Tuesday, November 12, 2013

William Kent Krueger: A Character Comes to Life

LUCY BURDETTE: Oh boy, if you Reds haven't yet read Kent Krueger's Cork O'Connor series, you are in for a treat. In fact, I am green with envy that you get the chance to start from the beginning and read them through. In order.

But listen, if even if you have read the books, you are still in for a treat, because Kent agreed to visit with us today to explain the mystery of how Cork O'Connor came to life.

KENT KRUEGER: Twenty years ago, a character began to materialize in my imagination.  This was long before I’d begun to write my first novel in the Cork O’Connor series, before I even knew that I would write mysteries.  I didn’t know a lot about this guy.  At first, the only thing really clear to me was that he would be the kind of man 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.

Honest to God, that’s how it all began.

Why do we love a series?  More fundamental than any other element, it seems to me, is a love of the character, or characters, at the heart of the stories.  Everything else that might be good—the plots, the setting, the writing itself—is secondary to what brings us back to a series again and again.  We come back to be with people we care about.
Readers tell me they like Cork O’Connor.  They tell me they care about him and his family and Henry Meloux, who is the spiritual center of most of the stories I’ve written.  Why do they care?  I think those who’ve followed my series from the beginning, or who discover my series and then go back to read from the beginning, understand that they’re watching a family history play out before their eyes.  They’re watching the saga of the O’Connors of Tamarack County.

Among the many choices I made early on in my thinking about Cork O’Connor was that I didn’t want him to be a static protagonist.  By static I mean a character who never changes.  Think Sherlock Holmes here.  You read one Sherlock Holmes story, and you know him.  He will never surprise you.  He will never age, never change his attitude toward life or his relationship to Watson, never be anything less than brilliant.  That’s not who I wanted to write about.  I wanted, in a way, to create a character who could mirror my own journey through life.  I wanted someone I considered dynamic, someone who would be changed as he confronts the realities of this world, or the realities as I know them—raising a family, negotiating the often difficult terrain of love relationships, failing and rising from that failure.  And, of course, aging.  I’ve used Cork often to help me explore real issues in my own life.  

In the first novel in the series, Cork is going through a pretty horrific midlife crisis.  Just as I was when I wrote the book.  In Blood Hollow, the fourth entry in my series, he struggles with the spiritual journey and the nature of death.  When I wrote that story, my mother was dying.  My seventh novel, Red Knife, a long rumination on violence in our culture, was written after the school shooting on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, which left seven people dead.  It was the worst incident of its kind up that point in time, and it haunted me terribly.  On a happier note, a couple of years ago, in Northwest Angle, Cork became a grandfather.  I’m a grandfather, and I love writing about that experience.Write what you know.  What an old saw that is.  But I happen to believe it.  There’s much I write about that I have to research significantly—the culture of the Anishinaabeg, police procedure, forensic investigation, to name just a few.  But at heart, when I’m writing about Cork, I’m on wonderfully familiar ground.  What makes him compelling to readers?  

I believe it’s because he’s accessible, he’s flawed, he’s not always right, but he’s always struggling to do the right thing as he understands it.  He’s so very human.  Just like me, and, I think, just like the people who enjoy my work.

William Kent Krueger is the author of the New York Times bestselling Cork O'Connor mystery series, which is set in the great northwoods of Minnesota.  He makes his home with his wife and family in the city of Saint Paul.  You can find him on Facebook.
Reds, what makes a series character work for you? And Kent will be stopping in today to answer your questions and comments.


  1. I think many of the things mentioned are the things that make series characters “work.” The learning, growing, changing; the less-than-perfect that mirrors real life; the interaction with other characters in a realistic way; the struggle to do what is right, to be the person they believe they ought to be. I’m looking forward to reading Cork's stories --- he sounds exactly like my kind of character . . . .

  2. This is one of my bedrock series - and one of the few where I (with my limited book budget) buy the hardcovers as soon as they come out.

    Don't forget to read his non-Series book (Ordinary Grace) too - masterful writing.

  3. Love the idea of Cork O'Conner as a protagonist who changes, grows, and develops. Kent, how have readers responded to Cork's evolution?

  4. Joan, you are so lucky to be starting from the beginning! Right Michael?

    Susan, I don't know about all his other readers, but I love finding out what happens next with Cork--and his family. Kent puts them through some pretty horrific events and they struggle through and come out changed on the other side--just like us:)

  5. Kent's series has long been on my radar. Oh, if only I could give up my day job to read full time. ;)

    This is pushing me to read a book in the series though, since I love characters who grow and change so much more than static ones.

    A question for Kent: If a reader can't make the commitment to go back and read the series in order, where would you suggest they start? Likely that will drive us back to the beginning, but somehow it is less daunting if you don't have a dozen books ahead of you.

  6. To me, a great lead character is one who is less than perfect, who has ups and downs, but by the end of the book has become a bigger, better person, yet never perfect... I like to see into his/her problems, challenges, inner wars - and be there to come out on the other side with him/her. Thelma in Manhattan

  7. Kris, drop everything and read them now. You won't be sorry you did so.

    Kent, hello! (*waving from California*) Loved the new book.

    So what are you working on next? Another standalone? The next Cork?

  8. Hi Kent! So pleased to see you here and what terrific books you write.

    You are so right that series readers have to feel that the main character is someone they know and care about, who struggles with life just like them.

  9. Kent Krueger lives on my "Auto Buy" list and I have never been disappointed. I adore Cork O'Connor and his family and friends, and tap my toe impatiently while waiting for the next in the series. That said, I do think Ordinary Grace is one of the best books I've read.

  10. (Not sure if this will be a duplicate posting; if so, I apologize; a little difficulty on my end)

    First, thanks to everyone who is already familiar with my work and who have said nice things here.

    Now, to answer a few questions.

    Susan: Readers have been wonderful about embracing the growth and changes in Cork and the O'Connor clan. Many tell me it's one of their favorite elements of the series.

    Kristopher: I always recommend Thunder Bay, a mid-series novel. It's one of my personal favorites.

    Tammy: I'm finishing up the manuscript for Windigo Island, #14 in the series. It will be out next August. Also at work on a companion novel to Ordinary Grace.


  11. I'm a huge fan of Kent's books, and it's the family slash personal drama that hooked me. Really people. Dealing with what life throws at them. And by the way, solving a murder mystery. I've got to say, the setting is so compelling as well.

    Cork! I never thought about the significance of the name. Cool. Would've been a whole different thing if you'd named him Stone.

  12. Yes, Kris, Tammy is right. (As always.) Drop everything. Kent is extraordinary.

    And I am sitting in my office, alone, laughing. I NEVER realized that about the name Cork. Perfect.

  13. Hi Kent!!! Waving!! And laughing at Hallie. Stone? So glad you named him Cork...

    I love your series, and found this essay so interesting because I made exactly same choice regarding "static" characters when I started mine. I had no idea what I was doing, or if that first book would sell, much less become a series, but on that one thing I was very clear.

    Can't wait to read the new book! I just have to finish writing mine first...

    --A fun note. If any of you readers have noticed that Gemma's new boss in the last couple of books is named Diane Krueger, she is indeed named after Kent's lovely wife. Kent won the naming rights in a charity auction, bless him!

  14. Thanks, Deb, for that little bit of immortality for my lovely wife. She is so thrilled!

    A big hello and warm thank you to all the Jungle Reds for the invitation to visit. I'm enjoying this immensely.

    By the way, in my initial thinking, Cork was going to have a brother named Gar--a dark guy who loved swimming in murky waters.

  15. Looking forward to reading them, my home state is Minnesota which will make them even more interesting. Thanks to Jungle Red Writers for recommending these books!

  16. This is a treat, Kent. Last year, I asked my bookseller buddy at Murder by the Book (since closed, :-() to suggest authors. He pointed out VERMILION DRIFT, which I loved. Somehow, I didn't realize the book was part of series! It stood on its own so well.

    Well, now I'm thrilled. Can't wait to read the rest of your novels!

    How do you decide whether you'll work on a standalone or the Cork series? Or does that come more from the publisher?

  17. Well, I hope you didn't name his brother Walleye. I lived in Minnesota for 6 years and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'll pick up the first Cork story and read it soon!

  18. I saw a review for Iron Lake 3-4 years ago, loved it, and now have read the 1st 8 books with the next 4 sitting on a book shelf. I grew up in Duluth in the 50s and live in Bloomington so I do enjoy all the references to familiar locations. Keep writing - please!

  19. Tammy and Hank, you both are doing NOTHING to help me stay on track for the blog. ;) With those recommendations, I am ready to tear into the Cork novels immediately.

    I am going to take Kent's recommendation and start with Thunder Bay, if only so that I can pretend I am doing the reading I am supposed to be doing for the blog. ;)

    Something tells me it won't be long before I am going back to the beginning and reading them all.

  20. a p.s. to Kent - I look forward to seeing you in Nashville in August where you'll be one of the Killer Nashville Guests of Honor. I'm bringing all my unsigned books for you to sign!

  21. Back from my workout at the YMCA.

    Lisa: Mostly, I'm obligated to write Cork O'Connor novels. But with the success of Ordinary Grace, not a part of my series, my publisher has been more than willing to let me branch out. So, I have deadlines for two more Cork books and the companion novel for Ordinary Grace (which is titled This Tender Land). It's the deadlines these days that dictate the focus of my work.

    Kaye: I'd love to see you with an armload of my books at Killer Nashville!

  22. Just a note about series protagonists. Reed Farrel Coleman, author of the excellent Moe Prager series, has indicated the next book will be the last. As he put it, he would rather go out a book too early than a book too late. You know what he means. What do folks think about ending a series whose central character(s) are beloved by readers? And how does one know when the right time has come?

  23. Kent, that's fantastic. I admit I'm new to the series, but now can't wait to start at the beginning. My mother-in-law and I have a bit of an informal book club going, and I'm sure she'll be thrilled to find a new favorite author as well!

  24. Kent, I heard you talk about your choice of Cork's name at Magna cum Murder, but the possibility of Gar was a new twist.

    I'm so glad you chose to allow Cork to change over time. I am like most of your fans who come to each new book wondering what challenges Cork will face both externally and internally and how his past will reflect in his present.

    I'm generally a fan of quitting while you're on top. For writers that means each work must bring something new to the reader. When it's the same old, same old I lose interest and move on. However, having heard you speak at Magna, I have a suspicion you have many more topics to discuss with your readers through Cork's trials and tribulations or through new standalones.

    ~ Jim

  25. Another new series to start, and I too will start from the beginning. I enjoy characters that change, grow older (and maybe wiser) through the years.
    And I get very, very attached, so your question about ending a series is a tough one. I think it is difficult for the readers, but I understand when the author feels they have taken the group of characters as far as they can take them and decides to end the series. Hopefully everyone (readers and the author) will get an ending that they feel is best for the character(s).

  26. I think Reed is being very brave and very smart and probably very wise, but OH how I'm going to miss Moe Prager. (I'm such a selfish wench). He's such a great writer, I know his future work will be as successful as his Moe Prager series, and I know I'll always be a fan.

    I agree that there are some series, some that I once loved, that may have gone on for a bit too long (at least, for me). It's got to be one of the toughest decisions ever for a writer to make.

  27. Kent, if you'd heard our Julia at Crimebake, she had ideas about quitting her series several books back. But the fans and publisher wouldn't have it--I suspect it will be that way for you too:).

    On the other hand, I sat next to H.R.F. Keating at a Malice Domestic signing right after I'd heard that my golf series would not go beyond 5 books--some years ago. I was very sad and he was very, very kind--he said he believed most series couldn't and shouldn't sustain more than 7 books--including his. (I think he had around 25 in the Inspector Ghote series:)

  28. My first Cork O'Connor book was THUNDER BAY after Hank mentioned it a couple of years ago. Frankly, I didn't care that TB was the seventh book in the series. I so psyched to find a hardcover copy this year at Bouchercon so Kent could sign it.

    FWIW, I'm a bad or atypical series fan. I sometimes skip around depending on the crime/theme I'm in the mood for at the time or dole out books in a series as a special treat. I don't mind backtracking because I like to see how events were set up. (Reverse engineering. :) )I became accustomed to that kind of craziness because bookstores don't tend to stock all the books in a series, so I couldn't scratch the itch of instant gratification by reading them in order. Anyway, I'm blabbering. :) Thanks for visiting Jungle Reds, Kent.

  29. Rhonda, I approach reading a series in much the same way as you. I pick up whatever happens to be available when the mood strikes. Yeah, I've stumbled across missing characters, and realized that somewhere between this book and the last I read, a beloved fictional friend somehow bit the dust. I know it's a richer experience to read a series in order. But life doesn't always work out in an orderly way. At least, mine doesn't.

  30. I'm off to do a library event with my cohorts in the Minnesota Crime Wave. We do our events in costumes appropriate to our genre--me in prison stripes, Carl Brookins in gangster garb, Ellen Hart our gun moll. Always a hoot of an event.

    So, I'm bidding adieu to the Jungle Reds and to those who follow them on this stellar site. It's been fun! Thanks for having me, and I'd love to visit again someday!