Author Owen Laukkanen looks for human nature in crime

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      Owen Laukkanen is unassuming and refreshingly sincere despite his enviable circumstances. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery, to be honest,” the author says, regarding the stellar reception of his debut novel, The Professionals. “I’m immensely gratified and just trying to enjoy the ride.”

      Over coffee with the Straight at a downtown café, the affable raconteur discusses his fledgling career as a successful thriller writer and addresses everything from Hollywood’s consideration to life in Vancouver and the guilty pleasures of Gossip Girl.

      “I write pretty much by the seat of my pants,” Laukkanen says, “which is to say that I don’t have an outline.” Inspired by Tony Scott’s Man on Fire and a documentary on abduction, he began the initial draft of The Professionals during the autumn of 2009, having already completed an unrelated “hard-boiled poker mystery”. Deciding, as the plot coalesced, that he wanted relatable perpetrators, the author imagined that the limited employment opportunities facing many university graduates “would be an interesting thing to play with, as far as turning people to a life of crime”. The lightning-paced story traces a group of 20-something kidnappers as they scramble through America, fleeing law enforcement and the underworld, following a botched job.

      Born in Vancouver and raised in Windsor, Ontario, the 29-year-old author offers that he “would like to be writing about Canada” and comments on the nation’s narrative possibilities. Nevertheless, choosing the featured locales “was pretty natural” due to his frequent travels in the United States while working as a poker reporter, and the additional “mercenary aspect” of courting a stateside audience.

      Widely acclaimed since its release this spring, The Professionals has been the catalyst for a streak of “pinch me” moments that have made a lasting mark on Laukkanen. Among these other victories are landing a New York–based agent and publisher, Putnam, as well as an editor who also applies a blue pencil to the efforts of Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler.

      Recently, there has been buzz about a film adaptation of The Professionals, with Robert Pattinson, the star of the Twilight trilogy, expressing interest in the project. “Things are coming along,” the author says, graciously declining to elaborate.

      Such tremendous response produces expectations. Preparing his second title, Criminal Enterprise, slated to appear on shelves next March, was an undertaking with elevated stakes. “There’s a lot more riding on it,” he says. “Almost to the point where I haven’t been able to enjoy what’s happened as much as I would’ve liked to. But I’ve still been enjoying it quite a bit.”

      Averaging 5,000 words a day, Laukkanen writes in silence for four or five hours at a time, five days a week. “I just want to get the story out as fast as I possibly can,” he says. “If you can get the first draft out, you’re miles ahead of the game.”

      An alumnus of UBC’s esteemed creative-writing program, where he was explicitly told to eschew genre fiction, the author freely acknowledges the divide between “high art” and commercial viability. Use of language and dramatic momentum aside, “you can still say something about human nature in a crime novel,” he says, naming Raymond Chandler and Michael Chabon as writers he admires.

      Having resided on the West Coast at various times, Laukkanen settled here last year, after an idyllic summer on the city’s beaches and its neighbouring mountains. “I don’t think I’m losing anything by not being in New York,” he says. “I think it’s nice to be removed from the situation, and be able to just do my own thing.”

      Laukkanen is now toiling on a young-adult venture. When it’s suggested, in jest, that he’s capitalizing on the same market that the Gossip Girl volumes engage, the author, who read the first installment of the series and prefers the television version, laughs, noting its “magic” and the entertainment value of “watching rich people do frivolous things”.

      Pretension, however, is something he consciously avoids. “My dad asked me, when the book came out, if I thought that the reception would change me for the worse,” Laukkanen says. “My problem is not that I’m too caught up in what’s going on. I’m kind of concerned about what’s happening next.”


      Owen Laukkanen will discuss The Professionals at 4 p.m. on September 30 as part of the Word on the Street festival. See for details.