When we last talked, at the time of Helsinki White’s release, you had finally struck upon a mix of medications that allowed you to control your debilitating headaches to an at least tolerable level. However, you also said that during the time leading up to that discovery–when you were having problems to the point you were literally going to hospital via ambulance–you had an added incentive to write; that you felt the need to produce as much as possible when you thought you may literally be at death’s door. Has that sense of urgency about your writing changed any now that your health situation is more under control?
No, the sense of urgency remained, and the routine I developed during that time stayed with me. I continue to start working as soon as I wake up and don’t stop until I fall asleep, reading books for research or review. Seven days a week. Of course I have to stop and do those things we do to get through life: shower, clean house, shop, eat, and so on. And if my wife asks me to stop and do something with her, I will. But otherwise, I do little but work. Luckily, I enjoy it. I think that you’ll find if you ask a few, that successful authors in general have my work habits. The more authors accomplish, the more people want and need from them. To get it all done, work requires constant focus and dedication. It’s not a job, it’s a way of life.
We also talked about how your books incorporate themes that aren’t exactly tourist brochure material: Finns’ substance abuse and emotional isolation in Snow Angels, Finland’s complicity with the Nazis during World War II in Lucifer’s Tears. You said you hadn’t experienced any particularly notable backlash…at that point. Then came Helsinki White, which deals quite squarely with Finnish nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment/racism. In the wake of Helsinki White’s publication, things did get a bit bumpy up for you, and you even ended up hosting an “open mic” blog of sorts for immigrants in Finland to express themselves. Did you ever have any serious concerns about your safety or that what was perceived by some as “activism” on your part could hurt you as an author, and how are things at this point?
Interesting question, as there are so many sides to this. Much to my surprise, of late, I’ve been written about by the Finnish board of Tourism, and also been interviewed by a Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication. I’ve also received several cultural grants—not need based—but given to those furthering Finnish culture in the arts. Those things signal an acceptance by the establishment. Helsinki White is a tough book. Racism is hard to both read and write about. The book sold well and continues to do so, but if I had chosen a lighter topic, I probably could have made more money. It was a question of integrity. Do I write what I’m compelled to write, or something more commercial for the almighty dollar? So no, it didn’t hurt my career. In the long run, I think recognition of integrity will help it.
The question, really, is whether activism will hurt my career in Finland. I think not. The right-wing hates me like the plague anyway, so I don’t think I lost any sales in their demographic. I may have attracted more liberal readers and helped my career. I really don’t know. I have twelve publishers worldwide at the moment. My books are available in more than twenty countries. I recently discovered that I have a following in China. The point being that I’m not dependent on the sales in any country besides the U.S., my main market, to make a living. So I don’t worry about it.
In Helsinki White, I portrayed both the extreme right (think Teabaggers) and the establishment (think of them as your American 1% Republicans) as corrupt and in harsh terms. It would pay to bear in mind that I write fiction, the opinions in the book are expressed by fictional characters, and are not necessarily my own. And remember that I write dark noir. I seriously doubt, for instance, that there are Finnish police black ops squads raping and pillaging our criminal element. The point though, is that, true to the genre, I was fair with my brush and painted everyone black.
A recent article in the nation’s leading newspaper made the point that the extreme right could embrace me, as they despise the liberal rule of law. There were few comments about the book by the extreme right until I wrote the series of articles you mentioned discussing the plight of immigrants. Actually, I didn’t write them, they did. And they were shocking. Heartbreaking. I’ve been here for fifteen years. I’ve always had decent jobs, earned a Master’s degree from Finland’s most prestigious university, built a career for myself. I’m married to a Finn. I acclimated.
Although I’ve witnessed the day to day scenes of racial discrimination. Name calling, spitting, the sorts of things I describe in Helsinki White (except for the murders, I invented nothing), I didn’t realize that so many immigrants feel so bulldozed by this society that they’re on the verge of suicide.
I’ve discovered that I have a big voice now. Two interviews with me went viral last year and were read by millions worldwide. I feel a social duty to use that voice, even if sparingly. I was given a large packet of correspondence, written by immigrants who described their feelings. I wanted to raise public awareness. I’m the kind of guy who roots for the underdog. When I began publishing the series, my troubles with the extreme right started.
The “critics of immigration,” as they like to call themselves, have a website that boasts a huge membership, but is really just a large circle of people telling each other how right they are. They opened a thread on me which, the last time I checked, some weeks ago, had I think over 6000 views. Great free publicity. I thanked them for it. They never threatened me. It was suggested that my wife and I be deported (why my wife, I don’t know). They just discuss how my writing is uninformed worthless shit, what a dumbass I am, and so on. In fact, I threatened them. Inciting racial violence is a crime. I said that if they didn’t play like nice boys and girls, I would read every word on the site and their blogs and that of the guy they refer to as The Master, translate everything that could be construed as inciting race crime and plaster it across the known universe.
The Master is parliamentarian Jussi Halla-aho. His blog, Scripta, is the most popular in Finland. He has been charged with ethnic agitation and breach of the sanctity of religion, and convicted of disrupting religious worship. He is an ardent opponent of immigration, is a parliamentarian and—the incredible irony still stuns me—was made chairman of the Administration Committee, which is concerned with immigration affairs. He resigned the position but remains on the committee. I doubt further charges based on racial hatred would make The Master a happy camper.
However, I came to the conclusion that I was wrong to have run the series quoting immigrants. They, by and large, used the same language of hate toward Finns that upset them so badly when directed toward themselves. I gave them special dispensation because they were emotionally distraught. That was wrong and I should not have done it. Most live on welfare. Finns are paying their bills and were reading texts, disseminated by me, that discussed how much the people they financially support hate them. I only exacerbated the situation.
The primary right-wing party, The Finns, or True Finns (they’ve changed their name in English more than once) have some valid complaints that, outside of the belief of many that all immigrants should be deported, I agree with, at least to a degree, and since I was already politicized, I wrote political articles discussing them. Here are a couple:
The European Union and Finland: The Long Kiss Goodbye
Corruption-Free Finland and Weapons of Mass Destruction
I was speaking to a large audience in Spain last summer and the European bailout of that country came up. I spoke my peace, and some audience members were so upset that they walked out. An article based on my interviews in Spain went viral. I never dreamed that as a crime writer, anyone would ever give a damn about my political views. But if you don’t want to know what I think, don’t ask.
Have I ever been concerned for my safety? There are instances of attacks on public figures because of their stances on immigration here, but it’s not a warzone. On the list of things I worry about, it’s very low. I’m a creature of habit. People know where to find me. What will happen will happen. And if you think about it, if the right-wing would like to suppress my writing, killing me would turn my books into bestsellers. They would really be shooting themselves in the foot.
For most authors, the approach to writing a novel is both very personal (obviously) but also a matter of routine; there’s a way you do it that works for you. This time out, it’s my understanding that you did a fairly substantial amount of research in preparation for writing Helsinki Blood. What were you researching, and was that (doing research) an element that is normally a required part of your process?
I do extensive research for every book. I researched everything from pharmaceuticals to psychiatry to ballistics to various scientific subjects to make sure that everything, if one were to carry out the plot, would work. Plus a thousand minute details. Even measuring distancing and driving times. Readers actually check these things. A reader checked the cost of a taxi ride. That degree of attention to detail is normal, just goes with the job. For me, it’s one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing. I’ve built a large network of consultants over time as well, and I enjoy our conversations. I’m simultaneously irked and amused when U.S. readers write in reviews that details are wrong, when I’ve thoroughly delved into them. It apparently hasn’t occurred to them that, a half a world away, many things, from medical care to child rearing, are done differently.
At this point you’ve lived in Finland for 15 years, and the culture and setting have obviously had a tremendous impact on your writing; the Kari Vaara series is uniquely Finnish and could not take place anywhere else. When was the last time you got back to your home state of Kentucky, and do you think you still could–or have any desire to–write a novel set back in the States?
The last time I was in Kentucky was summer, 2009. Before that, 1998. You can’t see change easily day to day, but after being away from the U.S. for a decade, it was a foreign land for me. Standing in Times Square, I felt like I was in the film, Bladerunner. I went to a gas station, I think in North Carolina. I went to pay, but didn’t know how. I said, “I’m sorry, I’m from Europe and don’t know how to pay with a credit card. Could you show me?” The girl was most courteous and told me that I speak very good English, for which I thanked her. Once I was back in KY and on the family farm again, I felt comfortable. Everything was the same as it had always been. I could write a novel set in the States, but I would have to spend enough time there first to re-acclimate myself to America as it is today.
Speaking of Kentucky…you grew up in an environment where being around guns was the norm. “I could field strip a semi-automatic pistol before my age was in double digits,” you’ve said. There have been several very unfortunate, high-profile incidents involving mass killings in the States over the past couple of years (the Colorado theater shooting; the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting), as well as the horrific massacre that took place in Norway in 2011. In the wake of those events, there has rightly been renewed debate about gun control. However, there has also been renewed debate about to what extent violence in entertainment–movies, video games, literature, music–plays a role in the problem. The Kari Vaara series features some fairly intense scenes of violence. Is that something you consciously stop and think about before writing? Do you think artists bear any level of responsibility for the violent content of the material they produce?
This question presumes that accurately portrayed violence begets violence. At least in the U.S., I think gun control is irrelevant, not even worth wasting the time to discuss it. Someone should have thought about gun control a century or two ago. There are approx. 270 million firearms floating around the U.S. right now. One for almost every person in the country. Don’t you think this is a case of shutting the barn doors after the cows got out?
Ammo is the same. I know people who have stockpiled tens of thousands of rounds. Even if you took all the ammunition out of every store in America right now. Poof! It wouldn’t help. People serious about firearms have reloading kits, stockpiled brass (empty cartridges), have even bought hundreds of pounds of lead and molds to make their own bullets. Not selling ammo in stores would create a black market in ammo similar to prohibition. Do you know how much the prices of guns and ammo have risen because of the brouhaha about gun control? People are stockpiling. Does anyone believe that, realistically, there is any way to bring order to a situation so out of control? I’m all for background checks, even though they’re not of much value. If you want a gun, you’ll get one easily enough. In America, there will NEVER EVER be true gun control. The very idea is foolish. It’s the culture that must change to end the slaughter.
I’ve given the matter serious consideration. In fiction, I think violence should be portrayed as I portray it. Brutal. Awful. Terrifying. I view it, as a writer of noir, as one of my social duties. I’ve seen interviews with traumatized soldiers back from Iraq discussing their experiences and what they witnessed, talking about burned up children with their limbs blown off, things like that. And more than a few have said, I thought it would be like a video game.
The human body is a fragile thing that doesn’t stand up well to punishment. Movies where the heroes get shot ten times but go on to beat the shit out of the bad guy. Literature that soft-pedals violence and fails to create a sense of its consequences. Video games that people call realistic are not, they create a sense of the surreal. These things build a false picture of violence in the minds of impressionable, usually young people. Those that turn to violence want to live a movie or a video game. They don’t understand the horror that they will wreak until it has been wrought, and then it’s too late. And the music thing. Marilyn Manson driving children to the devil and murder. Sorry, not buying it.
To a certain extent, classifying books by genre is inevitable–stores have to be able to group and market things more specifically than one big room of books sorted alphabetically by author. It can get tricky, however, when trying to make minute distinctions between things like crime fiction and noir. And these days, anything coming out of your neck of the woods is invariably compared to Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell. Obviously that’s fine company to be keeping, but do you ever rankle at being lumped in as “Nordic Noir?” How do you describe/classify your writing?
First, let’s define noir. There are some good essays on the subject, but simply put, societal values are turned upside down and inside out. The psychotic and sociopathic become normal. The normal becomes odd, something for wimps. Fiction, simply put, begins with a life or situation in balance. Something throws life out of balance, and a story is a series of events that with slowly increasing intensity attempt to restore balance to the protagonist’s world.
In noir, that balance at the beginning of the story is usually already leaning toward grim. In most fiction, the story resolution changes the protagonist in such a way that he/she can never return to the person and living the situation that existed on page one. In noir, these changes are seldom positive. At best, the changes are ironic. The protagonist achieves the story goal, only to discover that it wasn’t what was desired, the world is not a better place because of the achievement of that goal, and the protagonist isn’t a better person for having achieved it. In these ways, noir functions differently than almost all other genres.
By contrast, most crime fiction is built around normal societal values. A typical story begins with a life situation most readers can at least in ways recognize, and then the progression of conflict begins. At story climax and resolution, however, the protagonist has achieved a goal that improves the world, if not him/herself in some way, but at the very least, the protagonist can take some satisfaction in an outcome that the reader will also take satisfaction from and can identify with. So the ending, in most crime fiction, gives the reader something bright and shiny to hang on to. An ‘up’ ending.
Very little of Nordic Noir is noir. Most is normal crime fiction with a Nordic bent, meaning that social issues are often as important, sometimes more important, than the crime itself. Not so long ago, the genre was called the Scandinavian Crime Wave, but somehow that morphed into Nordic Noir. Geographically, “Nordic” is more accurate, since the genre incorporates fiction generated in countries outside Scandinavia, but “noir” is a misnomer. When asked, I say I write Nordic Noir, but in truth, I write something approaching it, but not quite there, because Kari Vaara and his wife, whatever their troubles may be, have a loving relationship. The same could be said of Jo Nesbø: his Harry Hole series isn’t quite noir for much the same reason. There is little Nordic Noir. I think people just like to say it because it has a nice ring to it. It should be called Nordic Crime. To answer the question: No, it doesn’t rankle. People can call it whatever they like. It’s OK by me.
Kari Vaara has been good to you–and I presume you two are still getting along ok–but do you ever have the urge to write something different? Is there some abandoned manuscript hidden away in a desk drawer or box somewhere that you didn’t quite know what to do with at the time but now, with some serious time under your belt as an author, you’d love to revisit and see where it takes you?
I’ve written three novels that don’t involve Kari Vaara. One is my first, which sits on a shelf where it belongs, because like so many first novels, I don’t think it’s good enough to publish. In fact, I’ve declined an offer to re-write and publish it. I’ve also published two standalone thrillers, just not in English. And I’m just now beginning the thought process, planning a novel outside the Vaara series.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t end things by asking where you are in the writing of the next Kari Vaara book, and if there is anything about the book, even big ticket ideas, that you can share without potentially spoiling what happens in Helsinki Blood for those who haven’t read it yet?
Helsinki Blood is the end of a trilogy. I’m moving on to a book with much different themes. I’m exploring new territory. I’ll say no more.
Elizabeth, thank you. – James
Helsinki Blood is available from Putnam (ISBN: 978-0399158889).
©Elizabeth A. White/James Thompson – Please do not reprint/reproduce without express written permission.
Also be sure to read Jim’s two previous visits, “Will I Be Assassinated? – An Interview With James Thompson” and “My Life Just Isn’t Anybody Else’s Business.”