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Award-winning novelist Kent Krueger has written 23 books, including 19 in the popular Cork O’Conner mystery series.
On Saturday, Krueger comes to Charleston for the West Virginia Book Festival. He spoke to Bill Lynch about his books, writing and his latest standalone novel, The River We Remember.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lynch: One of the things that jumped out at me while I was looking at your biography, or actually your bibliography of the things you’ve written, is that you’re a man who can stick with one thing for quite a while. Cork O’Connor at 19 books?
What’s the attraction to following one character for so long?
Krueger: Well, you get to know the guy pretty well. And there’s a whole array of adjunct characters in this series that I have enjoyed exploring as well.
You know, there are definitely advantages to writing a long running very popular mystery series. Every time I come up with a new book, it sells the back list. When I sit down to write a story in a Cork O’Connor series, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I already have a cast of characters that readers are familiar with. There’s a sense of place that they have come to embrace. There are certain elements that every reader expects in a Cork O’Connor novel. So, it’s a little easier for me to write one of my serious mysteries than the other standalones that I have become well known for.
Lynch: Also, you’re one of those writers who has kind of a regulated system. You get up at a very specific hour, write for a specific time. Was it difficult to find that discipline?
Krueger: No, actually, that’s how I have approached my work for 40 plus years now.
I think if you’re an artist, I don’t care what your medium is, if you’re going to accomplish anything with your art, you have to approach it in a disciplined way. That particular process for me, getting up at six o’clock every morning, seven days a week and writing for several hours began many, many years ago when my wife entered law school, and I suddenly became the sole support of the family. I was the guy who had to, you know, keep a roof over our head and food on the table, but I wanted desperately to be a writer.
We were living two blocks from this iconic cafe in St. Paul, a place called the St. Clair Broiler that opened its doors at six o’clock every morning, seven days a week.
So, I pitched this idea to my wife. I said, ‘Diane, if you’re willing to get the kids up and dressed and fed and off to school, first thing, so I can go write, I swear to you, when I come home, at the end of the day, I’m going to be the best husband, the best father you can possibly imagine.
She bought it.
So, there I was at six o’clock every morning at the Broiler door, waiting for the coffee shop to open, waiting there with my pen and notebook in hand because this was long before they had laptops.
They would sit me in the booth – booth number four. Always, they saved it for me. And I would write from 6 a.m. till 7:15 a.m., and then I would pay for my coffee, catch a bus out front that would take me to work. And I followed that routine for years and years and years, until I sold my first novel which allowed me to jump ship and become a writer full-time.
Lynch: You still write by longhand or do you use a laptop these days?
Krueger: I wrote my first 10, probably 10, novels longhand. And if you write longhand, there is a step that involves transcribing the longhand, that very messy longhand stuff, into a word processing program of some kind.
I was behind deadline. I thought, you know, if I could skip that transcription step, maybe I could actually meet deadline, which was a scary proposition for me because writing longhand was a part of the magic. It was like the idea came from my head and passed through my heart, down my arm, through the pen and onto the page. And I was actually very concerned that if I monkeyed with the magic, maybe it wouldn’t happen. But I went ahead and gave it a try.
Lynch: You have a new standalone kind of book out – The River We Remember?
Krueger: Yeah, it is set in the summer of 1958, in southern Minnesota in an area I call Black Earth County.
It opens on Memorial Day 1958. One the county’s leading citizens, a man named Jimmy Quinn, is found floating in the Alabaster River, which flows through town – dead from a shotgun blast and nearly naked.
It really is a true mystery and the question at the heart of this story is, “who killed Jimmy Quinn and why?”
But it’s really about a whole lot more. Would you like to hear that part of it?
Lynch: I would. I’d be delighted.
Krueger: In the early 1940s, my father graduated from high school, enlisted in the military service and marched off to fight in World War II in Europe.
He was just a kid, you know. He was 18 years old. He came back several years later, a man deeply wounded in body and in spirit by what the war had done to him.
I recognize now that he was probably suffering from PTSD, but you know, nobody talked about that back then.
You know, when I was a kid, I pestered my father for war stories, “Kill any Germans?”
He absolutely refused to talk about the war.
He was very like the fathers of my friends, guys who, like my dad, had fought in World War II or the Korean War. They all went away kids, you know, some not even old enough to shave yet, and they came back men deeply wounded by the horrors that they had seen and the horrors they’d been part of.
All my life, I’ve wondered how could anybody heal, and that’s really what The River We Remember is about. It’s about how to heal.
Lynch: Kent, thanks a lot.
Krueger: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Krueger will appear Saturday, Oct. 21 at the West Virginia Book Festival in Charleston.