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William Kent Krueger publishes 16th book in Cork O’Connor series

Posted on 11 September 2017 by Calvin

Local award-winning author William Kent Krueger (photo right by Jan Willms) has just published his 16th Cork O’Connor novel, “Sulfur Springs.” O’Connor, the Irish-Ojibwe protagonist of Krueger’s mystery series, usually is solving crimes in the North Country of Minnesota. But this book is set in the desert of Arizona.

“When you write a long-running series, one of the major concerns you have is ‘Am I getting stale? Are the stories getting stale?’ You also want, if you can, to offer the readers something unexpected and refreshing,” Krueger said during a recent interview. “Cork has been in Minnesota for almost every book. I took him out of Minnesota last in book # 9, and this is book #16, so he’s been in the state for a long time.”

Krueger said that one of the things that could help refresh him as a writer and keep things fresh for his readers is to change the location. “I wanted to offer Cork something different than what he’s been challenged by before,” he said. He added that he knows a change of location, where readers expect a certain locale, cannot be too dramatic or they won’t want to go there. “I think if I had had Cork in New York City or San Francisco, readers wouldn’t be as anxious to follow. But offering them Cork battling the environment, the topography, the weather and the cultural differences of Arizona would be offering the readers a lot of what I give them in Minnesota.”

His new book revolves around the Arizona-Mexico border and the immigrants crossing into the United States and what befalls them. And Cork, his main character, finds himself in the midst of what emanates from these crossings.

“My wife and I spend time in Arizona every year, so I know something of the state,”

Krueger stated. “And there’s another reason for this locale. I am passionately committed to the idea that as a nation we need to look at opening our arms and the doors of our hearts to refugees who want to come here, to find peace and safety. The whole border wall issue is a powerful one for me, so Arizona seemed to meet a lot of my needs, both artistically and in terms of my conscience.”

Krueger said he does not necessarily respect the political side of the immigration issue, as he would like to see a lot of politicians speaking out about it who are not doing so. But he does respect the people who are on the line and are asked to do things they might not agree with. He said he believes these people are trying to do their jobs as humanely as they can.

Regarding the border patrol, Krueger said he learned of many who are doing their best to make sure folks don’t die when coming across the border. “They have to arrest them, and the legal course has to be run, but they don’t have to treat these people bad. They don’t have to turn their hearts to stone, and that’s the sense I got from so many.”

Krueger explained that Sulfur Springs required a lot of research, but it was research that he loved. “This is one of my favorite books in terms of research, for lots of reasons,” he noted.

“I never write a story set in a place or in a particular time without having been in that place at that time. Sulfur Springs takes place in July in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. So where was I last July? I was in the middle of the Sonoran Desert with my wife and with my 11-year-old grandson.”

Krueger said that he had been contacting the Border Patrol officials for a second string of research but had received no response, so he decided to try and find some of them out in the desert doing their jobs and talk with them. “I was out there where they had these big signs posted saying ‘Danger! Drug Smuggling Area! Your Life Could Be In Danger!’ And I had my 11-year-old grandson with me. I don’t know what I was thinking!”

He spotted a Border Patrol vehicle and pulled over and went to talk to them. “The guys I talked to were not particularly excited at first to see me approaching their vehicle, but I had this kid with me, and because he was with me they opened up to me in ways that I think they would not have otherwise,” Krueger explained. “They afforded me lots of marvelous insights into what they do.”

He found the same type of experience when he sought out humanitarian organizations that left food, water, blankets, clothing, and shoes in the desert for immigrants. “When I first talked with some of these organization representatives, they were hesitant to share some of their horror stories because I had my grandson present. But his questions were so intelligent and his responses so compassionate, they opened up to us. He had a tremendously unique and, I hope, educational experience.”

When writing his series of books about Cork, Krueger has never given him a solid physical description, although he goes into detail in his descriptions of many of the adjunct characters. “I want the readers to see Cork from the inside,” he said. “They need to know him psychologically, spiritually and emotionally—that’s what is important. And I want them to visualize Cork physically in whatever way makes sense.

Krueger said that what interests him about his main character exists on two levels: it is what is there physically affecting him and how he will respond to this physical challenge, and it is also how he is emotionally responding. “What is Cork thinking? What is the degree to which he will use physical force as opposed to cunning? And that process, I think, is as dynamic as any action that takes place. He is a thinking hero.”

Regarding what is most important to writing a story, Krueger recalled something F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: “Characters are the plot, and the plot is character.”

“A good story can’t survive without all the elements working in conjunction, in unison with one another,” Krueger said.

He believes that relationships are at the heart of Sulfur Springs. He described relationships among people who are dedicated to doing the right thing, and those who prey upon others. “It’s about people,” he said simply.

“Setting is also such a strong part of every story that I write, so I spend a lot of time trying to create a powerful sense of place. And I try to use that sense of place in the way I would use a character,” Krueger continued. “The desert challenges Cork in a way that an antagonist might challenge him, and Cork has to figure out this thing that he is battling.

What is its spirit? How does he approach it? How does he deal with it, accept it and create a relationship with it?”

Krueger is now doing book tours with his just-published book, and he just finished the first draft of the next Cork novel, “Desolation Mountain.” This book brings Cork back to the Arrowhead in Minnesota, and the manuscript is due to Krueger’s publisher by Dec. 1. He is also working on writing “Tender Mercies,” a companion novel to his multi-award winning work of fiction, “Ordinary Grace.” “I’m really, really pleased with the manuscript so far,” Krueger noted. That book is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2019.

Krueger said that he doesn’t feel much has changed since he wrote his first Cork O’Connor novel, but he can’t imagine that after 18 years of contemplating things with Cork he hasn’t learned a thing or two.

“One thing that has changed for me is that I feel more confident in myself as a writer,” he stated. “I don’t second-guess myself. I know Cork pretty well, and the people who surround him, so the stories are less difficult for me to realize than they used to be.”

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