The Great American Road Trip
An Author Interview
Book: Vermillion Drift by William Kent Krueger (NEW August 2010) Latest in the Corcoran O’Connor mystery series.
ATL: Tell us about the inspiration for the Corcoran O’Connor series.
Long before I wrote—or even thought about writing—Iron Lake, the first book in the series, I imagined a protagonist. I saw him as the kind of guy who was soresilient that no matter how far down life pushed him, he would always bob backto the surface. His name would be Cork.
When I began thinking about Iron Lake and how this protagonist might fit into the story, lots of possibilities suggested themselves. I’d decided to set the book in northern Minnesota, a fascinating and stunningly beautiful area that’s still largely wilderness. When I took a good look at the demographics of what we call the Arrowhead region— the northeast triangle of the state where it abuts Canada and Lake Superior—I realized that a very large percentage of the population was of mixed heritage, Ojibwe and white. These are two cultures who’ve been in conflict for generations. And I thought,wouldn’t it be interesting if I had a protagonist with a foot in both cultures. That way the conflict could be explored internally and externally. And Cork, more or less, was born.
ATL: You include quite a few characters who are American Indians.
WKK: For a brief period—before being kicked out for radical activities—I attended Sanford University with the intent of majoring in cultural anthropology, so my interest in native cultures goes way back. During the period in which I was looking for ideas for my first book, I stumbled onto Tony Hillerman, author of the iconic Leaphorn-Chee mystery series. His books are set in the Four Corners area of the Southwest and incorporate a good deal of information about the Navajo culture. They’re great books, and I realized no one was doing that here in Minnesota, and why couldn’t I? I knew nothing about the Ojibwe, so I began to read about them and then to meet them, and the more I knew, the more intriguing and admirable they became tome. The Ojibwe have become one of the three cornerstone elements in the series, along with Cork’s family, and the whole Arrowhead region. Information about the Ojibwe—or Anishinaabeg—is something readers now expect to find in mywork. And I try to deliver.
One of the interesting and unanticipated aspects of dealing with the Ojibwe is that most of my stories have as a undercurrent the whole question of racial prejudice.I didn’t start out thinking this would be the case, but the more I know and understand about the difficulties facing the Ojibwe—and most native cultures, for that matter—the more I admire their tenacity.
ATL: Tell us a little about your new book,Vermilion Drift, particularly what we might learn about Minnesota when we read it.
WKK: I have, for a very long time now, wanted to write a story that would allow me to feature the rich culture and history of the area in northern Minnesota that we call the Iron Range. The ore extracted from the deep underground mines or enormous open pits there were tremendously important to the growth of the whole nation. But the resource came at a high cost, which was the destruction of a great deal of pristine wilderness. And now, as the demand for American steel has waned, the Iron Range and the people who’ve called it home for generations are struggling.Vermilion Drift ought to give readers a sense of the past and sense of the challenge of the future of this remarkable area.
ATL: What literature do you recommend that people read to learn about Minnesota?
WKK: Minnesota has such a varied history and rich potpourri of ethnic heritage and diverse landscape that it would be difficult for any single title to capture it all.Ole Rolvaag’s classic Giants in the Earth offers a good account of the early landscape and the struggle of the initial settlers in this part of the country. F.Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories set in St. Paul give a wonderful portrait of life in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Kent Meyers’ phenomenal memoir
The Witness of Combines paints a stark and stunning portrait of modern rural life in southwest Minnesota. And if you want to be scared to death about living in the Twin Cities, read John Sanford’s Prey series.
One question I get a lot is why are there so many good mystery writers in Minnesota. Really, we have a remarkable number of them here. Pete Hautman, Mary Logue, David Housewright, Ellen Hart, Carl Brookins, Julie Kramer, P.J.Tracy, Jess Lourey, Brian Freeman, and the list goes on. Here’s my answer, and it’s a key to understanding the nature of the people who call Minnesota home: We value art in all its forms here. Dance, theatre, film, the visual arts, they all flourish in Minnesota, along with great literature, because the people of this state value and support them. The wealth of great mysteries that come out of Minnesota is just a subset of the wealth of great art being created here all the time. I love this state and its people. I’m so happy to call it home.
Thank You for a great look behind the scenes of a fascinating series. Readers, did you realize that Minnesota harbored so many mystery writers? Looks like we have a new reading list!
Kerry Dexter over at Music Road is introducing some Minnesota musicians, including a Native American . Click on over because Kerry always provides a good sound track for the places we visit on the road trip.
(If my trip is on schedule, I’ll be visiting Mont St. Michel today as we make our way into Brittany from Normandy.)