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Interview: August 21, 2013

William Kent Krueger is the award-winning author of 13 Cork O’Connor mysteries, as well as the stand-alone title ORDINARY GRACE. In his latest book, TAMARACK COUNTY, private investigator Cork O’Connor begins to detect a pattern of ominous incidents throughout Tamarack County and must break it before his loved ones are forced to pay the ultimate price for the sins of others. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Krueger talks about how this story presented the long-awaited opportunity for him to spotlight Cork's kids, Stephen and Anne. He also reveals how staying true in his fiction to the ever-changing nature of family life --- and life in general --- has kept things interesting for him, and explains why he loves to write about Minnesota, even though he isn’t technically a native. TAMARACK COUNTY is one of your most complex and riveting novels to date, involving matters that will seem to resonate through at least your next few Cork O’Connor mysteries. Which of the many threads that run through the book did you develop first?

William Kent Krueger: At this stage, I can’t really answer that question. Most of the thinking about a story takes place long before I actually begin to write the novel. So I had most of this story together a couple of years ago. What I remember knowing in the beginning was that I wanted to feature Cork’s children, Anne and Stephen, who’ve taken a back seat in the last couple of books in the series. Also, I wanted it to be a winter book, because I haven’t written about a real bone-chiller of a Minnesota winter in quite a while. I believe these were the two things I first knew, and the rest of the story grew from these seeds.

BRC: While there are a number of violent acts that take place here, the overriding emotion throughout the entire book, interestingly enough, is love. Cork is at loose ends emotionally and winds up having to make some interesting choices; his son Stephen is experiencing his first real emotional attachment; and his daughter Anne is, in a manner of speaking, torn between two lovers. How did the emotional maelstroms that occur here develop? Were the ideas behind them present when you started writing the book, or did they take on a life of their own during the process?

WKK: I knew about Anne and her particular dilemma. I’ve known about her for a very long time. I’ve been waiting for the right story to offer her situation to readers. What Stephen deals with grew very naturally out of the fact that he’s 17 years old in TAMARACK COUNTY, and his hormones are raging. Fleshing out the particulars of the situations of both of these kids was part of the writing journey and very much a part of the enjoyment in the creation of the novel.

BRC: No one could ever reasonably accuse you of freezing your characters in stasis. TAMARACK COUNTY marks some interesting changes for Cork as well as members of his family, and at least some of the events here, as well as the choices that Cork makes, will play out in future volumes. You also have been aging your primary and secondary characters as the series has progressed. Have you plotted out the series to its conclusion yet, or is it still open-ended?

WKK: I’m currently under contract to write two more Cork O’Connor novels. I know what the next book will be, but I’m still casting around for the right story for the novel that will follow. One of the aspects of watching the O’Connors age across the course of the stories is that, with every book, I’m writing about different people. They’re not the same characters I knew when I last visited them. Their relationships to one another and to the world are different. Their perspectives have shifted. It’s such a joy to discover who they are now. I haven’t any idea where they’re all headed eventually. That’s part of the fun.

BRC: The series takes place in fictional Tamarack County in the very real Great North Woods of Minnesota. One of the many remarkable things about each installment is your descriptions of the areas that comprise this territory. What initially attracted you to the Great North Woods and its residents as settings and subjects for these novels?

WKK: I’m not native to Minnesota. I didn’t discover this remarkable landscape until I moved here when I was 30 years old. Before that, I was a kind of gypsy kid, never calling any place home. When I first set foot in Minnesota, I knew I’d found my home. I fell in love with this state and its people. Almost immediately, my wife and I began vacationing up north, at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Setting eyes for the first time on this incredibly beautiful territory, I thought, “Someone should be writing stories about this place.” So I have.

BRC: On a related note, another element that has impressed me about the series is your ability to continue to explore new themes in an area where subject matter would seem to be limited, at least to urban readers. How do you keep your creative batteries charged for each new installment?

WKK: As I’ve said, part of the energy comes from the dynamic element of change that is, I believe, one of the hallmarks of the series. Neither the characters nor the place remain the same. People age, come and go, are born and die. Tamarack County grows, changes. In real life, every aspect of the world is constantly shifting, and it’s no different in the fictional world of Cork O’Connor. I also try to offer readers a different take on the place and its people with each book. VERMILION DRIFT, for example, showcases the rich history of the Iron Range. NORTHWEST ANGLE incorporates that unusual geographic anomaly. TRICKSTER’S POINT deals with Minnesota politics and the battle over sulfide mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. So I don’t just keep banging the same drum, and, in large measure, this keeps everything fresh and interesting for me.

BRC: Your readers were blessed with two books from you this year, the first one being ORDINARY GRACE, a stand-alone work published in March. Do you have any more stand-alone titles planned for the future, or perhaps a new series…let’s say a spinoff from the Cork O’Connor novels?

WKK: No spinoffs of the O’Connor series planned at the moment. But ORDINARY GRACE was such a rich, satisfying experience that it’s fueled my appetite as a writer for other stories that would never fit in the series. I’ve begun work on a manuscript that I consider a sister novel to ORDINARY GRACE. It’s a project titled THIS TENDER LAND. Like ORDINARY GRACE, the story is set in southern Minnesota and in an earlier time, the late 1950s. I love writing about this area of Minnesota and its particular beauty, which is very different from the North Country.  Although there’s a murder involved (I’m not sure I’ll ever write a story that doesn’t have crime as an element), it’s really the story of the things we love --- the land, the people, the nation --- and the lies we tell ourselves to protect them. 

BRC: On a related note, what are you working on now?

WKK: Currently, I’m at work on the 14th in the Cork O’Connor series, a novel titled WINDIGO ISLAND. I won’t give out much about the plot except to say that this is a story the Ojibwe community asked me to tell, and it’s an important one. It’s due for publication in the fall of 2014.

BRC: Cork makes a major decision or two, and some changes occur in the lives of a couple of his children. Are any of Cork’s family members influenced by or modeled after members of your family? If so, how do they feel about the way they are portrayed in your books?

WKK: None of my family specifically is a model for any of the O’Connors. But, of course, all my experience as a husband, a father and a grandfather inform the characters and their relationships.  

BRC: Have you ever considered setting one of your Cork O’Connor books outside of Minnesota, or do you feel that --- as you have demonstrated so far --- the state is large enough and the population diverse enough to provide plenty of fodder for stories for the foreseeable future?

WKK: I’ve used settings outside Minnesota in the past. COPPER RIVER takes place almost entirely in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Much of the action in HEAVEN’S KEEP occurs in Wyoming. So I’m not reluctant to take Cork outside Minnesota if the story calls for it. But one thing I know is that no book will ever take place in a landscape that doesn’t offer readers the elements they’ve come to expect in a Cork O’Connor novel --- deep forests, pristine lakes, fast rivers, and all the sensual experiences that go along with these things. Nor will Cork ever be completely separated from the Native sensibility that the Anishinaabe culture contributes to the work. Without these elements, it just wouldn’t be a Cork story.

BRC: What techniques do you use to keep your writing technically sharp --- we’re considering the “perspiration” as opposed to the “inspiration” --- so that you keep topping yourself? Do you have a group of readers outside of the publishing world who critique your work?

WKK: I’m disciplined in my approach to my work. I write every day, usually first thing in the morning and again in the late afternoon. This keeps me connected to the energy of a project, keeps the story fresh in my mind and the pace always moving forward. As for early readers, for 20 years, I belonged to a mystery writers’ critique group. We called ourselves Crème de la Crime. The first several books in the series were scrutinized by this perceptive group of writers and friends. But as my deadlines settled into an annual affair, it became more problematic for the whole manuscript to be gone over. So for a long time now, I’ve relied significantly on my marvelous agent, Danielle Egan-Miller, and a group of her handpicked readers for the initial editorial eye. Beyond that, I have a dynamic editor at Atria Books, Sarah Branham, whose input is invaluable.

BRC: Your first book was published in 1998. In the past 15 years, there have been major changes in the publishing industry. What advice would you give to an author today who is seeking a traditional publishing deal?

WKK: Keep in mind that nothing worth having comes easily. It’s difficult to break into traditional publishing, particularly with one of the large New York houses, but that’s no different from the way it’s always been. Although ePublishing is certainly a viable alternative these days, I think traditional publication offers such a great deal of satisfaction. All forms of publication have their own particular set of problems, so the question for any writer is what really do you want from the experience? In the end, this is what I’ve always told my students when I teach writing: Write because it’s what you love to do. If you stay true to your passion, I firmly believe that, in the end, you’ll experience success. The measure may be different than you’d imagined, but the satisfaction will be there.

BRC: Great authors almost always have a book in their hand when they are not working on their own craft. What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

WKK: THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich and LITTLE WOLVES by Thomas Maltman.