “failure” are relative to one’s goals and values.
From a societal point of view, Owen may have it made. But from his ground level perspective, there remain challenges and frustrations that are obstacles to strategically overcome rather than roadblocks to recklessly ram through…
You recently shared a public Facebook post expressing some disillusionment with writing as a career if not a craft, even though many writers envy and can only aspire to your level of widely acclaimed, commercial achievements. Care to elaborate a bit on the reasons for this sense of frustration?
Sure. I think that the frustration comes from a feeling of powerlessness, and I suspect that many writers who’ve done business in the industry can relate to that feeling, regardless of their level of commercial achievement.
I think as writers, we struggle so long to get published that when we finally are offered a book deal, we’ll sign any piece of paper that lands in front of us, without really considering what kind of control we’re giving up.
And I think, also, that as writers, it can be easy to believe that our publishers’ interests, and ours, are always completely aligned, and that consequently, when our publisher makes a decision that relates to our books, it’s not something we need or have any right to question.
So I’ve been frustrated mainly with myself, because I’ve agreed to things that weren’t necessarily in my career’s best interest because I was still seeing myself as a lottery winner with a lucky book deal as opposed to a vital part of the publishing process.
The biggest example for me is about paperback releases. After the fourth book in my Stevens and Windermere FBI series, my publisher made the decision to stop doing paperback editions.
They had a business case for doing so, but in terms of my career it meant that the last two books in the series weren’t getting an affordable point of entry for new readers, or for readers on a budget. I hear from readers who are waiting anxiously for paperback editions, and I can’t provide them. And it has hurt my sales.
We published GALE FORCE earlier this year, a nautical adventure standalone novel that I’d hoped would be the launching pad for a new series. At the very least, I’d hoped it would warrant a paperback release; it’s the perfect fit for a well-priced mass-market edition that readers can pick up on a whim at the airport or the supermarket and take to the beach.
But my hopes for the book notwithstanding, there won’t be a paperback edition of GALE FORCE and it doesn’t appear that there will be any more books in the series, either.
It’s frustrating, because as writers we spend months and years on books we really, really love, and they get great reviews and good reader response, but there are elements of the market that we either can’t control or don’t believe we have the right to speak up about, and so we get these books that are essentially stillborn and that can hurt our careers a lot more than they do a publisher’s bottom line.
From frustration comes hope, though; the traditional publishing model isn’t the only way, and I’ve definitely learned to make sure I cover my own bases when it comes to future agreements. There will be paperback editions of all of my future books.
Long story short, I think as writers we owe it to ourselves to recognize that this business doesn’t function without our talent, and to stand up for our own interests, no matter how successful we may or may not be already.
I’ve met and interviewed a number of your Canadian peers, including Sam Wiebe, Linda L. Richards, and Dietrich Kalteis, and you all seem so…nice. What draws you to the field of dark thrillers and crime fiction?
Are we nice, Will? Or are we just passive-aggressive?
Seriously, I think you’re selling your own countrymen and countrywomen short. One of the best things about the crime fiction community is how friendly, generous and welcoming most of us are, no matter which side of the border we hail from.
It is, frankly, bizarre, that so many nice people are drawn to bloodthirsty murder, though.
For me, the appeal of crime fiction is that I believe at its best, our genre has so much potential to act as a yardstick for society’s ills. You mentioned Sam Wiebe; his INVISIBLE DEAD is probably the essential novel about Vancouver’s tragic struggles with poverty, addiction, and racial inequality.
It’s dressed in the clothes of one hell of a fine detective novel, but at its root, it’s a novel full of palpable anger and frustration at how one glittering city has failed its most vulnerable citizens.
That’s the kind of writing that attracts me to crime fiction. Being able to shine a light on some element of society that angers or concerns me, and then wrapping it in the guise of a commercial thriller that tells an entertaining story. I relish that challenge and I find it really rewarding to write stories that mean something to me.
Do you have any advice for authors that want to excel at literature as an art form while also appealing to the mass market sensibilities that mainstream publishers demand?
Yeah, that’s an excellent question. I think that by and large we writers need to remember that story comes first, particularly in a mass-market, mainstream publishing world. It behooves us to learn to tell good stories that people want to read, and then find ways to sprinkle in the themes we want to emphasize, rather than going the other way around.
Story is key, and I think good stories come from relatively simple plots populated by complex, engaging and relatable characters on all sides of the conflict, rather than complex plots with simple characters. That’s where you can really flex your literary muscle; develop characters who are three-dimensional and real and easy to root for, whether good guys or bad.
I think, also, it really pays to read widely and consume as much varied content as you possibly can. Be engaged in the world and look for the things that get you passionate, and engage with people and culture outside of your comfort zone.
To me the literary element comes from challenging myself to write with empathy. It’s relatively easy to write superficially about psycho killers, for instance, or, say, satirical hit pieces about buffoonish, bombastic politicians who rule the free world from behind their Twitter accounts, but the challenge—and the reward—comes from diving deep into a character’s head and trying to figure out what makes them tick, what makes them happy, angry, scared, etc.
Why are they the way they are?
If you can populate your stories with characters about whom you’re constantly trying to answer that question, I think you’ll land a lot closer to the literary side of the equation than not.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
To name a few: Michael Mann movies, the Notorious BIG, Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, Ghostface Killah, James Ellroy, Don Winslow, John Steinbeck, Oscar Wilde, Spike Walker’s books about Alaskan crab fishing, Lara Croft, John McFetridge, the movie Casino, Guy Ritchie flicks, Ace Atkins, Amor Towles, Killer Mike, Michael Chabon, Lucius Beebe, Greg McDonnell, and probably the Hamburglar.
What’s next for you?
Next for me is a really exciting new book called DECEPTION COVE, which will be out from Mulholland Books in May 2019. I came up with it while I was walking my dog, Lucy, during a bit of a creative dry spell, and it’s a story and a project that really made me fall in love with writing all over again.
Essentially, it’s the story of a rescue dog who is trained by a convict finishing up a sentence for murder, and then assigned to a widowed former Marine now coping with PTSD in a little town on the Olympic Peninsula.
The Marine’s husband was into some shady stuff, and even after he’s gone, the baddies are still coming around. Eventually, they take the dog from her, and this convict finds out once he gets out of prison, and heads out to the town to try and save the dog.
He kind of fancies himself a Jack Reacher type, riding in to help the damsel in distress, but the damsel in this situation is a combat decorated soldier who really doesn’t have time for his macho stuff, and they strike up an uneasy alliance to get the dog back and, ultimately, try and clean up this town.
It was super fun to write, maybe a tad more literary and kind of romantic, and of course it has a dog named Lucy, which makes all of the real Lucy’s kibble tax-deductible. I’m hoping she’ll join me on the road for some bookstore appearances next summer.
DECEPTION COVE is the first in a series. I’m working on the sequel right now. And I’ve also challenged myself to write a feature film screenplay every month until someone gives me a movie deal; I really feel like there’s a lot of potential on the Hollywood side of this business, and to this point, I really haven’t tapped it. So I’m trying to grind something out.
Looking forward to seeing that happen, Owen, cheers!
In addition to the McKenna Rhodes maritime adventure thriller GALE FORCE, Owen Laukkanen is the author of six critically-acclaimed Stevens and Windermere FBI thrillers, and as Owen Matthews, two wildly inappropriate novels for young adults. A former professional poker journalist and commercial fisherman, Laukkanen and his rescue pitbull Lucy divide their time between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island. WEBSITE