Owen Laukkanen and Nick Petrie are two of the most talented and original thriller writers at work at the moment. Owen’s latest book, Gale Force, is a bravura tour de force set on board a salvage ship; Nick burst on the scene with The Drifter and hasn’t made a wrong move since.
Q: I’ve been reading and selling mysteries for so long now I’ve started to feel like a biologist, making categories. I had just read a bunch of cozies before I read your books and started thinking about how thrillers and cozies have some similarities. Certain tropes are expected. Can you talk about how you utilize tropes to structure your books?
OWEN: Wow, what a great question, and not one that I’ve ever been asked before! I think readers expect certain things from a thriller, just as they do a cozy, and honestly I’ve found that thrillers just seem to work better if you adhere to certain tropes while looking for ways to put your own spin on them.
When I’m asked to do a reading, I typically read from the prologue or first chapter of my books, and that’s not an accident. I’m looking to do in a reading the same thing I’m aiming to accomplish with a reader who’s just picking up the book for the first time: draw the audience in and make it impossible for them to walk away (or not buy the book, as the case may be).
So I look to create a kind of self-sufficient capsule of a scene that’s going to establish what the book is about, illustrate whatever crime we’re going to be dealing with, and leave the reader with at least one burning question he or she simply cannot let go unanswered. And we’ll spend the rest of the book trying to answer that question, or dealing with its fallout. We’ll build to some kind of climactic showdown between the series characters and the bad guy, and hopefully by the end of the book we’ll have answers to some but not all of the questions we raised.
For me, the fun is using any kind of familiar thriller structure and using it to say what I want to say about social issues and the world at large while couching all of the preachy stuff in a fast-moving and entertaining story that ticks all the boxes a thriller fan is looking for.
NICK: I read a lot, so I’m certainly aware of crime fiction’s many tropes, but I can’t say I consciously begin a Peter Ash novel with those in mind. Instead, my goal is to tell a specific, interesting, and exciting story featuring characters I—and hopefully the reader—come to care about a great deal. As I blunder through the first draft, though, certain themes and tropes begin to bleed into the narrative and structure without conscious planning. In part, this is driven by the kinds of stories that interest me, but it also comes from the influence of writers I’ve loved and read over many years.
Q: You both kind of write non-series series. You have connecting characters, but each book is so different from the one before. Can you talk about that a bit?
OWEN: I think one of the difficulties of writing a series is that the audience knows, by and large, that your main characters are going to survive (unless you’re George R.R. Martin, of course). So you automatically lose a lot of the tension when you thrust your series character into a dangerous situation.
I’ve found it’s pretty effective if you have kind of “surrogate” main characters, whether they’re bad guys who have enough humanity to them that we can relate and empathize, or victims/potential victims who we can see wandering inexorably into harm’s way but can’t do anything to help. We’re not sure, as readers, what happens to these characters, and it keeps us turning the pages and rooting for our series characters to hurry up and save the day.
I also find the most rewarding thing about writing crime fiction, as I mentioned above, is being able to write about social issues while still giving readers an entertaining story. I’ve been fortunate enough that my publisher allows me to write about whatever interests me, and my interests are pretty varied, so I’m always looking for a new direction to take.
I’d go insane if I could only write, say, serial killer procedurals. It’s just not why I got into this game.
NICK: Peter Ash, my series protagonist, is a lot of fun to hang out with, and I hope to be writing about his adventures for a long time, but I didn’t want to be stuck writing one kind of story. Writing about a rootless man, I can put Peter in a wide range of stories with essentially unlimited narrative, geographic, thematic, and stylistic possibilities. Also, each novel can be different in scope, with some books telling big stories, and others telling smaller, more personal stories. So far I’ve written about veterans’ lives in The Drifter, emerging technology in Burning Bright, the newly-legal cannabis industry in Light It Up, and race and class in my upcoming book, Tear It Down (January 2019)—although all the books deal with veterans’ lives in one way other another. Also, with just a few connecting characters, I can spend time developing “guest stars”—then do terrible things to them!
Q: There are some obvious questions for you both. Owen, why a ship? What kind of research did you have to do? Are you a sailor yourself?
OWEN: I come from a maritime family—my grandfather was a boat-builder and a commercial fisherman, my uncle a commercial fisherman, and even my dad, who’s a doctor by trade, fishes commercially for lobster during the summer. I’d even applied to maritime college to go to work at sea, but it turns out I’m colorblind, and you really need to be able to differentiate between red and green if you want to navigate at sea.
So I’ve always felt drawn to the sea, and as a reader, to the literature of the sea. Since I couldn’t work on ships myself, I’d always wanted to write books set aboard them. The oceans are still so very lawless to this day, so they’re the perfect environment for a thriller writer.
In writing Gale Force, I drew a lot on my own experience on the water. I worked summers on my uncle’s prawn and salmon fishing boat in the North Pacific through my twenties, and they were some of the happiest summers of my life. A lot of the maritime environment in the book comes from the people I met and places I experienced on the job.
And then, obviously, I did a fair bit of research about the deep-sea salvage industry, which is much more fascinating than it sounds; it’s essentially a gold rush with tens of millions of dollars on the line, and highly-specialized teams of seafarers braving monster storms as they race each other out to shipwrecks. Like I said, the perfect thriller environment.
Q: Nick, I don’t think you are a veteran yourself but your veteran character is a very powerful one, and I have customers who are vets who really appreciate Peter. Can you talk about why you made that particular choice?
NICK: No, I’m not a veteran, but I made my main character a Marine Corps Iraq War veteran for very personal reasons. I ran a building inspection business for fifteen years, and after the Surge, I had many clients who were coming home from war. I’m a curious guy and I’m interested in people, and in talking with these men and women, I found myself profoundly moved by what many of them had experienced, as well as the significant and often unacknowledged price many of them had paid in the process, and would be paying for the rest of their lives. It also seemed to me that, with our all-volunteer military, most Americans truly had no idea of what we’d asked of these young men and women, and I wanted to share their stories. Like you, I get a lot of feedback from veterans who tell me that Peter really resonates with them, which is the best compliment this writer could ask for. My ongoing conversation with vets is honestly the best part of writing about Peter Ash.
Q: I was talking to some authors at Malice Domestic about how technology has changed things up—you can’t have a character not have a cell phone, for example, which sometimes makes things tricky in terms of plotting, I would imagine. These authors were older and you guys are kind of the new wave. How do you factor in/avoid technology when you’re structuring your novels?
OWEN: I think technology gives a lot more than it takes away, as a writer. A lot of the inspiration for my stories comes from weird technological quirks and developments that simply wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.
The Forgotten Girls, for instance, was inspired in part by the crazy, real-life story of quote-unquote Brother Orange. Essentially, some guy in New York had his iPhone stolen. A few months later, he started getting weird pictures of a Chinese man in an orange grove showing up on his new iPhone.
What he figured out was that the old phone was still connected to his cloud, and was uploading the pictures to both phones. The craziest part is that he tracked down the orange grove guy (“Brother Orange”) all the way in China, and the two men became Chinese celebrities and did a six-week tour of the country, opening restaurants and doing photo ops and stuff. Just weird.
But as soon as I read the story, my crime writer Spidey sense started to tingle. Because what if it wasn’t just someone else’s selfies that showed up on your phone, but pictures of a dead body?
And that’s how The Forgotten Girls begins, with some poor sap finding pictures of a dead woman on his phone, and the police all believe that he killed her.
NICK: I’m fascinated by technology, and also by the varied ways people use it. Some live on the bleeding edge, some are Luddites, and some, like me, live on the spectrum between those extremes. Similarly, certain characters, and certain books, require more extensive use of technology than others. And I have to say, for all the plot challenges brought on by modern technology, it also offers many opportunities. But because even a basic smartphone can made plotting problematic, I accidentally evolved a simple cheat. One of the running gags in the series is that Peter has trouble hanging onto a working phone—they get lost, broken, stolen, even eaten by a bear. And it’s part of Peter’s character that he doesn’t much care.
Q: What book/books did you read that made you think, wow, I want to do that? What book or books really changed your path as readers/writers?
OWEN: The book that really changed my path as a writer was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which we read in grade eleven English class. I had moved to southern Ontario and was really missing the ocean, and Steinbeck’s description of the tuna boats setting out from Monterey made me yearn almost unbearably to go back to the west coast. Since I couldn’t get out there, I decided I wanted to be able to evoke that same kind of image with my own writing, and it was about then that I realized I wanted to be a writer—and also, that writing and the ocean became inextricably entwined for me.
More recently, I picked up Don Winslow’s Savages and it rocked my world. I was working on a Young Adult novel and it wasn’t really working as written, but the way Winslow plays with language and structure really inspired me to try something similar with my own book, and it was an extremely rewarding and fun exercise, and it wound up launching my YA career. (I publish under the name Owen Matthews.)
NICK: Oh, man, there are so many! Although for me, it’s more about authors than specific books. I grew up inhaling science fiction and adventure stories, gobbling down stories as fast as I could. It wasn’t until high school, reading Hemingway, that I realized that “literature” could be both exciting and beautiful, with very high stakes. In college, reading Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith and Elmore Leonard, among many, many others, I saw the varied ways that crime fiction could also be gorgeous and profound. Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy was perhaps the biggest revelation for me—lush, violent cowboy novels masquerading as serious fiction, or maybe the other way around. I hoped I could do that same magic trick writing crime, and that goal is what keeps me going every day.
Q: What makes you excited to start your writing day/a new book?
OWEN: For me, it’s the feeling that I can’t rest until I get the story in my head on the page. There are days when I just can’t stop thinking about a story, plotting out scenes, chapters, places, characters, to the point that it’s impossible to even sleep unless I get something written out. That’s the best place to be; it’s that sense of urgency that made me sure I wanted to be a writer in the first place, and any time I can get that feeling back and harness it, I know the writing’s going well.
NICK: Coffee! An essential part of this writer’s toolkit. Actually, I have two favorite moments in the life of a book. The first is that electric jolt when my tentative attempts to find the opening of a novel finally result into my falling headlong into scene and story, and the book begins to unfold. The second is toward the end, when I’m writing full-tilt and I can’t type fast enough to keep up with the words in my head. It’s the slow, ugly middle that’s always a struggle—when it’s important to remind myself that it’s not my fault, it’s just the ugly middle, and if I keep writing, eventually the book will gather momentum again. (Some days, I’m tempted to write that reminder in reverse on my forehead, so I see it every time I look in the mirror.)
Q: How do you avoid being predictable?
OWEN: That’s another good question. I think it starts with being aware of the tropes in the genre, and that comes with reading widely and being aware of what other authors are doing. And then, I think it continues with having a desire to surprise the reader, which is something that I’d wager most thriller writers have in spades. I get a kick out of subverting expectations, so I try to lead the reader into a situation that they think is predictable, and then turn it on its ear.
NICK: Thank goodness, I’m not predictable! I actually work hard to keep things fresh, try new things, and stretch myself as a writer. This is part of why I’ve built the series the way I have—my vast looming dread of boring both myself and my readers. I think changing the setting really helps give each book a unique feel and flavor, and bringing significant new characters into play can really shape the form and path of a novel.
Q: Do you feel like you are having a conversation with readers as you write, or are you writing a story and just hoping someone will eventually enjoy it?
OWEN: Obviously, I hope that the reader comes away from my books with a new perspective, or something unexpected to mull over, but for the most part, it’s the latter. I’ve found that my most successful and enjoyable writing comes when I forget about everything but the fun I’m having putting words on the page. I try to write the kind of book that I want to read, the way I want to write it, and then have faith that when other people pick it up, my excitement and enthusiasm will shine through.
NICK: Selfishly, I begin writing to entertain myself—to write the book I want to read next. I feel very lucky that the stories I want to tell also interest my readers. It does eventually turn into a conversation when I show sections to my wife, Margret, or to my editor or agent. They react to the work, and I internalize that feedback for the following drafts.
Q: What’s next for you both?
OWEN: I have a new series coming out next year; I pitched it as Jack Reacher with a rescue dog, which is pithy but not entirely accurate. Essentially, it’s about a rescue dog who is trained by a convicted murderer in one of those prison outreach programs, and who is then assigned to a US Marine with PTSD.
The Marine gets into some trouble, and the dog is taken from her, and when the murderer is released from prison at the end of his sentence, he learns that the dog is in trouble and goes to see if he can save it.
In the process, he gets mixed up in the Marine’s troubles, and the two of them have to team up to save the dog and, ultimately, clean up the corrupt little town where the Marine is living.
The murderer kind of fancies himself as the Reacher character, but the Marine isn’t quite the damsel in distress. So it’s fun and hopefully a new twist on that trope. And as a bonus, the rescue dog is based on my own rescue pitbull, Lucy, who’ll be hitting the road with me to promote the book and who will actually be in Ann Arbor for my event with Nick!
NICK: My new book, Tear It Down, hits the shelves in January 2019. Peter travels to Memphis to help a photojournalist who’s being harassed. By the time he arrives, someone has driven a dump truck into her living room—and things get much worse from there. The story brings Peter into close contact with a gifted street musician, a neighborhood warlord and his enforcers, and a pair of hog-butchering brothers with an ugly agenda. The book was a blast to write, and it’s saturated with great Memphis music.