Photos and story by JAN WILLMS
Readers of award-winning local author William Kent Krueger (photo right) have had a chance this September to renew their acquaintance with Cork O’Connor, the Irish and Ojibwe lawman who is the main protagonist in a series of 15 novels by Krueger.
His new book, “Manitou Canyon,” follows O’Connor into the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness as he sets out on a search for a man who has vanished from the area. O’Connor’s family becomes entwined in the quest as the level of danger increases for them all.
The O’Connor mysteries have an established sense of place, Aurora, MN. Although there is a town by that name in the state, the fictional Aurora exists in a county called Tamarack. “You will not find a Tamarack County in Minnesota,” Krueger noted. “The fictional town just happens to share a name with a real town. But anyone who has read my books and has been to the real Aurora will find they are very different places.”
Although Krueger was born in Wyoming, he said he fell in love with Minnesota when he moved here. “I was a gypsy kid before that. I lived everywhere, and I never found a place that felt like home. I have a deep love for this adopted state of mine.”
Krueger added that unlike some who have grown up in Minnesota and lived here their whole lives, he sees the state with fresh eyes. “Its beauty is new to me, and it always amazes me.”
Krueger said that like many Twin Citians, he and his wife have been drawn to the North Country and it has become their favorite place to vacation. Krueger, who has enriched his O’Connor books with Ojibwe (Anishinabe) culture, said that his awareness, and everything he knows about the tribe, didn’t begin until he decided to include them as an element of his work.
“The first thing we did was discover the North Country. We began spending time at a YMCA camp, Camp Du Nord, north of Ely,” Krueger explained.
“It was literally across the road from the Boundary Waters, and I knew that was where I wanted to set my work. And you can’t tell true stories of the North Country without including the Ojibwe because their power up there is ubiquitous; it is everywhere.”
He said his decision to focus much of his work on the Ojibwe culture was influenced by his admiration for the work of Tony Hillerman, an iconic writer in the mystery genre who has his work set in the Four Corners area of the Southwest and dealt significantly with the Navajo.
“At that time there were not many besides Hillerman doing native mysteries; there are a lot more now. I knew nothing about the Ojibwe, but I was a cultural anthropology major in college and so the idea of learning about the culture was interesting,” Krueger continued. “I began by doing what every good academic does, and read everything I could get my hands on about the Ojibwe. In the course of that research, I met members of the native community and formed relationships that have been significant to me across the whole body of my work.” In 1998 he wrote “Iron Lake,” the first Cork O’Connor novel.
“As a writer, I try to give my readers interesting plots,” Krueger said. “But that’s not why they come back. They come back to visit the people that they have fallen in love with over the course of the series.”
He described two kinds of characters. “When you decide you are going to write a mystery series with a central protagonist at the heart of it, you really only have two choices. You can have a static protagonist, somebody who never changes and never ages. Sherlock Holmes is a classic example of that,” Krueger said.
“A dynamic protagonist like Cork is a character who changes. What happens in one story affects the way he behaves in the next. He ages, his experience changes and the growth of his children and how they change affects how he looks at the world.”
Krueger said that for him, writing the developing character, rather than being difficult, keeps it interesting. “When I sit down to write a new book in the Cork O’Connor series, I’m not writing about the same people. What happened in the past story has changed them deeply. So it’s always to me an interesting journey to find out where the O’Connor clan is.”
In one of his books, someone close to Cork is killed off, and Krueger said some of the readers were upset by that and continue to be.
“When I finished the first draft, that person was still alive because that is what I wanted,” Krueger stated. “I read it to make sure the arc of the story worked. It was the ending I wanted, but it was not the ending the story wanted. If I have learned one thing in my career as a storyteller, it is that at some point the story takes on a life of its own. You have to step away from it and let that story go where it wants to go. So I rewrote it with the ending it has now, knowing it would upset a lot of people. But it was the right ending for the story.”
Stepping away from one of his books when needed is something Krueger can do when he feels it is best. He has written 15 Cork O’Connor novels, a thriller called “The Devil’s Bed” and the book he considers his best, “Ordinary Grace,” a cross between a mystery and a coming of age novel. This garnered him the Edgar, Barry, Anthony and Macavity awards in 2014. He had already earned awards for his O’Connor series.
He started work on “This Tender Land,” a companion novel to “Ordinary Grace.” He completed the manuscript and set up a meeting in Chicago with his agent to go over any changes he might want to make. “Two days before we met I contacted her and told her I did not want to meet to discuss revisions, but I wanted to talk about how we could keep this from being published because I was not happy with it. I knew if I was disappointed, my readers certainly would be.”
Krueger said that at this point he did not want to work on revisions, and he said he is fortunate to have a wonderful agent and an understanding publisher. “We renegotiated things, and when I let go of the horrible burdens and expectations of that story, I felt freed. It was like the sky above me cleared, and I saw the story I should have been writing.”
He began working on the novel, still titled “This Tender Land,” about six to eight months ago. The book is due out in 2018.
In the meantime, he completed “Manitou Canyon” and has started work on “Sulfur Springs,” an O’Connor novel that will take place in Arizona. “It may be my favorite in the series. I am having such fun with this book,” he said. That book is due out next fall.
Krueger said he does see parts of himself in O’Connor. “Because I know him so well, it’s probably all subconscious now. I am well aware that so much of Cork comes out of who I am, but it also works the other way. I have learned a great deal about myself in writing Cork.”
Krueger has done most of his writing in coffee shops in his neighborhood. He started out writing his manuscripts in longhand at the St. Clair Broiler. He eventually switched to a laptop and moved to the Como Park Grill. He now writes at the Caribou on Lexington and Larpenteur if he starts before 6:30am. If he starts after 6:30, he writes at the Underground Music Café on Hamline.
“I am a morning person,” he admitted. “I got that from Hemingway. He believed the first light was the most creative part of the day, and I figured what was good enough for Papa was good enough for me.”
He is currently making book tours with “Manitou Canyon.” “There are two things I love about what I do,” Krueger claimed. “One is writing, and the other is connecting with the audience. I love the touring. It gets tiring and is always rigorous, but I do it because I love connecting with my readers.”
Krueger said he has been asked if he is going to stop writing the Cork O’Connor novels. “If I were tired of them, I would. And as soon as I get tired of writing Cork, I will stop. But I so love the series; I want to continue that journey, and I have no plans at this point to stop.”