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Interview: August 23, 2012

In TRICKSTER'S POINT, the 12th installment in William Kent Krueger's Cork O' Connor series, Cork is sitting on a mountain with a wounded Native-American governor elect. The arrow in the man's chest just happens to belong to Cork, who becomes the primary suspect in the murder. In this interview, conducted by's Joe Hartlaub, Krueger talks about the landscape of his novels, the mythologies he incorporated in the writing of his latest book, and the complexity of  the relationship among Cork, Winona and Jubal. TRICKSTER’S POINT is one of your best and most complex novels to date, combining strong mystery elements with the twists and turns of friendship throughout the course of two lives. What got the book rolling for you? Was it an event in your life or in someone else’s?

William Kent Krueger: Relationship is almost always at the heart of a Cork O’Connor novel.  Usually, it’s Cork’s relationship with someone he loves, often family. With TRICKSTER’S POINT, the heart of the story is his relationship with Jubal Little, who was Cork’s best friend through much of his youth. I’ve wanted to explore Cork more deeply, his history and the events in his life that shaped him into the man we see in the series, and I thought this story might give me plenty of opportunity for that. What I loved most about writing this book was dropping in on Cork at various stages of his life and spending a little time with him. It was enlightening and also a whole lot of fun. I hope that’s exactly how readers respond.

BRC: The book takes its name from a monolith in Minnesota known as Trickster’s Point, which is the site where Jubal Little is killed and where another discovery is made during the course of the novel. Does a structure such as Trickster’s Point actually exist as a geographical location in the real world? And is it associated with the mythological Trickster?

WKK: Yes, and yes. This type of formation isn’t unusual at all, although my Trickster’s Point is entirely fictional. But I tied it to Nanaboozho, a spirit in Ojibwe mythology who often plays the role of the trickster. You’ll find a trickster character in many mythologies --- the coyote, for example, in myths from the Navajo, or even Loki from Scandinavian tradition.

BRC: Winona Crane is certainly one of the most interesting characters you have created. She is the parallel love interest of both Cork and Jubal to varying degrees throughout their lives; the reader, though, only comes to know her in the past tense, for the most part. I thought that you presented her in a unique way, considering that she is --- in a manner of speaking --- a primary character throughout the book. Can you describe how she evolved?

WKK: Typically, when I begin a manuscript, I have an outline of the story already completed in my head, if not on paper. TRICKSTER'S POINT was different. I had no outline. I often felt as if I was flying by the seat of my pants. I didn’t know about Winona until she became a part of the way in which Jubal Little and Cork first meet. When the triangle of attractions emerged --- Cork to Winona, Winona to Jubal, Jubal to Winona --- in that first flashback to Cork’s childhood, I realized I had a terrific dynamic that could play out in a lot of ways.  Almost every time I returned to the past, Winona’s relationship with Cork and Jubal was at the heart of that memory, and Winona, like the story itself, grew and took shape. She was always a little enigmatic to me, and that’s how she comes off to the reader, I believe, and in that way, is part of the mystery of the whole story.

BRC: You were one of the first authors to fuse contemporary western elements into a mystery novel (a practice you continue here) and have been one of the most successful in doing so as well. Western novels of both the contemporary and traditional style seem to be enjoying a resurgence of popularity. What do you think is responsible for that?

WKK: I don’t think of Minnesota as “western,” but I understand what you’re getting at. My series is grounded in a sense of place, solidly northern Minnesota. The landscape is rugged, isolated, pristine, stunningly beautiful, and often very dangerous. And the elements of that landscape --- its wild nature, the conflicts of the people who inhabit it, Ojibwe and white, lawful and lawless --- are key to the stories themselves. This is, in a way, the stuff of classic Westerns. There’s a great movement in the mystery genre that fuses the elements of the crime novel and those classic Western elements. You see it my work, in the work of Tony Hillerman, Craig Johnson,  C.J. Box and Margaret Coel, to name a few. I think readers appreciate that our stories are set against an elemental background and that the landscape itself is so significant to the work. It offers a wonderful alternative to the urban crime novel, which has its own compelling traditions.

BRC: Although it is mentioned only briefly, your reference in the final third of the book to the short story “The Bound Man” by Ilse Aichinger is of great import, and in fact says much about a number of characters, living and dead, in the story itself. Did “The Bound Man” influence the development of your characters --- including but not limited to Winona’s brother, Willie Crane, who rises above his physical limitations in the books --- or did you make the connection after you had fully developed Willie as a character?

WKK: I didn’t consciously use “The Bound Man” as an inspiration in the early work on the novel, but once I’d incorporated it in a scene with Willie Crane and realized its full relevance, the ideas at the heart of that marvelous, existential story came more to the forefront. So, Willie came first in my conscious thought, but Willie was probably influenced all along by my own unconscious appreciation for Aichinger’s story, which I read and much admired long ago in high school.

BRC: One of the most enjoyable elements of TRICKSTER’S POINT is the manner in which it slices into and out of Cork’s life. It presents the premise that the actions and events of the past often have a great influence upon the present. The events and revelations here add yet more dimensions to Cork’s personality, which you have been developing to fascinating detail over the course of the series. How much of William Kent Krueger can be found in Cork O’Connor? Or is Cork based on someone else who has influenced you in other ways?

WKK: Long before I began the actual writing of IRON LAKE, the first novel in the Cork O’Connor series, I’d envisioned a protagonist. All I knew of him at first was that he was so resilient that no matter how far down life pushed him, he would always bob back to the surface. His name would be Cork. As I worked on that very first manuscript, Cork began to emerge fully. He was a lot like me --- married to an attorney, a family man, a guy who believed in justice --- and he was many things that I am not: Catholic, Irish, part Ojibwe, and an officer of the law. So Cork is a hybrid, a melding of some of who I am and a lot of who I am not (but wouldn’t mind being). He’s become pretty much his own man, and often surprises me. I like that.

BRC: Indian casinos become an element in Cork’s investigation into Jubal's murder. Such casinos are somewhat controversial. How do you feel about them and why? Are they a blessing, a curse, or do they fall somewhere in between?

WKK: Remember the story “The Monkey’s Paw”? With every wish granted comes a curse. In a way, that’s Indian gaming. The revenue from casinos has often helped lift poverty-ridden Indian communities out of terrible economic conditions, only to deliver them to other challenges. Whenever money --- a lot of it --- is involved, all the darker temptations of the human spirit seem to awaken. So oversight of casino operations is a huge issue, as is the insidious influence of organized crime. And contrary to the thinking of many people, Indian gaming, in the end, benefits only a small portion of the Native population. For some, it’s feast; for others, it continues to be famine.

BRC: You recently completed a very ambitious cross-country book tour by bus with some other authors. What was your favorite aspect of touring in this manner? And do you have any amusing stories about the tour that you would like to share?

WKK: The absolute best part of the experience was provided by my bus mates, the authors I traveled with --- Liza Marklund, M.J. Rose and John Connolly --- and the folks from Atria Books who took such good care of us. It was exhausting but was also one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had as an author.

The funniest occurrence on the trip centered on the tiny bathroom of the bus. Three days into the trip, we were told that of the two bodily functions that bathrooms normally address, only one was allowed in the bus bathroom. This was a piece of information none of us had been given before. And it was delivered to us because a problem had developed with the plumbing, the kind of problem that in human beings would have required a lot of Ex-Lax. Fortunately, none of the authors was asked to help remedy that particular plumbing problem, but thereafter, whenever a pit stop was necessary, we were instructed to inform the driver that “we had an important call to make” and he would pull off the highway to find us a “telephone.”

BRC: The medium of e-publishing is permitting a number of authors to experiment with writing short stories or novellas, as opposed to novel-length works. Have you considered writing some shorter works featuring Cork O’Connor or another character?

WKK: I have a great novella. I’ve had it in mind for a very long time, but haven’t had the opportunity to work on it. It’s not a Cork story, but it’s compelling as hell (at least in my imagination). It’s set against the backdrop of the great flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927, the same event that Faulkner drew on for his fine story “The Old Man.” It’s the tale of a rowboat full of convicts, a priest, and an aristocratic Southern family who have taken refuge behind a levee that’s about to break. I’ll get around to it someday, after I’ve met all my current contractual obligations.

BRC: Our readers are always looking for recommendations for reading material, particularly from their favorite authors. Are there any books that you would like to recommend to them?

WKK: Sure. Anything by the following crime authors: Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Steve Hamilton, Craig Johnson, Laura Lippman (especially her stand-alones). And don’t be afraid to go back to the classic writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald.  Outside the genre, I always recommend Midwest authors, whose work is so beautifully spare and so lovingly tied to a sense of place, to the beauty of the land: Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf, Kent Meyers, and the fine poet Ted Kooser.

BRC: The last time we spoke, you indicated that under your present contract you had one more Cork O’Connor book to write, and then you would see what is on the horizon. Do you have any more to reveal to us in this regard? And is your stand-alone mystery ORDINARY GRACE still on track to be published in 2013?

WKK: ORDINARY GRACE is scheduled for publication in March 2013. I’m really stoked about this book, which is absolutely the best thing I’ve ever written. My publisher, Atria Books, is getting behind it in a big way. That’s very gratifying. And I’ve just finished the first draft of the 13th novel in the Cork O’Connor series, a book titled TAMARACK COUNTY. It will be a terrific addition to the series and is scheduled for publication next fall. I’m already at work researching the 14th Cork O’Connor novel, as yet untitled. And I’m outlining another stand-alone. So lots of exciting stuff on the horizon.