I have to admit I was very skeptical when starting this author’s book because of the marketing. The publicity material accompanying the author’s second book contained this passage:
“From the author of the critically acclaimed Snow Angels comes the thrilling second installment in James Thompson’s Inspector Vaara series, LUCIFER’S TEARS. An American who has made his home in Finland for over a decade, Thompson is Finland’s fastest rising literary star, joining the ranks of such legendary writers as Stieg Larsson and Liza Marklund at the forefront of the wildly popular genre of Nordic noir.”
While a clever bit of alliteration (of which this particular productive person is always a fan), “nordic noir” seemed like a blatant attempt to cash in on the Stieg Larsson popularity.
But I liked what I read. It was dark but so is, to read these books, is Finland.
And so I agreed to an interview and as I started paying attention to the author’s biography and colorful career path I knew this would become an interesting conversation.
If you liked Stieg Larsson but thought the books too long, too detailed and meandering in sections, these books may be perfect. If you are looking for light books this might not be what you need – I’d steer you instead toward books by Lisa Lutz or an author whose interview I’m publishing later in the week, Brad Parks.
This is Thompson’s second book, the first being Snow Angels. Both feature Inspector Vaara, so I began by asking about him. His wife, Kate, like Thompson himself, grew up in America, so she provides the reader with some perspective on what Americans find surprising or confusing or disturbing about Finland.
Your two books feature Investigator Vaara. How would you describe him to those who have not read your books? In what ways are you like him and in what ways are you different from him?
Kari is a loner, loves music, literature and nature. He has a good heart, a bad temper, a melancholy disposition. He’s not the world’s best cop, but makes up for it by being one of those people who can’t accept failure. He has a strong rebellious streak, isn’t particularly interested in rules or the demands of his superiors.
Interestingly, this had never come up before, but has several times over the past couple weeks, I’ve been asked about similarities between Kari and myself. I suppose because Kari’s a typical Finn, and I’m not — after 13 years here, I don’t think of myself as Finnish or American, but as some kind of mutt — it never occurred to me that I might be anything like him at all. But a couple of weeks ago, someone told me that I look like him, act like him, and apparently think like him. I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but there must be something to it.
There are some autobiographical bits twisted around and thrown into the mix. Kari limps from a gunshot wound. I have two bad knees and a busted hip. My severity of my limp varies day to day, but it’s there. We both have wives 12 years younger than us. I just flipped the cultures. He’s a Finn with an American wife, and I’m an American with a Finnish wife. We both have a strong inclination toward silence. Kari, I think, is just a lot cooler than I am. Since he’s fictional, that’s not hard for him to accomplish.
We also have strong differences. Kari was an abused child who took regular beatings from his alcoholic father. My dad is a kind man who has never laid a hand on me in anger.
We both have tendencies to become furious when the weak are abused. I hate bullies. In Lucifer’s Tears, there’s a scene in which a stark raving drunken lunatic is terrorizing a group of kids at a special needs school. A fence is separating them, so there’s no imminent danger. That’s a true story. I watched this maniac scare the hell out of a bunch of kids. In the book, Kari gives him a beating. Instead of interfering, I just watched to make sure nothing bad happened to the kids until an adult came and took them inside. Ten years ago, I would have beaten the guy to a pulp, just on general principles, and I wouldn’t have felt badly about it. I wouldn’t have thought much about it at all. I’m five years older than Kari. Maybe he’ll mellow with age too.
This book has been promoted as part of “nordic noir.” What do you think of that label and how would you describe books like yours that fit it?
I consider my writing Nordic noir. I left the States 13 years ago. I was away 10 years before I set foot in the country again. Two years ago, I was there for a couple weeks and haven’t been back since. Nothing against the U.S. I’ve just been busy doing other things in different places. I’m completely out of touch with the culture. When I visited, I noticed that it’s like time stopped for me there all those years ago. People’s attitudes have changed, the nation has changed. People talk about American celebrities I’ve never heard of, use phrases of speech that are new to me. It seems like a different country than the one I left.
Thirteen years is long time, things change quicker than you think, you just can’t see it when you’re in the thick of it. And I’ve changed too. I write for a Nordic audience because this is what I know now. I couldn’t write for an American audience if I wanted to; I wouldn’t know how. I’m just glad that by and large, American readers like my work.
I don’t know of any other books like mine. I think I’m pretty much doing my own thing. I get a kick out of it when I read reviews that say I’ve obviously been influenced by so and so, and I’ve never read their works. I read that I’m influenced by Ian Rankin, so I read one of his books, and I could see why the reviewer might think that, but nope, sorry, just not true.
The most famous author under that label umbrella is obviously Stieg Larsson. Are you tired of Stieg Larsson comparisons? What do you think of his books and to what do you credit their popularity?
Larsson sold about a gazillion books. Please, reviewers, compare me to him. It’s about the best marketing I can get.
I’ve read the first two of the trilogy; I haven’t gotten around to the third one yet. Obviously, he was an excellent storyteller. Technically, I think the books are too fat, could have been down by about 25%. But for some reason, in this case, all the extraneous material seems to work for him.
It interests me that people feel that the books are giving them a picture of Sweden, but consider The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The number of settings is quite small, and much of the story takes place on a sparsely populated island, so he’s not showing us much of Sweden. But readers feel that he is. I think the reason for this is that he so accurately captures the Swedish mindset. The characters’ thoughts and attitudes are quite consistent with my experiences dealing with Swedes, and there have been many.
The character of Mikael Blomkvist is an interesting case. For a protagonist, he’s remarkably passive. It’s fascinating how many women just throw themselves into his bed, and he just sort of shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, “well, ok, we’ll have sex if you really want to.”
Lisbet Salander, I think, is the key to the success of the series. Her backstory of intense suffering and her triumphant creation of herself as a woman of nearly superhero powers — so gifted and capable of punishing her oppressors that it pushes the envelope of believability — makes us love her. Every time she brutalizes a bad person with sociopathic verve we applaud her, wish that we could punish the people who make our own lives miserable in such dramatic ways. Her diminutive size and appearance contributes much to this. The message: the weak and trampled can overcome any obstacle. I think that message is the overarching reason for the success of the series.
What language do you write in: English or Finnish? Do you think it makes a difference?
I write in English. When it comes to writing novels, speed counts, and Finnish is too slow and painful for me. And pity the poor editor who would have to clean up my grammar. Yeah, it makes a difference. I have two inner voices, one Finnish and one English. Interestingly, I’ve found that I can have opposing opinions depending on what language I think in. My Finnish thinking is more rational, my English thinking shrill by comparison.
So sometimes I think things through in Finnish before writing them, then decide how best to express myself in English. At home, by the way, we speak both languages, depending on mood, subject matter, etc. I’ve found that some languages are better suited for certain modes of expression than others. Between my wife and myself, we’ve studied ten languages. Unfortunately, we’re fluent in very few of them.
When I read your bio the first thing that jumped out at me was this: you were born and raised in Kentucky but have lived for over a decade in Helsinki, Finland. That seems like quite a jump. Was it quite the cultural shift?
Yeah, it was really hard. I’ve lived in a few different places, several years in Boston, for instance, so it’s not like I was taken out of Appalachia and transplanted on the other side of the world with no life experience to draw from. But still, it was rough. Mostly because of the language. I’ve studied six languages, have a pretty good language head, but they say (I have no idea by what standard such things are measured) that Finnish is the world’s second most difficult language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese.
It was years before I could do things most people take for granted, like sit down and read a newspaper. I’ve asked myself a thousand times, why couldn’t I have gone somewhere like Italy? I could have been functionally literate in six months. I never cease to be amazed by my poor judgment and lack of common sense. Now though, I’m happy enough here, and content. There are a lot of wonderful things about Finns and Finland.
You have had quite an interesting career. Can I ask you to tell me a little bit about each of these past jobs, what you learned from them and how they help you now as a novelist: Bartender, bouncer, construction worker, rare coin dealer and soldier?
I signed up with the U.S. Army at age 19. I needed a job. I was a hillbilly kid, had the right skills for it. It suited me. I had a slot waiting for me in the 82nd Airborne, but fractured my hip not long before I was supposed to leave for Fort Bragg. I didn’t want to be a cook or a paper pusher, so they gave me a partial disability and a ticket home.
After I healed up enough, I needed a job, used family connections to get a union card and worked for a little under two years in an oil refinery. Ran jackhammers, dug ditches, just paying the rent and keeping food on the table.
I had enough, needed a change and moved to Boston. I was in good shape, good credentials for such work, wanted to have some fun, and got a job as a bouncer in a big nightclub. I saw how much money could be made bartending, and got a job at an alternative music nightclub, Axis Boston, and worked there, among other places, for a few years. I made good money, mostly had a lot of fun. I had a lot cash from tips, and knew a lot about coins because my dad and I collected them together when I was a kid. I used my extra cash to deal in rare coins. I had a lot of fun at that too.
I finally got sick of the noise and people and left Boston with a Finnish girl. We lived on a family farm on Big Catt Creek in Lawrence County Kentucky for a little less than two years. I farmed. Raised corn and sold it beside the road out of the back of my pickup. Money was scarce. We mostly ate what we grew or animals I killed. I used to get up at 4 a.m. most mornings and hunt. Squirrels, rabbits, deer, whatever. I was happy there. I couldn’t make an adequate living though, the time came to move on, and we moved to Finland. I didn’t have any other plans and it seemed like an interesting thing to do.
I went back to working in nightclubs. She and I split after a while here, but I had built a sort of life here by then. I had just been accepted by The University of Helsinki — not an easy task — and wanted an education. I love books, so I studied English Philology. Spending a few years reading literature sounded good. And it was. I earned a Master’s degree. As an academic, I’m a Yeatsian. Then I got some publishing contracts, and here we are.
As to how all this affected me as a writer: Most people don’t have much variety in their lives, tend to go into a field and live a kind of certain lifestyle and stick with it. I’ve lived in such a number of ways that I think my worldview is far larger than most. And spending the better part of 20 years bartending. Can you imagine the number of people I’ve met, and the diversity of those people? And most of them drunk or stoned or both. I’ve seen people at their best and worst, learned what people are capable of, often to my dismay. I’ve seen and done things most people can’t imagine. My life has been like a novel in itself. Granted, I’ve often chosen hard ways to live, but they’ve never been boring.
Speaking of jobs do you see one of your jobs as an author as describing life in Finland – both its good and bad components
I didn’t realize it for a long time and I never intended it to be, but yeah, a big part of my job is social commentary. Not just exposing Finns and Finland to the world, but exposing Finns to themselves. One of my greatest pleasures as a writer is when Finns tell me what they’ve learned from my work about their own country, or when they tell me they see something they always took for granted in a whole new perspective.
Related question: did you intentionally arrange for Kate to serve as someone American questioning why things are the way they are in Finland, providing a voice for the average reader, or did things just work out that way?
It was intentional. An authorial device. There would be no reason for Kari Vaara to think or explain many things that he does, if he didn’t have a person that wanted or needed to know them.
You raise some interesting ethically thorny issues in your new book with the subplot about a 90-year-old Finn who may have collaborated with Nazis. Did you do research on the issue? What did you conclude about the proper punishment for people caught so many decades after their crimes?
I researched like a madman. It would have been disrespectful to this nation to write a book addressing such sensitive issues without doing so. I spent a lot of time going through PhD material by Finnish historians and not commonly known to many or even most Finns. I also worked closely with two Finnish historians, one an expert on the relationship between Finnish and German secret police prior to and during the Second World War, and the other an expert on the Finnish Civil War. Both of them read the book and give me approval before the book was published.
I conclude that anyone who took part in the Holocaust is deserving of punishment commiserate with the nature of their crimes. That said, in a way, Arvid (the accused war criminal) and I are in a sense old friends now. I don’t think I could bring myself to take part in his punishment. Even while knowing I was wrong for doing so, if I were on the jury, I would most likely nullify it.
What are you working on next?
I’ve contracted with Putnam for two more books in the series. I’m near completion of the third, True Finns. It focuses on racism in the country today, high-level politics, much of it concerning a political party that could be described as a more virulent strain of America’s Tea Partiers, and a kidnapping murder related to all the above.
What’s the biggest misconception about Finland?
Many people have no idea where it is. Many people think it’s part of Russia or Sweden. To clarify: Finland is bordered to the east by Russia, to the west by Sweden, to the west and north by Norway, to the south, the Baltic Sea, and a short hop across it, by Estonia.