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Never too late to write: William Kent Krueger

BRATTLEBORO—“I’m the poster child for it’s never too late,” said author William Kent Krueger from his home in St. Paul, Minn.

Krueger didn’t publish his first novel until he was nearly 50. Readers now know him for his Minnesota-set Cork O’Connor mysteries about an Iron Lake Ojibwe-Irish detective turned private eye. He released the 11th in the series, Northwest Angle, last year through Atria Books. Book No. 12 is in the editing process, and he has started book No. 13.

As a teen, Krueger discovered the works of Ernest Hemingway. He joked that his desire to write as well as Hemingway contributed to a form of writer’s block.

Krueger said the process of writing novels grew easier once he stepped out from under the “burden of writing the next Great American Novel.”

“We can’t all be Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell, but they’ve already been done,” Krueger said. “You be you.”

Krueger said he still loves writing about his character. In many mystery series, he said, the lead character never changes, or even grows old.

“A good story needs a grounded character,” he said.

During Cork’s early days, Krueger decided he wanted to create a “dynamic character” who aged, raised a family, and changed jobs.

“Cork isn’t me,” Krueger wrote in a press release. “But the way he sees the world and what’s important to him come very much out of who I am. He believes in family. He believes in justice. He believes you make commitments and stand by them. I’m thinking that even if I write 20 books, he’ll still be able to surprise me.”

The dynamic Cork still manages to surprise his creator after nearly 10 years. Krueger is glad about this. Surprise prevents the burn-out experienced by some series writers.

In Northwest Angle, Cork and his family take their first family vacation after a heart-ripping tragedy. Instead of peace and quiet, they find themselves stranded in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness by a derecho, a bow-shaped thunderstorm system that produces hurricane-force winds. Cork and adult daughter Jenny find a baby and its murdered Ojibwe mother in an isolated island cabin.

The baby’s surviving “blood family” thought his cleft lip ugly and abandoned him. Despite the infant’s deformities, Jenny takes the little boy with her.

Krueger said he wanted to write about how people love who they love despite imperfections. He also often explores the theme of families in his novels and wanted to contrast Cork’s damaged but healthy family against the baby’s dysfunctional family.

The novel’s origin sparked from the the exploration of how Cork and his family recovered from the loss of wife and mother Jo in a previous book “Heaven’s Keep.” Krueger used the derecho’s devastation to mirror the O’Connors’ grief.

Krueger describes Northwest Angle as more suspense than than mystery, a slight departure from previous books.

As a writer, he has learned a few lessons along the way.

“Get yourself out of the way and go where the story leads,” Krueger said.

One such learning curve happened with Copper River, book No. 6, and another with Heaven’s Keep, book No. 10.

Krueger had promised, as a father and grandfather, to never write about the murder of a child. With Copper River, however, Krueger found himself concerned about how society turns its back on some children. He opened the book with the murder of a runaway child.

In the first draft of Heaven’s Keep, Cork’s wife Jo lived. Because Krueger wanted her so badly to survive. But, he said, he knew the right ending for the novel had to include her death.

Minnesota inspired the creation of Cork. Krueger said a goal of his writing is to present his beloved Minnesota as a concrete, yet sensual, experience for the reader.

He said he loves it when a reader from northern Minnesota writes to say his depiction of the area was spot on. Krueger said he loves it more when readers write saying they never visited the state but, after reading one of the Cork mysteries, have planned a trip.

From the environment, Krueger said, he builds his narrative. From the land, the character rises, and from the character comes motivations, and from motivations, a mystery story.

The writer confesses he never read mysteries growing up. The son of a high school literature teacher, Krueger said,” I was raised on literature with a capital L.”

But in Krueger’s opinion, all great stories start with great characters. “The best in this genre write novels first and mysteries second,” he said.

Krueger rises every morning at 5:30 and heads to a local cafe to write. “I can’t wait,” he said. “I’m so in love with it [writing].”

To learn more about the author, visit www.williamkentkrueger.com.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #147 (Wednesday, April 11, 2012).

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