A Conversation with William Kent Krueger

A Conversation with William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger is the author of the New York Times bestselling & multiple award-winning Cork O’Connor mystery series, seventeen novels set in the great Northwoods of Minnesota.

His work has received the Edgar Award, Macavity Award, multiple Anthony, Barry, and Dilys Awards, the Friends of the American Writers Prize, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. The last nine novels in the Cork O’Connor series have all been New York Times bestsellers.

Kent joined us for AMA last week, during which he revealed that he's working on a prequel to the Cork O'Connor series. We also talked to him about This Tender Land, his most recent novel, which tells the unforgettable story of four orphans who travel the mighty Mississippi River on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression.

The conversation also explored his love for Minnesota and writing, the spiritual struggles & conflicts at the heart of his stories, how he thinks the readership of mystery novels is evolving, and several other interesting topics.

Here is the unabridged transcript of the event:

Q: Question by community member

C: Comment by community member

Q: What are some of your favorite things to do when you’re not writing?

William Kent Krueger: I don't get asked this often, so thank you. I'm an avid biker, and I live in a city (St. Paul) with great trails. I play lots of tennis, walk with my wife, and read, read, read!

Q: From your bio, I learned that you moved to Minnesota for your wife’s law school. Ever since then, you have stayed there and set most of your books in Minnesota. What makes you love this place so much?

William Kent Krueger: I spent my adolescence in the Midwest, and although circumstances took me away for many years, my heart told me I had to return. It's a lovely part of the country. Southern Minnesota is beautifully agrarian, northern Minnesota all pine trees and clear lakes. And the people here are so generous and compassionate. What's not to love?

Q: I read somewhere that you were recently on a long book tour to promote your most recent book This Tender Land. What can you tell us about this book, and I also wanted to ask you if you enjoy your time on the road whenever you are releasing a new book? What’s your favorite aspect of these book tours?

William Kent Krueger: This Tender Land is set in the summer of 1932, deep in the great Depression. It's the story of four orphans running from the law because they've committed a terrible crime. To evade capture, they take the great rivers of the Midwest. Think of this as my Huckleberry Finn. On book tours, I love meeting readers who appreciate my work!

Q: I've read all but one of your books. Sulfer Springs is so relevant to today. What sparked your love and insight into the Native American community?

William Kent Krueger: When I set out to write mysteries, I was a fan of Tony Hillerman, who wrote so beautifully about the Navajo of the Southwest. I decided I wanted to do that with the Ojibwe here in Minnesota. The more I learn about the Native community, the more I admire their courage, their resilience, their humor, the complexity and richness of their culture.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your earliest memory of writing stories? Did you grow up with a love of writing or did you acquire it later in life, and when did you start taking writing seriously? Also, did you undergo any training or creative writing programs or are you self-taught?

William Kent Krueger: My parents read stories to me from the very beginning, and I grew up wanting to be one of the storytellers. Why? I can't really say. But I've always written, though I served a very long apprenticeship before publishing my first novel, Iron Lake, at 48 years of age. I didn't go through a formal writing program. I learned by spending 10,000 hours writing.

Q: How difficult was it for you to get Iron Lake published. And was it an immediate success after it was published in 1998/99, and did that encourage you to write further novels in the series, or did the series receive success/popularity after you released a couple of novels over the years?

William Kent Krueger: A bidding war broke out for the rights to Iron Lake, so every writer's dream came true for me. The novel won several awards and garnered terrific reviews. I mean, who would close the door to writing a series after a beginning like that? The build was gradual over the years, but I'm very grateful for the following I have now among readers.

Q: You’ve said that as a writer, you are always on the lookout for conflicts. The conflict you’ve used as the backdrop for the Cork O’ Connor series is the obvious tension between the Anishinaabe and the whites. What conflicts play a role in shaping the plot of Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land?

William Kent Krueger: Always at the heart of my stories is a spiritual struggle, the push and pull of what it is to be human and what it is to want to be a better person, to do the right thing. The conflict of self is, for me, the most compelling conflict of all. But culture clash, economic and social clash, these also provide great fodder for conflict.

Q: Are there any upcoming plans or offers to option the Cork O’Connor series for TV/Film?

William Kent Krueger: We've been in negotiations over the years for a TV series based on the novels, and also movie rights. Nothing so far. Ordinary Grace is under contract, and we're in negotiations now for This Tender Land. Keep your fingers crossed.

Oh, and one more thing. There's interest in a Broadway musical based on This Tender Land!

Q: Will your future stories be standalone novels like Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land, or will there be another series?

William Kent Krueger: I'm working on revisions to the next in my Cork O'Connor series. It's titled Lightning Strike and is a prequel to the series, picking up Cork as a thirteen-year-old boy. I've had so much fun writing this story. There's one more Cork O'Connor under contract, then I'll turn my energy to writing the next stand alone.

Q: How do you keep a series that spans the length of 17 novels, and around the same length of years, fresh for the readers and yourself over this whole stretch? How big of a challenge was that for you and how did you succeed at that?

William Kent Krueger: One of the best decisions I made at the outset of the Cork O'Connor series was to have the characters age across real time, more or less. I didn't want them to be static. So when I sit down to write a new entry in the series, I'm writing about different people than I wrote about in the last book. They've aged, changed, see the world and themselves a bit differently. That's done wonders for me in keeping my interest fresh, and I believe that's something readers appreciate as well.

Q: I’m curious about your perspectives on what is currently going on in the U.S. as someone who experienced an extraordinary time in the 1970s. Is there any message you would like to share with young people who are confused and concerned in the midst of chaos right now?

William Kent Krueger: I came of age during one of the most divisive times in the U.S. in recent history--the Vietnam War years. We were a nation on the edge of chaos, but as a young person I found that wonderfully challenging. Honestly, I believe we could change the world. What I've learned in the years since is that meaningful change occurs only when we get off our duffs and do something. Doing something is empowering. It cleans the pipes and pumps the blood. So if you're confused, instead of sitting idle, get out there and do your best to make a change.

Q: You’ve said that you prefer writing in local coffee shops, can you tell us a bit about that and how you adopted that habit?

William Kent Krueger: I began writing in coffee shops decades ago, when my wife entered law school. I became the sole support of the family, but I wanted desperately to develop as a writer. We were living a block from a wonderful little cafe in St. Paul--the St. Clair Broiler--which opened its doors at 6:00 a.m. every morning. I convinced my wife to see to our children first thing every day, so that I could go to the coffee shop and write before I headed off to work. My process was born. I still do all my creative writing in coffee shops. Though during the self-sheltering, I have temporarily exchanged my kitchen counter for the coffee shop.

Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser? How much of the plot and characters do you have figured out in your mind before you begin writing a new novel?

William Kent Krueger: My approach to a story depends upon the kind of story I'm committed to writing. If a mystery, something for my Cork O'Connor series, I think the story through as significantly as I can before I set my fingers on the laptop keyboard. Mysteries are so tightly woven and the timing of the reveals so important that I need to have all the elements in place first. With my stand alones, I wanted an entirely different experience. The process was mostly organic, letting the story reveal itself to me as I wrote. It was a phenomenal experience for both my work on Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land.

Q: As someone who is self-taught, how much do you think formal creative writing programs and courses help aspiring writers?

William Kent Krueger: I think they can be problematic in that they can tend to shape writers in the mold of the program. That is, of course, a generalization. I think no program can teach you how to create a great story. You learn that by writing and rewriting and writing again. But a formal program does put you in the company of like-minded people, and it's a good thing to have that kind of support and encouragement.

Q: You’re such a prolific storyteller, which makes me ask this question. Do you take a break from writing between two books?

William Kent Krueger: Take a break!!!!! Why would I want a break? Writing is what I love most in the world. When I'm not writing, it's as if I've been abandoned by a lover.

Q: Do you often interact with fans and admirers on social media, or via email? What kind of fan mail or questions & comments do you most frequently get?

William Kent Krueger: These days, most of my interactions are virtual, and I do a lot of them. Book clubs, book stores, groups such as yours, I'm kept hopping. I get a significant number of emails every day from readers and I do my best to respond. Often they're simply lovely notes telling me what my work has meant to them. Sometimes questions about the future of the series. Occasionally, someone pointing out an error in one of my stories (and believe me there are lots).

Q: What’s a quality that all of your protagonists share?

William Kent Krueger: The best of intentions. I think my heroes, and the great heroes and heroines of literature are individuals who struggled against the worst in themselves or the worst in the society in which they lived in order to bring some justice to the world.

Q: What’s the most important element of mystery and crime novels in your opinion? I also wanted to know if you think the readership of mystery novels has evolved over the last 20 years and if you think their expectations and demands have greatly changed or remained the same?

William Kent Krueger: Honesty. Or as Hemingway would have put it, writing true. We create situations of suspense, but for that suspense to resonate, to have impact on a reader, the scenario has to feel real in its motive and in its ramifications. I'm not a fan of thin mysteries. Give me something with depth, something that reaches for more than thrills. And I believe that maybe that's the evolution in readers' expectations. Readers want more. They want fine writing, complex characters, important themes. They want a mystery to give them everything a good literary novel would deliver--and a terrific puzzle as well.

Q: Reading your work gave me a very strong impression that you’re an author with mastery over describing scenes, giving your readers a profound sense of atmosphere and place. But I wanted to know your own position on this, if you’re asked what your strength is as a writer, what would your answer be?

William Kent Krueger: I write profoundly out of a sense of place. That can the larger landscape of Minnesota, a scene on a lake or a river, or an encounter in a diner. I want the reader to feel that place, smell the air, see the sky or the water, feel what the earth is like under their feet. I want to draw them in so that they no longer stand outside the scene, but are a part of it.

Q: What do you consider to be your best accomplishment? Curiously, I saw an interview you gave somewhere around 2012/13 in which you said you think your masterpiece is still ahead of you, in the future. Do you still think that? Or is This Tender Land that masterpiece?

William Kent Krueger: When I wrote Ordinary Grace, I felt it was the book I was born to write, that I would never write a story as fine as that one. Then I wrote This Tender Land, I love it every bit as much as I love Ordinary Grace. So God alone knows what awaits me in the future. I hope that somewhere inside me is another story that will inspire me as much as those two stories did. I still have a lot of love left inside me.

Q: I read in your bio that you studied child development. What made you decide to research child development later in your life? What was the most unexpected thing you learned?

William Kent Krueger: I took a job at the Institute of Child Development because it fit my schedule for writing. At first, I was the guy at the reception desk. Then I was asked to work in one of the developmental labs, where I began helping with the actual research. But I was never on track to be a researcher. When I signed my first contract for Iron Lake and Boundary Waters (#2 in my series), I jumped ship and became a writer full time.

Q: Surprised to learn today you wrote Iron Lake at the age of 48! Today, you’ve won so many awards and accolades, and your books have been on the NYT bestseller list around a dozen times or more. Looking back at your life, what’s one life lesson or message you want to share with people who are still struggling to find their direction and purpose?

William Kent Krueger: I can't speak to everyone, because we all have different dreams. But I will speak to any writers out there willing to listen. I have only one piece of advice to offer and here it is: Write because you love to write, not with any hope that anyone will read and admire your work. If you set up expectations beyond yielding to your own passion, you risk disappointment. But if you love what you do, then how can that take you anywhere but to a place of contentment.

For more on William Kent Krueger, check out his:

Order This Tender Land, Kent's most recent novel, which was released in the fall of 2019, debuting at #3 on the New York Times bestseller list.

This Tender Land

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