William Kent Krueger on Cork O’Connor and DESOLATION MOUNTAIN

Minnesota-based mystery writer William Kent Krueger is the bestselling author of the Cork O’Connor mystery series, as well as the conspiracy thriller The Devil’s Bed and the historical coming-of-age mystery Ordinary GraceHis work has earned  five Minnesota Book Awards, back-to-back Anthony Awards, as well as Dilys, Edgar, Barry, and Macavity awards for Best Novel, and his last eight books have all hit the New York Times bestsellers list. Earlier this week, he released Desolation Mountain (Atria), the 17th installment of his 20-year series following the part-Irish, part-Ojibwe former sheriff Cork O’Connor who solves mysteries in the North Woods of Minnesota. Krueger graciously made time to chat with me over email this week even as he flew around the country for appearances and signings.

 

ELEANOR ROTH: You’ve said that Iron Lakethe first book in the Cork O’Connor seriestook you four years to write, but in the two decades since its publication, you’ve steadily delivered award-winning and bestselling books at a pace of about one a year. What changed? How do you manage to come up with ideas for new installments, let alone support this pace?

WILLIAM KENT KRUEGER: Two things changed: 1) Once a series is established, the wheel doesn’t have to be recreated every time. Characters, sense of place, narrative elements, and general themes are already in place, so it becomes much easier to focus on the creation of the story itself; and 2) Contractual obligations. There’s nothing more compelling that having to meet deadline.

As to where the stories come from, my own belief is that when you accept you’re a storyteller, it’s as if you open a window and stories fly in from all directions. They come from my life, from the lives others have related to me, from newspapers, and sometimes simply from out of the ether. I’ve learned not to question where the seed for a compelling idea comes from. Once planted in my imagination, I simply let it grow.

 

One of the most common responses you’ve said you get from readers is that they love Cork. Why do you think he resonates with people so much? Was that a response you were expecting when you first started writing?

When I first created Cork, I was shooting for a guy who was human, flawed, but for whom it was important to try to do the right thing, even if he wasn’t always sure what that was. In a way, Cork’s a lot like me. He believes it’s important to fight for equal justice. He believes you make commitments and come hell or high water, you stand by those commitments. He believes that family is the most significant relationship we’re going to experience on this earth. These are all beliefs I share and think many readers share as well. I think maybe they see a bit of themselves in Cork.

 

A good mystery is one of the most tightly woven forms of storytelling.

 

Cork O’Connor ages in real time, so it’s been 20 years for him, too. What’s it been like writing a character like that and spending so much time with him? I know you’ve said that your writing and characters are informed by personal experiences, memories, beliefs—have you also changed together in the last 20 years? And where do the similarities between the two of you end?

William Kent Krueger

Age has slowed me down a great deal more than it has Cork. Like most writers who’ve created a protagonist in a long-running series, I live a little vicariously through him. He’s a lot more courageous and resourceful than I’m sure I would be in dealing with the difficult circumstances I often throw at him. His life is certainly far more exciting than mine. He also probably has a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural world than I do. But I’m more a reader and appreciator of the arts than Cork will ever be. I believe the only poem he really knows is Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which he relates to and quotes from with some frequency.

 

Your stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace, won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2013, and I hear your next stand-alone, This Tender Land, is slated for a 2019 release. How does your writing process differ between the stand-alones and your now 17-book series?

A good mystery is one of the most tightly woven forms of storytelling. Every element depends so significantly on every other element. It’s also the art of misdirection. So in order to have all the elements correctly placed and the red herrings effectively intertwined, I think the story through as completely as I can before putting pen to paper. Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land [the companion novel to Ordinary Grace, due for publication in the fall of 2019] were very different experiences, different by design. I knew only a few essentials of each story when I launched into the writing, and I wanted to let the stories reveal themselves to me as I progressed. For both of these stand-alones, the journey was extraordinary different from writing a typical mystery, and extraordinarily satisfying.

 

You’ve long explored Native American spiritual traditions in the Cork O’Connor series and Ordinary Grace profoundly explores Christian themes. What draws you to examining spirituality in its many forms through your books?

We’re all on a spiritual journey, I believe, though we may not be aware of it or willing to acknowledge it. As an artist, I’ve found writing to be a profoundly enjoyable and revealing way for me to delve more deeply into the questions that bubble up in my own spiritual journey. Often in the Cork O’Connor series, there’s an undercurrent that deals with various characters’ exploration of their spirituality, which has proven to be a continuing opportunity for me to explore my own. Ordinary Grace offered me the enlightening experience of solidifying many of my spiritual beliefs as I wrestled with all the elements involved. A good story can do so much more than merely entertain, which is a truth important for both reader and storyteller alike.

 

Is there anything you’ve really wanted to see Cork do that he hasn’t yet, something you haven’t been able to make work? A Cork wish-list, if you will. And do you plan to use any of these ideas, or are they in the literal or figurative drawer somewhere that all writers have? What is next for Cork?

I’d love to figure out a way to get Cork to the Mediterranean. The research would be tax deductible. Seriously, I have a handle on the next two Cork O’Connor novels, and I’ll be launching into the writing of the first of those very soon. It will be my eighteenth in the series, and I’m still as excited about the next one as I was with the very first novel twenty years ago.

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About the Author:

A former Booklist intern and current Booklist reviewer, Ellie is a reader and writer based in Chicago. She holds a BA in writing from Wheaton College (IL) and is the assistant to the president at Browne & Miller Literary Associates.

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