Thursday, September 15, 2016

10 Questions for Owen Laukkanen

This series is modeled after the "Interesting Railfan" series in Railroad magazine from years ago. I'm asking each railfan 10 questions, some standard and some customized for the particular person. I hope you enjoy it. (See all in the series)

I put 10 questions to Owen Laukkanen, who is an author and a railfan in British Columbia. I first became aware of him through his Instagram profile. He was kind enough to take a break from writing his next novel to answer my 10 questions.

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m an author and railfan from Vancouver. I write a series of FBI thrillers about a beautiful Federal agent and her (decidedly less beautiful) counterpart on the Minnesota state police. We’re five books in, and the sixth is out next year.

I’ve also written two obnoxious young adult books novels under the name Owen Matthews, and besides that, I’ve worked in professional poker around the world and as a commercial fisherman on both coasts—but I’m a Vancouver guy at heart. You can’t beat the scenery, the weather or the railfanning out here!

2. Why do you like trains?

Near Spences Bridge, BC
I’m not sure, to be honest! I’ve always been fascinated by transportation—ships, planes, cars—but trains have always been closest to my heart. I got into trains when I was really young, walking along the tracks with my dad, and I guess we pick things up when we’re young and sometimes hold onto them for life. Trains have certainly been that way for me.

Plus, I’m a passenger train freak. I’ve taken VIA’s Canadian across the country a couple dozen times, and a bunch of Amtrak routes, and whenever I have to travel I try to go by rail. It’s partially because I’m a tall guy and I hate cramming myself into an economy seat on a 737, but also because I can’t think of anything more relaxing than spending a couple days in a sleeping car (or better yet, the Park car), watching the country go by.

In the last few years, though, I’ve become more and more interested in photography, and trains make a wonderful subject. I’m a pretty outdoorsy guy, so anything that can combine a good hike with a couple decent shots is a perfect day, in my book.

3. How long have you been a railfan?

CN 3072 near Boston Bar, BC
Since I was five or six, I guess. I remember riding on the Royal Hudson steam train about that age, and that was around the same time my parents bought me my first Life-Like train set. Even though my dad wasn’t a railfan, he and I would go for walks along CP’s Arbutus line, and on one memorable occasion we were invited up into the cab of a switcher for a short ride through Marpole. I was hooked!

After that, we moved to southern Ontario, where I grew up on a steady diet of rebuilt CN geeps, CP SD40-2s and VIA LRC equipment, plus the occasional visitor from Conrail, NS or CSX. My heart was back on the west coast, though, for the trains and the scenery, and by the time I turned eighteen I was making semi-annual pilgrimages back to BC on the Canadian. So it was only a matter of time before I came back to mountain railroading for good.

4. What's the best part about being an author?

I mean, the best part is getting to do what I love as a career. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to make a living writing crime fiction, but I would still be writing if nobody wanted to pay me for it. And if one day I woke up rich beyond my wildest dreams and never had to work again, I would still write, and I think that’s the true test of what makes a person happy. Writing is essential for me, it makes me happy, and I’m so fortunate to get to do it full time.

A close second is getting to make my own schedule and having free time to chase trains!

5. What's the worst part about being an author?

Reviews. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard, too, but even good reviews are painful to read. I try to avoid seeing any of that, or focusing on sales figures, or whatever. I learned pretty quickly to uncouple my sense of self worth from how the books were being received in the world, but that’s a tough skill to master, especially when that critical reception is going to determine whether you can pay the rent next month.

That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy train photography, incidentally. It’s a creative pursuit that I’m never going to monetize; it’s just something fun and challenging that I can throw myself into without worrying about a critical reception, or sales figures. There’s such a great and supportive community of railfans online, so many talented photographers, and the joy is really in just going out and shooting.
CN work train at Goldpan Provincial Park, BC

6. Are there any trains in your books? I saw shipping containers on the cover of "The Stolen Ones"...

Yeah! I try to chuck in a reference or two to trains in all of the books, but next year’s novel, The Forgotten Girls, is about a serial killer who stalks train hoppers on a fictionalized version of BNSF’s Hi-Line through the Rocky Mountains.

I had to tone down my railfan side while I was writing it, obviously, because people are reading for the murder and not to hear me wax poetic about a GEVO in Marias Pass, but it was still really fun to mix my love of trains in with the writing.

7. You have some really great locations for your train photos. How do you find them?

Thanks! It’s a fun challenge, seeking out new spots to shoot. I grew up devouring Greg McDonnell’s photo books, and J.F. Garden’s, and basically compiling a mental list of the iconic shots. Southwestern BC is pretty much an amusement park for railfans, and as a kid growing up in Ontario, I could only long for the day I’d have a chance to get out here and explore it.
Lytton, BC
So nowadays, I do plenty of exploring, and through railfanning I’ve met a number of cool people to go on adventures with. I tend to scrutinize Google Earth for potential spots, and then I just drive around a lot and poke around trackside until I find something cool. The exploration is definitely half of the fun, and I always feel like the more effort I put into a photo, the more rewarding it is.

8. Are you a railway modeller as well?

I am, but since I live in a downtown apartment, I’m more of a collector at this point. My dream is to build a basement representation of the places I like to railfan, circa the early 80s, from the passenger station in downtown Vancouver out through the canyons on both the CP and CN mainline. I model in HO scale, so I’m going to need a big basement!

Nowadays, I’m busy accumulating locomotives and rolling stock for whenever I get the space, which is fun, but also kind of torture. My Rapido Canadian has never seen revenue service, and it’s driving me crazy!

9. Who are your favourite authors?

I was a huge fan of John Steinbeck when I was growing up—his passage in Cannery Row about the tuna fleet going out to sea pretty well sealed the deal as far as me becoming a writer—and I really dug Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming, too. I read all the James Bond novels when I was traveling to poker tournaments around the world, to imagine that I was a secret agent instead of some hack going to watch a bunch of gamblers throw cards around.

Nowadays, I’m a big fan of Don Winslow, who writes amazing and insanely visceral novels about the drug war in Mexico and the western United States. I really enjoyed Sam Wiebe’s novel Invisible Dead, based loosely on the serial killer Robert Pickton’s murders in my part of Vancouver, and I love John McFetridge’s Eddie Dougherty series about an anglophone cop in Montreal in the sixties and seventies.

And obviously I have a ton of books about Canadian railroading on my bookshelves, as well!

10. What's your next project?

My next project is actually a fun departure for me. I grew up in a fishing family; my grandfather was a fisherman and boat builder in BC, and my uncle was a professional fisherman for decades. Even my dad, who was a doctor, also fishes for lobster in Prince Edward Island. I worked on both of their boats for a few summers, and I’ve definitely inherited the love of the sea.

So my next book is a nautical adventure novel, featuring a shipwreck in the Aleutian Islands and the rush to claim its cargo. There’s also secret stolen bearer bonds onboard, and plenty of gunplay in store, so it’s kind of a pulpy read, but it’s been a heck of a lot of fun to write!

Thanks, Owen! To see more of Owen, visit his web sites at and; see his Instagram profile at @owenlaukkan or see him on Twitter as @owenlaukkanen

See all of the 10 Questions series

1 comment:

BWBandy said...

He seems to have a great time being a railfan. I will look for his books.