Best-selling author William Kent Krueger doesn’t claim to be a writer: “I’m a storyteller” | Culture & Leisure


ST. PAUL, Minn. – As a little boy, William Kent Krueger never went down for a nap, never went to bed at night, without hearing a story first. It has become his way of seeing the world – through stories. As far back as he can remember, “I always wanted to be a storyteller too.”

And a storyteller he has become. His 18th Cork O’Connor mystery, “Lightning Strike,” was released in August. Nine of his novels have made the New York Times bestseller list, it has been published in 21 languages, and it has won a whole shelf of accolades, from the Minnesota Book Awards to Edgars, Barrys and Anthonys, to the Oscars of the world. mysterious. There are over a million printed copies of his novel “Ordinary Grace”.

Doesn’t that make him a writer, not a storyteller?

Not exactly. For Krueger, there is a distinction.

“I mean, Colson Whitehead is a writer,” he said. “I am a storyteller.”

Krueger is in his St. Paul’s garden as he speaks. It’s a hot and windy day in mid-September, and he has jumped out of his lawn chair to grab and stabilize the heavy patio umbrella, which threatens to topple in the wind and crush his visitor. He is cheerful and unperturbed and continues his thought without interruption.

“I think a writer sets out to do something with literature that sort of has a bigger purpose in mind,” he said as he clung to the umbrella pole. “Perhaps a writer sets out to experiment with a new literary technique, to change the course of literature, or has a particular social problem that he wishes to explore. But a storyteller simply sets out to tell. a story.”

The stories Krueger tells, for the most part, are mysteries – his recurring character, Cork O’Connor, is a former anti-crime law enforcement official who hails from a town on the edge of the Wilderness. canoe trip from Boundary Waters Minnesota. But he also wrote two independent novels, “Ordinary Grace” and “This Tender Land,” which are coming-of-age tales set in the Minnesota River Valley in the 1960s.

Whatever he writes, he tries to make it as true as possible.

“You are always going to touch on things that are universal,” he said. “But that’s not what you set out to do. You just wrote a good true story.”

He pauses, laughs. “I think I had to do a really long apprenticeship before I felt like a natural storyteller,” he said.

From the cafe to the dining room

Krueger’s long apprenticeship began about 35 years ago, when he lived in another area of ​​St. Paul and had a full-time job – what he calls being a member of the “working world”.

Every morning he got up early and walked over to the St. Clair Broiler just as it opened at 6 am. He would order coffee (“Coffee is part of the ritual,” he said) and open his notebook. He wrote for exactly an hour and 15 minutes, then took the bus to work.

He was almost 50 when he landed his first book deal – a two book deal for Cork O’Connor’s first two mysteries, “Iron Lake” and “Boundary Waters”.

Some things have changed since then. Krueger, who turns 71 in November, now writes on a laptop, not a notebook. He and his wife, Diane, moved to a bungalow in Como Park next to his brother, and his writing desk moved to the local cafe. He sold more books, became more famous.

And then, of course, COVID-19 hit, and he did his best to ruin everything. But Krueger is the kind of guy who makes lemonade with lemons. Stopping the pandemic, he soon realized, gave him time, and he took full advantage of it.

Since the start of the lockdown he has written two Cork O’Connor novels, two short stories, and is now working on his third independent novel, a companion to the first two and set, once again, in the Minnesota River Valley .

So much unstructured time “makes me want to step away from all the other stuff and just write,” he said, but it’s unlikely to happen.

Highly in demand as a speaker, he has spent in-person events at Zoom and chatted with some 300 book clubs around the world. His “Lightning Strike” book tour of 35 in-person events has also gone almost entirely virtual. Wednesday’s Talking Volumes event will be his second public appearance since the start of the pandemic (he traveled to Texas in September for a community chat with 600 people).

He’s now writing at the dining room table, a switch he can’t wait to flip whenever it’s safe.

“The truth is, if you’re making a living as a writer, you’re doing what you need to do to get the writing done,” he said. “The transition was a lot easier than I imagined. One thing I love about coffee, getting up, dressing, grooming and going to the cafe was like going into creative mode. don’t have that transition now. I feel like I have to get down to business. “

Krueger, who grew up in Oregon, was in his thirties when he first set foot in the boundary waters. “I just fell madly in love with this place, I tried to spend as much time as possible in the North,” he said. “I have decided, this is what I want to write.”

Every good book is built around conflict, and northern Minnesota has given it a spadeful way.

“Conflict is so much a part of life in the north – it’s the rugged landscape, it’s the weather, it’s different cultures trying to live together, and then I thought, well, what if I created a character who reflected the conflict? ” Cork is part Irish, part Ojibway.

Krueger began writing at a time when the term “cultural appropriation” was not widely used. Yet he is keenly aware that without “a drop” of Ojibwa blood himself, he must exercise extreme caution when writing about the Ojibway culture and people.

“It wasn’t a problem at first. Tony Hillerman was doing it [in his mysteries featuring the Navajo Tribal Police] and doing it pretty well and was pretty much the inspiration for me. “

Still, he said: “Every time I sit down to write a Cork story, I am painfully aware that I am a white man encroaching on a culture that is not mine. And so I work really hard. to get it right. That said, it’s still written from a white perspective – Cork is 3⁄4 Irish and 1⁄4 Ojibwa. I’m doing everything I can to make the Ojibway part right. And the response I got was, without exception, positive. “

Human nature, he said, is human nature, no matter what culture you come from. And “if you are a storyteller, you go where the story takes you”.

“Lightning Strike” takes readers back to Cork’s childhood, when he solved his first mystery, came to appreciate his Ojibwe heritage, got into a fight with his father, and began to grow and think for himself.

“My agent has been urging me to do this for years,” he said. “A lot of times during the Cork O’Connor series, I referred to events from her past, to people from her past, and she told me that this was rich territory for mine.”

Continuity, however, was tricky. Krueger does not keep a notebook describing the history of Cork or the events mentioned in previous books (“That would be a good idea, wouldn’t it?” He said with a smile) and when he did returned the manuscript, his agent reported discrepancies. .

So he “worked really hard to make sure everything worked out”, although he admits he faked in a few places. “I’ve had a few readers who wrote and said, ‘You know, in this novel there are 10 novels, you said this, and here you said this. “And you can hope, hey, who remembers 10 novels ago, but they do.”

Over the years, Krueger said he grew to trust himself more and quit sweating because of writing. “The mystery is a construction, and so I sweat the plot. All of the narrative elements are what I really love – the character, the sense of place, the sense of atmosphere, finding a deep language to relate with. the story. These are the things that I love, but because they are mysteries, they have to have this plot first. “

And so he’s working on it, refining the story, digging deeper into the characters, turning the mystery as much as possible, trying to write a good true story.

Because that’s what a storyteller does.

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