William Kent Krueger dropped by Murder by the Book a few days ago. He was in town to talk about his newest book in the Cork O’Connor series, “Trickster’s Point.” O’Connor was a sheriff of Tamarack County in Minnesota and is now a private eye. The culture of the indigenous Native American tribe of upper Minnesota, the Ojibwe, plays a big part in O’Connor books. Krueger is often in town because he actually is an Oregonian, having spent some childhood years in Hood River before moving to California. He had a lot of interesting things to say, including the zinger he revealed with the very first question.
We asked him how he created the character of Jubal Little, a man whom Cork has known most of his life and potentially the first governor of Minnesota with Native American heritage. Within the first few pages of the book, he is revealed as the murder victim. Cork is with him when he dies and soon becomes a suspect in the murder. We also asked Kent if Jubal Little had been a character in any of the other books. No, Krueger said, Jubal had not been in any of the other books. As for how the character of Jubal Little was created, Krueger surprisingly said, “I don’t know.” He was fond of using this expression during the course of his talk, and this was the first time we’d hear it that day: “Here’s the story,” he said.
The lost weekend
Krueger: My wife and I got to Omaha [to visit his wife’s family] about noon and spent the afternoon doing one of my favorite things to do over Memorial Day weekend that was not a tradition in my family but was a big tradition in my wife’s family. We visited all the cemeteries outside Omaha and in Omaha where her family is buried, and we put flowers on the graves. It’s a tradition I’ve grown to appreciate very much over the years. Feels like a nice connection and respect for the past. So we did that all afternoon. Then in the evening we went to a bar and gathered with some of our friends to reconnect.
The next thing I know it’s 3:30 Sunday afternoon and I’m waking up in the hospital without any idea how I got there. What’s even worse is that as I’m coming back to consciousness, my wife is at my bedside with her brother, and the first thing I really remember is both of them laughing at me uproariously. I was confused, to say the least, Then my wife proceeded to explain to me what was going on.
Apparently that morning at 8:45 in our hotel room I had turned to her and said, “Diane, I think I’m having a problem here. I think I’ve lost something. Where are we?” She said, “Oh, we’re in Omaha.” Okay. “And how did we get here?” “We drove down.” Okay. “When?” “We arrived yesterday.” Oh.
Two minutes later. “Diane, I’ve got a problem. I’ve lost something. Where are we? How did we get here? When did we arrive?” When I asked those three questions half a dozen times over a course of five minutes, she thought something terrible was going on. She thought I was having a stroke. So she popped me in the car. We were a quarter of a mile from the hospital. Rushed me to the emergency room, go in, they did a CAT scan, an MRI, and very quickly ascertained that there wasn’t anything physically wrong with me.
I wasn’t having a stroke, hadn’t had a stroke, wasn’t having a heart attack. So they called in a neurological specialist. It was the guy’s day off and he said, “Hmm, this sounds interesting.” He looked at the results of the CT scan and the results of the MRI. He asked Diane some questions and he asked me some questions. Then he said, “You know, I know what this is. I don’t see it very often, but I know what it is. It’s something we call transient global amnesia.”
It’s a situation, he explained to my wife — apparently because I didn’t remember any of this — in which an individual loses completely, for a brief period of time, the ability to form new memories. (So every time my wife gave me an answer to one of the questions I asked, it was gone. I couldn’t hold on to it.) He said it’s nothing to worry about, it won’t go on very long, it’ll probably pass within 24 hours. He’ll lose some of the memory of this period of time. He might regain some memory, but in the meantime, he’s going to drive you absolutely nuts, asking those same three questions over and over again. So when I learned that, I thought I was pretty lucky that she was laughing instead of crying. For eight hours my lovely wife very patiently had answered those three questions time and time and time again.
It’s interesting because I didn’t lose any of my old memories. I gave them my social security number, my birth date, where I lived, all of that stuff. But my wife tells me that as they were wheeling me out for the MRI and they were asking me the pertinent physical stuff:
“Mr. Krueger, how tall are you?” I said, “I’m 5’11”.” I’m 5’9″!
They said then, “Mr. Krueger, how much do you weigh?” I said, “I weigh 165 pounds.” Yeah, 30 years ago!
And then, apparently, just before they wheeled me out, I said to them, “There’s one other thing you need to know about me. I’m a world famous author.” And then, I guess, I turned to my wife and said, “I am a famous author, aren’t I?” To which Diane replied, “Not as famous as you think, dear.”
You know what’s really interesting, I posted this information on my website and on my Facebook page, and people started coming out of the woodwork saying, yeah, the same thing happened to me. Same thing happened to my brother. Same thing happened to my Aunt Minnie, twice.
So I had a problem with memory. Despite what the doctor told me, I still have a problem with other aspects of my memory. One of those is I, honest to God, don’t remember writing “Trickster’s Point.” There are bits and pieces — I think I remember that scene; yeah, I sort of remember writing that. But it’s gone. After eight months I had the manuscript in my hand, and I don’t know how it got there. I don’t know where the idea came from. I don’t know how I developed it. I don’t know where the hell Jubal came from.
MBTB: It’s a very clever book. Did you sit down and read your book then?
Krueger: You know, I have since. In terms of just pure mystery, it’s one of the best pure mysteries that I’ve written. In re-reading it (laughs), one of the things I liked about it was at heart it’s about this lifelong relationship that Cork has with the very charismatic Jubal Little, who is poised to become the first governor of Minnesota with Native heritage in him. Because it’s a lifelong relationship, to me, because I didn’t remember anything, it was great going back and seeing what I’d done. (Laughs.)
This guy’s a pretty good writer. (More laughter.)
Cork is 12 years old [when] he meets Jubal Little. Again we see Cork as a teenager when he and Jubal Little are best friends, basically inseparable, almost like brothers. Then we see Cork as a rookie cop in Chicago. Finally, we see him as a young husband and new member of the Tamarack County Sheriff’s Department. What was interesting for me, looking back, was being able to see the development of Cork over a long period of time into this man that we know in the series today. Yeah, I liked that.
Audience: Has your condition triggered any thoughts for future books?
Krueger: Well, yeah. But I forgot them all. (Laughs.) In truth, at some point that is definitely going to be a subplot. It’s so mystery! It just cries out for it!
The series that I like reading the best are those where the hero ages and changes naturally across the course of time. When you’re going to write a mystery series, you only have two choices in terms of the kind of character you’re going to create. You can create a static character — that’s someone who never changes. Think Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or in a more modern vein, think Kinsey Milhone. In Sue Grafton’s case, her p.i., Kinsey Milhone, across the course of the 22, 23 books, has aged six months. It’s always 1980-something in a Kinsey Milhone novel.
The other choice you have is to create a dynamic protagonist, and that’s somebody who does age and change in time. What happens in one book is reflected in how they respond to the world in the subsequent novels. I made that decision for Cork. Every time we visit him he’s at a different point in his life. But when the series began Cork was already 40 years of age. What “Trickster’s Point” allowed me to do was go back and see him much earlier in time.
MBTB: Let’s go back in your past. You were kicked out of Stanford for radical activities. What did you?
Krueger: When I went to Stanford — I matriculated in the fall of 1969 — all hell broke lose in the spring of 1970. You remember that was Kent State. Everything everywhere was exploding. Stanford at that point in time had a relationship with an organization that was called the Stanford Research Institute, whose primary source of income was weapons research for the U.S. military.
There were a lot of us at Stanford who felt that was an inappropriate relationship for that particular institution to have, so we petitioned the administration to sever the relationship and we petitioned the trustees to sever the relationship. Nobody listened. We marched and nobody listened.
So we took over the president’s office one day. We occupied the administration building. The president, a guy named Richard Lyman, said, “That’s fine. I’m not going to give you any problem.” He had his staff vacate the building. We took over. About 8:00 that night a band came over, we had a dance. Then about midnight the band left. At 1:00 the Palo Alto Riot Squad swept through and caught us all asleep.
I was on a full scholarship to Stanford, and basically they disappeared my scholarship. Now I have to say that when I told my folks that I’d been kicked out of Stanford, my father and mother couldn’t have been more proud of me. They were just wonderful about it.
MBTB: Ernest Hemingway influenced you. According to a The New York Times story, what is the most outrageous thing you took from his great life?
Krueger: Here’s the story. When I was 18 years old, I discovered Ernest Hemingway. I absolutely fell in love with the guy. I read everything by him and everything about his process. In the course of reading about his process, I discovered a couple of things about Hemingway that I ended up trying to incorporate into my way of being.
One of them was that Hemingway loved to get up at first light and write. That’s what I’ve done all my writing life. The other was that Ernest Hemingway, for whatever reason, didn’t wear underwear. So at 18 I gave up wearing underwear. Don’t look at me funny. It was like six weeks (six weeks!) I gave up wearing underwear. Then I decided Hemingway must have been made of sterner stuff, so I went back to my BVDs. It was just part of that emulating of Hemingway.
What I really fell in love with was this image of Hemingway, this brawler and drinker and big game hunter and war correspondent. And he got the Nobel Prize for writing in a way that nobody had ever written before. Boy, did I want to be Ernest Hemingway. So that was one of the ways I tried to be him.
MBTB: These great authors who inspired you, what did that teach you about creating your own style?
Krueger: Hemingway actually held me back for a very long time. For a couple of decades what I tried to do was write the great American novel as Ernest Hemingway might have written it, which was pretty stupid, of course, because he’d already done a great job of it. It kept me from discovering the writer I could be.
It wasn’t until I decided to give up trying to write the great American novel and write instead popular fiction that all of that changed. At 40 years of age, I had this midlife crisis. I woke up one morning and realized that my life was galloping away from me, and I had nothing to show really for all of those years lost to me. So I thought okay let’s knuckle down and give it one more try. We’re not going to write the great American novel this time, so what are we going to write.
So I looked around to see what people were reading. And you know what people were reading? Mysteries. They were reading in the crime genre, so I thought that’s what I’m going to do.
I’ve got a confession to make: before I began to write mysteries, I didn’t read them. My father was a high school English teacher and he tried his best to raise his children with literature, with a capital L, so I didn’t even read the Hardy Boys or Trixie Belden or Nancy Drew.
I ended up coming to the mystery genre with a lot of ill-conceived notions about what the genre was all about. For example, I thought mysteries were formulaic. They all kind of play out the same way, right? I even thought that there was this template that your publisher would send you and that you had to write to. That’s ridiculous, of course. Anyone who reads mysteries knows that there isn’t a formula to them. But there is a structure, and this is where I really began to understand myself as a writer. The structure of a mystery is very simple. It goes like this. At the beginning of a mystery, something happens. Usually it’s a crime. Very often it’s a murder. That’s followed by an investigation and answers are found. That’s it.
That’s the structure of a mystery. Something happens, investigation follows, and answers are found. It’s a very simple structure but very sturdy, and even more important, very flexible. Within that structure a writer is free to do whatever he or she wants to.
In terms of writing literature, if you’re a funny person, you write a humorous mystery. If you’re into history, you write a historical mystery. If you’re a philosopher, you can write as much philosophy as possible, provided you don’t slow the pace. These days you can get away with putting vampires and werewolves in your mysteries!
The point is this: The reach of the mystery genre is so broad that it can embrace any interest that a writer or reader might have, and I love that about the genre. I love that you can do anything you want to because there’s going to be somebody out there that’s going to respond to it. That’s why they call it popular fiction; it has a very broad audience.
One quick note about that term, popular fiction. I so often hear it used in a pejorative way. Oh, he writes “popular” fiction. I’d love to meet an author some day who’s proud of writing unpopular fiction! So what I discovered is that I could be as literary as I wanted to be and I could tackle whatever things I wanted to tackle within the mystery genre. But it was without the heavy burden of a literary expectation on my shoulders, and it freed me up to become the writer I can become.
I learned that what I write out of more than anything is a sense of place. I happen to live in a place that I absolutely love, so that was easy. And characters rose out of that sense of place and the motivations and the crimes rise out of that sense of place.
Personal moral compass
MBTB: Your books try to bring people’s awareness to environmental or social issues that are going on in either the Native American culture or Minnesota. You admire people like Muhammad Yunus. How does this affect your writing or fictional world?
Krueger: Who I am preceded my admiration for him and what he has accomplished. I don’t mind saying that I do get up on a soapbox in my work and sometimes talk in support of a cause. That’s what I like about what I do. I can get up on a soapbox and I can talk about a social issue or an environmental issue that’s very sensitive and about which I feel strongly.
Even people who don’t necessarily agree with my point of view are going to read it because it’s couched within a pretty good mystery. Occasionally I do get emails from folks who complain about the fact that my admittedly liberal, bleeding-heart sensibilities find their way into my work. But I’ve never had anyone tell me that they’re not going to read me because of it. How often is it you get to stand up on a soapbox and spout off without the other side having an opportunity for rebuttal!
It goes back even before [Stanford]. An awareness that as human beings we have an obligation to stand by those ideals that are important to us, in whatever way we can. So I long ago made the determination that that’s what I was going to do in my writing as much as I could. I don’t always write about issues, but very often something comes to me that’s important and I do.
Here’s an example. I’m just about to negotiate my next contract with my publisher. [My agent and I] believe it will be a three-book deal that will include two more Cork O’Connor novels and a novel not part of the Cork O’Connor series. I already know what the first Cork book in that contract’s going to be, because my novels have a significant Native element involved in the work — I deal a lot with the Native communities in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.
Awhile back I was dealing with two of the really important organizations in the Twin Cities, an organization called the Ain Dah Yung Center, which is a home for homeless or runaway Native youth, and an organization called The Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, which serves the Indian women population in a number of ways.
One of the things I became aware of, and didn’t know before this — and it just shocked the hell out of me when I learned it — the Twin Cities — my beloved Twin Cities in Minnesota — is the second worse metropolitan area in the United States in terms of the sex traffic. And an enormous number of the women involved in that are Native women.
They asked me, will you please use your platform to make this more broadly known. So I know what that first book in the contract is going to be. It’s going to be about that horrific contemporary problem that people need to know about, because I made that promise to the Native community there. Oh, what a good guy am I! (Laughs.) How do you say no?
MBTB: Your books are about violence because murder is a violent act. What point are you trying to make about violence? What is your philosophy?
Krueger: This is the hardest question I ever get. I go back and forth. I have flip answers to give you, but flip answers don’t really do the trick. We write about murder because murder is the ultimate act. It’s the one thing we can’t step back from and apologize for and make right. When you’re dealing with murder, the stakes are as high as they can be. And people pay attention to that, normal people who every day are trying their best to follow a moral compass, trying to understand how somebody can stoop to a deed so dark as murder.
I think that’s what we as writers try to do. What is it that motivates ordinary people to do these extraordinary things? That’s really what I try to write about. And not just that, but then the effect that violence has on a community. We’re all connected. All of our community’s connected in one way or another. What are the ripples, how do those move out and affect far beyond that act itself? Those are the things that interest me. Or at least, that’s how I justify it to myself. If you want to be mercenary about it, people wouldn’t read my books unless there were murders in them. That’s what people want. So I try to include that, but that’s not really what I truly write about.
“Red Knife” was another issue book. “Red Knife,” for those of you who haven’t read it, is violent. Many, many years ago — probably seven maybe eight now — the worst school shooting ever to that time happened in Minnesota. It happened in Minnesota at the high school on the Red Lake reservation. Nobody expects something like this anywhere, but in Minnesota — I couldn’t understand it.
It got me thinking about the whole question of violence. Where does it come from? How do we perpetuate it? Why do we perpetuate it? It had seemed to me that in all the research I had done, as a culture — even though we deny it — we pass violence one generation to the next as a cultural norm. I wanted to talk about that. So “Red Knife” has a lot of violence in it because it’s about violence.
The Atria Great Mystery Bus Tour
MBTB: Let’s talk about “The Great Mystery Bus Tour,” put together by your publisher, Atria, and an incident you talk about on your blog. There were four of you authors, who have very different outlooks, writing styles and concerns, on a bus. Because none of you had traveled on buses before, you didn’t understand how the “facilities” worked.
Krueger: Okay, here’s the story. This is not the kind of bus we used to take to away games, guys [directed to Dan Jensen, his high school classmate, and his high school football coach, Peyton Lieuallan, who were in the audience]. This was really a tricked-out bus. This was the kind of bus that rock stars and politicians ride in. Marble floors, leather seats and big-screen televisions everywhere you looked, so it’s just an incredibly elaborate bus with a bathroom on it.
First problem we encounter is we run out of toilet paper in the middle of the night. So we stop at a convenience store…that’s run out of toilet paper to sell! So we all drew straws to see whose book was going to go first. (Laughs.)
And then a day or so later, we were finally told something about the toilet that we hadn’t known. They explained to us that when you have to eliminate things from your body, there are two ways of doing that and one of them wasn’t allowed on the bus, but nobody had told us that. They discovered that they hadn’t told us that when the plumbing got plugged up.
We had to make a special stop and they had to call in a special guy to come in — and, God, I hope they paid this guy a lot of money.
Those were the two biggest glitches on the tour.
My publisher, Atria Books, is an imprint of Simon & Schuster and it’s ten years old. They wanted to celebrate that ten-year anniversary by doing something a little different, so they organized this bus tour. We toured for eight days, we hit twelve different cities, and we traveled 2600 miles.
The only one of the other authors I knew beforehand was John Connolly — very funny, lovely guy — but I only knew him vaguely. M. J. Rose I’d only heard of, and Liza Marklund [a Swedish author] I knew not at all. So the idea of spending eight days on a bus with people you don’t even know… And you know when you’re dealing with artists of any kind there’s the possibility that there’s going to be a diva in the midst. Didn’t happen. They were the nicest people imaginable. We formed great friendships. We got along extremely well. And it turned out to be an absolute joy.
MBTB: Westerns are making a resurgence. You already have a couple of the elements necessary for doing that. Have you ever thought of writing westerns?
Krueger: They don’t have horses in Minnesota. We ride moose there. I have so many books inside of me that I want to write now without adding that to the bucket list. So, no. I love them, I like to read them, but I have no interest.
What’s next for Krueger? “Has anyone watched those documentaries where they show you open-heart surgery? The surgeon holds the guy’s heart in his hands. You want to see me hold my heart in my hand?” he asked. He then held up a galley of his next book, “Ordinary Grace,” due for release in March of next year. It’s not another Cork O’Connor book, but the one Krueger feels most strongly that he has been waiting to write all his life.