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Interview: July 27, 2007

July 27, 2007

William Kent Krueger is the creator of a mystery series featuring Cork O'Connor, a former sheriff of Irish and American-Indian descent. In this interview with's Eileen Zimmerman Nicol, Krueger describes how he was inspired to write the latest installment, THUNDER BAY, and discusses the importance of physical settings in his work. He also explains how he acquired such in-depth knowledge about the Ojibwe tribe, elaborates on the book's themes of love and greed, and shares ideas about a possible stand-alone novel. THUNDER BAY is the latest in your Cork O'Connor series. What inspired this particular storyline?

William Kent Krueger: Quite honestly, the title. All of my novels have titles that are two-word place names. I'd known for several years that someday I'd write a book called THUNDER BAY because the name is so suggestive and evocative. I also knew that at some point I wanted to write the story of the remarkable Henry Meloux, the old Ojibwe Mide who is so important to most of the stories. The stars all finally aligned, and this novel was the result.

BRC: In the character of Henry Meloux (and others), you demonstrate deep knowledge of the Ojibwe culture. How did you acquire this background?

WKK: I began by reading. I read everything about the Ojibwe culture I could get my hands on: books by the early ethnographers, books dealing with myth and ritual, books by contemporary Ojibwe writers, history books. And then, of course, I began to meet and get to know the Ojibwe. It's an ongoing journey, understanding this remarkable culture and these amazing people.

BRC: The descriptions of the physical setting in THUNDER BAY often subtly reflect Cork O'Connor's feelings. How do you think this adds to the story?

WKK: Every element of a story should feed into and feed from every other element. Character rises out of place. Place is made resonant by the actions and emotions of the characters within it. Because the reader sees the story through a particular character's perception, every feeling that character has --- fear, love, anger, serenity --- ought to be echoed in the setting. It's a dynamic bond that ha! s the potential to heighten the drama of every scene.

BRC: Henry would never have met Maria without the greed of Maria's father. How do greed and love play off each other in THUNDER BAY?

WKK: Greed and love rise out of the same place, sort of like twins, and one of them is twisted. They're both about acquiring something that's terribly desirable but is, at first, out of reach. They differ, of course, in that greed is all about taking and is never satisfied. Love, in the end, is about giving and it is enough.

BRC: In a way this is a novel of journeys from known to unknown, both life-giving and life-taking, for Henry and Cork. Cork's daughter Jenny is also starting out on a painful journey. Was this an intentional theme?

WKK: Every good story is the story of a journey that changes the characters involved. This much every author knows. But every good story usually suggests much more to readers than an author might be aware of. I knew that in both Meloux's history and in Jenny's current predicament, the question of love and loss would be important. That much was intentional. I find it gratifying when readers identify themes or journeys or symbols that are meaningful to them and totally appropriate to the story, but escaped my conscious thinking while I was writing.

BRC: Is there a real-life model for Henry Meloux? To the best of your knowledge are there still people in the woods living so directly connected with nature?

WKK: Henry Meloux is the nearest I've come to creating a stock character: the wise old Ojibwe medicine man. I've gone to great lengths to make sure that Henry remains a very real character to readers. There is no real-life model. Henry represents, I think, the place many people could come if they were willing to open their eyes and be amazed by life and taught by it and respectful of the wisdom that the world, natural and otherwise, has to offer. I'm certain, absolutely certain, that people like Henry exist. They always have and they always will.

BRC: I liked the symmetry of having Cork 's first-person story bracketed around Henry's story. Did you know when you started that the middle third of the novel would be a third-person narrative of Meloux's early story? How did you ensure that you wouldn't lose your readers when you switched from one to the other?

WKK: Because I knew Cork would tell the story and that much of the story would be Henry's tale, I always knew that it would be a bracketed construction. I also knew it would be risky taking the reader from first person to third and back to first. But, hell, what's the use in being a writer if you're not going to take chances? I believed --- and still do --- that it doesn't matter whether the story is told in first person or third; so long as the voice is authentic, the reader will be caught and held.

BRC: I don't expect to cry at the end of a "suspenseful thriller," but I did at the end of THUNDER BAY. This book has more profound things to say about love than any romance novel. Did you intend for this to happen?

WKK: Oh yes.

BRC: You have published seven other books, five of them award winners. What keeps you writing? Has success changed your attitude towards writing?

WKK: It isn't the awards --- or the royalty checks or the recognition --- that keeps me writing. For 20 years, before my first novel was published, I wrote every day. I never considered any of that as wasted time because I was doing what I loved. Although writing is how I ear! n my living now, I still write first and foremost out of a passion for storytelling. Writing is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Writing is what centers me in every day. When I die, I hope to god it's with a pen in my hand.

BRC: Do you keep notes for future storylines? If so, what can you tell us about this?

WKK: Not in any formal way. Stories are always rolling around in my head, and that's usually where they stay until I decide it's time to commit them to paper.

BRC: You've established a series around Cork O'Connor. Do you ever contemplate writing a book in which he doesn't figure?

WKK: For some time, I've had a marvelous book in mind, which I've finally begun to write. It's the story of a small-town minister whose daughter is murdered, and the effect this has on the man's faith, his family, and, ultimately, the fabric of the whole town. Definitely not a Cork story, but one that intrigues me tremendously and suggests deep emotional possibilities.

BRC: As your books gain in popularity, do you feel that your fans' expectations limit your creativity?

WKK: Although I try to keep my readers in mind, I don't let my concern for their reactions limit the places a story might go. Several years ago, I wrote a book in the series that left many questions unanswered at the end, something that is more or less taboo in the mystery genre. I knew I'd receive some negative reactions, and I certainly did. That book, MERCY FALLS, won the Anthony Award for Best Novel of the Year. A writer has to be willing to follow where the story leads. I'd love to say it's all about integrity, but it's really just an understanding that in storytelling intuition tru! mps almo st everything else.

BRC: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What was your career path to becoming one?

WKK: From the very beginning, my parents read to me. I grew up with stories and always wanted to be one of the storytellers. I made the decision early on that I would never be a career person for fear that it would suck right out of me the creative energy for writing. So on the long and winding road that led to publication of my first novel, I logged timber and worked construction and held a lot of other jobs that taught me a good deal about life. Every time I sit down to write, I draw on those experiences.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

WKK: I just finished the next in the Cork O'Connor series, a rather risky novel titled RED KNIFE that is an exploration of our attitudes toward violence and the disastrous results of those attitudes. The book will be released in the summer of 2008.