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Book Talk: Kari Vaara drifts into Finnish darkness

Finnish cop Kari Vaara has just had surgery for a brain tumour that leaves him unable to feel any emotions and is running a covert operation which strays onto morally ambiguous ground.
/ Source: Reuters

Finnish cop Kari Vaara has just had surgery for a brain tumour that leaves him unable to feel any emotions and is running a covert operation which strays onto morally ambiguous ground.

"Helsinki White," James Thompson's third novel featuring Vaara, follows him on a dark trail through a wintry Finland beset with corruption, xenophobia and economic angst.

Thompson, a 14-year resident of Finland, is fluent in the language and published two novels in Finnish before breaking onto the international scene with Vaara. He spoke about his writing and the newly popular genre of "Nordic Noir."

Q: What got the series going?

A: "It got going with 'Snow Angels,' which is about a black woman who's a starlet and she's found dead on a reindeer farm, brutally butchered. I got that image in my head. This is the way all my stories come. Then I saw who found her, I knew who killed her and pretty much the whole thing happened in a heartbeat."

Q: Had you already thought of Vaara at that point?

A: "No, no. I just pictured him automatically and knew quite a bit about him straight away. I did spend a few years working on the book, on and off, because I was in university and I was working on my master's thesis. So it took me a while. The book I'm finishing now, I'll sit and write 3,000 words a day. I once finished a long book in six or seven weeks, first draft. It's easier that way.

"I wait until I can see the thing in my head like a movie and then I just write it all out. I don't do that many rewrites either. I wait until I can hear the characters and I know the dialogue. I force myself not to write, I make myself imagine the whole thing. Then once I can see it all, and hear everything, see everything, feel everything - then I write."

Q: Do you outline, take notes?

A: Yes. It's changed over the years. I was a published author in Finland before I was internationally, and 'Snow Angels' was published here first... I used to have really copious outlines. For my first published book I had a 150 page single-spaced outline. That was one reason I could write it so quickly, because of those lengthy, lengthy notes. But now, over time, it's changed. I just don't need it that much anymore. I think this book I'm working on now is my sixth novel. It gets easier with practice.

"I do write an outline first but maybe it's only 30 or 40 pages. I've learned that for me, at least, it's best not to outline too tightly so that I give wiggle room for my imagination. When I'm writing the story out sometimes I find improvements. It's usually within a scene or a scene arc, the story won't change. It's never happened to me yet, that I've changed the ending or anything. I know the story. I leave it a little looser than I used to."

Q: How much of Vaara is you, if any?

A: "I've been asked that before, and I'm not really certain. His opinions and attitudes, they might or might not be mine. Someone pointed out to me that I look like him, I act like him, I have a slight limp, and we're built the same and we're both laconic. So certainly there's something of me in there, but as I pointed out on the blog recently, people are always trying to intuit the character of the author from their writings and the characters. It's almost invariably a mistake to think that I think something because Kari Vaara does. It just ain't true."

Q: The whole genre of "noir" -- does the concept translate well to other cultures? Are the Finns big on noir?

A: "The whole Nordic region in general is really taken by crime novels. In fact it's a tradition in Sweden, maybe some other countries, that on Midsummer, you spend that time in the countryside or somewhere, and what you do is you read crime novels. It's that built in to the culture.

"As far as noir, it just depends on how you define it. A lot of people are using the phrase 'Nordic Noir' now, and I think they just like the way it sounds without considering what noir really is. We've gone from calling it the 'Scandinavian Crime Wave' to 'Nordic Noir' - and most of what they're calling Nordic Noir to me is just not noir. Well, there are different definitions of noir. For me, what it means is that the resolution of the novel doesn't change the protagonist or the anti-hero, there's more than likely an anti-hero of some kind, for the positive. The world doesn't become a bright, shiny place at the end of the story."

Q: With "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" so huge, what do you think about this whole Nordic fiction focus?

A: "I think it's great... As far as my part in it? Certainly it's helped me a great deal. I don't know how many times I've seen myself compared to Stieg Larsson, but I really don't write that much like him. We explore some of the same themes, but the Nordic crime genre explores themes. My series is really just a very traditional Finnish series in the themes that it takes on: alcoholism, depression, murder, nature, the environment. That's just traditional Finnish storytelling in music, theatre, film, everywhere. Perhaps my prose is more American than Scandinavian, and that's what makes it a crossover, nothing that I've done thematically. That I give a colder treatment as an outside observer than a typical Finnish author - they tend to romanticise those themes. For instance, poor depressed alcoholic, boo hoo hoo. There's very little boo hoo hoo in my work is more like the whisper of a scalpel, laying bare the flesh." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)