Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jungle Red Writers interview William Kent Krueger

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I make no bones about the fact that William Kent Krueger is one of my favorite writers ever. Not just personally - although he is very funny, knows every good eatery in the midwest, and talks insightfully about writing. No, Kent's my favorite because his stories are just. That. Good. He agreed to sit down with me and talk about Cork O'Conner, Catholicism, and coming attractions.

JULIA: Tell us a bit about your latest, Northwest Angle. A bit about the book, and something perhaps we DON'T know!

KENT KRUEGER: Northwest Angle is the most suspenseful novel I’ve written. The story opens with a wallop and never lets up. Cork O’Connor has taken his family to one of the most remote locations in Minnesota: the Northwest Angle. This is a small triangle of land cut off from the rest of the world by one of the largest lakes in the Western Hemisphere—Lake of the Woods. There are more 14,000 islands in the lake, and they form an impossibly confusing maze of waterways. When a freak storm of hurricane force sweeps across the lake, devastating the landscape, Cork finds himself stranded on a ruined island. The horrific discovery he makes there brings to him a realization that the wind has ushered in a force far darker and more deadly than any storm.

This was great fun to research. The Northwest Angle is a remarkable place. And the manuscript itself was a hoot to write. What readers don’t know about the story is that it was delivered to me, more or less, as the result of wild night of debauchery and drinking with some librarians up north in Minnesota. ’Nuff said.

JULIA: Some writers are willing to put their series protagonists through the wringer, but you have the O'Connors constantly evolving, with some huge changes in their relationships, goals, etc. Why choose that approach over the more static detective-hero path?

KENT: My own feeling is that protagonists who don’t change, who remain static, eventually become uninteresting to me as a reader. Life and experience change us all. From the very beginning, I wanted to create characters who would age and grow and for whom what happens in one book would be reflected in the way their lives proceed in subsequent books. I mean, that’s real life. Nobody stays the same forever. And how boring it would be if that were the case!

JULIA: Are you writing novels with crime and detection in them? Or mysteries with broad, literary themes?

KENT: Ooooh, I like that—broad literary themes. I almost never set out with “broad literary themes” on my mind. I have a story to tell, and I want to make it as compelling as I possibly can. It seems to me that the most interesting stories are those that remain intimate and yet, without apparent effort, suggest much larger themes. I’ve written some books with a definite issue at the heart. Copper River, for example, which deals with the children in our society whom we turn backs on, the runaways, the forgotten who are ultimately lost to us, or Red Knife, which is about the legacy of violence that, as a culture, we unwittingly pass down one generation to the next. Thunder Bay, my favorite book in the series, is about the sacrifices we make in the name of love. But in general, I simply try to write the most well-imagined story that I can, as compellingly as my abilities allow.

JULIA: Religion, both Catholic and Ojibwe, has become increasingly important, both to individuals and as a thematic element, as the series evolves. Why is that?

KENT: God made me do it. Okay, seriously, I suppose that, in general, it reflects my own ruminations on spirituality. I’m not Catholic. For me, Cork’s Catholicism is simply part of the spiritual foundation of his own upbringing, and, when I first envisioned him, it seemed a natural faith background for someone of Irish descent. Because Cork is also part Ojibwe, the spirituality of the Anishinaabeg forms the other portion of his foundation. So he’s a man who comes from two different spiritual traditions, and he’s always trying to understand where his own spiritual path lies. That struggle continues to intrigue me, both personally and as a writer. It seems to me a journey without an end.

JULIA: What's next for Kent Krueger, and what can your readers look forward to? Either in the pipeline already, or further out.

KENT: I’m at work on the next in the Cork O’Connor series, a novel tentatively titled Trickster’s Point. Here’s the skinny: Cork goes bow hunting with his best friend from childhood, a man named Jubal Little, who has recently been elected the first Native American governor of Minnesota. Jubal Little ends up dead, an arrow through his chest, and the arrow belongs to Cork. So you know, of course, who gets the blame. In flashbacks that illuminate the transformation of an Indian kid into a politician of national importance, we see how Jubal changes and becomes a man many people very much want dead. Think of it as “Cork O’Connor meets All the Kings Men.

On the far horizon, I’ve completed a novel that’s not a part of the series and that is, far and away, the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s titled Ordinary Grace, and is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2013. A long time out, I know, but I really believe it’s worth the wait.

JULIA: Who were your literary influences growing up? Now?

KENT: I was a kid raised on adventure stories: Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexander Dumas, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle. You can see that influence in my stories, which always have a significant element of adventure, in addition the mystery. Later, Hemingway was my hero, and then F. Scott Fitzgerald. These days, the writer who really knocks my socks off is Cormac McCarthy, although his vision of the world is far bleaker than my own. But I also love reading Midwest writers: Marilyn Robinson, Kent Haruf, Jon Hassler, Kent Meyers. In the genre, you’re definitely one of my favorite writers and that’s no b.s. You combine so well those broad literary themes you spoke of earlier with the intimate stories from Miller’s Kill, and your writing itself is to die for.

JULIA: These days everyone seems to write "thrillers". What's your definition of that term, and to which of your books does it apply?

KENT: I’m honestly really tired of this word. I think “thriller” has no meaning. It seems to appear on almost every novel in the crime genre anymore, because it’s a term that publishers believe will sell more books. Probably, it’s supposed to suggest

suspense that’s created through more visceral danger and with some kind of ticking bomb element to the plot, but I think it’s been so often misapplied that its meaning—whatever that was originally--and maybe even its effect, have been diluted. In my own work, some of the stories rely more on Cork or someone he loves being in danger, and in some, like Northwest Angle, the ticking bomb element is a part of the plot, but would I classify these books as thrillers? Just as much as I’d call it a mystery or an adventure or a family saga or a novel of broad literary themes. But if calling it a thriller will make the cash register ring more vigorously, I suppose that I’m more than willing to have people speak of it that way.

JULIA: I hope this doesn't sound like logrolling after Kent complimented my own work, but he's not exaggerating when he says Northwest Angle starts with a bang and doesn't ever let up. You can read my somewhat breathless review right here. You can find out more about Kent and his books at his website, you can friend him on Facebook, and you can see him with his highly questionable friends and what appears to be a giant Canadian Goose at the Minnesota Crime Wave.


  1. Oh, how wonderful! I heard Kent give the keynote at the Southeaster n Wisconsin Festival of the book earlier this summer, and it was--spellbinding. Inspirational. I can't tell you how often I've thought about that speech since then..and I wish I would have written down every word. But I was too entranced to take notes.

    So Kent, will you remind me of some of the wonderful quotations you used?

    SO lovely to see you here!

  2. What great timing! I just discovered Kent (and discovered I love his books) because I'll have the honor of hosting him (you ... hi, Kent!) at our Men of Mystery festival this November. Hank, I'll take notes for us both, OK?

    Looking forward to meeting you and hearing more, Kent!

  3. Ahh! How timely! I've read all of them (in order) up to Red Knife which I'm currently right in the middle of reading.

    WKK, one of my very favorites!! Such compelling writing and characters so real you care about them and feel every bump and triumph right along with them. (And yeah, I've already read the bonus first chapter of Heaven's Keep, so thanks for that little upheaval I get to steal myself for!)

    I think my favorite so far is Blood Hollow. Jesus appearing wearing Minnetonka's? How can you resist that? Rose and Mal's story will both touch your heart and make you chuckle.

    But one of the best things about a WKK book is the cover. They have some of the most beautiful covers of anything published. (Although, can you get them to photoshop Cork out of there? They have him looking all...metrosexual. With the coifed hair, skinny jeans and leather coat I think even Cork would be stupefied!)

    I'm going to read faster so I can get caught up for Northwest Angle. Thanks for sharing your talent with everyone!

  4. Hi Kent! I LOVE your books, too, and both the new Cork and the non-series novel sound wonderful.

    Must agree about "thriller." I don't like any of the categories. How about just "novels." Or "books."

    I haven't forgotten your auction win at Mayhem, by the way. Gemma has a new boss in the WIP named Superintendent Diane Kruger:-)

  5. Great interview, Julia and Kent. I'm a huge fan of Kent's books, and I'm really intrigued about the standalone. Can't wait to read it! Also, I'm kind of jealous of those Minnesota librarians. That sounds like it was a fun evening of story brainstorming.

  6. I just recently discovered William Krueger's books and am having a great time reading them.... I'm up to Copper River and yes, I love the characters.

  7. WKK is one of my favorite authors. One of the things I enjoy is the setting - how these stories couldn't take place anywhere else and the physical environment's influence on Cork's actions.
    Can't wait to read the next one!
    Cathy Perkins

  8. I see I'm in very good company—Kent's fan club. I've been a huge fan since Iron Lake. He's always on my list of MUST READS and I recommend him at every opportunity. It's hard to believe that each book is so totally different—and that each proves once again that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

    Thanks, Julia for this great interview!

    Molly Weston