By JAN WILLMS
2014 was a a big year for local author William Kent Krueger, the creator of Ojibwe-Irish private investigator Cork O’Connor novels.
“Ordinary Grace,” published in 2013 as a coming-of-age story, earned Krueger an extraordinary four awards, including the top award, the Edgar, from the Mystery Writers of America. The book also garnered the Barry Award, the Anthony Award and the Macavity Award. The four together are known as the “full EBAM.”
Since publishing his first novel, “Iron Lake,” which introduced readers to O’Connor, Krueger has been no stranger to writing awards. But “Ordinary Grace” has a special meaning for him. The story is narrated by Frank Drum, a boy growing up in southwestern Minnesota in the 1960s whose father is a pastor in a small town, and Frank’s remembrance 40 years later of a special summer in his life. The book is not without mystery, but focuses more on the life lessons a 13-year-old boy is faced with during a turbulent time.
“Honestly, I think ‘Ordinary Grace’ is the story I was meant to write,” Krueger said during a recent interview at the Como Park Grill, a neighborhood spot where he sometimes does his afternoon writing. Dressed in a jeans jacket and a baseball cap, he seems unruffled by his literary success and comfortable in his own skin.
“I am not Frank, but the Drum family really is my family. Frank is a cross of my older brother and myself. The younger Drum brother Jake is more like me, but Frank is who I wanted to be, more rebellious and ready to take risks,” Krueger mused.
He said his father was an English teacher in a small town, and like positions of a banker or a minister, the position was held in a little higher esteem. As a result, his family was scrutinized closely.
Krueger said his mother is very much like the mother character in the book. “She was not at all happy with the situation she found herself in,” he noted.
Krueger makes it a point to find redemption in his characters. He based one of them in “Ordinary Grace” on a crew boss he once had at a cannery. “Sometimes he was the world’s greatest a-hole, and other times he stepped up to the plate,” Krueger said.
He said his books are a way for him to convey his feelings: “‘Ordinary Grace’ is a really profound selection of the things I believe in life.” He said the excerpts on war came out of his own experience with his father and his father’s friends. “War is horrific, sometimes in body and sometimes in spirit.”
As to what “Ordinary Grace” symbolizes, Krueger said he has never considered it a religious book, but a spiritual one.
“I set out from the get-go looking for a story that would allow me to talk more deeply about the spiritual journey I’m on,” he noted. “When I decided to make Nathan Drum a minister, it was a very natural thing that allowed me to do that. Those of us who write fiction are often accused of writing lies, but if that’s true in my case, at the heart of those lies are truths I believe in profoundly and try to reflect in my work. And one of those truths is this—there really are heroes in this world. There are people who stand by their ideals despite the ramifications and all the pressures to abandon those ideals. And these are the people whose courageous words and courageous acts show the rest of us the way. And that’s Nathan.”
“A good story is a journey,” Krueger continued. “At the end of the day, the characters in it ought to be at a different place than before. And the reader ought to feel like he or she has experienced a journey as well.”
For Krueger himself, his journey to becoming repeatedly a New York Times best-selling author got a late start with his first book published in 1998 when he was 48. But the writing started long before that. “I started writing seriously in my mid-twenties,” he said. “Success didn’t come to me at a young age, so I had a good idea who I was long before I became successful as a writer. Writing is just a part of my life; I’m a father, a husband, a member of a church. I stay balanced.”
He still gets up early and writes in area coffee shops, like the Caribou on Larpenteur Ave. or the Underground Music Café on Hamline Ave. N. Before he moved to the Como Park area he lived in Hamline-Midway, and he would write at the St. Clair Broiler.
One thing has changed. He used to always write in longhand, but four or five books ago he started to use his laptop. “I was dreadfully behind deadline,” he explained, “and if you write longhand you have to transcribe it, an extra step. I thought if I wrote directly to the laptop I could meet deadlines, and it worked.”
Krueger said he only writes longhand now if he is having difficulty with a book, just beginning a project or if circumstances keep him away from his laptop.
“I was in Europe for a couple of weeks and didn’t want to bring my laptop, so I wrote longhand. It felt really good going back to the old way. There’s still a lot of value in the magic of that long process.”
As well as achieving his grand slam of awards this year, Krueger has sold a million copies of his books. He has written 16, with his latest one, “Windigo,” published last August. He has just completed touring with that book, another Cork O’Connor mystery.
He said reaching the point of a million sales is something everyone hopes will happen for them, but it is not a very realistic expectation. For him, even if that had never happened, he kept persevering because he loves the writing—the whole process of it. “It’s the love of words and being able to play with the language. And if you’re not under contract, nobody expects anything of you and you can do anything you want to do.”
“Part of what I loved so much about ‘Ordinary Grace’ is that it wasn’t under contract,” Krueger said. “I really didn’t think my publisher would be interested in it because it wasn’t a Cork O’Connor novel, so I could do anything I wanted.”
Krueger has completed the first draft for a companion novel for “Ordinary Grace” called “This Tender Land,” and he is very excited about it. He also has a contract for another Cork O’Connor novel, but he is taking a year and a half break before his next book will be published.
He will step back from touring and just focus on his writing. But even with this extra time, he will most likely be writing every day. ‘
“If I don’t write every day, something feels off,” Krueger stated. “I wrote every day this year while I was on tour, and I made great strides with “This Tender Land.”
He said that not long ago he gave a talk at the Hennepin Methodist Church, and he was asked how his writing affected him spiritually.
“I told them that when I write I feel like I go to a place deeper in myself than my conscious thought, and when I come up from that place I feel peaceful. That sounds like prayer, so I think there is a spiritual aspect to what writers do. Writing certainly is a way I center myself in a day.”