Back in March of 2011 when I invited author James Thompson for a guest post in conjunction with the release of the second book in his Inspector Kari Vaara series, Lucifer’s Tears, I really had no idea what to expect from him. What Jim ended up writing, “My life just isn’t anybody else’s business,” was an incredibly powerful piece that really struck a nerve with readers. When I asked Jim back for another guest post in anticipation of the release of Helsinki White (March 15th from Putnam), this time he suggested we do an interview instead. As you’ll see, I tried to just stay out of the way and let my questions serve as jumping off points for Jim to, again, share with readers another incredibly frank look behind the curtain at both himself and Kari Vaara.
When Lucifer’s Tears, the second book in the Kari Vaara series, came out you did a guest post here in which you reflected on how much of you is in Kari and vice-versa. You also spoke about a serious health issue you were having with severe headaches. As the third book in the series, Helsinki White, is poised to launch, how are your headaches doing, and have you and Kari gotten closer or farther apart?
The headaches aren’t gone, but have gotten much better. I spent a horrid few months playing guinea pig while my neurologist tried out different meds on me. It wasn’t his fault; he’s truly an excellent doctor. Note that he received thanks for serving as a consultant for Helsinki White. He loved the book, by the way. He checked it for accuracy in neurological matters and their behavioral consequences and told me I hit the nail squarely on the head. That was important to him because there are so many misconceptions about trauma-induced neural disorders (his specialization), and he hopes the book will raise public awareness.
Anyway…apparently I have very sensitive brain chemistry and even small doses of drugs that affect most people not at all made me physically and/or mentally ill. For instance, once, when the EMTs came in an ambulance to take me to hospital, I couldn’t tell them my name. I spent a fair amount of time in the emergency room during that time. We finally struck upon a meds combination that both keeps me in pretty good condition and my system can tolerate. I tire a little more easily than I used to. Other than that, I’m doing well. I thought for a while, after a straight talk from my doctor, that I was going to die with my head in the toilet. The sequence: uncontrolled vomiting, dehydration, shock, cardiac arrest, and goodbye. Interestingly, it made for a good incentive to write. Thinking I might have limited time made me want to produce more while I could. And on the practical side, writers are worth more dead than alive—as Larsson so graphically demonstrated—and I wanted to leave my wife financially secure.
Kari Vaara and I have been together for four books now. A friend just read Helsinki White, and told me whenever Kari thought or spoke throughout the book, he heard my voice. I don’t know if that’s a natural but false reaction because my friend knows me so well and can’t prevent the association, or if Kari and I have grown more alike as time has gone by. If the latter, I’m an even more taciturn, laconic, pragmatic, and compulsive man than I thought I was. Kari will stop at nothing to achieve his ends if the cause is worthy enough in his eyes, and he has little interest in the opinions of others, with the exception of his wife. He’s also self-contained and secretive. Am I like that: self-contained and secretive? I’m told so. People close to us always know us better than we know ourselves. Maybe someone should interview my wife and ask her these questions. If she would do it. I refer to her as “my wife” because she doesn’t like the attention that goes along with being the spouse of a public figure, so I seldom mention her name. I do it anyway once in a while, in photos on my website and such, because I’m so proud of her. She protests but allows it.
In the first Kari Vaara outing, Snow Angels, you tackled the issues of substance abuse and emotional isolation amongst Finns. In Lucifer’s Tears you incorporated aspects of Finland’s complicity with the Nazis during World War II into the storyline. In Helsinki White Finnish nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment/racism plays a large role. Have you ever experienced any type of backlash for writing about aspects of Finland’s culture that aren’t exactly tourist brochure material?
Strangely, no. I mean, the odd blogger here and there has expressed discontent, but nothing serious or threatening, or even complaints in major publications. Maybe because I write the truth about social problems here, people recognize it, and it leaves little to criticize. Occasionally, someone writes, tells me that a novel reminds me of their own lives, especially childhood, and thanks me for addressing issues that many Finns would like to ignore or forget. For instance, domestic violence. I never thought that would happen.
However, Helsinki White won’t be released here for a few weeks yet. A few people have expressed concern that racists might try to do me harm over this book. But as a friend here put it, “Every time you publish a new novel, I expect you’ll be lynched, but it never happens.” I expect the same with Helsinki White. I think that, ethically, a writer can’t alter his/her writing because of possible consequences or personal safety. It’s a hypocrisy. Aren’t we writers supposed to expose hypocrisy, not run from it like scared rabbits?
This subject has interested me lately. I write what most people view as noir, and social problems are almost inevitably addressed in the genre. Yet, I’ve somehow unintentionally taken on the role of social commentator. Every book has to be set somewhere. I live here and just write what I know. I’ve seldom, if ever, seen this question put to other noir writers. Ever seen anyone ask James Ellroy if he feels threatened living in Los Angeles, or if Ian Rankin takes flak from the good citizens of Edinburgh, or if Brazilians have a grudge against Leighton Gage, or if the people of Belfast resent Sam Millar? There must be something to it though, in my case, as my Finnish publisher thinks Helsinki White will cause all hell to break loose. Maybe because so much of it is True Crime and nothing like it has been published in Finland before, exposing how hate groups affect politics and the government at the national level. We’ll see.
Despite having lived in Finland for fourteen years, you’ve said you don’t consider yourself Finnish, though you also no longer feel entirely American either. Do you think your status as something of an outsider makes it easier for you to write about the darker aspects of Finnish culture than it may be for a native Finn to do objectively? For that matter, do you feel you are able to approach those aspects in an objective manner, or is there a lingering American perspective that influences the way you view Finnish culture?
I’ve lived in various places, but never felt truly attached to any of them, but that lack of feeling has nothing to do with the cities or countries I’ve lived in, but because I’ve adopted the attitude that I take myself wherever I go, so to a certain degree, where I live doesn’t matter that much. I seldom consider my place in society. Although I’ve assimilated, I don’t think of myself as a Finn. I’m so out of touch with American culture, especially pop culture—a lot changes over fourteen years—that although I’m proud of my country (if not all its actions)—I’m culturally not much of an American anymore. I don’t think of myself as anything. To define a thing is to limit it. Why should I limit myself? I’ve very seldom in my life felt that I belonged to anything, have always felt that I’m an observer more than a participant. An outsider by nature. And I’m comfortable with that. I’m sure that there is a lingering American perspective, but it’s now accompanied by a lingering Finnish perspective, and if anything, I need to guard against becoming oblivious, as most of us are, to my environment. It’s so easy to become inured to the world around us, but so important to be aware of it while maintaining objectivity.
The first two books centered, for the most part, around a single crime. Helsinki White, on the other hand, has a more broad brush feel insofar as Kari and his team’s activity is concerned. Any particular reason for the change in approach?
The stakes are much higher in this book. It’s not just about a crime, but about the destiny of a nation. I would say that I’m not painting with a broader brusher, but working with a larger canvas. These kinds of stakes, the fate of an entire country, call for a bigger canvas to paint on. I hope that if, as you say, I’ve used a broader brush at times, it hasn’t affected my attention to detail. I was getting a big tattoo a few years back, and the artist spent forty-five minutes working on the detail in an area half the size of a dime. I hope I’ve done the same.
In Helsinki White, Kari and his crew get their hands on some pretty serious weaponry. Were you able to do any hands on research for that, or did you rely on your past experiences in the Army for the weapons talk? And where did the idea for Kari’s very unique Lion Head cane come from?
I’m from Appalachian Kentucky, the heart of the gun culture. I could field strip a semi-automatic pistol before my age was in double digits. My grandfather started teaching me long-range shooting with high-powered rifles while I was pre-teen. I wasn’t big enough for the rifles and they turned my shoulder black and blue, so he cut a piece of sheepskin and sowed it into my jacket to soften the recoil for me. He’s been dead twenty years and I still miss him. We had a lot of fun together.
I had much experience and so learned little new about guns while in the army, only about weapons I didn’t have access to in KY, claymore mines and LAW rockets, things like that. I’ve owned or at least fired all the other weapons in the novel, with the exception of the .50-cal Barrett sniper rifle. But I had a Remington 700 .300 Magnum sniper rig. I used it to hunt deer. Of all the firearms I’ve owned, it was my favorite. I’ve haven’t fired the Finnish army Sako Rk-62, but it’s just a version of the ubiquitous AK-47, nothing special.
Kari’s cane! Good question. He needed a cane, but since he would be using it constantly, I knew I would refer to it frequently in the book, I started researching canes. I discovered that in the mid 19th through early 20th centuries, many men carried canes. Not because they needed them for walking but as an accoutrement. I further discovered “gadget canes.” Canes were made that performed almost any task imaginable. I got so fascinated by the subject that my obsessive/compulsive side wanted to stop writing the novel and write a book about gadget canes. I had to force myself to stop reading about them. And thus, Kari’s cane was born.
Has your approach to writing Kari changed any as the series has evolved? Is it any easier to write him the more you’ve gotten to know him, or does he still keep you on your toes and take you in directions you may not have anticipated?
No, my approach to writing him hasn’t changed, and yes, he continues to surprise me. He can be more loving, giving, and caring that I originally thought he could. And he can also be much harder and even more cruel than I envisioned during the writing of the first book. And like all of us, his experiences have changed him over time. Basically, I let him do whatever seems most natural to him. Characters, I believe, are little different than people. You don’t know who they really are, what stuff they’re really made of, until they’re placed in a crucible of conflict from which they can’t escape. The choices they/we make under the most adverse conditions defines them/us. When trapped in the forge of that crucible, Kari frequently astonishes me. He’s a man with few limits.
Speaking of which, I presume you are well into Book 4 at this point. What’s next, generally speaking of course, for Kari?
The primary themes are human trafficking and personal survival. I think I’ll say no more about that right now. I delivered it to my editor at Putnam, my U.S. publisher recently. Amazing person that she is, she had pages of editorial notes for me within three days. So now I just need to do some tweaking, and you’ll see it in a year. The publishing industry works a year ahead of publication, which is difficult from a writer’s standpoint. All that work, and then waiting a full year to get the public’s reactions is frustrating.
You’ve had many career paths. In the past, you used to work as a bouncer. Is there anything you would care to share from that part of your life?
First, I wouldn’t describe most of the jobs I’ve had as career paths, just ways to get money. Working heavy construction is a good example of that. I’ve been asked about bouncing many times and declined to answer, because telling stories about hurting people is in bad taste, but people are interested, so I’ll say a little. My record is scoring five TKOs in under a minute, which I think really is amusing. The trick is to not get caught in a circle. You’re dead meat if attacked from all sides at once. So you have to use footwork to keep sliding out of the center and remain a part of the circle so you only face one or two combatants at a time. That incident was humorous because I decked all these guys and they were lying on the floor with their hands in the air begging me not to hit them anymore. Sissies.
The people that have to be removed from drinking establishments fall into categories. There are people who go out looking for a fight and seeking a victim. It’s their idea of a good time. Sometimes force has to be used, but usually not much, because in general they’re cowards. The best way is to draw first blood, and most will give up. They set out to hurt someone, not suffer themselves. Most people aren’t used to blood and seeing their own upsets them. I don’t know how many times I’ve had my shirt covered with blood spatter and checked myself out to see if any of it came from me. Fighting is to be avoided at all cost. It’s a job. You don’t go there to get paid, not hurt. If you get forced into a slugging match, it’s a bare knuckle boxing bout, and they stopped having those a long time ago for a reason. It’s truly dangerous. I still have all my own teeth, by the way, unusual for someone having gone through that many times.
Some other bouncers would disagree with my attitude, but I won’t break up a fight between two men intent on beating each other to jelly. The most common way for a bouncer to get hurt is to try to get between or separate men in that scenario. If there are four bouncers, yeah, separate them, but alone, just keep other people out of the way, hold them back so they don’t make that stupid mistake and catch stray punches. When the fighters are done, toss whatever is left of them out or call an ambulance and/or police if needed. The scariest thing to me has been working the barricades at all-ages concerts. The natural inclination of a crowd is to push forward to get closer to the stage, which usually has a steel barricade in front of it to protect the band from teeming fans swarming onto the stage. Unsupervised kids, nine or ten years old, get pressed up against that barricade from behind and can’t breathe. You have to spot them, reach over the barricade and lift them out before they suffocate.
I’ve found that most people about to be ejected just get scared. A bunch of bouncers surround them and they’re afraid for their lives. I would be too. They panic and go ballistic. Most people are really OK, just had too much to drink, smoke, and snort or whatever, and got themselves in a bad spot, got in a fight or did something stupid, but didn’t intend it. I learned that the best approach is to stay relaxed, maybe put my hands in my pockets and approach a person by myself. Then talk to him, ask what the problem is, maybe make a couple jokes to put him at ease. Then let him know that he has to leave, but that I’ll walk out with him to protect him, and he’s welcome to come back another night. If the guy is sitting, I sit too. Standing overtop people makes them nervous. Putting them at ease is the key. My habit is to explain the situation three times. If all I get is “fuck you,” I say that if I continue to be ignored, we have to come to some other arrangement. What that arrangement will be hits home, and generally, then people leave of their own accord.
The last time I bounced someone was in the summer of 2008, just before I stopped bar work and started writing novels full time. I was working in a nice bar in a neighborhood that has, shall we say, an unsavory element. Violence and the whole tough guy thing is really frowned upon in Finland. One thing I enjoyed about working in Finnish nightclubs was that they have trained and professional security staffs, and I could bartend in peace and let them deal with problem patrons. Anyway, only me and a small woman were working that evening, so such tasks fell to me. I’m pretty good, from long experience, at guessing what intoxicants people have ingested: from their eyes, demeanor, speech, etc. I pegged this guy as valium and alcohol. He was loud and aggressive and obviously couldn’t be allowed to stay. I told him we wouldn’t serve him and told him to leave. He spit on me. I didn’t get angry, just repeated what I’d already said, and he left.
Then, unfortunately, he came back. I saw him coming, tried to make it to the front door to stop him from getting inside (it’s always so much easier if they can be kept out. Eventually they get bored and find somewhere else to go). I explained that he couldn’t stay, but he just kept mimicking me, growing more agitated and making a spectacle. I had a full bar and people waiting to be served. After the third warning, I scooped him up by the neck with one hand and threw him hard out the door, so far and high that he turned a full somersault in the air and landed on the sidewalk, on his back. I walked out and asked, “Are we clear now?” He nodded yes and the problem was solved.
I walked back into the bar and the place was dead silent and everyone was staring at me like I was a rabid animal. I suppose most of the people there had ever seen such a thing in real life or even knew it was possible. I was so embarrassed, humiliated that I had gone to such lengths, hadn’t found a better way to resolve the situation. At a loss for words, I did the Finnish thing and stammered, “Sometimes it goes that way,” to the crowd, then went back behind the bar and pretended like it never happened. Fighting really sucks. I can count on my fingers, from childhood onward, the number of times I’ve been in a fight out of anger. For me, it was just a professional hazard.
Also, I’m middle-aged, now 47. My hair is gray. I thought that when I made it into my forties, doped-up dipshits like the guy I tossed, who was half my age, would have a little respect. I respected people older than me when I was younger. Not so. The young and violent, I’ve learned through this and witnessing many other incidents, only perceive their elders as easier targets. It was a big disappoint for me to learn that so many people are that small, have so little respect for others.
I’ve been asked many times if all those ugly experiences—they number in the hundreds—didn’t frighten me, how I could do it. It’s like construction and high work. You can’t work in the air on those I-beams every day and not get used to it. Whatever you do every day becomes commonplace. I was good at the job, and my fight or flight reflexes died a slow death. They’re as dead as a bag of hammers. Many other things upset me or scare me, but not confrontation. And that is my take on bouncing.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Hmm. Writing is for people with obsessive compulsive tendencies. You’ll spend 1000-2000 hours writing a book. Your first will probably have little redeeming value. By your third, if you work hard, find a good writer’s group to criticize you so harshly they make you cry, have spent so much time in solitude that you’ve destroyed your relationships and social life—as all will have decided you’ve become some sort of deluded misanthrope—you’ll probably have developed into a decent writer. Even then, you’ll probably fail to get published, and even if you do, will probably fail to make a living at it. So there’s probably nothing in it for you but self-satisfaction or self-expression or self-therapy or whatever reason motivated you to start in the first place. Ask yourself if you really want to do that. If it’s worth it to you. If it is, write, but expect nothing in return. A woman—who left me—told me before leaving that I’d gotten everything backward. That fiction is a metaphor for life, but I’d gotten confused and thought that life was a metaphor for fiction. She was right. I knew it. I didn’t give a flying fuck. I don’t even remember if I even noticed when she shut the door behind her. Be like that.
Thank you, Elizabeth.
March 8, 2012
©Elizabeth A. White/James Thompson – Please do not reprint/reproduce without express written permission.