William Kent Krueger – Kent to his friends – was thrown out of college during his radical student years, and he says it was the making of him as a writer. Having recently published his eighteenth mystery in the Cork O’Connor series – the last nine of them all New York Times best sellers – we could hardly disagree.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and in Binge Reading today Kent talks about the secret behind his remarkable success as a writer – and I bet it’s not what you think it is, why he is fascinated by father-son stories, and how he sees himself more as a storyteller than a writer.
Before we get to Kent, just a reminder. You can support the show on Patreon for as little as a cup of coffee a month, and get exclusive bonus content, including five quickfire getting-to-know-you questions with your favorite authors, including William Kent. Check it out at www.patreon.com/thejoysofbingereading/ and join us today.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Why getting thrown out of Stanford was a good thing
- The sacred task of story telling
- The surprising thing about children
- His breakthrough book takes him back to his 13th year
- The debt he owes his wife
- Writing as constant discipline while ‘real life’ proceeds
Where to find William Kent Krueger:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Introducing William Kent Krueger – master storyteller
But now, here’s Kent.
Jenny Wheeler: Hi there Kent and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
William Kent Krueger: What a pleasure to be with you, Jenny. Thank you for the invitation to be a part of this.
Jenny Wheeler: You are about to publish Lightning Strike, book 18 in the Cork O’Connor series. In fact, by the time this goes to air, Lightning Strike will be out.
You’re an award-winning New York Times and bestselling writer, and the critics agree that even at book 18, you’re still fresh and unmissable. Lightning Strike has a twist of its own because it’s what we call a prequel
. You take us right back to the beginning of the story and introduce us to your protagonist as Cork O’Connor a boy, not even a man at this stage. Now, that’s an interesting twist. Tell us what inspired you to do that.
William Kent Krueger: Cork has a significant history that I have alluded to many times in the stories, but I’ve never gone back to explore that history, and particularly the relationship Cork had with his father.
For those who are not familiar with my series, Cork O’Connor was at one point the sheriff of the fictional Tamarack County in Minnesota. When Cork was a boy, his father was also sheriff of Tamarack County, and a man who clearly greatly influenced his son. I wanted to be able to go back and explore more deeply that significant relationship, and also the relationship Cork had with his mother and several of the other characters who are recurring in the stories, and who have influenced Cork dramatically across the course of his life.
Lightning Strike can be read as standalone of first in series
Jenny Wheeler: I notice that in the past when readers have asked you, where should I start the series or does it matter where I begin them, you have always advised them to go to book one, Iron Lake. Now you are saying that the best idea would be to start with this book. Why is that?
William Kent Krueger: This book can be read very much as what we call in the business a standalone. It requires absolutely no knowledge of the history to the very long running Cork O’Connor series. It can be enjoyed simply between the covers of this particular novel.
But it gives an excellent introduction into the characters that the reader will meet again and again in the course of the series, should they decide to read them. And not only the characters, but also the elements that will typically be a part of a Cork O’Connor story – the location, and a good sense of the kind of storyteller I am. So, this is a good place to begin. If readers appreciate Lightning Strike, then I advise them to go to the beginning of the series and start reading with Iron Lake.
Jenny Wheeler: The series does unfold in real time. Some writers choose to leave their hero on a kind of vague time where you are never quite sure if they are ageing and nothing too much changes in their world. You have very much taken Cork through life stages – being a husband, being a father. In the book before this one, Desolation Mountain, he’s a grandfather. Why was it important to you to do that rather than keep him in this no man’s land of a mystery series?
William Kent Krueger: Here is Mystery Writing 101, Jenny. When you create a series with a central protagonist, you have only two choices in the kind of protagonist you’re going to create. You can either create a static protagonist or a dynamic protagonist.
A lesson in mystery writing 101 from a master storyteller
What’s a static protagonist? That is someone who never changes. Someone who is the same book to book. Think Sherlock Holmes. You’ve read one Sherlock Holmes story, and he’s going to be the same guy in every story you read after that.
What’s a dynamic protagonist? That is somebody who does change. Somebody who ages, somebody for whom what happens in a story is reflected in subsequent entries in the series and how that character responds to the world.
When I wrote my first Cork O’Connor novel, I saw him as a man of about 40. Now I’m writing him in his mid-fifties. He has aged approximately 15 or 16 years, and his family have aged along with him. His youngest child, Steven, who was five in the first story in the series is now 21 in the current manuscript I’m at work on.
That was one of the best decisions I could ever have made because what it does is it keeps writing the series interesting for me, because every time I sit down to write a new Cork O’Connor novel, I’m writing about different people. They aren’t the same people they were in the last story. Things have happened that have caused them to change their perceptions of themselves and the world and their relationships to each other. That really keeps it interesting for me, and I think that’s part of what keeps it interesting for readers as well.
Cork O’Connor – part Irish, part Native American heritage
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, I think it probably helps create a world they feel they are a part of, because their own world is changing around them all the time.
William Kent Krueger: That is why when readers ask where they should begin, I always recommend they begin at the beginning of the series and read through in order, because it is a much richer experience. They are seeing all the changes that occur in the Cork O’Connor clan across the course of the novels.
Jenny Wheeler: Cork has a heritage that is part Irish and part native American. From the very start you included the native American culture and people in the books. I don’t know what links you’ve got to the local Ojibwe people yourself, but how did you do the research for that? That part of the story is very intense. It’s very real.
William Kent Krueger: When I decided to include the Ojibwe, the Anishinaabe, as an element of the stories I was going to write, I knew about as much about the Ojibwe, the native people here, as most white people do, which is nothing. But I was a Cultural Anthropology major in college, and so the idea of learning about this culture not my own was quite intriguing to me.
Familiarising yourself with the territory before you begin
I began the way all good academics begin. I began by reading. I read everything I could to get my hands on – the early ethnographies, books written by Ojibwe authors about Ojibwe myth and Ojibwe ritual, some great Ojibwe storytellers – I read their work. When I thought I had a grasp of the culture, I began to write my first novel, Iron Lake.
In the course of all that reading and research, I began to meet members of the Ojibwe community and form relationships that have over these two decades become important friendships for me. That is how it all began, and that’s how it’s progressed. I am always terribly aware that I’m a white person trespassing on a culture not my own, so I work very hard to get it right.
Jenny Wheeler: For those who are not familiar with the finer details of US geography – because I’m in New Zealand, some of our listeners are in Australia, a good number of them are in the States, but even people in the States may not be so aware of Northern Minnesota, which is where you live. That is an area with quite a high Indian population still, isn’t it? It is a Midwest state, but traditionally, is it one where westerns are written from?
William Kent Krueger: I certainly don’t regard them as such, and my guess is people who are looking for a good Western wouldn’t regard them as such. But they do fall into what has become a fairly rich sub-genre here, particularly in mysteries, which is the regional mystery. Stories set here in the Midwest, particularly the Upper Midwest, have their own charm and attract readers for their own reasons.
But a reader who reads one of my stories is not going to expect the same experience necessarily that the reader of someone like Tony Hillerman achieved. He also wrote about native cultures, but he set his work in the Southwest. While we deal with the same cross-cultural issues, our settings are so profoundly different that it is a very different kind of read.
Following in the footsteps of some classical detectives
Jenny Wheeler: They do share quite a number of similar things in terms of a lone good guy facing overwhelming odds, a sense of spiritual and mystical connection with the landscape and, as you’ve mentioned, the native American. But I do understand that it is a bit confusing these days what exactly a “modern Western” is.
William Kent Krueger: Yes, but in those two elements you just mentioned – the loner, the lone wolf, and an attachment to a particular kind of landscape or atmosphere – my novels and many like them very much resemble classic PI novels. You think, for example, of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe. He is very much a loner, has his own code of ethics, works very hard for justice in his own way. He travels the mean streets of the Los Angeles area. That’s his territory where he feels comfortable and it’s evoked beautifully, so there are similarities there as well, not just to the western.
Jenny Wheeler: They also explore the nature of family relationships in depth. You have mentioned the importance of his father to Cork. It seems to me that threads right through the whole series and is very much there in Lightning Strike. He has got not only got his son, Steven, but also his grandson that he’s very aware of protecting, and the sense of generational exchange. How do you balance that characterization against the need for the plots and the action that a mystery is also traditionally expected to have?
Stories of the Cork O’Connor clan – not just Cork any more
William Kent Krueger: It’s a juggling act. Sometimes I walk a pretty thin line. Pace is always a significant element that I’m aware of as I’m writing a story. If the pace lags, you’re going to lose a reader, so you want to keep the pace up.
But I’m also aware that across all of these novels, one of the reasons a reader reads these stories is because they have become enamored with not just Cork O’Connor but with all of the characters, particularly his family who have figured significantly in almost every novel.
These are not just the Cork O’Connor stories. These are stories of the Cork O’Connor clan. I have built these characters over 20 years now and readers who followed me all the way through it know the characters well. They have fallen in love with some of them. They have grieved when some of them have passed on. For me, that is as much a part of the attraction as any fast pace that I might be able to put into the plot.
Jenny Wheeler: I note in Desolation Mountain that you make Cork’s daughter, Jenny, a novelist. The story is so real that you even give a name to the novel she’s written. I felt tempted to Google it to see if there was a novel with that name.
It seems to me that storytelling is something that’s precious to you, and I did notice that you have spoken on that topic of storytelling in a Christian environment at some stage in the past. Could you tell us a bit about the way you regard storytelling?
Story tellers have a sacre obligation to tell the truth – William K. Krueger
William Kent Krueger: It’s interesting that you should raise this question because I just finished an essay for CrimeReads publication. I turned it in this morning, and I called it The Storytellers Promise. I am often called a writer, or more specifically a mystery writer, but the truth is I think of myself primarily as a storyteller. I think as a storyteller, as I’ve said in the essay, I have kind of a sacred obligation to speak the truths that are essential to who we are as human beings.
When I set out to write a story, sure I want to entertain, I want to make sure the reader has a good time. But I try to get at deeper issues, and one of the things I do write about is family, because that fascinates me. We have all been part of a family and grew out of those families. We’ve created families of our own. There are forces that seek to divide families and there are forces that pull them back together. As a storyteller, I want to tell the truth about those kinds of dynamics.
Justice is another issue that needs to be explored in an honest way. I think it’s the storyteller’s obligation to seek out the truths that are common to all humanity and explore them as deeply and as honestly as we can.
Jenny Wheeler: I do think that gives your mystery novels a depth. A lot of traditional cozies are fun and they’re entertaining, they work to a formula, but yours do have that extra layer of depth that is not there in some mysteries.
Ordinary Grace is no ordinary book
You have won an amazing bag of awards. We won’t go into all of them, but it seems to me that practically every book has either won an award or been a bestseller.
I read somewhere that the last nine Cork O’Connors have all been bestsellers. But there is one that stands out and that is your standalone book, Ordinary Grace, which won an award for best novel, and quite a few of the writers I speak to have mentioned that Ordinary Grace is one book they really admire.
It’s the story of a Methodist minister’s son who was murdered in small town Minnesota in the 1960s. It is told from the point of view of his brother, an adolescent boy called Frank. You say this was a story that would not leave you alone. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis for it?
William Kent Krueger: The essential truth at the heart of Ordinary Grace is the importance of the spiritual journey that I believe we are all on. If you were to read my Cork O’Connor stories, you would see that there is an undercurrent in most of the stories that deals with the spiritual journey.
It is something that comes very naturally to Cork O’Connor, because he is a man of mixed heritage. He has a foot in two different spiritual traditions – white Catholicism, he’s Irish Catholic and his Ojibwe spirituality. Very often in the stories Cork is trying to figure out where his unique spiritual path lies. That certainly has always been an issue for me, and so I was looking for a story that would allow me to explore more deeply the importance of the spiritual journey in our lives.
Returning to the author’s 13th summer and memories of long ago
That was one reason I wrote the novel, but the other was this. I had been looking for a story for a very long time that would allow me to go back and recall an important period in my own life – the summer I was 13 years old – and recall it and evoke it in such a way that I could use bits and pieces of my own life, my own memories, my own perceptions to create the work.
For those people who have read Ordinary Grace, the Drum family at the heart of that story is essentially my family. The town of New Bremen that I created for the story is so very like the small Midwestern towns where I spent my adolescence. I wanted to write it in such a way that readers who were born decades later could still read that novel and know what it was like to be a 13-year-old boy in a small Midwestern town in the summer of 1961.
That is really where the story came from, and I had been wanting to write that story for a very long time. In fact, I’d taken a couple of cracks at it, but it wasn’t until the voice of Frank Drum came to me, kind of like a flame of fire à la Pentecost, that I finally was able to do it. I heard him speak that opening line to me “All the dying that summer began with the death of a child…” Then I was able to write the story.
An affinity for the children’s voice – This Tender Land
Jenny Wheeler: You obviously have a real affinity with the child’s voice because you wrote a follow-up, a connected story, after Ordinary Grace – This Tender Land. That looks at four runaway orphans who take a canoe trip down the Mississippi in the years of the Great Depression. Very Huckleberry Finn, but with a much darker underside. Tell us what lead you to do the follow-up story as well. How does it relate back to Frank?
William Kent Krueger: With Ordinary Grace, This Tender Land and now Lightning Strike, I have essentially written three stories that deal with adolescent males. I have found that to be a very easy voice for me to capture. I’m a firm believer, Jenny, that men don’t mature much past 13 years of age. We are always kind of stuck in our adolescence.
But This Tender Land is another story I have wanted to write for a very long time. When I was 11 years old, that would have been in the fifth grade, toward the end of that year, our teacher read the class The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She did it by reading half an hour after lunch every day. I loved that book. Here was this kid, he was just like me, and he was out there on the Mississippi River having these really great adventures.
After that, of course, I had to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I loved even more. And so across my entire career as a writer, I’ve wanted some day to write a novel that would pay homage to Mark Twain, that might be in its own way an updated version of Huckleberry Finn. That is where This Tender Land came from.
Ordinary Grace was William Kent Krueger’s ‘breakout’ book
It was both the critical and monetary success of Ordinary Grace that allowed me to launch into that particular project, because prior to Ordinary Grace, my publisher only wanted Cork O’Connor novels from me. Ordinary Grace broke me out. I have extended my reach with This Tender Land and I’m at work on a third stand-alone that will be a companion novel to both Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land.
Jenny Wheeler: It is probably no coincidence that you spent many years working in research on child development, so you’ve got the academic strand alongside your personal experience. I guess that has also helped feed into your understanding of what is going on with these characters.
William Kent Krueger: The driving force in the works I create with children is my understanding that children are incredibly resilient. If you look at the four vagabonds at the heart of This Tender Land, they have all undergone incredible trauma, incredible loss, and yet they are able to rebound and build a family centered around the four of them, and together using all of their resources and their love for one another, make an epic journey in the summer of 1932.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Turning to your own reading, because we are starting to come to the end of our time together, and we like to ask people about their reading and their recommendations of books they think listeners might like to read themselves. Tell us a little bit about your reading. Have you ever been a binge reader?
What William Kent Krueger likes to read now
William Kent Krueger: I am typically not a binge reader. I pick and choose. I dabble here. I dabble there. I have to be honest with you, so much of my reading these days are what’s called ARC’s – advanced readers copies or bound galleys. These are books that won’t be available to readers for a very long time, but I’ve been asked to read them with an eye to offering a dust jacket quote.
I’m sure listeners out there are familiar with that quote that goes across the top of every book – “Stephen King says this is the best thing since sliced bread or the Bible”. A lot of my reading is done for that. I also lead a book group for my church, and so I do a good deal of reading. But when I’m able to pick those books that I would like to read for pleasure, I very often pick books that are similar to what I write, and very often set in the Midwest or the heartland of the country.
The most recent read that knocked my socks off was a book written by Kristin Hannah called The Four Winds, which, like This Tender Land, is set during the Great Depression. That one is set in the Dust Bowl area of the United States. She is so beautiful in her evocation of the incredible hardships that the Dust Bowl years and the Depression forced on those people.
Some favorite authors for William Kent Krueger
Another book I highly recommend for anybody who has read This Tender Land and enjoyed it would be a book called Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. It is also set during the Great Depression, and based on a tragic, real situation, in which children were essentially stolen from their families and adopted to very wealthy families. Those are some of my recommendations.
One more recommendation for binge breeding. I do have an author that, when I discovered him, I read everything by him. A guy named Fredrik Backman. Listeners might be familiar with A Man Called Ove. Every book I’ve read by Backman has been a delight. He is such a compassionate human being with a wonderful sense of humor.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s great. We mentioned that for a good many years you were working full-time as a child researcher, and you developed a way of writing, almost a sort of compartmentalization of your writing life. Tell us a bit about how you structured your time so that you could work in that job, but also get your books done.
William Kent Krueger: I moved to Minnesota so my wife could go to Law School here, and when she entered Law School, I became the sole supporter of our family. I was the guy who had to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. But I wanted to be a writer, and so I had to figure out a way to meet my responsibilities and also develop as a storyteller.
A typical working day for William Kent Krueger
We were living two blocks from this iconic café in St. Paul called the St. Clair Broiler that opened its door at 6:00am every morning, seven days a week. I pitched this idea to my wife. Honey, if you’re willing to get the kids up and dressed and fed and off to school first thing so I can go and write, I swear to you when I come home from my job at the end of the day, I will be the best husband, the best father you could possibly imagine.
Well, she bought it. So there I was every morning at six o’clock with my pen and my notebook in hand, and that became my regime. I still get up at six o’clock every morning, seven days a week, and spend the first two to three hours of each day writing.
Jenny Wheeler: But you don’t use a pen and paper anymore, do you?
William Kent Krueger: No. About my eighth novel, I was a little behind deadline. If you write long hand, you have to transcribe to a computer or a word processor of some kind, and that takes time. I thought, if I could write directly to the computer, maybe I can meet deadline.
That was a scary proposition because writing with my pen and notebook was part of the magic of the creation, and I didn’t want to monkey with the magic. But I tried writing directly to the keyboard, and what do you know? It works!
Jenny Wheeler: I think it’s remarkable that you write wrote eight books in longhand.
William Kent Krueger: I know writers who have become best-selling authors who still type away on old manual typewriters, because for them it’s a part of the magic.
One life path rudely interrupted – but no regrets
Jenny Wheeler: I can imagine that. I wouldn’t mind trying to use an Imperial 66, but you couldn’t then quickly use a thesaurus or Google, could you?
Talking about your life and what’s contributed to your writing, I was fascinated by the detail you shared on your website about the way your own adolescence was interrupted by some radical action that occurred. You don’t seem to have any regrets about it at all. Tell us about this experience and how it’s contributed to your life and your writing.
William Kent Krueger: I matriculated Stanford University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning here in the United States, in 1969. That was at the height of the Vietnam War conflict that tore our country apart in terrible ways. It tore the nation apart, it tore communities apart, it tore families apart. In the Spring of 1970 there was a tragic situation that took place on the Kent State University in Ohio, in which the National Guard there opened fire on a group of protesters, killing a number of the students.
At about that same time, we became aware that the Government had been lying to us about the extent of the war in Vietnam – that in fact we were carrying on the war in Laos and Cambodia as well. At that point in time, Stanford University had a relationship with an organization called SRI – the Stanford Research Institute – whose primary source of income was research into military weaponry. There were many of us at Stanford who felt that was an inappropriate relationship for an institution like Stanford to maintain, particularly at that point in history.
Learning from life proved much more valuable for a writer
We petitioned the Board of Trustees to sever the relationship. We petitioned the Administration. We marched, we demonstrated, but because of course there were huge amounts of money involved, nobody listened to us. Finally, in frustration a group of us marched into the Administration one day, and occupied it, took it over. The building was vacated, we took control of it.
That night we had a dance there in the area where we would have typically done our registering for classes. At midnight the dance band folded up and took off. Those of us who were going to occupy the building rolled out our sleeping bags and went to sleep. A huge tactical error because at 1:00am the Palo Alto riot squad swept through and arrested us. I was on a full scholarship to Stanford. It evaporated and I had to leave.
But I have never regretted that, because I was getting to the point in my life where I thought, college isn’t teaching me what I need to know in order to be a writer, to be a storyteller. I need to go out and experience the world, not in an ivy-covered institution, but out there working in the world like regular folks do. I went out and logged timber and worked construction and mopped hospital floors, and so much of my appreciation of what it is to struggle in life, the struggles of working-class people, come from that experience.
Also, I’ve got to tell you this, Jenny. It is so much more interesting to me to say that I was kicked out of Stanford, than that I graduated from the place.
Anything William Kent Krueger would change if doing it again?
Jenny Wheeler: I think the way you’ve sailed on through is most remarkable and fantastic.
You have almost already answered this, but I like to ask. Looking back down the tunnel of time, is there anything you would change or do differently if you had the chance to have it over again?
William Kent Krueger: Nothing about my journey as a writer. There are a couple of different decisions I made about the writing itself, but in terms of the journey, no. It has been a good journey, and this was the journey I was always meant to take. I believe we’re all on the journey we were always meant to take, so I don’t want to second guess that one.
Jenny Wheeler: Is there one thing you would contribute more than any other to your success as a writer?
William Kent Krueger: My wife, who has from the very first believed profoundly in supporting me in this dream I’ve had of being a storyteller. When young writers come to me and they ask me, what’s the best piece of advice you have to offer a young writer, it’s this. Marry somebody with a good job. My wife is an attorney and so we haven’t had to exist on bread and water at all while I struggled to become a published storyteller.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Looking ahead over the next 12 months, what have you got on your writing desk? What projects have you got underway and things you really want to complete in the next 12 months?
Jawbone Creek – the next Cork O’Connor on the publishing runway
William Kent Krueger: I just embarked on revisions to the manuscript that will be the next novel in the Cork O’Connor series after Lightning Strike. It is scheduled to be published in the Fall of 2022, and it’s called Jawbone Creek. I will finish up the revisions for that novel and I have already embarked on the beginning of the manuscript for the next standalone novel. I’m having a joyful time with it, so I will continue to work on that manuscript.
Jenny Wheeler: Have you got any time or publication title for that one, or is it still very much a work in progress?
William Kent Krueger: I don’t want to talk about that one at all, because I don’t want to diffuse the energy.
Jenny Wheeler: I can fully understand that. I guess you like hearing from your readers, I very much pick that up from what we’ve said already. If they want to, how can they contact you? Has this period of restricted activity with the pandemic been difficult for you in terms of stopping those interactions a bit more?
William Kent Krueger: I feel a little guilty about the pandemic because I know many people have suffered terribly. I have not. In this period, I have been incredibly prolific, and I’ve reached out to readers in an entirely different way. By the end of this year, I will probably have Zoomed over 300 book clubs internationally, as a result of the pandemic.
Where readers can find William Kent Krueger online
I will always now reach out to readers with an offer to Zoom with their book clubs if they’ll have me, although I am embarking on an in-person tour for Lightning Strike. It’s been two years since I’ve done an in-person event. That is something that has changed dramatically and will be in place going forward. That’ll be part of the new normal.
Jenny Wheeler: If anybody listening is in a book club and they would like to take up that invitation, what would be the best way to approach you to see if you could do one for them?
William Kent Krueger: My website is www.williamkentkrueger.com. There is a link on my website if you would like to invite me to be a part of your book group. There’s also a link if you just want to contact me and ask me a question or comment on my work. Whatever you would like to do, you can find it on my website.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. Thank you. It’s been great talking to you today, and all the very best. We have got a saying in New Zealand Maori language, Kia Kaha, which is like keep strong, all power to your arm. Kia Kaha to you.
William Kent Krueger: I love that. Thank you, and right back at ya.
If you enjoyed William Kent Krueger you may also enjoy Nicola Upson’s Josephine Tey Mysteries – a historical mystery series set around the true life story of master mystery writer Josephine Tey.
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