As a small boy, William Kent Krueger never went down for a nap, never went to bed at night, without first being told a story. This became the way he viewed 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," which brings him to St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater on Wednesday, was released in August. Nine of his novels have hit the New York Times bestseller list, he's been published in 21 languages and he's won a whole shelf full of awards, from Minnesota Book Awards to Edgars, Barrys and Anthonys, the Oscars of the mystery world. There are more than 1 million copies in print of his novel "Ordinary Grace."
Doesn't that make him a writer, not a storyteller?
Not exactly. To Krueger, there's a distinction.
"I mean, Colson Whitehead is a writer," he said. "I'm a storyteller."
Krueger is in his St. Paul backyard as he speaks. It's a hot, blustery day in mid-September, and he has leapt from his lawn chair to grab and steady the heavy patio umbrella, which threatens to topple over in the wind and crush his visitor. He is cheerful and unflappable and continues his thought without interruption.
"I think a writer sets out to do something with literature that has sort of a greater purpose in mind," he says, hanging onto the umbrella pole. "Maybe a writer sets out to experiment with a new literary technique, change the course of literature, or they have a particular social issue that they want to explore. But a storyteller sets out just to tell a story."
The stories that Krueger tells, mostly, are mysteries — his recurring character Cork O'Connor is a crime-busting former law enforcement official who hails from a town on the edge of Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But he's also written two stand-alone 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 as true as possible.
"You're always going to touch on things that are universal," he said. "But that's not what you set out to do. You just set out to write a good, true story."
He pauses, laughs. "I think I had to serve a really long apprenticeship before I felt like a natural storyteller," he said.
From coffee shop to dining room
Krueger's long apprenticeship began some 35 years ago, when he lived in a different St. Paul neighborhood and held down a full-time job — what he calls being a member of "the workaday world."
Every morning he got up early and walked to the St. Clair Broiler just as it was opening at 6 a.m. He ordered coffee ("Coffee is part of the ritual," he said) and opened his notebook. He wrote for precisely one hour and 15 minutes and then caught the bus to work.
He was almost 50 years old when he landed his first book contract — a two-book deal for the first two Cork O'Connor mysteries, "Iron Lake" and "Boundary Waters."
Some things have changed since then. Krueger, who will turn 71 in November, now writes on a laptop, not in a notebook. He and his wife, Diane, moved to a bungalow in Como Park next door to his brother, and his writing station moved to the coffee shop around the corner. He sold more books, grew more famous.
And then, of course, COVID-19 hit, and it did its best to muck everything up. But Krueger is the kind of guy who makes lemonade out of lemons. The pandemic shutdown, he quickly realized, gave him the gift of time, and he took full advantage of it.
Since lockdown began, he has written two Cork O'Connor novels, two novellas, and is now working on his third stand-alone 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 things and just write," he said, but there is little chance of that.
Greatly in demand as a public speaker, he switched from in-person events to Zoom and chatted with some 300 book clubs all over the world. His "Lightning Strike" book tour of 35 in-person events has also pivoted to almost entirely virtual. Wednesday's Talking Volumes event will be his second public appearance since the pandemic began (he traveled to Texas in September for a one-book-one-community discussion with 600 people).
He now writes at the dining room table, a switch that he is eager to reverse whenever it's safe.
"The truth is, if you make your living as a writer, you do what you need to do in order to get the writing done," he said. "The transition was much easier than I had imagined. One thing I like about the coffee shop, I get myself up, dressed, groomed, and going to the coffee shop was like transitioning into the creative mode. I don't have that transition now. I feel like I'm having to pull myself into the work."
A land of conflict
Krueger, who grew up in Oregon, was in his 30s when he first set foot in the Boundary Waters. "I just fell madly in love with that place, tried to spend as much time as possible Up North," he said. "I decided, this is what I want to write about."
Any good book is built around conflict, and northern Minnesota gave him that in spades.
"Conflict is just such a natural 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 mirrored conflict?" Cork is part Irish, part Ojibwe.
Krueger began writing during a time when the term "cultural appropriation" was not much used. Still, he's keenly aware that without "a drop" of Ojibwe blood himself, he needs to tread extremely carefully when writing about the Ojibwe culture and people.
"It wasn't an issue in the beginning. Tony Hillerman was doing it [in his mysteries featuring the Navajo Tribal Police] and doing it quite 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 guy trespassing on a culture that is not my own. And so I work really hard to get things right. That said, it's still written from a white perspective — Cork is 3⁄4 Irish and 1⁄4 Ojibwe. I do everything I can to get the Ojibwe part of it correct. And the response I've had has been, without exception, positive."
Human nature, he said, is human nature, no matter what culture you are from. And "if you're a storyteller, you go where the story takes you."
The young Cork O'Connor
"Lightning Strike" takes readers back to Cork's childhood, when he solved his first mystery, came to appreciate his Ojibwe heritage, fought with his father and began to grow up and think for himself.
"My agent had been urging me to do it for years," he said. "So often in the course of the Cork O'Connor series I've made reference to events in his past, people in his past, and she's been telling me this is rich territory to mine."
Continuity, though, was tricky. Krueger doesn't keep a notebook outlining Cork's back story or events mentioned in previous books ("That'd be a good idea, wouldn't it?" he said, grinning) and when he turned in the manuscript his agent pointed out discrepancies.
So he "worked really hard to make everything match," though he admits to fudging in a few places. "I've had a couple of readers write and say, 'You know, in this novel, 10 novels ago, you said this, and here you said this.' And you might hope, hey, who's going to remember 10 novels ago, but they do."
Over the years, Krueger said he has grown to trust himself more, and he has stopped sweating over the writing. "Mystery is a construct, and so I sweat over the plot. All of the narrative elements are what I really love — character, sense of place, sense of atmosphere, finding a profound language with which to tell the story. Those are the things that I love, but because they're mysteries, first they have to have that plot."
And so he works at it, honing the story line, deepening the characters, making the mystery as much of a page-turner as possible, trying to write a good, true story.
Because that's what a storyteller does.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. @StribBooks.
Talking Volumes: William Kent Krueger
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 3.
Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $30-23, mprevents.org
An excerpt from 'Lightning Strike' by William Kent Krueger
Cork was deep in thoughts so terrible that he didn't notice at first the sound in the trees. Or rather, the lack of sound. Usually in the mornings, at the first hint of light, the birds began their chatter. Only a few at first, but by the time Cork was halfway through his route, it usually seemed as if the whole of avian existence had been aroused. As he walked now, he suddenly became aware that the soft click of Jackson's paw nails on the pavement and his rhythmic panting were the only sounds. He stopped and listened more carefully. Not a single bird.
He was on Beech Street, still two blocks from the businesses of Aurora. There were streetlights at intersections, but no lights between. Cork stood in near darkness, the town of Aurora — houses and trees and the distant courthouse tower — nothing but black silhouettes against the promise of dawn, the thinnest hope of a new day.
Then he saw it. For the second time. Among all those predawn silhouettes. The towering shadowy shape from Lightning Strike. Bending as if preparing to leap at Cork.
Jackson must have seen it, too, or sensed it, because he let out a low, threatening growl, then commenced to barking up a storm. Part English setter and part bulldog, Jackson was a canine with a fighter's heart. Cork knelt and threw his arms around his dog, seeking both to be protected and to protect.
Nothing came at him, and when he looked up, the shape was gone. Just as it had been gone in an instant at Lightning Strike. In its place was the silhouette of a tall spruce swaying in the wind that had risen. From far to the west came the low rumble of thunder, a summer storm moving in.
Jackson ceased his barking but, like Cork, continued to stare at the swaying evergreen.
"Come on, boy. We still have papers to deliver."