Not long ago, I reviewed the American debut by James Thompson. This week was the release date for SNOW ANGELS, an amazing noir novel set in Finland. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Jim some questions, and he had fabulous responses. We talk in depth, so I won't take up too much time with chatter. Let's just jump right in and meet this new sensation in the American crime fiction world, James Thompson!
Q. Jim, you’re an American who has lived in Finland for the last 11 years. What originally took you to Finland and what made you decide to call it home?
Jim: Back in the 90s, I met a Finnish girl in the States. We were together there for a couple years and decided to try life here in Finland. A big incentive was that education here is free, if you can pass the entrance exams, which is a competition. For instance, I earned a Master’s degree in English philology at the University of Helsinki. The year I tested for admittance, the department accepted about fifteen percent of applicants. Anyhow—the girl and I parted ways, but by then my life was here: friends, work, school, etc, and so I just stayed. Like you say, at a certain point Finland became home. I’ve been here almost twelve years now, and that much time in a place changes a person. I’m comfortable here. My wife, Annukka, is a Finn. Culturally, I feel more Finnish than anything else. I’ve noticed that most foreigners aren’t happy in Finland, but somehow the culture suits my personality. It wasn’t so much that I made a conscious decision to call Finland home, I just never left. Karma. Sometimes life just works in unanticipated ways.Q. You’ve held many jobs in the past, but was writing fiction always your ultimate goal? What was the factor (or factors) that ultimately led you to say, “I want to be a writer”?
Jim: No, it didn’t go that way. I didn’t start trying to write fiction until I was about thirty. I’ve always been an avid reader. At that point I was reading a book every day or two, and got pissed off because most books, even highly touted ones, disappointed me. I had no grandiose ideas about becoming a published author, I just decided to try to write a book I would like to read. My first discovery was that I had no clue how to write. I kept writing, throwing away text. Writing, throwing it away, trying to teach myself the craft. I was a compulsive writer from the beginning, and it became part of my daily routine. After about ten years, I started to feel like I was getting pretty good at it. Then I decided I would like to try to write for a living and started showing my work to other people. In the end, I did very little toward getting published. I was working in a bar and met my Finnish publisher. He asked to see some work and signed me within weeks. My U.S. agent, Nat Sobel, found me through a mutual acquaintance. He requested SNOW ANGELS, read it, and offered to represent me four days later. Within weeks, he had sold the book and its sequel into several countries. At present, I think it’s scheduled for publication in thirteen countries.Q. Then from there, what drew you to crime fiction? What’s the allure that holds you in this genre?
Jim: I’ve loved thrillers and crime novels since I was a child, and as I mentioned above, I try to write the kinds of stories that I would like to read myself. On a deeper level, I think I’m compelled by the desire to explore my inner relationship to the world, and writing for me is a form of self-therapy. Over time, I’ve discovered that like most writers, I’m driven by certain themes. Many of them deal with the dark side of human nature. Because of this, the crime genre suits my thematic needs better than any other. I would say that the genre chose me, not the other way around. I’ve spent much of my life living at night, working in bars and nightclubs. I spent all those years watching people—often at their worst, drunk and/or drugged up—listening to them yap and tell stories. I’m certain that experience has colored my worldview. I just write about life as I know it, call ‘em as I see ‘em.Q. Are there any people, writers or otherwise, that you would say influenced the style you’ve developed?
Jim: I’ve read so many thousands of books that more than anything, I would call it a cumulative effect. My all time favorite writer is probably Graham Greene, because of the sense of melancholy that pervades his work, and I think also mine. I suppose I learned how to convey that sense from him more than from anyone else.Q. In SNOW ANGELS, we see Detective Vaara’s American wife adjusting to life in Finland. Does her character embody a lot of what you dealt with when you were first living in Finland?
Not too many current thriller or crime writers excite me a whole lot. Right now I’m enjoying the sci fi pulp noire work of Richard Morgan’s ALTERED CARBON trilogy. I really like a lot of work from the 60s and 70s and even before, back in the good old days when men were men, sheep were sheep, and protagonists were sociopaths. Probably because of that influence, I can’t write a ‘good’ good guy to save my life. Here’s a list of writers I like off the top of my head.
Early John LeCarré (THE SPY WHO CAME
IN FROM THE COLD is a masterpiece).
Early Frederick Forsyth (THE DAY OF THE
JACKAL is probably the greatest procedural ever written).
Arturo Pérez-Reverte is cool
early works by blockbuster thriller writers like Ken Follett and Jack Higgins
Arthur Conan Doyle
Jim Thomson (the other one)
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (The Komissario Beck series is maybe the high point of
Nordic crime writing)
James Ellroy (the Underworld USA series is maybe the high point of modern crime writing)
The Hardy Boys series
Robert Louis Stevenson
William Butler Yeats (I’m a Yeats scholar. My specialty is occult influences in his work)
F. Scott Fitzgerald
James Joyce (mostly earlier work)
I also read many books about history and religion.
Jim: Yeah, a lot of it was like that for me. Moving to a new culture is an interesting experience. At first, everything is new, there’s a sense of wonder and elation. Then, for me, after about nine months, reality set in. Because I didn’t speak Finnish—I’ve got a pretty good language head, but Finnish is a brutally difficult, nearly incomprehensible language—I didn’t understand what was being said around me, and so didn’t necessarily understand what was happening either. Since I couldn’t read Finnish, I was functionally illiterate. Things I once took for granted became problems. Reading a newspaper was impossible. Going to the grocery store was potentially humiliating, because I might not understand what was in a package. It undermined my confidence and made me feel like a child. People seemed silent, laconic and inscrutable. I often wasn’t certain if people liked me or hated me or were indifferent because I couldn’t read their facial expressions. I went through a period of depression. I wrote like a madman during that time as a way of coping. It started to get better for me, as I became more accustomed to the language, after about three or four years. I got used to the people, learned to speak passable Finnish and started thinking in it more and more over time. Now Finns often tell me they find me silent, laconic and inscrutable, so I suppose I’ve acclimated to the point of over-compensation.
Q. Kaamos seems as though it would be a difficult environment in which to acclimate. What were ways you dealt with it, and is it something you feel you’re comfortable with now or is it still difficult. It appears from SNOW ANGELS that it affects people no matter how long they’ve lived with it.
Jim: I dealt with kaamos like many Finns, by becoming depressed and neurotic for a few months out of the year. And I still do. Nothing has changed. I’m not at all comfortable with it at all. In fact, I dread it. Kaamos depression results from the effect of darkness on brain chemistry. Some people say vitamin D helps, some say daylight lamps help. Some booze. Some just suffer. Kaamos affects some people much more than others. A few people don’t feel it at all. It doesn’t matter whether you’re born in the North or not. It doesn’t get better with time. Some older Finns have told me it just gets worse.Q. SNOW ANGELS deals with a rather gruesome murder, which Vaara initially begins to investigate as a possible serial murder. You talk then about how rare this is in Finland. In your research on this, did you find a hypothesis for why that is? Later we learn that murder and suicide, in general, are not so rare in Finland, but the serial murder is.
Jim: I checked this out but found no definitive answers. First, let’s define it. Serial murder may be the result of several things. For instance, professional killers are serial murders, but usually when we think of the term, we’re considering killers with aberrant psycho-sexual motivations. The U.S. has far and away the world’s highest rate of serial murder. The Nordic countries have among the lowest in the Western world. It probably exists, but I haven’t seen research exploring the reasons behind the differences. I suspect though, that it has something to do with cultural sexual repression or the lack thereof, and the causes behind it that lead to or inhibit the desire to kill for sexual pleasure.Q. Another element of the Finnish culture that you bring out in SNOW ANGELS is the silence; people don’t talk about what they are feeling or experiencing. Does that aspect of the culture create any challenges for you as a writer? Or for that matter, are there any aspects of the culture that as an American you find it challenging to accurately depict in your writing? Do you have people who come back and say, “That’s not the way this would happen…”?
Jim: After twelve years in Finland, it’s not challenging because I’m an American, but sometimes it is because of the degree of silence. People do express themselves, but since so much goes unsaid, it’s important to understand people well enough to discern underlining meanings behind what is said. And it’s not like no one ever speaks. Like everywhere, some people are more talkative than others. Also, people tend to jabber when they’re drunk, so they’re not always quiet. Because of the difficulty, I chose to write the Vaara series in the first person present, in order to give a window to the world through the narrowly focused eyes of a relatively normal Finnish man as events happen. It seemed the best solution to the dilemma.Q. When you research for one of your novels, is it primarily Internet or book research or do you do field research as well? If so, can you tell us about a time that was especially fun or memorable for you?
No, I haven’t received criticism from Finns about misrepresenting the Finnish mindset or culture. Quite the opposite. Some people have thanked me for vocalizing what other Finnish writers (I’m still an American citizen but considered a Finnish writer) have been reticent to say out loud. Because I’m a foreigner, my outlook is somewhat different from a born and bred Finn, and occasionally someone will say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that, but it’s true.’
I sometimes receive criticism and have even made Finnish readers angry because I explore themes that Finns consider clichés about themselves: alcoholism, murder, depression, suicide. To which I always ask: ‘Did I say anything that wasn’t true?’ The answer is always no. So I say something like: ‘I’m a noir crime writer. Do you expect me to write warm stories about wholesome people to read aloud to the family in front of a cozy fireplace? Someone else can write those stories, but that’s not me.’ That doesn’t leave much room for response. Like in most societies, some Finns just have certain things they prefer remain un-discussed, particularly with outsiders.
Jim: All of the above. I enjoy all of it and spend a massive amount of time doing research. I don’t delve too deeply into the science behind criminology though. It bores me. I’ve educated myself about the practical aspects, which I find fun. It’s easy to learn; there’s a massive amount of information by and for professionals on the internet.Q. Going back to the gruesome murder that SNOW ANGELS centers on, was this based on anything factual? Where did this idea emerge from?
Several people have generously given me their time and acted as consultants. These days, I lean more toward field research and spend quite a bit of time with Finnish experts in their fields. A longtime member of the Helsinki homicide unit. Two notable historians. A criminal profiler. Some others. A couple weeks ago, one of the historians and I went to a public sauna to talk about the book I’m writing now. We drank some vodka, sat outside in the snow wearing towels when we got too hot, played some chess. That’s a pretty normal Finnish evening for a couple of guys hanging around, but I really enjoy that type of thing. Last summer, I spent an hour walking around the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, taking pictures of it for research for a book I’m thinking about writing. I thought for sure they would arrest me, but nobody said a word. Try that in New York and see what happens.
Jim: No, nothing factual. I got this mental picture of a murder in a snowfield on a reindeer farm. Made the victim female so I cold discuss feminist issues. Made her black so I could dicuss racism. Made her a Somali Muslim because Somali immigrants are such a sensitive issue here and so I could compare and contrast religious beliefs. Made her a movie star to increase pressure on Kari Vaari to solve the crime. Made the crime heinous to create fear and horror, psychological pressure, among characters in the story. Like any good writer, I just kept asking myself what would raise the stakes.Q. Do you have a process for writing? Do you outline or do you just follow where your characters lead you? And has a character ever surprised you – just took you in a direction you never intended to go?
Jim: I spend months on outlines, refining plots, developing characters, searching for weaknesses and ways to improve stories. Basically, just making sure I can take the story from A to Z without it sagging. For me, an outline is just a composite articulation of the final product. Much of the time working on an outline is spent daydreaming. Much is spent in research, the mother of creativity. Characters continually change as the story develops. I resist the urge to write first draft text until I can see the story and hear the dialogue in my head like a movie. But still, even after all that time working on the outline, when I begin writing manuscript text, the story keeps changing. Right now, I’m finishing the manuscript for DEAD OF WINTER, the second book in the Vaara series, and the story is still changing, going in radical directions that shock me. I won’t even talk about it with anyone else right now.Q. And speaking of characters, SNOW ANGELS is filled with very rich characters. Even as an outsider, from a completely different culture, I found myself connecting with your characters. How do these characters come to life in your books? Do they have living counterparts that you base the characters on? Are they solely from your imagination?
Jim: I wouldn’t say that I’m from a completely different culture. I grew up in Eastern Kentucky, and culturally, it bears certain similarities to the area in the Arctic Circle SNOW takes place in. For instance, certain religious fundamentalist groups in KY bear strong similarities to Finnish Laestadians. And I think, wherever we’re from, the human condition dictates that we can relate to people from other societies to at least a certain extent.Q. I’ve spoken with several authors publishing in the United States who later have their works published in other countries and have to make changes to titles or references in the books. Did you have to do that same thing in reverse? The title didn’t change, but did any other elements of SNOW ANGELS have to be edited for American publication?
It’s also that working in bars and nightclubs thing again. I’ve met many thousands of people, and they’ve given me an immense store of material to work from in creating characters. None of my characters have living counterparts, but I’ve invented very little. I just take a trait from here, an experience from there, and so on. Kari Vaara is an easy character for me to write. He’s a fictional character and so his views are his own, sometimes contrary to mine, but his inner voice is basically mine.
Jim: Very little. At least in my mind, I write for a Nordic audience, as I’m not in tune with American culture anymore. You’d be surprised at how much and how quickly culture and language change. After only a little more than a decade, when I watch American TV, for instance Conan O’Brian, I often don’t understand references to people or slang terms used. But I digress. In the U.S. version, I changed little things that I didn’t think worth explaining. An example: U.S. police use black and yellow crime scene tape. In Finland, it’s blue and white, and is written as such in the Finnish version. I wrote black and yellow for the international version of the book. The version released by my U.S. publisher serves as the master copy for publishers in all other countries besides Finland. Each publisher/country decides titles and phrasing of translations, etc. In Finland though, I work on these things and have final say about the translations myself. The concept you’re discussing, at its worst, is called localization. The manipulation of a text for each country/language/culture. It sucks, I hate it, and if asked, would refuse to take part in it. Same with corporate authorship. Makes me want to puke.Q. So, SNOW ANGELS was the first Detective Vaara novel, and the second, DEAD OF WINTER, is already scheduled to be released in the United States in 2011. First, can you tell us a little about DEAD OF WINTER? And are there plans for any non-Detective Vaara books to make their way to the States? And how about you? Will you be making your way here to promote your Detective Vaara series?
Jim: DEAD OF WINTER—well, I won’t say too much. Kari and his wife Kate move to Helsinki. Kari takes a slot in Helsinki homicide. The main crime involves a murdered woman tortured by a prolonged lashing with a riding crop. The novel delves into the histories of the Finnish Civil War and WWII and their glorification at the expense of the truth, exposes facets of history that I think most Finns are unaware of, and even if they were aware of them, would prefer not to know. Some serious historical and cultural myth busting.Many, many thanks to Jim for taking the time to chat with me. I hope you all enjoyed learning about Jim and Finland as much as I did. I'll be looking forward to the arrival of DEAD OF WINTER next year. In the meantime, you can check out SNOW ANGELS here or here.
I play no part in business dealings concerning my work. I’ve learned that I’m happier if I don’t ask. I prefer to let other, more qualified people, think about those things for me. I know of no plans to have my novels previously released in Finland published in the States. No one has asked me about a U.S. book tour. I don’t like public speaking—it makes me nervous—so that’s fine with me. I’m going to try to go to the States next fall, but just to deer hunt on my Dad’s farm.