Four Questions With… Owen Laukkanen

Kill FeeOwen Laukkanen is unrepentant.

He writes books that are impossible to stop reading. And he doesn’t care one iota about the lack of sleep that he’s causing.

Not even a little bit.

“Sleep loss is the best compliment I can get as a writer,” he says.

He’s been getting a lot of compliments.

Laukkanen’s debut, THE PROFESSIONALS, was described by author C.J. Box as “a high-octane adrenaline and gunpowder-fueled rocket ride.” It’s an entirely accurate description.

THE PROFESSIONALS introduced FBI agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) Detective Kirk Stevens, a seemingly mis-matched pair who work together to solve a string of kidnappings being carried out by recent college graduates who are victims of the poor job market. The kidnappings start out as low-risk, high-reward affairs, but matters escalate quickly when they kidnap the wrong man.

Laukkanen is equally at home writing from the perspective of criminals and law enforcement, a skill that he puts to good use in THE PROFESSIONALS. It’s an exciting book filled with tense, action-packed, short chapters which keep you turning the pages.

I recently finished CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, Laukkanen’s second novel, and all the superlatives given to THE PROFESSIONALS can easily be transferred to CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE. It’s another phenomenal thriller.

And I’m very much looking forward to KILL FEE, the third in Laukkanen’s Stevens & Windermere series, which will be officially available on March 20, 2014. I already know I won’t get much sleep that night.

Here are Four Questions With… Owen Laukkanen.

The ProfessionalsYour first two books focused on criminals who were, in many ways, regular people — college graduates needing a job, and an accountant laid off from his job. KILL FEE, with the “high-tech murder-for-hire social media website” seems to go in a different direction. Is that a fair assessment?

I’m not sure it was a conscious choice. Certainly, THE PROFESSIONALS and CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE share a similar focus, in that it’s the struggles of the American economy that’s pushing these regular people into lives of crime, but I think the soldiers in KILL FEE fill that same role of “regular-person-turned-criminal;” they just happen to be pushed into crime from a different starting point.

Basically, I like to write about criminals whose motivations I can empathize with, and whose stories reflect a little more of our life and times than just your generic, malevolent bad guys. The criminals in the first two books were made vulnerable by a failing job market and their uncertain financial futures, while the criminals in KILL FEE reflect the reality that we have hundreds of thousands of young soldiers returning from wars in the Middle East and we don’t have the mental health resources or infrastructure to make sure they’re all going to be okay.

People slip through the cracks, and I think that’s what ties the three books together. There are certainly “bad guys” in the books, but I’d hope that the primary criminals are people the reader can relate to on some level, and empathize with.

What made you want to explore the topic of the difficulties experienced by soldiers returning from war?

I like to frame my novels against a backdrop of some deeper societal issue. With the first two books, obviously, the economy loomed large over everything my criminals did, and with KILL FEE, I realized as I plotted the novel that I could explore the challenges faced by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I mean, when you look at the mental health statistics as far as veterans are concerned, the numbers are shocking and, in many ways, really tragic. Three hundred thousand veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the suicide rates for veterans aged 17-24 are insanely high. (Here’s my source.)

And I was reading about soldiers who suffer from PTSD and can’t get in to see doctors, or who are misdiagnosed or aren’t diagnosed at all, and it struck me that we’re facing another situation like after Vietnam, where, again the country’s young soldiers are in desperate need of attention and just aren’t getting the resources.

So the soldiers in KILL FEE are a response to this situation. Obviously, they’re taken to the extreme, but I think they are a reflection of a problem that exists, and if they help to bring about some broader awareness, then all the better.

Criminal EnterpriseLocal police and the FBI often don’t get along, which is one reason the relationship between Stevens & Windermere is so interesting. How would you describe their relationship?

I think both Stevens and Windermere fill a void in the other that neither was really aware existed. For Stevens, Windermere is that hint of danger and glamour to spice up his somewhat mundane life, and for Windermere, Stevens is a rock, someone she can depend on when the rest of her life is tumultuous and unpredictable. I think they complement each other well, and therein lies the root of their friendship.

Romantically, I’m not sure. A few readers have commented on the unlikelihood of a woman like Windermere catching feelings for a guy like Stevens, but I think Windermere’s looking for that rock, above all else, and she finds Stevens’s competence and stability attractive.

KILL FEE, though, throws some complications into that side of the relationship, and as the series goes on, I think both Stevens and Windermere will move past the initial infatuation phase into something more comfortable and workable.

Your novels are packed with non-stop tension and action, making it hard for readers to put them down. Do you ever feel bad for the sleep loss that you’ve caused?

I emphatically do not.

For me, that sleep loss is the best compliment I can get as a writer. I tend to get a lot of emails from readers decrying sleepless nights, and I love them. The books are kind of sneakily designed to keep readers awake for just one more chapter, and then one more, until it’s three in the morning and the book’s finally finished. I’m thrilled that my plan is working.

You’ve got to be careful, though. A friend of mine emailed me a picture of THE PROFESSIONALS next to the burn that resulted when she spent all day reading in the sun. I had a little more sympathy for her plight, and I would advise all of my readers to exercise caution and use proper protection when reading my books.

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