21 November 2020

Interview with Owen Laukkanen

Owen Laukkanen is the author of eleven critically-acclaimed novels, including the Neah Bay series (DECEPTION COVE, LONE JACK TRAIL), the nautical adventure GALE FORCE, and six Stevens and Windermere FBI thrillers. As Owen Matthews, he is the author of two wildly-inappropriate novels for young adults. A former professional poker journalist and commercial fisherman, Laukkanen lives in Vancouver, BC, with his pit bull Lucy, a rescue from California who stars alongside Jess Winslow and Mason Burke in the Neah Bay series. Laukkanen’s latest novel, LONE JACK TRAIL, was released by Mulholland Books in August; his next, the YA thriller THE WILD, is due from Delacorte/Underlined in January.

Could you tell us briefly what Lone Jack Trail, book 2 of the Neah Bay Series, is about?

Owen Laukkanen: LONE JACK TRAIL is a return to the town of Deception Cove and my characters Jess Winslow, Mason Burke and Lucy, the rescue dog who brought them together in the first book in the series. In DECEPTION COVE, Jess and Mason were kind of uneasy allies; here, they’ve kind of fallen for each other and Mason has decided to stick around in Makah County, Washington for a while to see if they (and Lucy!) can build a life together.

The plan hits a snag when Mason is implicated in the murder of Brock “Bad” Boyd, a disgraced former athlete in the Michael Vick vein who washes up dead a few days after he and Burke are seen fighting in Deception Cove. With Jess now working as a deputy for the Makah Sheriff’s Department, and Mason the prime suspect, their romance and friendship will be sorely tested as Mason fights to clear his name and hang onto everything he and Jess have built together. Essentially the question is, how well do these two people who’ve fallen in love really know each other, and how much are they willing to stake on what they think they know?

What kind of research did you do while writing this novel? And what was the most surprising thing you discovered or learned?

OL: Ha, well, I’ll be honest: LONE JACK TRAIL is, first off, a sequel; and second, a book set in a fictional town in a fictional county. Where DECEPTION COVE required a fair amount of research about Female Engagement Teams in the US Marine Corps (for Jess’s backstory), and prison life (for Mason’s) and companion animal training (for Lucy’s), a lot of the framework for LJT was already set in place and already stuff I knew or was prepared to invent. So as far as research went, this book was one where there really wasn’t much beyond looking at topographical maps and double-checking law enforcement procedure.

I will say that I was surprised to learn that writing the second book in a series is still super challenging. I found my second-ever published novel, CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, to be extremely tough to write and tough on me mentally, and LONE JACK TRAIL presented a lot of the same challenges. It’s my eleventh book to see print overall, and if I was hoping that writing, or publishing, a novel would get easier, it hasn’t yet. But with that comes the corollary I think that the harder you work and struggle on something, the more rewarding and satisfying it feels when it pays off.

Getting LONE JACK TRAIL into readers’ hands was immensely difficult for a number of reasons, and I’ve been so gratified by the positive response to the book so far. That in itself is always a wonderful surprise; that you can labour for so long and agonize over something to the point that you believe it’s all crap, and then when people get the book and read it and respond well you kind of realize just how lost in your own head about it all you’ve been. That’s a long answer to justify my lack of good research stories; sorry!

Gale Force, one of my favourites, is a maritime adventure thriller set off the Alaska coastline. C.J. Box said you must “have seawater in [your] veins”, which might very well be the case as you were a commercial fisherman in British Columbia. How has living in Vancouver inspired your writing?

OL: I love Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest so much. My goal when writing DECEPTION COVE was to try and take what writers like Ace Atkins, David Joy, Brian Panowich etc are doing when they write about the American South and capture the atmosphere and mood and bewitching geography of the Pacific Northwest, my home, in a similar vein. I’ve always felt drawn to the ocean, and the mountains and the kind of chilly moodiness of the rainforest, and I’ve tried to evoke that more and more in my writing as I’ve progressed in my career.

GALE FORCE was definitely inspired by my work on fishing boats of the British Columbia coast. I come from a family of fishermen and grew up more or less on the literature of the sea, and I wanted to make my own contribution to that tradition. The rhythms of the ocean are such a major influence on life on the coast, and from those rhythms come just innumerable stories. A lot of what I’ve tried to do with both GALE FORCE and the Neah Bay books is to try to put my own spin on the stories I’ve picked up living on the coast; to try to evoke the same senses in the reader as I often feel here, in the rainforest and by the water.

Does one of your characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?

OL: Well, there’s Lucy, for sure. She’s the rescue dog in the Neah Bay books and she is inspired unabashedly by my own Lucy—my seven-year-old rescue pit bull who rules the roost in my home. One joy of writing the Neah Bay books has been being able to share what I love about my Lucy with the reading public; she’s gone on book tours with me, and we’ve got a rubber stamp of her paw print so that she can sign books, too.

But as far as human characters, I think nearly all of them are special to me. One of the things I find most rewarding about writing fiction is the challenge in trying to make every character memorable, and relatable, even the “bad guys” and antagonists. I try to make every major character human and multi-dimensional, and consequently I grow pretty fond of all of them. Which makes it hard in good guy/bad guy stories where someone has to lose in the end!

When plotting a crime, where do you get your inspiration?

OL: The real world, by and large. I read the news pretty regularly, and there is never any shortage of true-to-life material from which to draw. Also, just from listening to people tell stories; a lot of what has gone into GALE FORCE and the Neah Bay books, for instance, has come from nights at the galley table in somebody’s fishing boat, listening to sailors spin yarns.

If you listen to people talk about their particular challenges and experiences, it can often spark some kind of inspiration, or some interesting angle that you might want to explore. So a lot of my ideas come from conversations with interesting people, or interesting circumstances, and then letting my imagination riff off of what I’ve heard and seen and spin off a story from there.

What books have most influenced you as a writer?

OL: A friend gave me Stephen King’s ON WRITING for my eighteenth birthday, and it’s been my Bible as a writer ever since. There was a span of like five or six years when I would read it every year; I’ve gone through multiple copies and found new inspiration every time.

As a crime writer, I found David Simon’s HOMICIDE: A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS, about his time embedded with the Baltimore PD’s homicide department, an invaluable source of inspiration and background material when it comes to writing about law enforcement.

And as a teenager, I remember reading John Steinbeck’s CANNERY ROW and feeling very strongly that I wanted to become a writer, that I wanted to be able to evoke in a reader’s mind the same feelings that he was evoking in mine. Reading that book in eleventh grade is probably what pushed me first toward making a serious run at writing as a career.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of writing?

OL: I find the editing and revising to be the supreme challenge, for me. I enjoy writing first drafts, because I write by the seat of my pants and so every morning, every blank page is a possibility and an adventure and it’s fun to just make stuff up. But taking everything you’ve made up and trying to mold it into a publishable product is actual work, and your progress is not nearly as quantifiable as when you’re writing a first draft and you can get your thousand words out every day and be satisfied. Now you actually have to be good, and I find that really stressful. I always have the sense that I’m pulling apart this intricate Jenga tower and with every little change I make there’s a greater and greater risk that the whole structure comes tumbling down. It takes a lot more mental toughness to rewrite than to write, I think.

The Neah Bay series features a rescue dog named Lucy. Could you share one of your favourite photographs of your own rescue pitbull Lucy?

Owen Laukkanen and his rescue dog Lucy

Owen Laukkanen's rescue dog Lucy

During lockdown, you tackled #ProjectPuppies, working with North of 54 Rescue and Raincoast Dog Rescue Society. Could you explain the initiative and why helping these rescue animals is so important?

OL: #ProjectPuppies is my tagline for what is essentially a rescue dog pipeline that my friend Alexis and I have become a part of this year, transporting at-risk dogs from rural northern Canada to foster families and eventually adoption here in southwestern British Columbia. We’re part getaway drivers, part doggy daycare workers; the job involves driving thousands of kilometres to places where there are an abundance of stray or unwanted dogs, packing my truck with anywhere from ten to twenty-five of those dogs, and then driving hellbent-for-leather back to the west coast where our friends at Raincoast Dog Rescue Society take over. It’s chaotic and crazy and extremely fun!

My dog, Lucy, is a Raincoast alum from California, and #ProjectPuppies came about when Alexis and I learned from Raincoast that there was a shortage of rescue dogs in British Columbia, but a lot of dogs in need of homes elsewhere in the country. Being dog-lovers and committed rescue-dog devotees, we volunteered our time and my truck to go out and get them, and it has been an immensely rewarding experience.

The dogs are coming from very difficult lives and circumstances and quite often are malnourished or mistreated or just otherwise sick, or at risk of being shot as unwanted strays or dying from starvation or exposure. There are often lots of puppies, and we do bring the parents along for free spay/neuter and return service, too. It’s essentially just a way to get dogs from places where they’re not wanted to somewhere they are, and our role—driving twenty hours straight across the prairies and through the mountains with twenty puppies howling in our ears—is by far the most fun.

Owen Laukkanen and rescue dogs

As an alumnus of the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing BFA program, what was the most valuable thing you learned that has helped you in your career as an author?

OL: I think the most valuable thing I learned from my education in creative writing was the importance of self-editing and being able to look at your work as critically as if your worst enemy wrote it. One of my idols, the author Thomas King, was my creative writing professor at the University of Guelph before I moved to UBC, and he would just destroy the stories I submitted to class, but in the most constructive way possible. I try to channel him when I look at my own work these days; all the talent in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t look objectively at your first drafts and figure out what to cut and what to change to make the story work.

What are you working on next?

OL: I have a young adult novel called THE WILD that will be out from Delacorte in January 2021 and has been optioned for film by HBO Max. It’s the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Dawn who gets into some trouble and is sent away to a wilderness program for troubled teens—essentially a forced march through the woods for months on end. Needless to say, things go awry for Dawn while she’s there and she’s forced to confront danger of both the natural and human kind, both of which could easily kill her.

It’s my third young adult novel (the first two under a pen name—Owen Matthews) and I find they’re so much fun to write, and so different from my “day job” writing thrillers for the adult market. This one has been getting some spectacular early buzz, and I’m so excited to get it out into readers’ hands—and, hopefully, onto your TV screen someday…

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