Guest Post: James Thompson, Author of the Inspector Vaara Series

by Greg on September 12, 2012

by Michael Zarocostas

With his first internationally published novel, Snow Angels, James Thompson proved himself Finland’s best and most popular representative in the rise of Nordic noir. It was selected as one of Booklist’ s Best Crime Novel Debuts of the Year and nominated for an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, and a Strand Critics Award. His novel, Lucifer’s Tears, has received critical acclaim from all quarters, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus, and was selected as one of the best novels of the year by Kirkus. His novel, Helsinki White, was released to critical acclaim in the U.S. in March, 2012. He is also a reviewer for The New York Journal of Books. The first three books of his Inspector Vaara series have been optioned for film.

1. James, your trilogy of Inspector Vaara novels (Snow Angels , Lucifer’s Tears , and Helsinki White ) has been compared to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. That’s not bad company. What do you think is the reason for the fascination with thrillers set in Nordic countries?

Not thrillers, but specifically crime novels, have been a staple of Nordic literature for decades. It never suffered the stigma of the dime store novel in the U.S. Quite the opposite. It has been considered mandatory, by tradition, that even masters of literature here must write at least one crime novel.

It reached the point in the English speaking world where only a few bestselling authors were selling the vast majority of books, and some even started cranking them out cookie cutter style, to the point where the “corporate novel”—bestselling authors not even writing the books, but overseeing projects and sticking their names on them—intending to capitalize on the market situation and get filthy rich came into vogue. Tom Clancy and James Patterson are prime examples of this. Of course, the quality of writing suffered greatly: lame plots and cardboard characters became the norm. A lot of bestselling U.S. and UK authors fell down on the job.

But then the reading public discovered that there was this wealth of great crime writing out there. Stieg Larsson’s enormous success opened the public’s eyes and they found Nordic crime. Quality writing. Intriguing plots. Fascinating characters. When choosing books, it made the consumer’s decision an easy one, and the Scandinavian Crime Wave went BOOM! For some reason, the terminology has changed, and the genre has morphed into Nordic noir, which is inaccurate, because little Nordic crime is truly noir. I suppose people just like the ring of the phrase.

2. When did you begin devoting yourself to writing, and, at what point, did you decide to focus on police procedurals/detective stories?

I started making my first bungling attempts at writing fiction in 1994. Most books are a disappointment, and I decided that I wanted to write a book that I would like to read. Like a person who enjoys good food but never set foot in a kitchen, my first discovery was that I had no idea how to write a novel. I was already addicted though, and I spent quite a few years teaching myself the craft of writing.

Writing police procedurals wasn’t a conscious decision. The idea for Snow Angels, my first procedural, hit me all at once. In a moment’s time, I pictured the crime and motives behind it, understood the protagonist, and knew I would write it. It became a challenge. Another would-be author, also a foreigner, said that I couldn’t write a story told through the eyes of a Finnish man, that only a Finnish-born writer could do it. And so I told the story in first-person present, through my protagonist’s eyes, moment to moment, to make the challenge as difficult as possible.

I finished it and gave it to my publisher—he had already bought a couple books from me by then, but my debut novel had yet to be published—and I saw him at the bar we always hang out in together. In fact, we met there. I worked there and he was a customer—and he said, “Fuck you. I hate you. You just killed the goddamned genre and no one can set a crime story in the Arctic for another decade.” In other words, he loved the book and bought it straight away. I am, by the way, the first foreign commercial fiction author to be branded as a domestic Finnish author. I’m proud of that.

In an entirely unrelated episode, a U.S. power-agent heard about me through a mutual acquaintance, just dumb luck, and my friend suggested he take a look at Snow Angels. The agent passed the word to me via my friend to email him the book. I did, and four days later, the agent told me he wanted to represent Snow Angels and all my future works. And soon after, he told me he wanted to sell two books, not just Snow Angels, and asked me to write a synopsis for a sequel in two days’ time. Which I did, although the final product bore no resemblance to the synopsis. He sold two books to Putnam in the U.S. and to publishers in a few other countries within a few weeks—I now have about a dozen publishers worldwide—and so I found myself with the potential for a series on my hands. I discovered I enjoyed writing a series, aspects like delving far deeper into characterization than is possible in a standalone make it attractive to me as a writer. I’ve now written four Inspector Vaara series books, and still liking it. I’m in the process of plotting books five and six in the series.

3. Before becoming a professional writer, what was the most interesting job you had? I’m guessing working in a bar in Finland is up there…

I lived in Boston for several years, bounced and bartended in alternative music nightclubs. Remember the old Mickey Mouse Club? Wednesday was “Anything Can Happen Day.” Every time I went to work during those years, it was always “Anything Can Happen Day.” Mayhem was the norm.

4. I’m originally from Kentucky, and so, of course, I have to ask how a fellow Kentuckian like yourself ended up all the way in Finland?

A common tale. I came here for a girl. We split up. I stayed, attended The University of Helsinki, earned a Master’s degree, met the love of my life, got married, and built a career for myself here.

5. How did the Finns react to you first as an American in general and then as an American author writing about their country?

When I first came here, almost fifteen years ago, there were a lot less white foreigners, and I was something of a curiosity to them. Now, I suppose I’m viewed as some kind of cultural mutt—and I would agree with that—but few people pay much attention to my nationality. Really, I seldom think about it myself. When I discuss Finnish people, I use the word “we,” but do the same when discussing Americans. I have much less cause to discuss Americans though. Almost everyone I hang around with is Finnish.

As a writer, there is a bit of fascination with me. Finns are always curious—unusually so—about how the rest of the world views them. Since I see them with the cold eye of an outsider, my observations are noticed, but not necessarily unwelcome. Of course, there is some resentment over criticisms, but not much. I get more responses like, “I never thought of that,” and “Thank you for saying that out loud. It needed to be done.” Here are a couple recent quotes translated from major newspapers about Helsinki White, my latest novel.

“The U.S.-born Thompson, who has made his home in Helsinki, is heir to the dark, American noir crime novel, and a wretched world view is part of the genre.” Helsingin Sanomat

“Thompson has the outsider’s unwavering eye, which sees the sides of Finland that natives have lost sight of… With a constantly intriguing plot… excellent dialog… and natural, humane characters … the book is a work of quality.”

I’m now part of the literary community. After publishing five novels here, and selling quite well, I’m just part of the established order of things. Considered a good writer in general, people seldom make a big fuss over my nationality when discussing my work as an author.

6. Inspector Kari Vaara is the brooding character and lead detective in your trilogy. Is there anyone in your life who was the inspiration for Inspector Vaara?

I didn’t think so for a long time, but with this last book, I was sitting with a journalist, having a post-interview beer. Some friends of mine joined us and he asked the same question. My friends started pointing out similarities between me and my protagonist that I was unaware of. Appearance. A limp. Laconic nature. An extremely low capacity for bullshit and tendency to punish people for it by letting them go on and on and then blowing them out of the water with a single sentence. Kari Vaara and I hold differing views on quite a few things, but it appears that I’ve borrowed more from myself than I thought I had. Truly, I never realized it. And considering that I’m not a Finn, I must have acclimated far more than I knew. I get a lot of comments about Vaara being a typical Finn.

7. I just finished reading the excellent SNOW ANGELS, which references James Ellroy and The Black Dahlia murder. Who are some of your favorite authors?

There are so many, it’s hard to pick. Especially because I like some works by authors better than others. For instance, I like the aforementioned Ellroy, but think The Cold 6000 his greatest achievement. I’ve been addicted to mysteries, thrillers and crime novels since I was a child. All-time favorites, to name a few: Raymond Chandler; Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Eric Ambler, John LeCarré, and Graham Greene.

8. SNOW ANGELS is set in a small town in northern Finland, right before Christmas, and during kaamos, the country’s two weeks of complete darkness. How the hell do you get through that unrelenting darkness and cold, which is so prevalent in your novel that I felt like I had to wear a parka while reading it?

I’ve become a child of winter. Of course when it gets down to -30C, it’s fairly miserable, but -10, in the womb-like dark of the dead of winter, I’m content. I much prefer it to the white nights of summer.

9. Are you a technophile or a Luddite when it comes to writing and reading?

Somewhere in between on both counts. As a writer, the ability to do research via the internet makes the writer’s job so much easier than when I began. I read seventy books while researching my first novel, a wretched labor of love that remains unpublished, on a bookshelf where it belongs. The public fascination with crime scene procedure has produced a wealth of information on the internet. There’s almost nothing concerning it that can’t be found in a matter of minutes.

It’s also become almost impossible to be a successful author without at least a functional knowledge of social networking. Publishers expect authors to publicize themselves and their books. To the publishers’ credit, there is no better, faster, or more efficient means of becoming known or of getting to know readers than by doing it on-line. Book tours are terribly expensive and reach a limited number of people. Print advertisement is exorbitant. There are far fewer review publications than there once were. Even large newspapers seldom have a reviewer on staff anymore, and many review publications have folded.

Bloggers and sites like Amazon, Goodreads, and a host of others have taken up the slack. I write essays for International Crime Writers Reality Check. It has around forty thousand unique visitors per week, and recently passed the three million visitor mark. I review for New York Journal of Books. It also has big numbers. My Facebook sites (I have two) get six-twelve hundred hits a day, depending on what and how much I post. The cost of that kind of exposure would be astronomical. The minus of all this interaction is that it’s time consuming, and sometimes it’s hard to find time to write novels. The result is that I work seven days a week, and often long days.

As a reader, technological advances are disillusioning, because I love the book as artifact. The way it looks and feels, even the smell of a book. Reading books made of paper brings a special pleasure. The environmentalist in me though, knows that the move toward e-readers is helping to save the planet. How many hectares of trees must be cut down to produce all the newspapers in the world each day? E-readers are improving and will move downward in price while physical books become more and more expensive. Before long, it will be impractical to buy dead tree products on almost every level, so as much as I love them and part of me hates to watch it happen, books made of paper will become a luxury item, not part of daily life.

10. What are you working on now?

As mentioned, I’m starting work on the next book in the Vaara series. Three have been optioned for film, and I’m co-screenwriter. When primary filming begins, I’ll spend quite a bit of time on set in Lapland. I’m constantly working at the projects mentioned above, essays and reviews, and promotional activities such as this interview. I have four interviews lined up on my desktop at the moment. I’m also managing editor for an upcoming anthology, Helsinki Noir, part of the excellent series by Akashic. Between writers and translators and others behind the scenes, it involves coordinating around twenty people. No easy task. I stay busy.
Thanks for your time, James. MZ (Michael Zarocostas is author of the legal thriller/drama PLUMMET. )
Thank you for having me.
Best, James

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