Photo by Tony Nelson

Backyard Writer

An Interview with William Kent Kruger

Interview by Kristin Johnson

The first time I met William Kent Krueger, or Kent as he likes to be called, was in October of 2003. I had just flown in to Las Vegas for Bouchercon, the biggest annual mystery writer’s conference, and was waiting for my luggage at the baggage claim. I overheard him talking with another mystery writer, and being an extrovert I of course butted in. We ended up sharing a cab to the conference hotel, the Riviera. My first impressions of him were that he was a thoughtful, introspective, generous, and kind man. Now, interviewing him two years later, I hold that first impressions ring true.

This time, I sat down with Kent on a rainy Thursday morning in August. He was writing in a corner booth at the St. Clair Broiler in St. Paul, where he and his family have resided for the last twenty years (in St. Paul, that is, not the Broiler). But the diner has become a mainstay in Kent’s daily routine of writing—an hour and a half in the early morning and again in the afternoon. He mixes in editing and the business of marketing his writing throughout the day.

Kent had just finished filling several pages in the standby spiral notebooks that he uses to write first drafts in long-hand when I joined him to share a carafe of coffee and talk about his writing.

“I knew from the third grade that I wanted to be a writer.” Kent started out writing short stories, completing his first at that time. He has published many since then, in addition to several magazine articles. He had always been “monkeying around” with ideas for novels, but it wasn’t until 1988, after he won a Bush fellowship, that he finished the first novel-length manuscript. “The first hurdle authors need to get over is that you can complete the first novel.” He added that while he enjoys writing short stories, he prefers novels. “I like to paint on a larger canvas that a novel offers and particularly a series.”

To foster his creative spirit, Kent has always taken on jobs that wouldn’t interfere with his creative energies, for example in construction and timber logging. Since about 1983 Kent has been writing almost every day and now he writes full-time.

His latest book, Mercy Falls, just hit the bookstores and is creating long lines of fans at local signings. Mercy Falls is the fifth installment of the Cork O’Connor mystery series set in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Kent chose the setting because he’d grown attached to the area after vacationing near there with his family for many years. They used to camp just north of Ely. He felt the setting held something important in his writing. “It’s conflict that drives a great story.” Kent saw that this area had many levels of conflict built into the landscape: the fight over the land itself, conflicts over hunting and fishing areas, and the ever-changing weather. It also felt new to him; he thought that the territory as a setting for books had not been “mined” yet.

His main character was born from a name: Corcoran O’Connor—Cork for short. Kent always liked the name because he wanted to write about someone whose life was always pressing down on him, but the hero would also bob up and succeed in the end. The character Cork is part Ojibwe and part Irish, making him fit well into the setting for the series.

The location of the mysteries is a small town named Aurora, population 3,752, but this is not the real Minnesota town of Aurora. Kent selected the name simply because he liked it. Though the town in the books is fictitious, he said it would be near Ely, Minnesota. “I wanted to capture the sense of a North Woods town.” Kent added that he does occasionally get emails from people kidding him that they are from the real Aurora, Minnesota, which is not anywhere near the North Woods area.

In researching his series and the BWCA, he has done a lot of reading, including Louise Erdrich, William Warren and several other ethnographers. He wanted to include the Ojibwe as a major aspect in his writing, because in the area where his books are set the Ojibwe have influenced almost every aspect of the culture—the people, the language, the history, and now the casinos. Kent’s wonderful writing technique uses just enough language and setting to make it real for the reader. He said the key to doing this is to not overwhelm people. You need to use just enough to add a sense of the place, as seen in the following excerpt from Mercy Falls:

Autumn had started out cold that year. The sugar maples and sumac had turned early, a deep crimson. At sunrise, the eastern sky was often the color of an open wound and sometimes on crisp mornings the frost that lay over everything reflected the sky, and the whole land appeared to bleed. Warm weather returned in the first week of October, and for the past few days it had felt almost like June again.

Kent’s occasional infusion of the Ojibwe language also gives the reader a sense of the culture that is still very much a part of the North Woods today. His gentle sprinkling of the language is barely noticeable. But readers may find they have picked up a few Ojibwe phrases after reading Mercy Falls: “Anin,” Cork said as he entered, offering the traditional Ojibwe greeting.

I wanted to know if there was one thing we could learn from the Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe as they are also called, what would it be? He summed it up in one word: “Sharing.” They do not respect individual wealth. They value the good of the community and a more even distribution of wealth. In their community, he explained, “If someone accumulates, that’s not looked on as good thing. I think that’s something we could learn a whole lot from.”

The list of other writers that Kent reads is vast. He noted Tony Hillerman, mainly because he writes a series set in Arizona that incorporates the Navajo. He also recommended James Lee Burke for his powerful use of language. Dennis Lehane, Russell Banks and Toni Morrison are other favorites.

Regarding the publishing industry, he said, “They want to know that you can give them a good book once a year.” So that has been the pace he’s been keeping since his first book Iron Lake was published in hardcover in 1998. Kent punched out of the starting gate with this book, winning the Anthony and Barry Awards for best first novel, a Minnesota Book Award and a Loft-McKnight Fiction Award.

Currently, he is working on his first young adult novel and is interested in writing in the genre because of the differences in the worlds that are created. He noted the popular Harry Potter series as an example. “Kids’ imaginations are just wonderful,” he said. After this, he plans to write another stand alone book. He has completed one previously, The Devil’s Bed. You can find out more about Kent’s books and signing and speaking events by visiting his website: