How It Happened – Owen Laukkanen

by Owen Laukkanen

It started with a message from my agent.

            “We have some interest in The Professionals,” she wrote. “An editor named Neil Nyren from Putnam wants to talk to you about turning the book into a series. Can he call you this afternoon?”

            I said yes, of course. I’d only been on submission for a few weeks, and I was already going crazy with the waiting and the uncertainty. I’d queried for agents much longer, and that experience had been soul-crushing, but at least I’d known when my stuff was being rejected. Being on submission, though, was a different kind of torture, one that seemed to involve mostly sitting by my laptop, chewing my fingernails, and waiting for any good news.

            We set a time for the call, four hours in the future. My agent wished me luck, and I spent the rest of the afternoon literally pacing, convinced that if I screwed up this phone call, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

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I’d finished the first draft of The Professionals almost exactly one year earlier. Four months before that, I’d quit my job. I was a poker reporter, paid to travel the world writing about high-stakes card tournaments, and though the pay was good and the travel exciting (and free!), I’d grown tired of poker, and smoky casinos. I had money saved. I wanted to follow my dreams.

            I’d wanted to be an author since I was a teenager, and here was my chance. I moved back in with my mom and lived off my savings, determined to write as many books as I could before the money ran out and I had to find work again. I approached the task with a mercenary eye; though I’m Canadian, I set my books in America, and I queried mostly American agents and aimed for a contract with an American publisher. I decided to try crime fiction because it seemed fun and exciting—and far more marketable than my weak attempts at Big Important Literature.

            I wrote a hardboiled poker novel first. It remains—mercifully—unpublished, though it did help me catch the eye of my eventual agent, Stacia Decker. As I finished the first draft of the poker book, though, I came up with a better idea. I was watching a movie about professional kidnappers in Latin America, and I wondered if there was any way for a group of enterprising criminals to turn kidnapping into a career in this part of the world.

            From that germ of an idea came The Professionals, about four twentysomethings who turn to crime after failing to find jobs when they graduate college. Over the next few months, I polished The Professionals and began querying agents, one of whom, Stacia, had liked that first poker book, and who, after reading The Professionals, agreed to represent me. I signed the agency papers in April 2010, and immediately set out to sea; I worked all summer on a fishing boat in the Pacific Northwest, and in the fall I moved into a seaside cabin to work on revisions.

            Under Stacia’s expert eye, I polished the manuscript over the course of a few months, and in October we sent the book out on submission. And after that, I sat on my hands and waited, torn up by impatience and by the knowledge that some people wait months or years in the same kind of limbo.
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But anyway, here, now, mid-November 2010, and my first contact with a publisher was mere hours away. I spent the time wearing a track in the carpet and walking the streets outside aimlessly, agonizing over what I would tell Neil when he called. I’d written The Professionals as a standalone, with no designs on writing a series, but I sure wasn’t going to tell that to a Big Six editor with a ready contract.

            But what if he doesn’t like me?

            What if I say the wrong thing?

            What if this is my one big break and I completely blow it?

            As it turned out, I needn’t have been nervous. Neil was gracious on the phone, and funny and not at all intimidating. He must have known I was terrified, but he didn’t seem to care. We got along well, had a good talk, and a couple of days later, Stacia sent me another Twitter message.

            “We have a two-book offer from Putnam. Call me.”

            I called her. We celebrated. We took the offer. I fantasized about what my cover would look like and read and reread the official announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace. And I paced some more, only this time, I was dreaming—about Book Two in the series, about my pub date. About finally seeing my book in the bookstore.

            From my point of view, the path to becoming a published writer is comprised mainly of long periods of agonizing self-doubt, punctuated by brief, glorious moments of affirmation. I’ve published four books with Putnam, with five and six on the way, and if I expected that self-doubt to disappear when my books hit the stores, I was pretty darn wrong. As far as affirmation goes, though, that first phone call from Neil is hard to beat. I hope every aspiring writer out there gets to feel the same mix of nerves and incredible excitement someday.

Owen Laukkanen’s 2012 debut, THE PROFESSIONALS earned rave reviews from critics and readers alike. The story of four recent university graduates who turn to kidnapping in a failing job market, The Professionals was hailed as, “a brutally beautiful piece of work” by New York Times bestseller John Sandford, “a high-octane adrenaline and gunpowder-fueled rocket ride” by bestseller C.J. Box, and, “a first-class thriller by a terrific new voice” by John Lescroart. Mystery Scene Magazine called it one of the year’s best debuts, while Kirkus Reviews named it one of the top 100 novels of the year. Laukkanen followed The Professionals with the well-received thrillers CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, KILL FEE, and THE STOLEN ONES. His newest thriller, THE WATCHER IN THE WALL, will be available March 15, 2016 and is available for pre-order.

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