Continuing our At Home Online interviews: Author to Author to Author, Craig Johnsoninterviews William Kent Krueger. Next up Craig Johnson will be interviewed by an author of his choice.
William Kent Krueger is a multi award-winning American author and crime writer, best known for his Cork O'Connor series of books, mainly set in Minnesota. Krueger's stories always include an element of life in and around native American reservations. The main character, Cork O'Connor, is part Irish, part Ojibwe.
CJ: In the newest edition of your series, you spend a sizable amount of time in Wyoming rather than your own Minnesota. What effect did that have on the process of writing your new book, Heaven’s Keep?
WKK: None. But the research was a blast. I’ve spent a good deal of time in Wyoming—the state of my birth, as a matter of fact—and it was fun to look at it from a different perspective, one that required I take particular note of the physical geography. What a beautiful place that state is. And unpopulated. Which is very enticing, especially when you consider that isolating characters in the wild is a great way to create suspense.
CJ: You put your protagonist through a great deal of torture through the potential loss of his wife, Jo. Do you enjoy writing characters on their emotional frontiers?
WKK: Emotional frontiers? You must have an advanced college degree. Every story, to be compelling, demands tension. And despite the fact that we work in a genre that general gets a lot of mileage out of putting people in jeopardy, I think it’s really the emotional dynamics that drive readers’ interest. I also think that characters reveal themselves most fully and most compellingly when their nerves are frayed and their deepest fears surface. I love Walt Longmire, for example, not because he cuts a dashing, daring image (unlike his creator), but because I know him and trust him emotionally, and I care about what happens to him and to the people he loves. I hope the same is true for those readers who enjoy Cork O’Connor.
CJ: Your usual stomping grounds are among the Ojibwa, comparatively, how was it dealing with the Plains Indian tribes of the Arapaho, Cheyenne and others? WKK: I approached the Arapaho, who play an important part in Heaven’s Keep, in the same way I’ve always approached the Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) in my neck of the woods. That is, as human beings first, and as a culture second. What I mean is that Indians and whites are more alike than they are different. We hope and fear and love and hate and couple and fight in pretty much the same ways. We have moral compasses that guide us. And these days, we all eat at McDonalds. But each culture—Finn, Irish, Ojibwe, Arapaho—has certain cultural trappings that are unique, and a hierarchy of values that may be in a different order from the others. I did a good deal of research on the Arapaho, and talked with a lot of folks on and off the rez when I was in Wyoming. Christ, I just hope I got it right.
CJ: Do you consider yourself a regional author, or do you believe that Cork and crew are more indicative of a universality of the human condition?
WKK: I’m a regionalist first and foremost. That said, I think the best regional writers—the best writers, period—create stories of universal appeal about the universal condition.
CJ: I must say that one of my favorite authors was and is Tony Hillerman because of his innate understanding of Native Americans including pacing, in which you are the only writer currently capable of this same feat. So when were your German ancestors kidnapped by Indians?
WKK: I appreciate your estimation of my understanding of the Ojibwe culture. But I think there are a lot of writers out there who are doing a great job with other tribal groups. Margaret Coel, with the Wind River people in Wyoming, for example. Or Dana Stabenow, with the Aleut in Alaska. James Doss, the Thurlos, Jean Hager—the list is long, and all of us owe a incredible debt to Tony Hillerman. My German ancestors were bootleggers, so probably they contributed to the downfall of America’s indigenous population.
CJ: “Cork put his arms around his son and looked toward the mountains. Up there the snow was already falling heavy, burying everything more deeply. Beneath it, the grass and flowers of the meadows would lie dormant until spring, when they would rise again. Beneath it, animals lay curled in holes and in mountain caves where they would sleep through the dark, cold months ahead, and wake in the spring. And beneath it somewhere, God alone knew where, lay Jo, who would neither wake nor rise.” (P. 127) –Its passages like this in Heaven’s Keep that make other mystery authors want to plant exploding devices in your tires and sabotage your flights. Care to comment?
WKK: You do know how to sweet talk a guy. It’s passages like this—I worked on this one for a very long time—that make the writing both a marvelous challenge and an overwhelming pleasure.
CJ: On page 141 Cork makes the comment that, “Some men behave differently when they’re away from their families”, and on page 184 another character says, “Hard telling how a man behaves away from home”. Umm… This begs the question, what are you like on the road, Kent ?
WKK: A hellion. I never met a roadhouse I didn’t like. Actually, I’m pretty staid. Although at conferences I love to hang out in the bar after the work of the day is done, I don’t hang out as late as I used to. Which reminds me, don’t you owe me a drink?
CJ: What do you consider your books to be, police procedurals, classical mysteries or literary whodunits for people that are so entranced by the story that by the time they get to the end don’t give a damn about whodunit?
WKK: I hope that by the time they close the book people don’t give a damn about whodunit, because honestly most readers are smart enough to have figured that part out long before the end. So I pray that I write a compelling narrative in all regards—with powerful language, intriguing characters, dynamic tension, great setting, etc. Some of my favorite writers in this genre are people whose books don’t quite fit a niche, but who write one hell of a great story. Like you, for example.
CJ? Some of my favorite descriptive passages in your novels usually have to do with water, so in what way has living in the land of ten thousand lakes affected your writing? WKK: I’m a water sign, and I’ve always been drawn to water. I’m really grateful that I can set my stories in a place where water in so many forms—rivers, lakes, streams, rain—helps to define the landscape. I’d be screwed if I lived in Arizona.
CJ: Do you drink a Leinenkugel’s Creamy Dark beer every once in a while just for ‘sense memory’ purposes?
WKK: Honest to god, it’s my beer of choice, particularly in winter. In summer, I go with a regular Leinies.
CJ: In the opening of Heaven’s Keep Cork is no longer a standing sheriff, how has this change in context affected the novels?
WKK: Cork’s been and out of uniform a lot. I’ve finally had him put the badge away for good—although the tension between him and Jo at the beginning of Heaven’s Keep is due to the possibility that Cork might take a job as deputy. In our genre, as you well know, you have to have a believable motivation for your protagonist’s involvement. In your case, Walt is a sheriff. His interest is understandable. In order to believably involve Cork in things, I’ve made him a PI. That said, his involvement in the intrigue at the heart of Heaven’s Keep is profoundly personal. When I look at all the books in the series, that’s what I keep coming back to. Even when Cork was sheriff, his involvement was very personal because often the safety of people he cares about was at issue. So that will probably continue to be the case. Until, I guess, everyone Cork cares about is dead.
CJ: How would you say the arc of story differs in a series as opposed to a singular novel, and after this impacting episode, where does Cork O’Conner go from here?
WKK: In any series in which the characters age, there’s story arc. That’s one of the things I love about a series, watching how time and circumstance shape people I’ve come to know as well as I know my own family and friends. Cork’s story has played out over about eight years of his life now. His children have grown and are departing for their own lives Cork has to deal with his own aging and the changes in his circumstance. It’s a broad canvas we get to paint on, and in my case, I just see it extending blank into the future, waiting for me to imagine what will fill it. As for Cork, to know where he’s headed, you’ll have to read the next book in the series, Vermilion Drift, which should be out in the fall of 2010.
Hey, buddy, I just want to say thanks. These were great, thoughtful questions. But I wasn’t kidding about that drink you owe me.