Interview by Susan Spann
New York Times Bestselling author William Kent Krueger is not only a talented author (and the winner of the 2014 Edgar Award for Best Novel), also a fabulous and approachable person. I’m looking forward to meeting him in person at this year’s Colorado Gold Conference, and after this interview, I’m sure the rest of you will be looking forward to it, too. Since his website leads with “Call me Kent,” I hope he’ll forgive us that liberty here as well:
Here’s a little more about Kent:
Raised in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, William Kent Krueger briefly attended Stanford University—before being kicked out for radical activities. After that, he logged timber, worked construction, tried his hand at free-lance journalism, and eventually ended up researching child development at the University of Minnesota. He currently makes his living as a full-time author. He’s been married for over 35 years to a marvelous woman who is an attorney. He makes his home in St. Paul, a city he dearly loves.
Krueger writes a mystery series set in the north woods of Minnesota. His protagonist is Cork O’Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County and a man of mixed heritage—part Irish and part Ojibwe. His work has received a number of awards, including the Minnesota Book Award, the Loft-McKnight Fiction Award, the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, and the Friends of American Writers Prize. Northwest Angle (2011) and Trickster’s Point (2012) were New York Times bestsellers.
A stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace, was released in March 2013 and also became a New York Times bestseller. The thirteenth book in the Cork O’Connor series, Tamarack County, is scheduled for release in August 2013.
And now, let’s get to know even more about this very special guest:
Susan Spann: How and where did you come up with the idea for your first novel?
Kent Krueger: Iron Lake, the first novel in my Cork O’Connor series, was an evolutionary process. I began with the seed of an idea for a character. All I knew about him at first was that he was the kind of guy who was so resilient that no matter how far life pushed him down, he would always bob back to the surface. His name would be Cork. My next decision was to set the work in the great Northwoods of Minnesota. Then, because I was a great fan of Tony Hillerman, I decided that I would include the Ojibwe culture as an element. And my final decision—probably because of Hillerman—was that it would be a mystery.
What I’ve described sounds very linear, but in truth, it was all a jumble that I was sorting out as I thought everything through. I’d been trying to write the Great American Novel for years, and was sick of it. I wanted to write something that would appeal to a broad range of readership, and when I really took a look at what people were reading, I saw mystery novels everywhere. I thought it might be a refreshing change, so I altered my literary course and found a direction that proved satisfying to me on so many levels.
SS: I understand that you prefer to write in a coffee shop. Do you ever write anywhere else? And how does the coffee shop environment create an inspiring and positive influence on your creative process?
Kent Krueger: I began writing in coffee shops for a very practical reason. My wife was in law school, we had very young children, and I was the sole support of our household. When I came home at the end of a work day, I had no time or energy to write. But I knew that if I wanted to develop my art, I needed to find a way to do that on a regular basis and still meet my responsibilities to my family. I took a lesson from Hemingway, who loved to rise at first light and write. He felt it was the most creative time of the day. We lived a couple of blocks from a coffee shop that opened its doors at six a.m. So there I was every morning with notebook and pen in hand waiting for them to unlock. I’d sit down, they’d pour me coffee, I’d open my notebook, and for the next hour, I’d bend to the writing.
I find now that if I try to write at home, the environment is too quiet. I hear everything—the furnace cycling on and off, the dishes crying from the sink to be washed. The phone rings or someone knocks at the door, and I’m required to answer. At the coffee shop, I have no responsibilities except to my writing. In its odd way, it’s a very liberating environment.
SS: If you could return to the beginning of your writing career, knowing everything you’ve learned along the way, would you do something differently? Why or why not?
Kent Krueger: I would give up trying to write the Great American Novel a lot sooner. Now, there’s an aspiration that I’m sure has done in its share of fine young writers.
In terms of my career as a genre author, I can’t think of anything that I might choose to do differently. It’s been a pretty good ride. I’m proud of my body of work. I have a great readership. I enjoy a strong relationship with my publisher and editor and all the folks at Atria Books. I love my agent. I make a decent living. And when I do book events, lots of people gather to tell me they like my work. What could be better?
SS: What inspired you to write mystery novels? What do you like most about the genre?
Kent Krueger: I turned to mystery writing during a mid-life crisis. At the age of eighteen, I’d fallen in love with Hemingway, both his Nobel prize-winning prose and his mythic image. I wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. I tried for way too long to write a novel as he might have written it, which was stupid on so many levels I won’t even go there. In my early forties, I decided it was time to write something else, something someone might actually enjoy reading. I looked around, and what I discovered was that people everywhere, in all circumstances and at all social, economic, and educational levels, enjoyed mysteries.
What I realized when I read and then began to write mysteries was that there is a structure to the story that is simple yet sturdy, and most importantly, flexible. Mysteries begin with something happening. Usually this a crime, often a murder. Investigation follows. And answers are found. That’s it. Simple, right? A structure anyone can use. But its real appeal, I believe, is its flexibility. Within that simple structure, a writer is free to do anything he or she may want to do. Historians write historical mysteries. Funny people write humorous mysteries. And someone who wants to talk about important issues—social, philosophical, spiritual—can do just that within the loose framework of a good, compelling mystery. The reach of the crime genre is so broad that it can embrace any interest that a reader or writer might have. I think of it as a very egalitarian form of prose. There’s a reason it’s called “popular fiction.”
SS: Could you tell us a little about your personal editing process? What happens after you finish the first draft of a new manuscript?
Kent Krueger: I write the first draft rather slowly. Usually I’ve thought the story through significantly, so I know the basic plot. What I focus on in the actual writing are the narrative elements: language, setting, character development, themes, atmosphere. When I’ve completed the first draft, the revision tends to be rather brief (because I hate revising!)
My agent, who is wonderful, always critiques my manuscript before I send it to my publisher. She—and a few of her selected colleagues—read the manuscript and offer me feedback. I revise based on their suggestions, then it goes to my editor. She also has suggestions. As does the copyeditor. (I never feel more stupid than when I look over the copyedited manuscript and see all my errors.)
SS: Of all the novels you have written (published or unpublished), which one is your favorite and why?
Kent Krueger: Ordinary Grace, which is not a part of my series, is my personal favorite. I tapped the deep roots of my own experience for this novel, and that allowed me to speak significantly about issues that have been important to me all my life. When you’re the author of a popular series, it’s risky to write something different. Readers may not be willing to follow you to a new place. But the story of Ordinary Grace, when it finally crystallized for me, was so compelling that I had to write it. I didn’t know if my publisher would be interested. And even if it was published, I had no idea if anyone would buy it. But the reception—the sales, the awards, the personal response from readers—has been so gratifying.
*A Note from Susan: Ordinary Grace, the novel mentioned above, just won the 2014 Edgar Award for Best Novel. On behalf of myself, and RMFW, I’d like to offer special congratulations on the award – it’s a wonderful thing when a novel that’s so special to the author receives such fabulous recognition!
And now, the speed round:
SS: Coffee, tea, or bourbon?
Kent Krueger: Oh, coffee, coffee, and more coffee.
SS: Outlines or no outlines?
Kent Krueger: Outlines, usually, though not for Ordinary Grace.
SS: Cats, dogs, or reptiles?
Kent Krueger: None. I travel too much.
SS: What was the last book you read purely for enjoyment?
Kent Krueger: I reread, for the umpteenth time, Harper Lee’s masterful To Kill A Mockingbird.
SS: Thank you for joining us here on the RMFW blog. We’re honored, and excited, to welcome you to Colorado Gold this September!