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Interview: August 13, 2020

Owen Laukkanen is a former professional poker journalist and the author of the Stevens and Windermere novels, which have been nominated for the Anthony, Barry, Edgar and Thriller Awards. His latest book, LONE JACK TRAIL, is the sequel to DECEPTION COVE, which kicked off a brand new series featuring Jess Winslow, a U.S. Marine turned trainee sheriff’s deputy, and Mason Burke, an ex-convict and Jess’ boyfriend. In this interview, Laukkanen talks to Michael Barson, who has worked in book publicity since 1984, about LONE JACK TRAIL’s feminist spin on the “drifter” trope in thrillers; hitting “the wall” in his writing career and pushing through it; HBO Max’s acquisition of his young adult novel, THE WILD; and his beloved pit bull mix, Lucy, who is featured in his Winslow and Burke series.

Question: LONE JACK TRAIL is your 10th novel overall and a sequel to last year’s DECEPTION COVE. Do you feel that lead characters Mason Burke and ex-Marine Jess Winslow can have at least the six-book run that you had with your well-regarded Stevens and Windermere series?

Owen Laukkanen: I certainly hope so! I definitely feel that there are more stories about Jess and Mason to tell --- but I feel that way about Stevens and Windermere, too. I have at least two or three S&W books outlined that I'd love to write someday, including a sequel to THE PROFESSIONALS (my first book) that I've been sitting on for the better part of a decade now. But I'm very happy telling Jess and Mason stories right now; when LONE JACK TRAIL is finally out in the world, I'll sit down and start writing a third installment based on my recent experiences in the rescue dog world. You can never be too sure how the market will react to a series, but with any luck, there will be enough of a reader appetite to carry these characters (and Lucy, of course) for many books to come.

Q: You are very active on social media, usually sharing your picturesque adventures with Lucy, the adorable pit bull mix who also stars in the new novels. I can’t think of another crime novelist who has so lovingly depicted what it means to live and frolic with a rescue dog. What kind of feedback have you received about Lucy’s new career in literature?

OL: People love Lucy! I've taken her on tour to a number of dog-friendly bookstores around America, and it's been really wonderful to see how people are drawn to her. I had a rubber stamp made of her paw print so that she can "sign" copies of her books, and I daresay people are happier to get her signature than mine! Of course, it's hard to keep an audience's attention during a book reading when you have a cute dog sleeping at your feet; whenever Lucy shifts or moves at all, people can't help but notice her again. She's kind of my secret weapon as far as attracting readers --- and since I'm writing about her, it makes the Kibble tax-deductible!

One thing I've noticed is that as Lucy and I meet other dogs and as the Jess/Mason series grows, I'm hearing from people who'd like to see their dogs make a cameo appearance in the next book! Fortunately, the third book will have a whole host of rescue dogs, but sooner or later I might have to start writing spinoffs for all of the cute doggos we've encountered since DECEPTION COVE was released.

Q: The acquisition of your YA novel, THE WILD, has just been announced by Patrick Brice, the filmmaker responsible for the Creep movies, to appear on HBO Max. You must be sky-high right now with excitement. Is it too soon to share any details?

OL: Thanks, I am extremely excited! Honestly, I think you've more or less covered all of the pertinent details that I'm aware of, to this point. It's still early in the process, and I've learned, especially as it pertains to Hollywood, not to count the proverbial chickens before they hatch. But I'm really thrilled that it's landed with such a talented filmmaker as Patrick and found a welcoming home with HBO Max. Patrick and I have talked at length, and both he and Isaac Klausner, our producer at Temple Hill, really get the story and what I was trying to accomplish. I couldn't be happier with the team we have in place, or more confident that they'll make a really kickass movie out of the material.

THE WILD, for readers who aren't aware, is about a 17-year-old girl named Dawn, who has fallen into some trouble and whose parents send her to a wilderness boot camp to try to turn her life around. She is sent into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest with eight or nine other "bad kids" --- and, lo and behold, things start going terribly wrong. A counselor winds up dead, and Dawn has to decide to seize her chance at freedom (with a cute guy alongside) or follow her conscience and try to help save the other kids. It's a lot of fun and a lot of high tension, and I think in Patrick's hands it'll make one hell of a movie.

Q: A year or two ago, you shared a heartfelt discussion of the despair you were feeling at the time about the course of your writing career, which you revealed had hit something of a wall. Happily you didn’t give in to the impulse to terminate your life as a novelist, which seems to be flourishing now. But how close was that to happening?

OL: Well, that's a good question. And I would say that I'm still not out of the woods on that front yet, and that there are still many days when I look at myself in the mirror and wonder what I'm still doing here, trying to make it as a writer. I'm still not at a point in my career where I can feel confident that writing is going to sustain me a couple of years from now, or that enough people are going to want to read my next book that it will give a publisher a reason to give me another contract. Obviously there are ups and downs, but I'm still not at a point where I feel like I'm on solid ground. Maybe you never do, though.

What convinced me to keep writing was the realization that I would only really be hurting myself if I quit. We'd like to think that as writers our genius will be missed, but it's the nature of the industry that there are always more writers, more books, ready to fill the void that we leave behind. It's nice to fantasize about the industry-wide wailing and gnashing of teeth that would arise if, one year, there wasn't a new Owen Laukkanen book on the shelf, but really the number of people who would notice would be infinitesimal in the grand scheme of things. And that's true for just about every author.

And that can be humbling, but it's also liberating, in a way. I love writing. I want to write. I can't see myself doing anything else. So I decided to just try to put my ego aside and write as much as I can, as best as I can, and hope that hard work and perseverance is enough to keep me afloat one more year, and one more year after that, and so on. I'll do whatever it takes to keep writing until I just can't sustain it anymore, and I'll do it because I love to do it and because it's what I've always wanted to do. And someday I'll either reach a point where I can say I've made it, or I'll have used up every one of my lifelines in the industry and I'll have to admit defeat. But I'll probably still write, even then, because I can't just not.

Q: Do you have a writing regimen that you have adhered to through each of these 10 books, come hell or high water? Or do you just cast your fate to the wind and wait for your muse to give you inspiration?

OL: I don't think you can write 10 books without some sort of routine; if you can, I applaud you wholeheartedly. I'm too lazy to cast my fate to the wind and wait for my muse; I'd spend the rest of my life on Facebook and Instagram or watching trains pass, waiting for inspiration to strike.

My routine is to work five days a week and to write to a specific word count every day. I walk the dog in the mornings and come home and eat lunch, and then I work in the afternoons. Generally I write 5,000 words a day, but depending on the project, it can be as few as a thousand. It's amazing how quickly a novel comes together if you just chip away at it, little by little, every day.

I don't edit while I write, and I don't outline the first draft. I write an awful first draft and set it aside for a month, and then I print it out and slash it to pieces with a red pen. From the scraps of what remains, I make an outline for the second draft and try to hew to that as much as possible as I rewrite the story. I repeat the process as many times as it takes to produce something that isn't a steaming pile of crap, which can be a fast or slow process, depending on the book.

Q: No doubt you’ve read widely in the mystery/thriller field over the years. Could you give us three crime novelists, old or new, whose work you particularly admire --- and share the reasons why?

OL: Oh boy, where to begin? DECEPTION COVE was inspired by the work of writers like David Joy, Brian Panowich, Steph Post and Ace Atkins, who are all markedly different writers but whose work gives voice to the crime and criminals of the American southeast. I wanted to do the same thing for the Pacific Northwest, creating a geography and a lived-in sort of vitality similar to that in Atkins' wonderful Quinn Colson series.

I'll read anything that J. Todd Scott and John McFetridge write. And I really admire how Ausma Zehanat Khan writes so movingly about really devastating real-world topics and events and still weaves them into compelling crime fiction narratives.

Finally, if there's an author I'd most like to emulate, it's Don Winslow. I love his writing and devour everything he publishes, and if I could fashion a career after any writer working today, it would be him. His early work was critically appreciated but didn't garner much commercial success, but through perseverance and some smart business moves, he managed to stay afloat in the industry long enough to build a readership and get the acclaim he deserves. He's a dynamite writer, and it doesn't hurt that he's a genuinely nice guy who goes out of his way to encourage and promote other writers. I doubt I'm the only youngish writer aspiring to walk in his shoes!

Q: As one owner to another, why do pit bulls sleep in such contorted positions? (Hahaha)

OL: Ha! Lucy's sleeping positions are a continual source of amazement to me. I can only conclude that pit bulls are born without spines. That being said, Lucy has a very dense, very muscular backside, so when she's sleeping and wants more space on the bed, I often find myself pushed almost to the ground by the force of her butt. She's stubborn as a mule when she wants to be.

Q: In this new series, Jess actually seems to be a more complicated character than Mason, haunted by more demons and conflicts. Why did you choose to write the two of them in that manner?

OL: Basically, I wanted to put a kind of feminist spin on the "drifter" trope in thrillers where a lonely guy comes to a small town, discovers that something criminal is afoot and sets himself to saving the day --- usually with a damsel in distress involved. Lee Child obviously does this incredibly well with the Reacher books, and for my money, Nick Petrie's Peter Ash books are some of the best there are in the genre. I liked the idea of a drifter type of guy coming to a small town and fancying himself the good guy come to save the day and the damsel in distress and just being completely outclassed.

The damsel in distress in this case is a combat-decorated U.S. Marine who is far better suited to fight a bunch of corrupt sheriff's deputies than an ex-con who's been locked up since he was a teenager, so the dynamic is a little bit different than your normal "drifter"-type novel. They're both damaged people in some respect; they both have to lean on each other at different stages of the story, rather than one person saving the other.

The other element of the two characters is that Mason has been locked up for 15 years, and he's spent that time actively working to try and better himself and move past what got him in prison. He's in a pretty good place, as far as things go, where Jess is still actively fighting her demons and has a lot more work to do. So she's naturally more complicated; the compelling part of Mason, I think, is watching him try to put to practice the lessons he taught himself on the inside, now that he's back out in the real world.