--> How many rejection slips did you get before your first novel was published?
Not that many. I started writing fiction in 1994. Like so many people who’ve read voraciously for their whole lives, I thought I knew how to write, but recognized my scribblings as garbage, backed up and began teaching myself how to write. Several years later, I completed my first novel, which remains on a shelf, unpublished, and that’s the right place for it. I sent out some query letters, and actually got written responses with comments from a couple agents. That’s industry secret code for ‘this isn’t good enough, but we would like to have a look at your next effort.’ I got the message and wrote another book. There’s a service called agentresearch.com I highly recommend it. They match writers with the right agents for them. On their advice, I wrote six query letters and captured the attention of a very good agent. He said he had his doubts but would submit the novel to some publishers and test the waters. None bought it, but they provided feedback, so it was at once a disappointment but a valuable experience. The overall message was that the book was good, but my cold and sometimes brutal treatment of sometimes sensitive subject matter was just too much for them. And again, I was—this time directly—invited to submit future works. So I was one step up the ladder but had to make a decision: Do I pander to the publishers, or do I write what I want, publication be damned? I chose the latter. I continued to write daily but tried not to think about publication. Some years later, I was ‘discovered’ by a Finnish editor. No query letter. I met him while working in a bar. We started to chat, I described my work, and within a short time, before the first novel was even published, Northern Europe’s largest publisher had bought three books from me. It had never happened to a fiction writer in Finland before, and certainly never to a foreigner. And then, a short time later, I was recommended to a U.S. agent by a mutual acquaintance. The agent requested Snow Angels via my friend. Four days later, he offered to represent me. Within a few weeks, he sold Snow Angels in the U.S. and several other countries. Again, no query letter. In the end, I did nothing to bring myself to the attention of agents. Instead, I focused on writing, and they found me. I recently changed agents. It took two emails.
--> Have you ever thrown away a book that you just couldn't make work?
No. But I‘ve thrown books in the trash because I wasn’t satisfied with them. I wrote half of the first version of Lucifer’s Tears, just didn’t like it, trashed it and started from the beginning. I just finished a book to be published next year, Helsinki Blood. Almost the same story. Wrote the whole thing and it worked, but I hated it. I was able to salvage parts of it, but basically started from scratch and wrote it again. Most books that don’t work are the result of poor planning. Writers don’t put enough effort into the outline, then get to a certain point and find themselves boxed into a corner with no way to take the story forward. At least not in a compelling and meaningful way.
--> Is it still exciting to publish a new book even after all this time?
Yes! The first, of course, after years spent working toward the moment, is the most thrilling, but it’s always exciting. For me, there are four moments in the creation of a book that have special meaning. 1. Making the weighty decision of what book I’ll write. It means I’m going to dedicate a year of my life to it. 2. Typing THE END. A relief followed by depression, because I’ve spent a year in a fictional world, and when it’s over, it leaves a hole in my life. Plus showing it to my agent, publisher, etc., and the fear that it’s trash as I wait for their critiques. 3. The end of the editing stage which lasts for months as my agent and editor and I hone and tweak it, until it finally passes to press, and then the relief and subsequent depression hit me again. 4. Publication day. Of course, I’ll well into my next book by then. For me now, it’s not so much excitement as satisfaction now. I think Finnish publication day is psychologically more important to me than U.S. publication day, because the U.S. is half a world away. Here, I can see it in the bookstores. Walk in. Pick it up. Hold it. Watch other people browse through it. The feeling of reality hits home. I usually don’t celebrate. Maybe go out with my wife for a nice meal to reward myself. The satisfaction is personal and internal, I often don’t want to share it with others.
--> Do you get ideas for new books all the time and do you keep them written down, or does one come to mind when you need one?
I have no shortage of ideas. I don’t write them down, have no need for it. As I mentioned above, deciding which story I’m going to commit myself to is the hardest. If for instance, I make a poor choice, begin the weeks or months of prep work, outlining and researching, and then realize it’s not the story I want to tell, that’s a lot of work for nothing. It’s happened a couple times.
--> Do you have entire story arcs mapped out when you begin a trilogy or a series of related books?
The Inspector Vaara novels are my first series. The others standalones, although I’ve always left room to serialize them if I wished. And of course each book in a series should work as a standalone. But Lucifer’s Tears, Helsinki White, and Helsinki Blood form a trilogy and were planned as such. And I’ve thought ahead and done rough planning for the next two and know where I’m headed. For me, thinking two or three books ahead is enough. I don’t want to say, plan a decalogue and end the series (the decalogue crime series is a Nordic concept, rarely materialized. I think it was Stieg Larsson’s intention). The biggest reason is that it would limit me as a writer. I need room to grow and change as a writer, and the stories should change with me. I’m forty-seven. I don’t want to now plan what I’ll write when I’m fifty-seven. Who knows? Maybe I’ll feel the need to write romances by then. The odds of me doing that are roughly the same as the sun bursting into supernova, but you never know.
--> Do you know how a book/series is going to end when you begin it?
As discussed. A book, always. I won’t write the first word of text until I know the end of the story. When I can see the novel in my head like a movie, hear all the dialogue, and the characters are screaming at me, demanding to be heard, then I write the book. I resist the urge to write it until then. But still, it’s important to write every day. It’s good to have a few projects in the works to keep the writing chops up, hopefully improving my craft, until that moment. So I screenwrite, essay, review, edit, have started writing short stories (I’ve always worked in the long form) just about anything you can think of. As you may have gathered, I have compulsion problems.
--> Would life be easier if you published under just one name?
Sigh. Oh yes. In Finland, I’m Jim Thompson. Everywhere else, James Thompson. Every public figure creates an identity, some just try to be themselves, some distance themselves to different degrees and even go so far as to invent a persona. I just try to be myself. I imagine that it’s a lot of work maintaining a false character for yourself. Everyone has always called me Jim, so I first published under the name I identify myself with. When first published here, I didn’t envision an international career, considered myself a Nordic writer (and still do), and just didn’t anticipate the problems that go along with sharing a name with the late, great, Jim Thompson. Things like search engines, book catalogs, reader confusion. Using Jim just because it made me comfortable was a mistake.
--> Do you have to enter a different mind-set to write different stories for different names/characters?
Absolutely. Is it possible to write a character if not imagining a character without seeing the world through his/her eyes, adopting that character’s worldview while you write? I don’t know what other writers do, but it goes back to that ‘screaming to be heard’ thing. If I don’t know everything about them, how can I write them?
--> Is there any kind of book you would like to write but haven't?
Yes. I would like to write at least a trilogy, a noir version of U.S. history beginning in the Clinton administration and ending at the end of the first (future unforeseeable) Obama administration. Approx 2500 pages or more total. But I can’t, because almost all the characters are still alive.
--> If you could change anything about your writing career, what would it be?
Can’t think of anything. I make a living doing what I love. How many people can say that? What more could I ask for?
--> What’s the most interesting question you’ve ever been asked about your writings, and what was your answer?
I was in Barcelona, Spain, doing an interview in front of a crowd of journalists, with simultaneous translation. I was asked if it’s true that we eat black people in Finland. My inclination was to say, ‘Oh yes, of course, the eyeballs are the best part.’ I resisted the temptation, the translator and I just looked at each other and shrugged. He asked her to repeat the question. She meant reindeer. He’s an excellent translator. How that bit of confusion happened, I’ll never know, but it still makes me laugh.
--> If you could have written any single work – novel, screenplay, stage play, poem, history, biography – that you most admire and adore, what would it be?
The End of the Affair—Graham Greene
--> Anything you’ve always wanted to be asked about your writing but no one ever has?
Yes. Snow Angels was intended to be in part a pro-feminist work, and bring attention to the issue of clitoridectomy. Never once, in the hundreds of reviews and interviews concerning the work, has anyone ever noticed the close attention I paid to female circumcision in the writing. That was a tremendous disappointment to me. The fault must lie with me, and makes me feel that the book was inadequate in meeting my intentions.