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Author Talk: September 10, 2010

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, Krueger discusses his inspiration for the latest installment, VERMILION DRIFT, and why he explores more fully Cork’s relationship with his parents. He also talks about his decision to use Minnesota’s Iron Range as the primary setting for the novel, elaborates on the role of dreams in his work, and shares details about the next book in this award-winning series, which is expected to release in the fall of 2011.

Question: VERMILION DRIFT is the latest in your Cork O'Connor series. What inspired this particular storyline?

William Kent Krueger: As a fifth-grader in Ohio learning the history of the United States, I first heard about Minnesota’s Iron Range, and the important part those great mines played in the development of our nation. Many years later, when I moved to the North Country and began to write my series, I knew that someday I would definitely use the rich culture and history of the Range as the centerpiece of one of my stories. The time was finally right, and I had what I thought was a terrific hook for the story.

Also, for quite a while, I’ve wanted to explore more fully Cork’s relationship with his parents, his father particularly. The familial storyline that came to me for VERMILION DRIFT fit so perfectly with the backdrop of iron mining that it was a little frightening. I’m absolutely convinced that the unconscious plays an incredibly important role in the creation of a work of fiction.

Q: Cork lost his wife in the previous book, HEAVEN’S KEEP. What impact does this have on him in VERMILION DRIFT?

WKK: Cork is very much alone in this book. He’s lost his beloved Jo. His children are away, either in college or simply gone for the summer. Adrift in his life in many ways, Cork has to ask himself repeatedly the question, “Who am I now?” This sense of alienation from all that’s been familiar in his world is further intensified when he begins to uncover dark secrets about his parents and realizes they weren’t necessarily the people he believed them to be. So much of the foundation of Cork’s own identity is rattled in VERMILION DRIFT. I believe a part of the attraction and the suspense of this novel is Cork’s journey to rediscover or redefine himself in light of all the startling revelations delivered to him in the course of the story.

Q: This story is largely set against a particularly brutal and unnatural landscape --- the open-pit mines and underground mines of Minnesota’s Iron Range --- which is a stark contrast to the beautiful and untamed Minnesota wilderness portrayed in your previous novels. What drew you to this?

WKK: As I’ve already indicated, the initial attraction goes way back, but the ultimate reason is that the backdrop of iron mining offered me, as a storyteller, such rich possibility. I love Minnesota, and I love giving readers a sense of this remarkable state. The Iron Range is certainly an extraordinary element of life in the North Country. I wanted readers to experience the area and the enterprise, and come away with a greater understanding of the forces, natural and human, that have shaped the remarkable landscape of this place I call home.

But there’s another reason, and it goes to the heart of what makes for a great story: conflict. It’s conflict that drives a piece of fiction. When I look at the Iron Range, I see a landscape sculpted by great forces in conflict. The hand of man pitted against impervious rock. A growing nation’s hunger for iron at odds with the horrible devastation of a pristine world, which was the result of satisfying that hunger. The birth of thriving communities with good jobs and well-funded resources for raising families viewed against the ultimate cost of boom-and-bust economies. In so many ways, the Iron Range seemed to me the mother lode of conflict. How, as a storyteller, could I ignore that wealth?

Q: Was there a real-life series of unsolved disappearances called The Vanishings”? Why do you have Cork contend with six murders?

WKK: Every good story is a blend of truth and artifice. The Vanishings were a part of the artifice of this story. I was looking for a compelling way to hook readers, and the idea of an old, unsolved spree of serial killings was an attractive possibility. When I realized how those killings might be tied in a personal way to the life of Cork O’Connor, I was hooked myself. As far as I know, nothing like The Vanishings has ever occurred in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.

Why six bodies? It would be hard to have serial killings without a good deal of carnage, no? In reality, each of the victims of The Vanishings is important to Cork and to the story. In a way, the deaths long ago ultimately helped to shape the man Cork has become.

Q: VERMILION DRIFT reveals much about Cork’s parents and particularly about his father, who, like Cork, was once sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota. What drew you to a character who literally walks in his father’s shoes?

WKK: Cork O’Connor is a work in progress. I first created him as a character long before I began to write IRON LAKE, the initial offering in my series. I conceived a man who 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.

With each book, I discover more about this guy. The fact that he has followed in his father’s footsteps wasn’t all that remarkable to me. Many sons do the same thing and become ministers or lawyers or whatever, because this was the example set for them by their fathers. But with VERMILION DRIFT, I was able to explore the more unconscious motivations at work, and I really enjoyed that part of the writing.

Q: Cork often dreams his father’s death. How do you think dreams and nightmares serve the story?

WKK: Most writers, at one time or another, explore dreams as an element of a story. Dreams are important to all of us. Look at all the dreams significant in the stories of the Bible. Dreams offer a doorway to an area of our minds inaccessible in more conscious ways. The trick is the interpretation. Cork spends a lot of time not only trying to understand why he dreams his father’s death, but also the bizarre part he himself plays in those nightmares. The answer, which is important, is part of the mystery of VERMILION DRIFT.

Q: How would you describe Cork O’Connor to someone who has not read any of your novels?

WKK: Cork’s not necessarily the brightest spark in the fire, but he’s a man who always does his best to follow his conscience. He’s exactly the kind of guy who, in a tough situation, you’d want to cover your back. With a foot in two cultures --- white and Ojibwe --- that are often in conflict, he’s often in conflict himself, struggling to figure out who he is. In that, he’s about as honest as any of us can ever be. If you were to ask him what’s most important in his life, he would give you his answer in one word: family.

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

WKK: I’m hard at work on the next in the Cork O’Connor series, a manuscript I’m having a great time writing. It’s called NORTHWEST ANGEL. The story finds Cork and his family on a houseboat vacation on Lake of the Woods, one of the largest and most inaccessible lakes in North America, a lake that contains more than 14,000 islands. A rare, treacherous storm of hurricane force sweeps across the lake, separating Cork and his daughter Jenny from the others. They find themselves stranded on a remote island, where they quickly discover that the wind has ushered in a human darkness far darker and more deadly than any storm.

The story is an opportunity for me to showcase the Northwest Angle, a remote area of this country that even most Minnesotans know little about. Provided I meet deadline, the book should be available in the fall of 2011.

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