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Interview: August 22, 2014

William Kent Krueger is the award-winning author of ORDINARY GRACE, as well as 14 Cork O’Connor mysteries. In the latest book in the series, WINDIGO ISLAND, former-sheriff-turned-PI Cork O’Connor becomes involved in the investigation of a runaway teenage Ojibwe girl’s death and the grim circumstances surrounding her disappearance. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Krueger discusses what compelled him to write about such a serious and disturbing subject --- the sexual exploitation of Native American women --- and the steps he would take to eradicate the situation. He also talks about honoring Ojibwe mythology by including some supernatural elements in his story, why he finds it’s nearly impossible for a man to write from a woman’s first-person perspective, and the part he likes to play in supporting local bookstores. I finished reading your latest book, WINDIGO ISLAND, in one sitting. Its story plays out over the course of a little less than a week, following the grim discovery of the body of a teenage girl washed ashore on Windigo Island in Lake Superior. A year previously, the victim had run away from home with a friend named Mariah Arceneaux, who is still missing. When it develops that Mariah is distantly related to Henry Meloux, Cork O’Connor’s old friend and mentor, Cork is drawn into a search for the missing girl, which takes him across the state and into the dark and grim world of the sexual exploitation of young Native American women. WINDIGO ISLAND will certainly open the eyes of many readers who didn’t know about this tragic situation. How did you first become aware of it? And what inspired you to use it as the basis for your new novel?

William Kent Krueger: My own eyes were opened several years ago, when I began working significantly with a couple of Native organizations in the Twin Cities, both of whom I’ve acknowledged in the book: the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and the Ain Dah Yung Center. These are two organizations that provide support for Native women, adolescents and children who are dealing with the myriad difficulties that go along with being Native in a white culture, one that has a long history of ill-treating the indigenous population of this country. I’ve occasionally tackled social issues in my novels; it’s one of the things I like about writing mysteries. I’ve found that I can discuss important contemporary issues in a story, and so long as the issues are couched within a compelling mystery, readers will stay with me, and just maybe have their awareness raised a bit.

In talking with the folks involved in these two important and effective organizations, the suggestion arose: Do you think you could write a story about the trafficking of vulnerable Native women, one that might help broaden awareness of this issue? How could I say no?

BRC: There are supernatural elements that influence matters in WINDIGO ISLAND to a somewhat greater extent than some of your other books in the series. Where do you stand on the supernatural, particularly as it figures into Native American lore? Do you believe, as many do, that every legend has some basis in historical fact? Or do you think that most, if not all, of these beliefs are the product of overactive imagination?

WKK: To quote Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or, as the old Ojibwe Mide Henry Meloux has advised Cork, “There are more things in these woods than a man can ever see with his eyes, more than he can ever hope to understand.”

When I use the myths of the Ojibwe, I do so with an understanding that our belief systems greatly influence our perceptions. So Christians see the image of Jesus imprinted on a linen shroud or the face of the Virgin Mary in a cloud formation and believe profoundly that these are true things. Who am I to say they are not?

BRC: WINDIGO ISLAND is set in part in the rough harbor city of Duluth. Some of my favorite parts of the book take place there, particularly where you insert trivia, good and bad, about the city, its problems, and how economic considerations make it almost impossible to resolve certain crime and social issues that exist there. Were you aware of the state of affairs in Duluth before you started writing the book, or did your research on other matters lead you to it and change the focus of the novel in any way?

WKK: I knew some of the rough history of Duluth. It was, after all, one of the world’s great port cities for many decades, and we all have an idea about the unsavory nature of some of the activities that go on in port cities, right? When I began my research, and especially when I spoke with women who have firsthand knowledge of the sex trafficking that occurs in conjunction with the freighters, foreign and domestic, that regularly visit Duluth, I knew I had to dig more deeply into that city’s past. And an interesting and checkered past it turned out to be. Like so much of our history, we tend to want to forget the worst and remember only what makes us look good. I love Duluth. It’s a beautiful city. The Jewel of the Inland Sea. But I know now the flaws in that jewel.

BRC: The book introduces a new character, Daniel English, whose appearance at the home of Henry Meloux provides the impetus behind the primary storyline. English is an extremely interesting character, quiet but capable. Will he figure prominently in the series going forward?

WKK: My intent, after discovering what a likable and capable guy he is, has been to include Daniel English significantly in the stories. I have a sense of where he might end up in the life of Cork and the other O’Connors, but I won’t etch that in stone here. I want to think about this some more, let the natural course of the O’Connors’ journey dictate how things play out.

BRC: In your author’s notes and acknowledgements, you include a heartfelt statement concerning the sexual exploitation of Native American women and girls in Minnesota, which forms the impetus for what occurs in WINDIGO ISLAND. Based on your research for the novel, what would you do, if you had the power, to take the first few steps toward eradicating this situation?

WKK: There are, it seems to me, three issues at the heart of dealing with this tragic situation. First, end the willing ignorance that surrounds the nature and extent of the trafficking of vulnerable girls and women. I’m not talking just about Native women here. The problem exists across cultures. The second issue is bringing the authorities to a place where they view eradicating the sex traffic as a top priority, which means proper training and sufficient allocation of funds. And third, it involves changing the way our majority white culture views minority cultures. People whose skin is a different color or who wear strange clothing or whose traditions seem odd, the white majority so often tends to think of as “other.” They are not like us. They don’t feel as we feel. They don’t think or love or worship or cook or raise their children or see the world at all as we do. And so, though we may not acknowledge it --- in fact, we work hard not to acknowledge it --- we don’t really think of these people as human in the same way that we are human. And so long as we think this way, we are all in trouble, all of us together.

BRC: WINDIGO ISLAND is divided into three parts, with the second focusing more on Cork’s daughter, Jenny, though not exclusively so. Have you ever considered spinning a series off from these books and perhaps featuring one or more of the secondary characters from the series?

WKK: I much prefer integrating the stories of the lives of all of the O’Connors in one series. With each book, I’ve attempted to focus not only on Cork but also on one or more of his children and their growth. I believe that a part of the attraction of the series for readers is that all the books taken together form the saga of the O’Connor clan. Besides, it’s difficult enough writing one book each year. If I did spin-offs, I don’t know where I’d find the time to write all of those other novels. 

BRC: I have noticed that you occasionally change the narrative voice from book to book. Sometimes Cork is the narrator, while on other occasions, such as in WINDIGO ISLAND, the story is told in the third person. What factors determine who will tell each of Cork’s stories? And have you ever changed the narrative voice after you have started working on a book?

WKK: More than anything else, the question of whose story is being told has been the determining factor in what points of view I’ll include. Occasionally, such as in THUNDER BAY, which is a story told primarily in first person using Cork’s own voice, I’ve simply wanted to try something different. It’s what writers should do, I believe --- to take chances. In WINDIGO ISLAND, I knew I needed to bring the reader closer to the personal impact that sex trafficking would have on a woman. Cork wasn’t right for this, but I thought Jenny might be. In my initial draft, Jenny’s perspective was delivered in first person. But for a man to write a first-person female’s perspective, oh my God, what a difficult challenge. Honestly, I didn’t do it well. So I changed that middle section to third person limited, all from Jenny’s point of view but in a more narrative voice, which turned out to be a good choice in the end.

BRC: You are embarking on a very ambitious book tour in support of WINDIGO ISLAND, which includes several visits to bookstores and libraries in Minnesota and other locales in the Midwest, South and West. What factors determine where you’ll be appearing? And who schedules and handles the logistics of your travels?

WKK: Honestly, I’d planned not to do much touring for WINDIGO ISLAND. Last year, I toured extensively for two novels --- ORDINARY GRACE and TAMARACK COUNTY --- and by the end of that year, I was exhausted. Last spring, however, as I began to contemplate what I would do for this new book, I began getting invitations and requests from booksellers hoping that I’d be sure to drop by for a signing. Since I generally put together my own tours, I’ve formed deep friendships with so many booksellers across the country. It’s hard to say no to someone you like and who wants you to visit. And I believe strongly in doing all that I can as an author to support our brick and mortar stores as they struggle to remain viable against all the virtual bookselling that occurs these days. One sure thing I know of that a real bookstore can offer readers but online retailers cannot is…me. In person. So as much as possible, I go where I’m asked.

BRC: On a related note, how do you manage to maintain your writing schedule on a day-to-day basis, particularly when you are touring in support of a book like WINDIGO ISLAND?

WKK: Something that helps me is the discipline I’ve established over all my years of writing. I write first thing every morning, usually in a coffee shop. I’ve found that when I tour, it’s not tremendously difficult to get up early, go down to the hotel coffee shop, grab a cup of java, and sit down for an hour with my laptop. Although the writing goes a bit more slowly than when I’m home, I do make progress. I’ve found, too, that if I’ve written, it helps create the energy I need to go out and take care of all the obligations that might be facing me that day.

BRC: Do you work from an outline that sets forth where you see the Cork O’Connor series might be going for the next few years? Do you have at least an idea for how the series might end, or do you envision it going on indefinitely?

WKK: At the moment, I have no end in mind. I still find immeasurable satisfaction in writing the Cork O’Connor stories and discovering with each new entry where the lives of all the familiar characters have brought them. In a way, their journey is my journey. It’s one that I enjoy and hope I’ll be on for a long, long time.

BRC: Almost every great author is also a vociferous reader. Are there any books that you have read in the last six months or so that you would like to recommend to our readers?

WKK: On a drive through Nebraska recently, I read Willa Cather’s classic MY ANTONIA for the first time. Blew me away. I’ve also enjoyed immensely John Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. One of my favorite new discoveries is by a fellow Minnesota author, Thomas Maltman. His novel, LITTLE WOLVES, is one I recommend all the time. As long as we’re talking titles with wolves, I loved Kent Meyers’s novel, THE WORK OF WOLVES. And finally, I have to say that Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award-winning THE ROUNDHOUSE ought to be on everyone’s must-read list.

BRC:  I’ve read that you are in the beginning stages of writing a book titled THIS TENDER LAND, which has been variously called a sequel or companion novel to ORDINARY GRACE. When, as things currently stand, can we expect to see that book? Are there any other projects you’re currently working on that we should be aware of?

WKK: At the moment, my publisher is planning to release the novel in the spring of 2016. THIS TENDER LAND is not at all a sequel to ORDINARY GRACE. I call it a companion novel because it’s set in southern Minnesota, as was ORDINARY GRACE, and it takes place in a similar time, the summer of 1958. It deals with some of the issues I touched only briefly on in the earlier novel, particularly the wounding in body and soul of the men who fought in World War II. I’m loving the writing of the manuscript. Shouldn’t it always be that way?