When St. Paul handyman and writer William Kent Krueger turned 40, he was struck by a classic midlife crisis. He didn’t buy a flashy car or hair plugs; his was a more existential turmoil. He’d been trying to write the Great American Novel for years, while working in construction, logging and other odd jobs to pay the bills.
The novel languished, and Krueger knew it always would — unless something changed.
“I realized that if I was ever going to write, it was now or never,” Krueger said by telephone from Chicago, where he was attending the “Love is Murder” mystery-writing conference.
“Something crystallized in my thought process, and I developed the ritual that I still follow. I got up early and went to the coffee shop and wrote longhand with a pen. And it worked. It was such a simple process, but it yielded for me such tremendously fruitful results,” said Krueger, who will appear tonight at the Edina Public Library.
That coffee shop was actually a burger joint, the St. Clair Broiler in St. Paul. In booth No. 4, Cork O’Connor, the hard-boiled but tenderhearted sheriff of Tamarack County, was born about a decade ago. Krueger turned away from his unfinished literary novel, and began to write what he liked to read: mysteries.
“That was probably the best decision I ever made. It took an enormous weight off my shoulders,” he says. Krueger stopped writing at the Broiler about a year ago, when longtime owner Timmy Theros sold it. “It wasn’t the same for me anyone. Although, I may go back,” he says. He now writes at the J&S Bean Factory. (Check out other local writers who create in area cafes.)
A sense of place
Although the fast-paced stories are marked by intrigue, death and snappy dialogue, Krueger’s highly literary writing style and reverent attention to the shadowy landscape of northern Minnesota, make him not just a nationally successful mystery writer, but also a solidly Minnesotan writer. His seventh installment in the series, “Thunder Bay,” is a finalist in genre fiction for a Minnesota Book Award — in fact, all of his Cork O’Connor books have been nominated, and two have won. (He also has an eighth book, not in the series.)
“The writers that interest me and that I admire write profoundly write out of a sense of place,” says Krueger. “They are writers that take me someplace. After I read their work, I feel like I know a place intimately. I know what it sounds like, smells like, and I know what the food tastes like.”
In particular, Krueger reads James Lee Burke, whose mysteries are set in New Orleans; Dennis Lehane, who writes about south Boston; and Michael Connolly, whose thrillers are set in Los Angeles. But Krueger says his greatest inspiration is Tony Hillerman, whose work is set in the stunning Southwest landscape and draws heavily on the region’s Native culture. When Krueger began to study Northern Minnesota as a home for his own characters, he saw a cultural divide here, too.
“You can’t really write about the North Country without dealing with the situation between the Ojibwe and the whites. For many years now, they’ve been trying to live amicably together and not doing a necessarily very good job of it,” said Krueger. “I saw conflict there, and conflict is what drives a great story, so in each of my books I deal with misunderstanding between these communities, or some aspect of Ojibwe culture. It’s not always a central aspect of the books, but it’s an important part of the story.”
Krueger says he’s heard from members of the Native community who say he “gets it”; his Minnesota readers likewise commend his ability to capture the area’s personality.
His book tours always include remote small towns, where he says he can count on a warm reception and hot-dish dinners. (See events list below.) But he has seen people reading his books on planes and in far away states, and one of his strangest book tour moments occurred in New York City.
“I went to a bookstore before a reading, where a stack of 300 pre-sold books needed to be signed,” he says. “So I’m signing away, and then I come to one, and the owner says, ‘You know, this person would like a special inscription, but honestly, you don’t have to do it.’ So I said, ‘What is it? What does this guy want?’ She paused and said, ‘He wants you to say, Thank you for last night.’ I shrugged, and thought, oh well. And I did it.”
William Kent Krueger appearances
When: 6:30 p.m. tonight (Feb. 4)
Where: Edina Public Library, 5280 Grandview Square, Edina
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 13
Where: Wildwood Branch Library, 763 Stillwater Rd.,
When: Feb. 25, time to be announced (joint event with the Minnesota Crime Wave http://www.minnesotacrimewave.org/)
Where: Grand Rapids Library, 140 NE Second St.,
Phone: 218-326-7640, time TBA
When: 6 p.m. Feb. 26 (with Minnesota Crime Wave)
Where: Virginia Public Library, 215 Fifth Ave S., Virginia