I’m not sure how mysterious I am. I suppose I have a tendency toward being melancholy and taciturn. I’m fairly quiet most of the time, unless a subject comes up that I feel strongly about. I tend to be aloof. I’m married, but outside of the time I spend with my wife, I mostly lead a solitary existence. I have a few good friends, and meet up with them occasionally, but I’m also a workaholic, usually work seven days a week, and it doesn’t leave room for much else. I’m not interested in doing much else.
James, I’m delighted to have you here with me. Make yourself comfortable and let’s have a chat about you and your books. Introduce yourself and how or why you started writing.
I grew up in and around Ashland, a town in Appalachia, near the borders of Ohio and West Virginia. After high school, I wandered around quite a bit, tried my hand at various things. Most of my life, I’ve made my living working in big night clubs. I spent several years in Boston doing just that. I’ve always, since I was a child, been a voracious reader. I’ve also always been involved in one art form or another. I got my first computer when I was thirty, and started writing fiction. I became compulsive about it almost straight away. My goal was to write a book that I would like to read, as my opinion is that the vast majority of books aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. So I guess you could say I started reading because I was angry about the low quality of most writing. If you read a book every day or two, it gets really annoying. Of course, my first discovery was that I hadn’t a clue about how to write well and spent quite a few years teaching myself the craft of it. When I moved to Finland thirteen years ago, I couldn’t speak Finnish, and it became a way of staying in touch with myself and my own language. I also like the fact that writing is a solitary pursuit that requires almost nothing. A writer need depend on no one, and requires only a pen and paper. And then there’s this, I think Graham Greene said it best: Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition. Ways of Escape.
What better motivations to start writing? As a writer, I understand fully where you’re coming from . James, I have read your book Snow Angels, a real page turner, and enjoyed it very much. Tell my readers about this book. Where did you get your ideas from? Who or what are your writing influences?
It’s about a beautiful black movie starlet, murdered in a most brutal fashion and body dumped in a snowfield on a reindeer farm, in a small community near a ski resort in Finnish Lapland. The spine of the book—the superficial story—like all crime stories and so naturally enough, is about the who and the why, but I tend to think that the book is really about the characters who populate it and the environment they live in. My ideas. Hmm. Many people find my work dark and bleak, and classify it as noir. I’m sometimes asked why I create those worlds and how I can stand to live in them long enough to write a book. That would be a question for my psychotherapist, if I had one. And usually, the stories don’t seem dark and bleak as I’m writing them. They’re the world I’m living in at the time; they just seem like normal life to me. I’m often surprised when people find some passages shocking. I don’t know where the ideas come from. It feels as though the stories find me, as opposed to the other way around. I think I’ve read so many books that it’s the sum total of them that has influenced me. The aforementioned Graham Greene has influenced me. I think the same sense of melancholy pervades our work. But Shakespeare, as much as anyone, has taught me about plot and characterization. William Butler Yeats taught me to imbue a text with layers of meaning. Writers have a tendency to hold back, to stop short of writing the whole truth of the story when the story crosses certain boundaries. I think James Ellroy showed me that there are no boundaries, that I can go as far as I like. In fact, now, if I’m tempted to hold back, I write the scene now no matter how grim, because failure to tell the truth of the story is a lie, both to oneself and the reader, and lying to oneself is perhaps our greatest and most common sin. It has no place in literature. All this said, I don’t think I write like anyone else, that I have my own and distinct voice.
I totally agree with you, James, and I like your distinctive voice
There were some very interesting discussions about your book on GoodReads, which I was part of, and you have talked about Finnish culture, the language and the process of living in and adapting to another culture. Can you please shed more light on your experiences, as an American living in Finland? How do you cope with the long winter, for instance?
The winter doesn’t bother me, nor does the dark time. They used to, but I’ve come to enjoy them. Here in Helsinki, we don’t always get enough snow as I would like, as I find it cheerful, but these past couple winters we’ve been deluged in snow. Adapting to the culture was difficult and took some years. In those terms, Finland has been referred to as the Japan of the west, meaning that the cultural differences are so different from the rest of the western world that the country and its ways are nearly incomprehensible to outsiders. After living here for so much time, I’m well-acclimated, and more comfortable here than anywhere else. The key is the language, and Finnish is quite difficult. Until getting a handle on it, foreigners miss out on many things, and especially the nuances of things. And I tend to think that it’s the little things in life that make it fulfilling, not the big ones, and as such, nuances and shades of meanings are quite important in gaining an understanding not just of a culture, but of nearly anything I can think of. When I consider it, I’m one of the few foreigners I know who is happy and built a life here. Most don’t acclimate.
I can totally relate to that observation, James. I know many Chinese people who have lived in a western country for years but not able to speak the target language or inclined for any sort of integration, which is very sad.
I know that you speak six different languages. Incidentally I have also attempted 6 languages, but only fully competent in two, Chinese and English. What motivates you to learn another language?
I think I’ve unintentionally misled you here. I’ve studied six languages, but only speak two. A couple more are rusty but become functional with use. I studied Spanish in high school, but apparently had no interest because I can’t remember a damned thing. In junior high, I studied Latin. Being a moribund language, it’s not immediately useful, but I learned a great deal and it remains a good base from which to learn other languages. What motivates me? I like languages. And since the vast majority of languages are built on the same set of principles, mathematically, each becomes easier than the last. Finnish is similar to Estonian. Swedish is similar to English. Danish and Norwegian are similar to Swedish, and so on. Finns, by the way, speak more languages per capita than any other nationality in the world, with four. They’re also the world’s heaviest coffee drinkers. A relation here? By the way, by speak a language, I mean have the ability to function in it, to not have to translate in your head, to be able to think in it. My written Finnish is crap, also by the way, even though I have a minor in it from the university. Book and spoken Finnish are almost like separate languages. I have to speak in public in Finnish tomorrow. I still get embarrassed when I hear grammar mistakes slipping out of my mouth.
You’re absolutely right. Being able to think in another language is a huge jump, and able to speak and write in another language a double challenge. James, you can be my spokesperson
How do you classify your writing? What do you think are the main reasons that Scandinavian and Nordic crime fiction has become so popular in recent years?
I don’t classify it. I let readers and media do that for me. They, after all, are the true arbiters and decision-makers. Before becoming published internationally—I now have ten publishers in places as far flung as Turkey and Japan—I thought I was simply a Nordic author, writing for a Nordic audience. Then, after being published around the world, the media told me I’m part of the Scandinavian Crime Wave. I suppose it’s true. I frequently find myself compared to Steig Larsson by journalists. I had never read a Larsson novel until well after I finished Snow Angels. I suppose I can see it, in that I’m exposing a part of the world that had been under-exploited as a setting, like most of the Nordic region, as a setting in crime fiction. But of course our styles are quite different.
I think the Scandinavian Crime Wave rocked the literary world because the vast majority of the book market had become dominated by a handful of authors. And largely still is. One need only do some traveling and look at what’s on offer in stores in airports around the world to see it. But many of those authors fell down on the job. Audiences got tired of trite plots and cardboard characters, basically reading the same books over and over again. Only the titles were different. Then book lovers discovered that that was an entire and excellent literary movement in the Nordic countries, especially in the crime fiction arena. Stories that exposed new places, cultures and societies, had well-thought out plots and deep characterizations. This is a long tradition in this part of the world. The Nordic people have long been entranced by excellent crime fiction and expect it. Really, I’m surprised it took this long for the rest of the world to seek it out. And I believe the boom will last until many of the bigger names in the English speaking crime fiction world either raise the bar of their writing, or else they will just fade away and be replaced by writers with passion and integrity. I suppose that process is already underway.
Profound and astute analysis. I understand that your books are being made into films and you are working on the screen plays. Please tell us more !
The international film rights to the Inspector Vaara series were optioned, and yes, I’m co-screenwriter. Note that many books and screenplays are optioned, but few of them actually made, so I said nothing about it until I gained some confidence that it would really happen. However, this project has been moving by leaps and bounds. The intention is to make a sort of Finnish Millennium Trilogy, and probably because the success of that trilogy, several concerns have expressed interest in investment, two international distributors want it as well. Funding and distribution are always the major hurdles to a film being made, but given that those don’t seem to be problems, I see no reason that shooting shouldn’t begin next year. I’m very much looking forward to it. It may be a series of work trips, but if I have to travel for work, it could be a lot worse than time spent in a ski resort in the Arctic.
Ha. How exciting! Can I come along ? On a more serious note, do you write full time? What do you do when you are not writing?
Yes, I write full-time. For me the job is all-consuming and when factoring in research, and reading and writing for book reviews, I do little that isn’t career related. I suppose that, because when I did have to go to a job and fight for time to write, after I didn’t have to fight for that time, I just naturally poured all my energies into it. And really, it takes that much time. Doing things like write this interview, for instance, take time, and I do many of them. When new books come out, doing interviews is part of my daily routine. I’m happy to do them and all the other promotional activities that revolve around writing, but even now I sometimes find myself fighting for time to write. Often, I even get little sleep, because I lay in bed and plot stories for most of the night. But I love my job. Not many people can say that.
James, you’re obviously well travelled, and I have incredibly itchy feet myself. What is your favorite place on earth and why?
Italy. I enjoy the people and the culture, but the main three reasons are the food, the food, and the food.
Mine too ! For me, being Chinese, it’s not so much the Italian food, but the amazing natural beauty, historical sites and uniqueness of each place, Venice, Rome, Tuscany, you name it!
What are you working now? What else have you got on your pipeline?
Yesterday, I finished the final pass at copyediting HELSINKI WHITE, the next book in the Vaara series. I also just finished upgrading the platform of my website so that it’s got full multimedia capabilities and gave more space to international publishers. I’m no expert at such things and even with help (thanks Annie) invested about a week in it. I’m designing the fourth book in the Vaara series and intend to have the first draft done by early next year. I’m also working on the screenplay for the SNOW ANGELS film, and writing reviews for the New York Journal of Books.
Short Author Bio: Thompson, an American, age forty-seven, has lived in Finland for over a dozen years. He resides in Helsinki with his Finnish wife. He has a Master’s degree in English Philology from The University of Helsinki, where he also studied Finnish, in which he is fluent. Thompson is represented by literary agency Sobel Weber Associates. His U.S. publisher is G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and at present his works are distributed by ten publishers worldwide. International film rights for the entire Inspector Vaara series have been optioned.
You can also buy them at most brick and mortar stores, or order them as paper, e-books, audio books, whatever format you like, from all the major online distributors.
Here’s the official spiel: James Website