Elena Bowes catches up with bestselling author William Kent Krueger. His latest book This Tender Land, an epic gorgeous novel inspired by The Tales of Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey, will immerse you in a world both loving and cruel.
This epic tale takes place over the depression-era summer of 1932 on the banks of Minnesota’s Gilead River. The story is told by an elderly man named Odie O’Banion looking back on a pivotal summer of his youth when he was just twelve years old. Odie, once an orphan, along with three other orphans (only one of them Indian) must flee the horrible Indian Training School after a terrible accident has occurred. The orphans or vagabonds as Odie likes to call his fellow adventurers, face hardship, cruelty and loneliness in their escape in a canoe down the Gilead River. But they also encounter kindness and humanity in unexpected places, the kindness of strangers, who often have as little or less as the Vagabonds have. It’s a masterful coming of age story.
On your website you say that This Tender Land is deeply personal. Do you see yourself in Odie O’ Banion? Can you explain how this book is so personal to you?
In writing This Tender Land, I invested a great deal of myself, who I am and what I believe, in the story. Odie is definitely a kindred spirit, and when he makes an observation—about God, about life, about other people, very often it comes from my experience. In addition to Odie, the family of the vagabonds contain two characters from my own family: Albert is patterned after my oldest brother and Emmy after my younger sister. The territory, the great Midwest of America, set a hook in me long ago, and the landscape of the story is in so many ways a valentine to this homeland of mine. Yeah, what this story contains of me is simply a huge piece of my heart.
You write a successful detective series featuring Detective Cork O’Connor. Is your process similar writing mystery versus historical fiction?
In significant ways the processes are very dissimilar. But they’re exactly the same when it comes to the research involved. Most of us who write crime fiction don’t have a background dealing with the world of criminals or law enforcement. In order to get the procedural details right, use the correct jargon, create a sound factual underpinning for the story, we need to do an enormous amount of research. We read a good deal, but we also go out into the field and talk to the experts—the cops, the homicide detectives, the coroners, the judges, the FBI agents, etc. For a novel that is historical in its setting, talking to those who experienced the particular timeframe is best, but with This Tender Land, so many of those folks have passed on. So, I spent an enormous amount of time perusing newspapers from the day or reading memoirs and first-person accounts left by those who’d lived through the times
By the time you were 18, you’d lived in 11 different houses, eight different cities in six different states. What impact did this itinerant childhood have on your wanting to be a writer?
In my own thinking, a writer is best served by a broad range of experiences. Living in so many places—large cities, small towns, farms—gave me a good understanding of life in a variety of settings and a desire to create stories that would tap that knowledge. But truthfully, my desire to be a storyteller has been with me as far back as I can remember. The travel just fed that hunger.
You got expelled from Stanford University as a freshman in 1969 for radical activities. Not graduating from college doesn’t seem to have impacted your literary success—your last nine novels were all bestsellers and you’ve won umpteen writing awards. To what do you credit your becoming such a great writer?
Great writer? Thanks so much! Credit certainly goes to my parents, who read to me and my brothers and sister when we were children and instilled in us early a love of stories. My father was a high school English teacher and from an early age I understood and respected the power of the written word. So, the foundation for me as a writer was laid quite early. But perseverance and a deep, innate love of storytelling have also played a significant role.
Traditional publishing isn’t an easy road, and I have always believed that success shouldn’t be measured by publishing, book sales, reviews, or any other arbitrary gauge. Success, I believe, is in following your passion, listening to your heart, and telling the best stories you can in those lovely periods of creation.
This Tender Land is your second attempt at a companion novel to your 2013 knockout bestseller Ordinary Grace. Can you explain what happened and what you learned from that initial setback?
Ordinary Grace, which was my first significant departure from mainstream mysteries, was a risky proposition. I know my publisher was concerned that readers might not be willing to buy a book that was a Cork O’Connor novel. But Ordinary Grace received a terrific reception from critics and readers alike. It won tonnes of awards, has been translated into a couple of dozen foreign languages, and has sold upward of a million copies. When my publisher saw this, they were eager to have another book of a similar ilk. I signed a contract, received a substantial advance, and spent the next two years writing what I believed would be a companion novel. But the manuscript I produced was such a disappointment to me, that I simply couldn’t deliver it to my publisher.
Here’s what was going on. The expectations for that follow-up novel were enormous, and while I was writing the story, I felt crushed by the weight of all those expectations. And really what I was doing was trying to meet everyone else’s expectations instead of writing the story that spoke to me from my heart. But when I made the decision not to deliver the manuscript, a huge weight lifted from my shoulders and I felt free again. That’s when I saw clearly the story I should have been writing, the story that spoke to me from my heart. And that story became This Tender Land.
There are so many voices out there telling writers what they should write, what’s hot, what’s selling, what will be the next big thing. The lesson I learned from my experience is this: The only voice writers should listen to is the one that speaks to them from their own hearts.
I understand you’ve been contracted to write a third companion novel (Hurray!). Can you tell us a bit about that book?
At the moment, all I can tell you is that it will be a companion novel to both Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land. Like those two stories, it will be set in the Minnesota River Valley. It will be a family saga set in an earlier day and will further explore a number of the themes I wove into the companion novels. I’ll probably begin work on the manuscript this coming summer and give myself a couple of focused years for the writing.
Might you ever write a sequel to This Tender Land?
No sequels in mind at the moment.
What was the most challenging aspect to writing This Tender Land?
Believing in myself as a storyteller. I had no idea in the beginning where the story would take me. I simply had to trust that all my storytelling instincts would guide me correctly. There were moments of doubt, sometimes deep, but doesn’t every artist have those?
And the most enjoyable?
Whenever I felt the story flowing like the rivers that carried the four vagabonds along, it was sheer heaven.
What books are you excited to read?
I’m just about to begin reading a novel called The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. It’s due for publication in February, and I’ll be in conversation with her after its release. I love her work, and I’m anticipating a dynamite read. Also, Louise Erdrich’s newest novel The Night Watchman.