Thursday, March 29, 2012

Snatch and Grabber

Earlier today, the crux of my recent conversation with Vancouver, Canada, resident Owen Laukkanen appeared on the Kirkus Reviews Web site. As many readers already know, Laukkanen was a Web site reporter, who covered international high-stakes poker tournaments, before re-launching himself as a novelist. His debut work, The Professionals, is being released this week by Putnam.

Here’s the publisher’s brief on that book’s plot:
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.
I went into The Professionals cold, with very low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised by the novel’s assured writing style, narrative drive, and substantive characters. Especially worth watching are the original four members of Laukkanen’s kidnapping “gang”--leader Arthur Pender and his girlfriend, Marie McAllister, together with Matt Sawyer and Ben “Mouse” Stirzaker. Later in the story, when Pender & Co. are in full flight mode, a fifth and no less intriguing player joins them: comely college student Tiffany Prentice, the daughter of a “big-shot investment banker.”

This is a book that actually deserves its designation as a “thriller.”

Click here to read my Kirkus interview with Laukkanen.

* * *

Of course, there were parts of that exchange I had to leave out, in order to conform with Kirkus’ worth-length restrictions. Rather than waste all of the excess, I shall post it here. A word of advice, though: Unless you have already made it through The Professionals, it’s probably best to read the Kirkus section of this interview first, then follow it up with the material below.

J. Kingston Pierce: Did you find it difficult to relate to the motives of your quartet of kidnappers? Could you imagine yourself in their shoes?

Owen Laukkanen: I’m not sure I could ever imagine myself turning to crime to pay the bills, but I did give Pender and his gang a motive to which I could relate. I think there are a lot of young people out there who get out of college and realize the jobs they’d always imagined would be waiting for them aren’t there. They’re taught that a university degree is going to mean financial security, and when they get out into the real world there’s a lot of desperation and disillusionment. What pushes Pender and his gang isn’t unique among members of their generation; their reaction is just a little beyond the norm.

JKP: Having read The Professionals, my guess is you came up with your four abductors before you filled out the rest of your cast. Is that the way it worked?

OL: Pretty much. The book developed ... pretty organically; I created characters on the fly, as the situation warranted. In Pender’s case, that was chapter two, when it came time to give a face to the kidnappers. Certainly, I wrote the first draft with Pender and his gang as my protagonists.

JKP: And then how did you choose your two principal crime-solvers, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator Kirk Stevens and law school grad-turned-FBI agent Carla Windermere? What made them ideal adversaries for the Pender gang?

OL: Stevens and Windermere, when it comes down to it, are more the result of jurisdictional circumstance than any concrete planning on my part. I knew, obviously, that the law would have to play a role in the story, and as the novel unfolded it became clear that Minnesota was where the crime-solvers would first be introduced.

I gave Stevens the case first, but I knew that as his investigation proceeded, he’d pretty soon reach a point where he’d lose jurisdiction. That meant introducing Windermere, and as soon as she hit the page it became clear that my two cops had the makings of a pretty memorable partnership.

JKP: At one point in The Professionals, Stevens says, “I want to look at Arthur Pender just once and try to figure him out.” Imagine you could explain Pender to Stevens: What would you tell him that would satisfy his curiosity?

OL: I think I would tell Stevens something very much like my last answer: Pender is, at his heart, a terrified young man who’s in over his head and whose fear and desperation are driving him to make some awful decisions. That’s Pender: a kid who was probably too smart for his own good, and who probably believed himself invincible for just a little too long.

JKP: Going forward, will you continue to focus more on your criminal characters? Or do you have a plan in mind to increase the depth and dimensionality off Stevens and Windermere?

OL: Ideally, I’d like to strike a balance. I had a great time expanding on both Stevens and Windermere in the second novel, particularly Windermere. In The Professionals we see her mainly through Stevens’ eyes and she remains quite enigmatic. In the second novel, we see more from her side.

That said, I do want to continue to write about interesting, three-dimensional and, if possible, sympathetic villains. I don’t want to populate my novels with boilerplate malevolent thugs; I’m interested in real, conflicted people with compelling motivations.

The challenge, I guess, is to create interesting villains while still giving Stevens and Windermere enough space to develop. I think the second book gives both Stevens and Windermere plenty of time in the spotlight.

JKP: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that your mother is a former forensic pathologist with the Vancouver, Canada, police department. What sorts of specific knowledge was she able to provide you as you put this first crime novel together?

OL: I’m not sure that I can point to any specific piece of knowledge she was able to impart, but I can say that for a crime writer, having a forensic pathologist in the family is certainly an invaluable asset. There’s something fantastically morbid about being able to discuss body decomposition over dinner and call it research.

JKP: What sorts of books or movies inspired The Professionals?

OL: I read David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets as I was writing The Professionals. It’s an incredible look into the workings of the Baltimore PD’s homicide division over the course of a year, and was pretty much invaluable as a glimpse into the machinations and psychopathology of a violent-crimes unit.

Movie-wise, my major influence was (and maybe always will be) Heat, by Michael Mann. Pender shares a lot of his obsession with professionalism with Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley, and I wanted the reader to feel that same kind of empathy that the audience feels watching Heat, even while both De Niro and Pender do some morally indefensible things.

JKP: Was The Professionals really your first novel, or like so many other writers, do you have a carefully secreted previous work stuck away in a drawer, never to see the light of publication? And if you have an unpublished first novel, what was it about?

OL: Oh, I have more dusty manuscripts in my drawer than I’d care to admit. I decided I wanted to be a writer at age 18, and from then on, I wrote. A lot. There are three or four first novels in my past, and I still harbor fantasies of going back and tinkering with them and making them publishable. I refuse to give up.

My first crime novel, though, I wrote about a month before I started The Professionals. It was a very hard-boiled detective novel set in the poker scene in Las Vegas, and though it hasn’t been published yet, it did attract the attention of my agent, so in some sense, it’s been a success.

JKP: Finally, I have to ask: How do you pronounce “Laukkanen”? And where in the world does that family name have its roots?

OL: It’s a Finnish last name. My grandparents immigrated to Canada in the early 1950s, just before they gave birth to my dad. Unfortunately, I barely speak four words of the language.

The name is pronounced Lao (as in cow)-ka-nin.

READ MORE:Owen Laukkanen’s Got a Hit on His Hands,” by Sarah Weinman (Macleans).

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