I first started thinking about Snow Angels back around 2004. I had been writing thrillers for about a decade, and learned my craft well enough to get the attention of an agent, but couldn’t make a sale. I had just finished a book called Across the Green Line, a story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and set in Jerusalem. The message from publishers was that they wouldn’t publish a book addressing the theme because of the political environment, and even if they would, the book was too cold and violent to suit the subject matter. Basically, they said I was a good writer, just writing the wrong books.
Somebody suggested I write a crime novel set in Finland. The idea intrigued me and I toyed with it for a while. I had never written a crime novel, didn’t know how to go about it. Then one day an image popped into my head. A beautiful black woman slaughtered in a snowfield on a reindeer farm. The image developed into a scene that told how she got there and what happened to her. It took me six weeks to work up the nerve to write it. It’s not in the published book, got pulled because it’s so painful to read.
I had a beginning and asked myself what I wanted to do with it. All that CSI crap bores me to tears. I just wanted to write a crime story about Finnish people. I decided I wanted to write it in first person present, something I had never tried before. First person because I figured it was the best way to describe the world through the eyes and thoughts of a Finnish detective. Present tense because I wanted the book to give you the feeling of being shot out of a cannon. It’s meant to be read in one sitting.
At the time, I took a lot of flack from writer friends over the concept. The idea of some being that as an American, I wasn’t capable of writing a book that accurately described the Finnish mindset, and that I should scrap the idea of a Finnish protagonist telling the story in first person. This led to the question of personal identity. I had been here a long time, was I a Finn, an American, a mutt? I thought the success or failure of pulling off the book as conceived would help me answer that personal question. So I wrote it in first person as a challenge to myself.
Then a funny thing happened. I got published, here in Finland. I sold a couple thrillers. My first published book was Across the Green Line. I was also finishing my Master’s degree and writing my thesis, so Snow Angels went to the wayside while I finished those other projects, but I kept churning the story around in my head at the same time. This changed me as a writer, because previously, I had been one of those ten drafts kinds of writers. When I wrote the first draft of Snow Angels, I had been watching it in my head like a movie for so long that it just came pouring out. Since then, I resist the urge to write until I see that movie in my head and the characters are screaming to be allowed to speak. Now two or three drafts is plenty.
Eventually, I finished Snow Angels and showed it to my Finnish publisher. He loved it, bought it straight away, and about the same time, my U.S. agent, Nat Sobel, heard about the book through a mutual acquaintance and requested it. Four days later, he offered to represent me. Within a couple months, he had sold it into several countries. Now I think it has nine publishers around the world and is or will be available in something around twenty countries. It’s also done very well with critics, including those here in Finland.
Snow Angels is one of those rare instances in which a writer tells the story he wants to, takes a lot of chances in the telling, learns as he goes, and it turns out to be the book that makes a career for him. I’ve been damned lucky.
Snow Angels, by James Thompson
Publisher: Avon (25 Nov 2010)