Interview: April 26, 2013
Bookreporter.com: ORDINARY GRACE is a departure from your New York Times bestselling Cork O’Connor series. What made you write it?
William Kent Krueger: This was a story that, when it came to me, I couldn’t ignore. It was that simple. I’d been wanting for some time to do a piece of writing that would allow me to revisit the past, to evoke a time that was important in my own life. I also wanted to write something that would allow me to explore the whole question of the spiritual journey, something that’s always been very important to me. When the character of Frank Drum, the minister’s son and the story’s narrator, formed fully in my thinking, ORDINARY GRACEseemed to drop out of heaven right into my lap. It was so compelling that it haunted me constantly until I finally put it to paper.
BRC: Did you have an experience in your youth that you can pinpoint as a turning point in your life?
WKK: Absolutely. It was the summer I was 13 years old. For many years, my father had headed the personnel division of a large oil company headquartered in Ohio. But that summer, because his values were so at odds with the corporate sensibility, he was let go. He decided to return to teaching high school English, which had always been his first love, and we moved to Hood River, a lovely small town in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Life for the Krueger family changed dramatically. We were all nervous about what the future might hold. My father was concerned about his ability to support a family on a teacher’s salary. My mother was worried about the stifling effect a small town might have on all of us. And as the child of a teacher, I quickly discovered that I was always under scrutiny. Yet it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. I used a lot of what I learned there to create the town of New Bremen in ORDINARY GRACE. And because this was such a memorable period for me, I was able to tap many of my own adolescent impressions and express them through Frank Drum.
BRC: How can you think of such interesting books? What was the inspiration for this story?
WKK: When you accept that you’re a storyteller, it’s as if you open a door and stories begin to pour in. They come from all kinds of places --- your own experiences, the experiences others relate to you, family reminiscences, newspaper and news reports, and sometimes simply from the ethers. The question always is which of these stories is the one you want to tell, which is the one that most compels you at the moment. When the town of New Bremen coalesced in my imagination and the voice of Frank Drum came to me and I heard the first words of the story he would tell --- “All the dying that summer began with the death of a child” --- I was hooked.
BRC: Can you tell us about your writing process. How did you go about writing ORDINARY GRACE? How long did it take you?
WKK: In some ways, ORDINARY GRACE was problematic. It wasn’t a contracted manuscript. In fact, I wasn’t sure it would be the kind of book my publisher would even want. Many years ago, I wrote another book that wasn’t part of the Cork O’Connor series, a novel titled THE DEVIL’S BED. It was pretty good, but it sold more poorly than any of the books in my series, primarily because Cork O’Connor wasn’t in it. After that sales debacle, I was pretty sure my publisher would only want to see series books coming from me. So when I decided to write a very different kind of story, I knew it was risky. I had contractual obligations to meet with the Cork O’Connor series, and there was no guarantee that if I wrote this manuscript, I could sell it. But it was a story I had to write. And so, I devoted every opportunity available to me between my contractual obligations to the writing of ORDINARY GRACE. It took me almost three years to complete the work.
BRC: You’re a master at establishing a time and a place, but the emotional lives of the characters you’ve created in ORDINARY GRACE are so vivid. Are they based on anyone in your own life?
WKK: In a way, they’re my real family. My father wasn’t a small town minister, but he was an idealistic English teacher in a small town. My mother was a frustrated musician. My brothers and my sister and I were all very close, but there was a broad difference in our ages, so our individual experiences were very different in that small town where my father taught. I tried to suggest all of this in the lives of the Drum family in ORDINARY GRACE.
BRC: Why did you choose to leave what happened between Nathan and Gus during the war so vague?
WKK: I grew up post-World War II. My father and the fathers of most of the kids I knew had fought in that war. The scars weren’t always visible, but they were there. My own father was terribly affected by his war experience and I knew that he carried some terrible guilt, which he never really shared with his children. The father of one of my good friends in college had served on the USS Indianapolis, the warship that went down in the Pacific, and so many of her crew were killed in shark attacks afterward. My friend told me that his father often woke up screaming from nightmares. Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t recognized then, and our fathers seldom talked about their experiences. While writing ORDINARY GRACE, I planned at some point to let the reader in on what exactly it was that haunted Nathan Drum and Gus. In the end, I decided to leave the specifics unexplained, hoping in this way to suggest that the ghosts that haunted them were the ghosts that haunted all our fathers.
BRC: As you were writing, did you identify more with Frank? Jake?
WKK: I’m split here. I invested a lot of my own sensibility in Frank, but in my own life, I was the younger brother, so I knew that experience intimately. I suppose, in a way, they’re both some of me and, at the same time, they’re their own characters. What I wanted to capture in these two brothers is the deep love that can flow between siblings. Their relationship, in many ways, is the rock on which ORDINARY GRACE is built.
BRC: Will you write more about any of the characters in ORDINARY GRACE? What can your fans expect next?
WKK: ORDINARY GRACE was always meant to be a standalone. I have no plans to revisit the Drum family. But I’ve always had an idea that there would be more stories set in southern Minnesota in an earlier time. I’m currently at work on a project I consider a sister novel to ORDINARY GRACE. It’s called THIS TENDER LAND and is set in a place called Black Earth County in 1957. Readers won’t see it for a couple of years at least. In the meantime, I have another Cork O’Connor novel, TAMARACK COUNTY, scheduled for publication in August 2013.