I’ve been asked by Qué leer to write a bit about my experience as an American writer living in Finland:
I had been writing fiction for fourteen years, ten of those spent living in Finland, before first having one of my novels, Across the Green Line (Jerusalemin veri), published in the autumn of 2008. For a time, some years ago, I did what the ‘how to’ books for would-be authors teach, and sent query letters to publishers and agents in both the U.S. and Finland concerning my work. It raised some interest, but I never made a sale. My treatment of sensitive subject matter was too cold and dark for U.S. publishers. In Finland, my greatest obstacle was simply that I wrote in English.
In the end, compared to most authors, I did little to achieve publication.
Mine is a sort of author’s Cinderella story. I was bartending in a neighborhood pub in Helsinki when I was ‘discovered’ by my Finnish publisher. He was a customer. We were chatting—I didn’t know that he was in publishing—and it came out that I write thrillers and crime novels. He asked about my work and requested Across the Green Line. Within a few weeks, he offered me a book deal. My international career began in much the same way. My U.S. agent, Nat Sobel, and I have a mutual acquaintance. He told Nat about my novel, Snow Angels. Nat requested it via my friend and I e-mailed it to him. Four days later he offered to represent me, and within weeks had sold it to publishers in several countries.
My career as an American writer in Finland is a series of firsts, and most of the problems associated with creating that career were faced not by me, but by my publisher, Johnny Kniga, an imprint of WSOY, Northern Europe’s largest publisher. Taking a chance and building my career was a tremendous risk, and I will be eternally grateful that confidence in me and my writing was such that they were willing to take that risk.
Luckily, the then editor and now publisher of Johnny Kniga who ‘discovered’ me, Jaakko Pietiläinen, is quite fluent in English and was able to edit my work (Jaakko is an excellent editor and quite simply has made me a better writer). Few editors in Finland would be able to do that, and for that reason alone, it’s nearly impossible for a foreign fiction writer to get published in Finland. Because I write in English, my work has to be translated into Finnish, which is expensive. Launching a first-time writer’s career is always risky, but the cost of translation made publishing me much more so.
The decision was made to publish my work as domestic literature. In America they say: if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. I’ve lived in Finland so long and become so culturally Finnish that they decided I’m a Finnish writer. I know of only one other commercial fiction novel written by a foreigner, Nicole, by American expat author, Kevin Frazier, that had been previously marketed as domestic literature. WSOY also decided to make me a ‘branded’ author, meaning that they would publish a series of novels by me, get behind my work with marketing and do their best to make me a bestselling author. Few first time authors—native or foreign— in any country get that kind of treatment from their publisher, and I believe I’m the first foreign commercial fiction writer in Finland to have that honor.
An advantage of having written for so many years without being noticed by publishers is that I had built up a body of work. Not long after contracting for Across the Green Line, I showed Jaakko the outline for another book, The True Name of God (Jumalan nimeen). We signed on it, and it was released in Finland a few weeks ago. Shortly thereafter, I completed the first draft of Snow Angels. Jaakko thought it had great potential and bought it too. Before my first novel was even published, I had contracted for three. That had never happened to an unpublished novelist, either Finnish or foreign, in Finland before.
Jaakko and Johnny Kniga’s publisher at that time, Jyrki Nieminen, wanted to jumpstart my career by releasing those three books at nine month intervals. To be able to write and edit at that speed, I was no longer able to work at anything else. Jyrki told me that he believed I was the best thriller writer in Finland, that he wanted me to do nothing but write full time, and gave me—so I’m told—the largest advance ever given to an unpublished writer In Finland.
Obviously, I’ve always written for the love of writing. I wouldn’t have done it all these years without getting attention for it otherwise. But today, I’m a fairly well-known writer in Finland—one of the very few novelists here lucky enough to make my entire living as a novelist—and Snow Angels has been or will be released in well over a dozen countries. It came out in Finland last spring, In France last winter, in the U.S on January 7th, appeared in Germany a few days after that, in Spain on February 1st, and will be published in UK in November. I’m not sure about the other countries. Looking back, I suppose what they say is true: good things come to those who wait.
Coming up next: The life of an author in today’s world (unless I change my mind).