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It’s back to the North Woods for series #17: ‘Desolation Mountain’

Posted on 10 July 2018 by Calvin

As he celebrates his 20th year of writing the Cork O’Connor series of books, William Kent Krueger (photo right by Jan Willms) has discovered where the magic lies in his story-telling.

“There’s magic involved in the creative process, and every writer’s going to tell you that,” he said in a recent interview. “And you don’t want to monkey with the magic you have found. In my earlier days what worked magically for me was writing longhand.”

Krueger has always written in coffee shops, and when he created his primary character, an Ojibwe-Irish private detective, there were no laptops. “If I was going to be mobile and writing in coffee shops, I had to write in notebooks with a pen, and that became part of the magical process for me,” he recalled. “So, when I decided to see if I could compose directly on a laptop, and once that became a possibility, it was a huge issue for me. But I tried it and discovered that there is a different kind of magic at work that doesn’t have anything to do with how I get the words out.”

Instead, he discovered it was about finding the good, compelling seed of an idea, letting that take route in his imagination and grow over time so that eventually, he saw the whole of it. “I know how a book begins, I know how it ends, I know who did what to whom and why. And that’s really where the magic is,” Krueger said.

That magic has worked for Krueger from the time he wrote his first Cork O’Connor novel, “Iron Lake,” through today as he publishes his 17th in the series, “Desolation Mountain,” scheduled to be published Aug. 21.

Along the way, he has written other books and stories, including his stand-alone novel, “Ordinary Grace,” which garnered him numerous awards. He has also won many awards for his O’Connor books, and his last three novels have been New York Times bestsellers.

Some things have changed for Krueger since he penned “Iron Lake” 20 years ago. “It’s probably every writer’s dream that at some point you can support yourself and your family by writing. That certainly has proved true for me; it’s a dream come true.”

Krueger also claimed his writing has taken him places. “I know Minnesota probably better than anybody, except maybe the Tourist Bureau. I have gone to so many towns in Minnesota. I believe visiting the libraries there is an important part of what those of us who are artists, writers, visual artists, dancers, and musicians have to be doing to give back. Because Minnesota is so incredibly supportive of the arts.”

Krueger spends much of his time traveling out of state as well, doing some research and more often, doing book tours and events. He has keynoted writer’s conferences and conventions in Wyoming, Aspen and Reno the last couple months and will be going to Pennsylvania and Florida later this summer. “I go to a lot of places I wouldn’t go otherwise, and that’s one of the blessings,” he related.

The settings for nearly all of the O’Connor books is in Minnesota, although Krueger’s last novel, “Sulfur Springs” took place in Arizona.

For his newest book, Cork O’Connor is back in the town called Aurora, MN, in the North Woods.

“One of the expectations of the readers of the Cork O’Connor novels is that the story is going to unfold in the North Woods, up in the Arrowhead. I couldn’t stay away from there,” Krueger said. “Another expectation is that I’m going to offer them some significant information on the Ojibwe culture. So I knew I had to do that, bring the readers back to what was familiar and expected on their part.”

He said his main character, Cork, has certainly grown as the series has developed. “His shoulders have become broader, and the issues he has had to deal with have become many and varied. But his basic response to life remains the same, and I think that’s where we are very similar,” Krueger stated.

“A lot of things have happened,” he continued, “but my basic philosophy of life hasn’t changed at all. My own belief is that there is a moral compass, and most of us do our best to follow it. That’s certainly true of Cork, and most of the people with whom he operates.”

Krueger said that what the reader finds in the stories is that there’s a force that’s trying to throw that compass off. “I think that’s fairly typical of any book in the mystery genre,” he said. “It’s about a world that has harmony in it, and something interferes with that harmony. It’s the task of the protagonist and those who work with him to bring things back into harmony, and reset the moral compass back to where it needs to be.”

Henry Meloux, the Anishinabe elder who provides both serenity and wisdom, is the moral center of Krueger’s books. In “Desolation Mountain” Stephen, Cork’s son, is trying to envisage who he wants to become. “Stephen is trying to discover himself a lot in this particular novel,” Krueger noted. “As I see the series going forward, I see Stephen more and more stepping up and becoming a visionary, what he was born to be. In the same way, across the series, Cork has had to accept what he is. He’s a warrior, and he has battled and fought against that and the sacrifices he has had to make, the effect it has on those he loves. Finally, in the last three books, he has embraced it. …and there is Henry, who is at the heart of both of their lives, and who is trying to help guide them.”

Over the years, Krueger has deeply developed the sense of place and the personalities of his characters. “If you’re going to have readers really care about your characters, you’re going to have to care about them too, even the ones who do bad things. You have to be able to understand why they do the bad things that they do,” Krueger said.

“We all have the potential inside us for doing terrible things,” he continued. “But it’s that moral compass or our upbringing or the strictures of our society that keep us in check. But there are those who for whatever reason break away from that and behave in ways that are destructive. As a writer, you have to figure out why these people are behaving this way, and deal with an understanding of that so that all of the characters are as complex as real people are.”

Krueger said he can go to the coffee shop in the morning, work hard for a couple of hours and leave. He returns in the afternoon, again works hard creatively for a couple of hours. “Then I’m pretty much done,” he said. “For me, it’s a dissociative process in a way. I have to be with these characters and imagine them well enough to where I can empathize with whatever it is they are experiencing. I have to be able to understand that deeply.”

Krueger said he has never encountered writer’s block. “I have always found a way to forge ahead,” he said. “But what has happened is that I have gone in a wrong direction. This was really true of the first attempt I made in writing the companion novel to ‘Ordinary Grace.’ I wrote an entire manuscript that didn’t work. I wrote the wrong story.”

That does not happen with the O’Connor novels, though.

“I approach those in a very different way, consciously thinking the story out so that I know where it’s going,” Krueger said.
In his second attempt for the companion novel, “This Tender Land,” Krueger believes he has the right story, and he is very happy with it. That book is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2019.

Krueger said he is hoping to celebrate the launching of “Desolation Mountain” and the 20th anniversary of “Iron Lake” at the same time. A new edition of “Iron Lake” with a new cover is being published. Krueger said that for now, he is taking a little break. “I had two deadlines weighing on me heavily, for “Desolation Mountain” and “This Tender Land.” I was under a great deal of pressure this spring. I have a little breathing space now, so I’m working on something else entirely to kind of cleanse my pallet—but it is a book,” Krueger admitted.

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