Interview: September 9, 2011
William Kent Krueger’s bestselling series featuring detective Cork O’Connor has earned him not only various accolades, but also loyal readers who soak up his surprise endings and bold characters. The 12th and latest installment, NORTHWEST ANGLE, sees Cork’s family caught in the crosshairs of a group of brutal killers, leading Cork to solve the murder of a young girl. Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub spoke with Krueger about the unique location for the novel, the evolution and aging of his characters, and his career trajectory and fool-proof creative process. He also reveals the primary reason for his current success, and thanks the librarian who turned him on to books and authors like THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and H.G Wells when he was just an adventure-seeking boy.
Bookreporter.com: NORTHWEST ANGLE is set in a fascinating area of the United States, a part of Minnesota that in fact does not touch the United States and is the northernmost edge of the continental 48. It is the area known as the Lake of the Woods where former sheriff turned detective Cork O’Connor takes his family for what he plans to be a houseboat vacation and family reunion but becomes a much more memorable and dangerous event. Your description of the area alone --- its beauty as well as its hazards --- makes NORTHWEST ANGLE worth reading. Does the area have special significance to you? Had you visited the region frequently before you wrote the book?
William Kent Krueger: Before I chose the location for the book, I’d never been to the Angle. I knew about it vaguely, but nothing specific. Then, a couple of years ago, I happened to be hanging out at a bar in northern Minnesota with some very fun librarians who told me all about the Northwest Angle. The more I heard, the more intrigued I became. When I made the decision to set the book there, I took my first trip to Lake of the Woods. I was blown away with the area --- its remoteness, its beauty, and the possibilities for the stories that might come out of that isolated place.
BRC: Cork and his daughter, Jenny, are boating on the lake when they are caught in a derecho, a violent storm system that unleashes a devastating ruin to the area and leads to Jenny discovering not only a murder but also an abandoned baby who becomes the focal point of the story. You mention in your author’s note that a derecho struck Minnesota in July 1999, and you always knew it would play a part in one of your stories. Has the plot been kicking around inside of you for a while? Is this one of those novels that simmered slowly over the years before completion? Or has it simply laid quietly in the back of your mind until recently, when it came to full bloom?
WKK: Most of my novels have been the result of a single idea that grows over time into a kind of stained-glass affair in which lots of small, individual pieces come together to tell the story. Before I began this novel, I knew one thing: That I wanted it to be about the healing of the O’Connor family following the tragedy of Jo O’Connor’s death. When I heard about the Northwest Angle, I thought there might be a way to incorporate a storm of magnificently destructive force, something I’ve wanted to do for some time. It seemed a worthy metaphor for the difficulties life often throws at us out of the blue. And finally, I wanted something to happen that would radically alter the course of Cork’s life. As so often occurs when I think deeply about a story, all of these elements ultimately gelled in a very satisfying way that accomplished pretty much everything I’d hoped for.
BRC: That brings up another question. I would guess that, as with most authors, your number of ideas exceeds your number of books. What method do you utilize to keep track of yours? Do you use post-it notes, a writing software program, a spiral notebook, or something else? And what do you estimate your ratio of idea to completed novel to be?
WKK: What an intriguing question. I often envision the novel as a target. At the center is the bull’s eye. This is the ideal, the perfect novel that I see in my mind’s eye at the outset of all my thinking. (For me, this aspect of the process, this early imagining of the story and all the beauty that might be possible in the telling, is the most enjoyable part.) Then I sit down and begin the actual writing. I have the story already in my head, most of it anyway, and what’s left is the art of the storytelling itself. That’s when the troubles begin. I’ll realize that connections and transitions and motives and characters are suddenly all at odds, and the perfect image begins to crumble. That’s when experience, artistic manipulation, ingenuity, and sometimes luck kick in. What I end up with is never quite what I imagined when I set out. I never hit that bull’s eye dead center. But I’ve often come very close, and almost always been satisfied with the effort and the result.
As for ideas themselves, I never put them down anywhere concrete, and I’ll never live long enough to write all the stories that fill my head.
BRC: One of the more interesting elements of NORTHWEST ANGLE is the manner in which Stephen, Cork’s teenaged son, “steps up,” so to speak, into his own. Will he be more prominently featured in future novels?
WKK: Almost every book in the series prominently features one of Cork’s children. In NORTHWEST ANGLE, Jenny really takes center stage. But Stephen, who has been on an intriguing path himself since the part he played in HEAVEN’S KEEP, adds a great deal of spiritual depth to this story. I have plans for him in a later novel, another significant part of his own journey. But there’s still a lot of water to pass under the bridge before Stephen and I and readers get there.
BRC: There has been some discussion in the press recently concerning the aging process, or lack thereof, of characters in popular series literature. Your characters are moving along a bit, chronologically, which is but one element that lends the series a very realistic feel. Have you decided how you are going to handle Cork’s aging process? To put it another way, is the last Cork O’Connor book already written, or at least outlined? Or will he simply keep going as long as his creator does?
WKK: Static heroes usually hold no appeal for me as a reader. So from the very beginning, I knew that Cork and his family would age, that their lives would change, and that I wanted the events of earlier books to have an impact on what occurred in later books because that’s how real life operates. Cork and his family have aged at a slower pace than I have, however. I was 42 when I began to write the first book in the series, and Cork was, I imagined then, about the same age. In the course of the novels, Cork and his family have aged 10 years. Me, I’m 60. So time passes more slowly for the O’Connors. Although Cork is now a grandfather, he’s still a vital, virile character, and I think he’ll stay that way for a long while.
BRC: You have had an interesting career trajectory, one that has built gradually but steadily. You initially were primarily known and revered among authors and hardcore mystery fans as a writer’s writer, and from there, with a great deal of critical acclaim, have since broadened your appeal to a much larger audience without sacrificing the quality of your work. If anything, your last few novels have gotten deeper and darker. From your perspective, what was the tipping point in your career that brought you wider notoriety? (In a good way, of course!)
WKK: I think, quite honestly, that my association with The Book Report Network helped break me out to a larger audience. The first book promotion we worked on together was THUNDER BAY, the seventh entry in the series. With that particular novel, sales seemed to rise rather steeply. There’s also what I think of as “the wave effect.” If, as a writer, you continue to produce good books and to promote them in every way you can, eventually the wave of recognition rises, and you rise with it. The question is: When will the wave crest? I’m hoping that particular eventuality is still far out in front of me. There are still a lot of readers I want to reach before that happens.
BRC: Your biographical information indicates that you have been employed in the logging and construction fields, even as you made time to write. If you weren’t writing, what do you think you would be doing for a living?
WKK: What I wanted to do as a kid: Be a forest ranger.
BRC: Your novels have garnered a mantle full of awards and you have achieved commercial success as well. What professional goals do you have that you have yet to accomplish? Looking back on your writing career, is there anything you would do differently, given the chance for a makeover? And is there any one thing you did that you consider to be the primary reason for your present success?
WKK: There are still awards out there to be won. There are movie deals to be cut. There are prizes I’d love to have my name on. But most important to me is that I continue to have the freedom, the desire, and the ability to write the books I want to write. And since you’ve asked what I think of as the primary reason for my success, I’d say that it’s the fact that I’m doing exactly what I want to do. First thing every morning, I rise and I write, which is what I love most in this world. And although I served a long artistic apprenticeship before my first novel was published, I probably wouldn’t change that. When I look back at all those early mornings I got up and went to the coffee shop to write before heading to the job that put food on the table, I realize that none of that time, none of that effort was wasted. What I learned is evident, I believe, in the work I publish now.
BRC: You are primarily known for your books featuring Cork O’Connor, but you have also written a stand-alone work, THE DEVIL’S BED, which was published several years ago. Do you have any desire to write outside of Cork’s life, either as the developer of another series or as a stand-alone book? And have you ever considered writing in another genre?
WKK: Three years ago, a story came knocking at the door of my imagination. It wasn’t a Cork O’Connor story. Because long ago my publisher made it clear to me that they really preferred that I stick with Cork O’Connor, I knew it would be risky to work on anything else. But in the end, I had no choice. It was a story demanding to be written. I spent the next three years at work on the manuscript, writing between the times devoted to the series books. The result was ORDINARY GRACE, one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever written. It takes place in a small town in southern Minnesota. On the surface, it’s the story of a Methodist minister whose beloved child is murdered. But it’s really the story of what that tragedy does to his faith, his family, and, ultimately, the whole fabric of the small town in which he lives.
Although I was uncertain if Atria, my publisher, would want the manuscript, I sent it to my editor. She loved it, bought it, and it’s scheduled for publication in the fall of 2013. I can hardly wait to see it in print.
BRC: When I was much younger, I devoured the work of Jim Kjelgaard, whose books for younger readers were primarily concerned with wild animals in the outdoors. Your novels, so frequently set in the roads and woods less traveled, remind me to some degree of Kjelgaard’s work due to your ability to so vividly describe wilderness settings and their untamed inhabitants, of both the two-legged and the four-legged variety. What authors and/or books influenced your own taste in reading at an early age?
WKK: When I was 12 years old and hooked mostly on Marvel comic books, an angel of a librarian suggested to me that I might give THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO a try. God, did I love that book. In short order, I read everything Dumas had written. I asked her what’s next, and she pointed me toward H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle and Jack London. If you look at my work today, you’ll see a strong element of adventure bound up with the mystery and the suspense, all due to a wonderful librarian who knew what kind of story could capture a kid’s heart.
BRC: Readers can paint their own pictures of Cork O’Connor through your descriptions. But if a film adaptation of one of your books was made, do you have someone you would like to see play Cork?
WKK: No comment on this one. The series has been optioned in the past, and is currently under consideration again, so I don’t want to jinx things by speaking too concretely about any aspect of the process. Everything about Hollywood is so unpredictable and so fragile.
BRC: One of the major stumbling blocks that aspiring writers encounter is the ability to create a writing schedule and stick with it. Has yours changed over the years? How have you kept to it, without permitting life to get in the way?
WKK: I’ve kept the same writing schedule, more or less, for the past 30 years. I rise before 6:00 AM, and go to a coffee shop, where I spend two hours working on my prose. That’s the most important element of my writing life, this discipline. In addition to assuring that I meet deadline, it’s also the way I center myself in a day and prepare to meet the world. Because I write full time now, I return to the coffee shop in the afternoon for another two hours, though I’m not always at work on my prose. Sometimes I’m busy responding to interview questions.
BRC: What are you working on now? Will you continue to focus on the life of Cork O’Connor, at least for the foreseeable future?
WKK: I’m just about to complete the first draft of the manuscript for the next book in the Cork O’Connor series, a novel tentatively titled TRICKSTER’S POINT. In a nutshell, it’s Cork O’Connor meets ALL THE KING’S MEN. Then I have one more series book to write on my current contract. And after that, we’ll just have to see what’s on the horizon.