The Next Chapter·Q&A

Thomas King's novel Deep House delivers humour and pathos wrapped in a mystery

The celebrated writer spoke with Shelagh Rogers on location at the Motive Crime & Mystery Festival about the latest book in the DreadfulWater series.
Thomas King is an author of novels, nonfiction books and children's stories. (TrinaKoster Photography)

Thomas King is no stranger to fans of either great fiction or nonfiction. The Canadian-American writer of Cherokee and Greek ancestry is the author of several books, including the 2014 RBC Taylor Prize-winning The Inconvenient Indian, which was a finalist on Canada Reads 2015; The Back of the Turtle, which won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction; and the 2003 Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories.

But did you know King is also the mastermind behind the DreadfulWater mystery series? The books follow Thumps DreadfulWater, a Cherokee ex-cop trying to make a living as a photographer in a small town in the northwestern U.S., and feature King's characteristic dry humour amid many narrative twists and turns.

King spoke with Shelagh Rogers on location at the Toronto International Festival of Authors' inaugural Motive Crime & Mystery Festival about Deep House, the latest book in the DreadfulWater series.

I notice you're wearing your Dead Dog Café t-shirt — in the book, there's Dead Dog Café, other cafés and restaurants. What did these places give you to further the story?

Thomas King: I've lived in cafés most of my life as a writer. When I was at university, I would go to cafés, especially at night — the ones that stayed open 24 hours. And I would sit there and I would do my research and my writing. And there's just something about that — I can close off all the noise and I can concentrate.

And so all the way through my life as I travelled around the world, those were always places of refuge for me, and places where I could be creative.

How did the main character become "Thumps"?

Thomas King: I like mysteries — when I pick up something to read, it's always a mystery. And I have favourite writers that I always look to see if they've got a new book out, etc. And I thought, 'Well, maybe I can write a mystery.' I've read enough of them. I am a writer, after all. Let me give it a shot.

But I needed a character that I could get behind. Whenever I start a novel, The first thing I have to do is figure out the names for the characters. Without those names, I can't go any further.

And so I thought, 'Okay, what am I going to do for a name?' In the meantime, I had sent away for a magazine. The woman I talked to on the phone spoke English as a second language, and so I had to spell everything out for her. When the magazine came, it was for "Thumps" King. [laughs]

I thought maybe I could write a mystery. I've read enough of them —​ ​​​​​​and I am a writer, after all. Let me give it a shot.

And I thought, "Oh, 'Thumps' is a good name." And there's a name out of the Cherokee Nation that I've always loved, which is DreadfulWater. So I thought I'd go with "Thumps DreadfulWater" — it's not a name you forget.

Where is Thumps when the novel opens — what's going on in his life?

Thomas King: He's depressed. I figure if I'm depressed, there's no damn reason why Thump shouldn't be depressed, too. [laughs] You know, if I've got diabetes, damn straight Thumps is going to have diabetes, too. I just don't see letting my characters off the hook.

So in this novel, he is back where he normally is — trying to figure out his life, and trying to figure out what's going to happen with Claire and their on-again, off-again situation. I get a lot of complaints about that — people think they should get off the pot or do something. But relationships aren't like that — they're not straightforward. They're fluid.

Could you describe the Deep House?

Thomas King: When I was younger, my brother and I and a couple of friends decided to go to the Wind River Indian Reservation. We hiked into these really high alpine lakes, something like 9,500 feet. I had altitude sickness from being up there — I couldn't eat the first night.

And my brother decided he was going to go off-road. So down he went into this canyon with enormous boulders. We had to climb over the top and slither around the sides — it was excruciating. And in the end, we had to turn around and come back up to the plateau and continue on the trail.

So when I created Deep House, I wanted to create something that was unusual and maybe even bizarre. And so you have this canyon that has openings and it closes off, just to make it interesting.

You bring in humour even when some of the issues you're writing about are really hard — what does that allow you to do?

Thomas King: When I was an activist in the late '60s, early '70s, we would go around and make a lot of noise. And it was much easier to get to people with humour mixed in with the seriousness than it was just to be serious all the time. And as a matter of fact, it makes the seriousness more powerful. It cuts a lot deeper that way, and you just don't see it coming.

I'm always looking for ways to add some humour to disguise the fact that I'm talking about something serious.

I'm always looking for ways to add some humour there to disguise the fact that I'm talking about something serious. Although, I don't know how many times I've talked to people about a novel that I thought was dead serious, and they say, "I had such a good time laughing at that."

So as a writer, I've made a mistake there. [laughs] I haven't been clever enough, or I haven't been careful enough to make sure that the humour and the pathos are welded together. So you can't take one without getting the other. That's the trick — and it's a fine line that you have to walk.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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