Last night RMDW sat down with author Owen Laukkanen at the Shebeen Whisk[e]y house to chat about life as a career novelist while pouring delicious whiskey down our gullets.
Somehow managing to avoid the years of trudging through the mire as a struggling writer, Laukkanen’s first novel, The Professionals, was picked up by one of the countries largest publishers as a series, currently slated for four books. The second book of the series, titled Criminal Enterprise, comes out on March 21st.
We sat down to talk about life as a career novelist (one of the quintessential jobs of a real man), whiskey and life.
Whisky #1: Macallan 10 (Scotch, Speyside, matured in Bourbon and Sherry. Very easy on the palate, crisp and sweet. A great whisky for introducing someone to the world of scotch)
Where did it all start for you? What was the first thing you wrote before becoming a professional writer?
We had to do these Young Author competitions every year when I was in grade school, and I remember writing this really dumb picture book that was basically just a collection of in-jokes I had with my friends. I didn’t even bother to hand it in; I never thought of myself as particularly creative or imaginative, and I figured I’d leave the writing to the kids who were.
Then in high school, I won a countywide writing competition for a pretty sappy story about my brother, who’d gone away to choir school and only rarely returned home. He came back to visit for a weekend, went away all too soon, and for the first time in my life I actually felt sad that he was leaving, and I wrote something about it that my teachers seemed to like. That was my first success as a writer, I guess, and my brother has never let me forget it.
What did you win?
I won a $25 gift certificate to HMV. I think my mom used it, so I didn’t even get to reap the rewards.
And that was it? You were hooked from that point on?
Yeah, around that time I started to really think about becoming a real writer. Even if I didn’t consider myself particularly creative, I was always a voracious reader—we were the type of family who would check out like 20-25 books from the library at a time, then forget to return them—and I think all that reading gave me a pretty good idea of how to express myself through writing. And I think I was probably more imaginative than I gave myself credit for; if anything, I had an overactive imagination.
So, yeah, from about the time I was sixteen or seventeen, I wanted to be a writer, but I fought it for a while. I figured writing as a career was a pipe dream, and I should figure out a fall back career in case writing didn’t work out. I suffered through a couple of years studying animal science at university before I said to hell with it, got into a writing program and set out trying to make a life of it.
Whisky #2: Arran 10 (Scotch, Island, matured in bourbon casks typically from Woodfords Reserve, finished in sherry. A lot like the Macallan but more vibrant and more “scotchy”. While it’s not a peated malt it clearly tastes like Scotland)
What books (then or now) have inspired you?
The first book I remember really inspiring me was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. We were reading it in high school and I remember being wowed by the way he evoked a scene, a feeling, an environment. He was writing about a fishing town, Monterey, and I come from a fishing family, so the book really resonated with me. I remember wanting to emulate his style.
Then, when I turned 19, a friend of mine gave me Stephen King’s On Writing for my birthday, and it’s pretty much my writer’s bible. Part of it is memoir and part of it is writing boot camp, and it really influenced how I approached writing when I started to really take it seriously.
Finally, when I started writing crime fiction, I read David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Simon is the guy behind The Wire, and before he did TV he was a journalist in Baltimore. Homicide chronicles a year he spent embedded with the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide division, and I found it utterly invaluable in terms of getting inside the heads of violent crimes cops.
Tell us about how it feels to be a professional writer; does it make you feel like more of a real man?
In my experience, writing (professionally or otherwise) consists of long periods of self doubt punctuated by brief, ecstatic moments of affirmation. Writing for a living adds to that the constant niggling feeling in the back of one’s head that success is fleeting, talent is illusory, and sooner or later, someone’s going to come along and force you to get a real job again.
As far as feeling like a real man, I write from my couch with a bag full of trail mix beside me. It’s not exactly Hemmingway stuff. I feel like a lot more of a real man when I’m working on fishing boats.
But I’m sure having a successful published novel helps you get laid?
Ha! It can’t hurt, I suppose. I’m not sure that any writer gets hordes of doe-eyed girls flocking to their readings, but people seem automatically more interested in hearing what you have to say if they know you’ve published a novel.
That said, I’m more the type to downplay the whole writing thing than to roll through a party handing out copies of my book to all the eligible bachelorettes. I find people who trumpet their accomplishments mostly unbearable, so I usually find myself in the position of sheepishly explaining what it is I do, rather than offering it up willingly.
Whisky #3: Old Pulteney 12yr (Scotch, Northern Highlands. This scotch was created for herring fishermen, and it’s bold enough to belt you in the face with flavor, even if you’re standing knee deep in herring guts)
What is your definition of a real man?
It’s funny: I was thinking about this before the interview, and I think I have a pretty skewed idea of masculinity. I grew up playing hockey at a pretty high level, and in that world the real men were the tough guys who could kick anyone’s ass and drove a pimped-out car and slept with a ton of women—pretty much cavemen.
As I’ve grown up, though, I’ve more or less seen the folly in that thinking. Nowadays, I think of real men as being more like my father and my uncle: My dad is a doctor, an oncologist, the kind of guy who’ll put in seventy or eighty hour weeks helping people fight for their lives and still cheerfully pick up his kids from hockey practice at the end of the day. He loves my mother unconditionally, doesn’t give a damn what kind of car he drives or what clothes he wears, and is the most decent, hardworking man I’ve ever known.
His brother, my uncle, was a commercial fisherman for nearly five decades. I worked on boats with him, and he’s another guy who’ll bust his ass to do a job, doesn’t complain, doesn’t brag, just works hard and handles his end.
To me then, a real man is somebody who keeps his word, who works hard and who lives by his own moral code instead of making his decisions based on the opinions of others. I think guys like these are a lot rarer than the cavemen.
What is your writing process?
Usually, I’m watching something or reading something and it triggers an interesting question, like a what-if scenario. With The Professionals, I was watching a show about kidnappers in Mexico and I wondered what it would take for someone to become a professional kidnapper in North America. So I sat down with that question in mind and let the story go where it wanted to go.
And what was the question for Criminal Enterprise?
What if your next door neighbor was a bank robber?
Does this style of writing get you into trouble at all?
Not trouble, necessarily, but it certainly leads you down a lot of blind alleys and dead ends. The Professionals was about 50% longer in the first draft than in the published form, because I was just following my imagination down whatever trail it chose to took. In the second draft I had to stitch it all together, cut out a lot of the wrong turns.
My first draft of Criminal Enterprise, the new book, is nothing like the finished product. So many unlikely coincidences and unbelievable moments, digressions that didn’t really go anywhere. The first draft is more an exercise in getting a basic story out there, drawing out the characters and the major conflicts, and then honing it all into something readable for the later drafts.
Was the first or second book harder to write?
The second book, by a mile. I wrote The Professionals while I was living off my savings, hoping to land an agent and, eventually, a book deal. I wasn’t even considering it as part of a series, so when Putnam bought the book and wanted sequels it became kind of daunting. I felt a lot more pressure writing something I’d already been paid for, and on top of that I had a bunch of glowing endorsements coming in from other writers at the same time, so there was pressure in the sense that I wanted the second book to live up to the first, as well.
But it was also a lot of fun, though. I’d never revisited a character before, and it was really cool to be able to delve deeper into the lives of Stevens and Windermere, my two cops. It was fun to get to explore their worlds some more, and when I sat down to write the third book last year, their voices were so engrained in my head that the writing came quite easily.
Whisky #4: Bowmore 12 (Scotch, Islay. This is commonly considered to be the best of the Bowmore offerings. It’s probably the best scotch for introducing someone to a peated, smoky Islay malt. Terrific in every way)
Do you obsess over reviews and sales numbers?
To be honest, I just sort of avoid them. I looked at the sales numbers once and realized I had zero frame of reference, no way to really parse what the numbers meant, so I had no idea whether I was kicking ass or failing miserably. I’m the kind of person who would really obsess over that stuff, too, so I just stopped looking for it.
Ditto with reviews. I read the good reviews that my publisher passes along, but I stay away from Amazon and Goodreads and everything else. I’ve found the joy of reading ten positive reviews pales in comparison to the gut-punch one feels reading a single bad review, so I don’t bother. I’d like to be the kind of person who could read criticism and not take it personally, but alas.
What’s your favorite movie?
What about your favorite album?
Life After Death, by The Notorious BIG. I always feel a bit weird bringing this up, because I feel like a lot of people in the mainstream write rap music off, but some of these guys are great effing writers, man. There are some tracks on Life After Death that are like three-minute crime sagas. Put them to paper and they’re pretty much short stories. I’d say as much as movies like Heat had an influence on me as a writer, so did a lot of rap albums.
Who would win in a fight?
Charles Dickens VS. George Orwell: My thinking here was that Orwell was too nebbish and, you know, nerdy to stand a chance against Dickens, but then I did some fact checking and found out that Orwell was shot in the throat during the Spanish Civil War, which proves me completely wrong. That said, I’m giving the nod to Dickens on strength of beard alone.
You VS. Dickens: Dickens. I can grow a mean beard, but I write from my couch, with regular breaks for trail mix and Facebook. I don’t stand a chance against anyone from that era.
Paul Newman VS. Robert Redford: Newman. Reg Dunlop every time.
Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden VS. Brad Pitt as Mickey O’Neil: The Pikey (O’Neil). Tyler Durden’s tough, but in the end he’s the manifestation of Edward Norton’s imagination, right? He fights because he’s bored and disenfranchised. It takes a lot to get the Pikey into a fight, but if he’s fighting, he’s winning.
Whiskey #5: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (12 year aged Bourbon. One of the better bourbon’s you’ll get your hands on. It’s bottled between 11 and 14 years from a selection of casks all produces on the same day. This year’s bottling is 12 years and 96 proof.)
What’s next for Owen Laukkanen?
I’m working on the fourth novel in the Stevens and Windermere series right now, with an eye on getting the first draft done before I head out on tour to promote Criminal Enterprise at the end of March. Waiting for edits on the third book and doing publicity stuff for the second; it’s busy season right now for me.
Out of all the whisk[e]ys we had here today, what was your favorite?
I liked the Bowmore and the Old Pulteney. I think the Old Pulteney appealed to me because of its backstory as a scotch strong enough to counteract all the kipper the fishermen who drank it would be eating, but they were both fantastic. I loved the smokiness to the Bowmore.
Finally, are you much of a whiskey drinker yourself? What’s your favorite drink?
Given the title of this blog, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m no whiskey expert, though every one of my encounters with the stuff has been a singular experience. It’s a taste I’d really like to cultivate.
My default cocktail is a gin and tonic, though when I go out I’m pretty much a beer guy. And I just came back from Whistler, where the Fairmont has a signature cocktail called the Mallard Sour which is pretty damn amazing. If they were closer to Vancouver, I’d be in trouble.
With that the interview had to come to a close for Laukkanen to make it on time to see Ghostface Killah. Real Men Drink Whiskey highly recommends you pick up The Professionals, we guarantee you’ll like it enough to be as stoked on the sequel as we are.
Many thanks to Owen Laukkanen, Shebeen Whisk[e]y House and Daniel Skolovy for taking a few hundred pictures.