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Interview: September 3, 2019

William Kent Krueger is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller ORDINARY GRACE and the long-running Cork O’Connor mystery series. His latest stand-alone novel, THIS TENDER LAND, is about four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the early years of the Great Depression. In this interview, conducted by reviewer Joe Hartlaub, Krueger discusses his inspiration for the book, which he describes as an updated version of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN; what he learned about the Depression during the course of his extensive research that surprised him the most; why the vast majority of the story’s action takes place in southern Minnesota; and exciting details about his current work-in-progress --- a prequel to the Cork O’Connor series.

The Book Report Network: THIS TENDER LAND, your latest novel, is a wonderful story. In your note in the advance copy that I read, you mention that you intended to write a companion to your award-winning novel, ORDINARY GRACE, but those plans didn’t work out. I want to ask you more about that later in this interview. For now, though, in the wake of that effort, what was the spark that led you to tell yourself, “I want to do this”?

WKK: For years, I’d had in mind the vaguest notion of writing an updated version of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, a book I’ve admired on so many levels since my adolescence. It was a project that seemed to promise nothing but fun. After the grueling experience of spending two years on a manuscript that felt like nothing but labor, I needed to experience joy in my writing again. Choosing to go ahead with the story that became THIS TENDER LAND turned out to be just what my soul needed.

TBRN: The book has elements of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, as well as some of Charles Dickens’ works, the influences of which you freely acknowledge in your Author’s Note. You have described the novel elsewhere as an updating of FINN, using the Great Depression as a backdrop. Did you think of combining those elements immediately, or did you choose and discard others first? If so, what were they?

WKK: The biggest barrier in all my early thinking, the years when the story sat gestating in the back of my mind, was settling on a structure for the piece. After I put aside that first attempt at a companion novel to ORDINARY GRACE and turned all my thinking to the new project, the idea of tapping into Homer’s ODYSSEY came to me, kind of out of the blue. The vision of an epic journey at the heart of the story sparked other connections, and fairly soon I’d settled on most of the experiences around which each section of the manuscript would be structured: Polyphemus, Circe, Calypso, the Lotus Eaters and Ithaca.

TBRN: What impressed me most about THIS TENDER LAND is the manner in which it functions as a triptych of the Great Depression. You say in your Author’s Note that you researched the era extensively in the run-up to writing this book. What did you discover during the course of your research that especially surprised you?

WKK: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Depression for me was the effect it had on families. So many families were torn apart by the economic distresses of the Great Depression years. Children, especially, were drastically affected. Their education was put on hold. Their health suffered. They were farmed out to relatives or others who were willing to take them in, or they were simply abandoned. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers became itinerant, traveling the roads or riding the rails on their own, trying to find work, food, shelter, a place to call home.

TBRN: You also note that you traveled to several of the book’s geographical settings, including Minnesota, Nebraska and Missouri. Which of these places was your personal favorite, and why?

WKK: The vast majority of the action takes place in southern Minnesota, and that’s where I spent most of my time researching the actual locales for the story. In a kayak and a canoe, I traveled the rivers that carry the four Vagabonds along in their journey. I found the site for One-Eyed Jack’s farm, the meadow where the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade sets up its tent village, the joining of rivers where the gathering of homeless families establish their shanty town called Hopersville, the street corner where Gertie’s restaurant would have stood. My heart is in Minnesota, and I believe that shows in the story.

TBRN: While Odie O’Banion is the narrator and protagonist, his immediate supporting cast --- the Vagabonds --- are almost as memorable. Did anyone in particular inspire each of these characters? Did you develop them as you wrote the book, or did you include them from the very start of your process?

WKK: My oldest brother, who has passed away, was the template for Albert. Emmy is in many ways like my younger sister. Mose and his muteness came as an inspiration for symbolizing Native Americans who had no voice in the heartless policies the government instituted to deal with them. And Odie, well, he came out of me, the wily, fierce, resilient, big-hearted kid I wanted to be but always felt I was falling short of.

TBRN: I found it difficult to pick a favorite part of THIS TENDER LAND, but the sections dealing with the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade --- which took in the Vagabonds during a portion of their sojourn --- would have to be in contention. I am old enough to remember when traveling tent ministries were more prevalent than they are now and felt that you certainly captured the good and the bad of such ministries. You say in your Author’s Note that Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon was modeled after a Sinclair Lewis character in his classic novel, ELMER GANTRY. The other members of the Crusade are quite interesting in various ways. What inspired some of them for you?

WKK: Some of the characters were modeled after people I worked with in the many occupations that sustained me across all my decades of trying to earn a living before my writing began to pay. Some were born from my research, characters whose stories I stumbled across. And some just sprang purely from my imagination.

TBRN: I have been reading novels for over 60 years and can remember when the straightforward narration of your book was the rule rather than the exception, where the author attempted to stay out of the way of the story. Books like yours don’t seem to be written as much these days, although they should be. Were you deliberately aiming for a classical tone here, or did it come naturally as a result of the subject matter?

WKK: I knew from the outset that I was going to write an old-fashioned tale. Because this was the kind of story I wanted to write and the way the story spoke to me from the beginning, I decided not to worry about whether it would find an audience among today’s readers. But I’ve always believed that if you write from the heart --- if, as Hemingway said, you write true --- the story will find its audience.

TBRN: I also found the narrative to be quite cinematic. It flowed easily from one scene to the next, and as a result, there is no good place for the reader to stop. There is either something new happening or a fresh revelation leading to something else. When you were conceiving the story, did you see it as a whole immediately, or was the conception a gradual process, one that required you to fill in the transitions once you had completed your first draft?

WKK: The connections were woven into the fabric of the story as I created it, but they weren’t always immediately evident to me before I reached the end of each adventure. The writing of the manuscript was a different process than I follow when I compose a manuscript for my Cork O’Connor series, in which I think through every aspect of the story before I ever set pen to paper. With THIS TENDER LAND, I let the story and the transition from one section to the next reveal itself to me as I wrote. It was a little scary at times, not knowing exactly how the four Vagabonds would move on in their journey, but that was a part of the fun.

TBRN: You note in your introduction that you spent three years writing this book. Can you tell us how that time was divided across the tasks of research (in all forms), outlining (if that’s what you did) and writing?

WKK: The writing stretched across three years because it was intermixed with completing additional manuscripts in my Cork O’Connor series with contractually obligated deadlines. Generally, the process worked this way: I’d complete the early draft of a Cork O’Connor novel and set it aside for a bit. In the hiatus, I would work on the manuscript for THIS TENDER LAND. Then I’d revise the Cork O’Connor manuscript and send it to my agent for her comments. While I waited for her to respond, I’d work on THIS TENDER LAND. After I revised the Cork O’Connor manuscript based on my agent’s comments, I would send it to my editor at Atria Books for his suggested revisions. While I waited to hear from him, I’d work on THIS TENDER LAND. And so forth. So it was largely composed in fits and starts, which allowed me lots of time to consider the actions and elements of the piece and conduct the necessary research.

TBRN: You are painfully honest in your note in the advance copy I read when you say that you originally had written a companion piece to ORDINARY GRACE, but were not satisfied with it. At what point did you realize that it wasn’t working for you? Do you have any plans to revisit that manuscript down the road?

WKK: The writing of that manuscript, an entirely different kind of story from THIS TENDER LAND, was a struggle from day one. The expectations for that follow-up to ORDINARY GRACE were huge and crushing, and I was never able to get out from under the weight of all those expectations. But it wasn’t until I’d revised the entire manuscript several times that I finally stepped away and said to myself, “This will never work.” That was, at first, an enormously gut-wrenching admission. I was contractually obligated to deliver a manuscript for a companion novel. I’d been paid a significant advance. What would my agent say? My publisher? My readers? But it was also a great relief to accept the truth, which was that I’d fallen far short of what I’d hoped to accomplish. Once I knew in my heart that I was never going to let this manuscript be published, it wasn’t so terribly difficult to move forward in renegotiating with my very understanding publisher. Someday, I may tackle that failed story again, but at the moment, I have no plans in that regard.

TBRN: Can you tell us anything about what you are working on now? May we see another stand-alone in the near or distant future?

WKK: I’m at work on the next addition to my Cork O’Connor series. It will be titled LIGHTNING STRIKE, and it’s a prequel to the series. It takes place in the summer of Cork O’Connor’s 13th year, the summer before his father is killed in the line of duty. I’m having a blast writing this manuscript, imagining Cork as an adolescent, giving the reader a sense of his parents, of his grandmother Dilsey, of Sam Winter Moon, and of a much younger Henry Meloux --- all the people who shaped him. I’m not sure when the novel will be released. Then I have one more Cork O’Connor manuscript under contract after this.

TBRN: Time marches on. Have you envisioned an end game for the Cork O’Connor series? If so, has that book already been written?

WKK: There are no plans at the moment to put an end to the series. As long as I can still pour my heart fully into the Cork O’Connor stories, I’ll be writing them.