When the author William Kent Krueger — or Kent, as he prefers to be called — meets with local journalists to talk about his latest New York Times best seller, he sometimes suggests his favorite writing spot as the interview venue.
You might imagine a small, inconspicuous cafe with dark wood paneling where regulars talk in hushed tones over pints of Leinies — Leinenkugel’s, the Wisconsin brew favored by Cork O’Connor, the protagonist in Krueger’s mystery novels. You might picture the author himself, meanwhile, sitting at a dimly lit corner table, crafting his next great American novel.
But you’d be wrong — at least about the setting.
Where the legendary Minnesota-based Krueger actually writes every day is The Underground Music Cafe in St. Paul. It is neither dimly lit nor quiet. And although the café serves beer, ice cream and waffles are also on the menu. Loud music plays from overhead speakers and kids noisily slurp milkshakes.
Could this really be where an Edgar Award-winning author writes about drug runners, human traffickers and vigilantes? (That’s not all he writes about; those are just some of the characters you’ll find in his latest novel, Sulfur Springs.)
The answer is, yes, but only in the afternoon.
Krueger starts his day early every morning at a Caribou Coffee, a couple blocks away from his Como-neighborhood home.
This strict multi-venue writing regimen is part of the of the creative process for Krueger.
“I can’t write when it’s too quiet,” he said. “I love noise, as long as the noise has nothing to do with me. I’m too easily distracted at home. That’s why I go to a coffee shop. It’s like going to the office.”
Writing daily is a discipline Krueger began soon after he moved to St. Paul with his family in 1980. And although — after authoring 18 novels — he no longer needs to get up at the crack of dawn every day to write, he still does.
Krueger was born in 1950 in Torrington, Wyo. His father, an English teacher who ended up going into the oil business to put food on the table (though he eventually returned to teaching), moved the family often.
By the time Krueger graduated from high school, he’d lived in 18 different cities and six states. Ask Krueger where he’s from and he’ll tell you Hood River, Ore., where he spent a good chunk of his formative years.
“I’ve lived in several different small towns in the Midwest, but I never thought of any place as ‘home’ until I moved to St. Paul,” he said.
For Krueger, the road home was long. After his nomadic childhood, he landed at Stanford University for a year, before he was dismissed in the spring of 1970 for “radical” (anti-war) activities.
It was a career-inspiring wake-up call.
“Being kicked out of Stanford made me realize that if I did go back to an academic setting, I wasn’t going to learn what I needed to learn to become a writer,” he said.
So he logged timber, worked in construction and mopped hospital floors before landing a job as at the University of Minnesota with the Office of the Registrar and, later, the Institute of Child Development, where he worked until 1999.
A long apprenticeship
After reading that one of his favorite writers — Ernest Hemingway — liked to write first thing in the morning, Krueger decided to give it a try.
Thus began a lifelong ritual that would produce a number of short stories, some of which won awards, and eventually, his first two novels.
It all began at the Saint Clair Broiler. For 15 years, Krueger got up at 5:45 a.m. every morning, walked the two blocks from his house in the Midway area of St. Paul to the Broiler, and sat down to write.
At the time, his wife, Diane, was in law school, and Krueger was the sole supporter of his family of four, including their daughter, Seneca, and son, Adam. He’d write for exactly an hour and 15 minutes, pay for his coffee and catch the bus to his job at the U.
It was a period of intense creativity and discipline for Krueger. And like his novels, setting played a significant role. He credits the Broiler with being part of the “magic” that helped him write his first novels. When the Broiler closed its doors in September after more than 60 years in business, Krueger wrote a heartfelt goodbye to the cafe on his Facebook page, describing its closing as akin to “losing an old friend.”
Never too old to start
Despite his determination and discipline, Krueger’s success didn’t come quickly.
The books, published in 1998 and 1999, were the first in what would become the immensely popular Cork O’Connor mystery series, which now includes 16 books and counting. All but two are set in Minnesota.
“Minnesota offers everything a fiction writer looks for — conflict, especially the conflict of different cultures,” he said. “It also offers the conflict of the weather, which can kill you if you’re not careful.”
The part-Irish and part-Ojibwe protagonist of his novels, Tamarack County Sheriff Cork O’Connor, is a man whose life is rife with conflict.
He encounters criminals and corrupt individuals at every turn. His wife is murdered. He nearly loses his son to a gunshot wound. The weather is often a strong adversary for Cork — from the brutally cold winters of Minnesota to the suffocating heat of Arizona in July. At the heart of every one of Krueger’s mysteries is a compelling social issue.
“Windigo Island deals with the sex trafficking of young, native women. Manitou Canyon explores the rape of the land by large corporations. Red Knife deals with the influx of drug and gang culture on reservations,” he said.
And while the issues may change, readers know they can always count on Cork to follow his heart and persevere, much like the author himself.
“I’m living proof that you’re never too old to start writing,” Krueger said. “So many people that I know in this business have had gray in their hair before they started. I tell people to write first thing in the morning — because then it doesn’t matter what happens the rest of the day. You’ve taken care of this thing that is so significant. It’s a way of centering.”
Listening to his heart
Krueger’s novels have received numerous awards, including the Minnesota Book Award, the Loft-McKnight Fiction Award, the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, the Dilys Award, and the Friends of American Writers Prize.
Many of his novels have become New York Times best sellers. Sulfur Springs, Krueger’s 16th novel featuring Cork O’Connor, was published in August, and it’s already a New York Times best seller.
Moreover, it’s the first of his novels to be crack the top 10 New York Times best-selling fiction novel list.
Publishers Weekly called Sulfur Springs, “Moving and suspenseful,” adding, “as usual, Krueger does a fine job combining distinctive characters with a satisfying plot.” The Star Tribune deemed the novel, “A blistering Wild West mystery.”
Yet the reception for this latest book hasn’t been all positive.
Like all of Krueger’s stories, Sulfur Springs deals with some weighty themes. In this case, immigration and refugees on the border of Arizona and Mexico.
“I am, I freely admit, an unrepentant bleeding-heart liberal, and my response to the tragic situation involving refugees coming across our border with Mexico rises out of a deep compassion for anyone in desperate need,” he said. “I have received a number of notes from previously committed fans who now tell me that because I followed my own conscience in the writing of this story they will never read another of my novels. They must listen to their own hearts, as I must listen to mine.”
Another one on the way
Krueger is currently working on the 17th installment of the series, Desolation Mountain, due to hit bookstores in August 2018.
Once he finishes it — he’s contractually obligated to produce one Cork O’Connor novel a year — he plans on returning to his passion project, a companion novel to the immensely successful Ordinary Grace, called This Tender Land, due to hit bookstores next fall.
Published in 2013, Ordinary Grace was Krueger’s second stand-alone novel and a major hit. It received the Edgar Award, given by the Mystery Writers of America in recognition of the best novel published that year.
It’s a quiet coming-of-age, murder mystery, set in the fictional town of Aurora, Minn., in the summer of 1961. The novel, while hugely successful, was a risky endeavor for Krueger. His first stand-alone book, a thriller called Devil’s Bed (2003), didn’t sell.
“One of the pitfalls of writing a popular series with a protagonist people love is that readers often won’t follow you if that character is not in your novel,” he said. “So no one bought Devil’s Bed. After that sales debacle, my publisher said only Cork O’Connor novels.”
Krueger wrote the book anyway.
“I didn’t have a choice. I had to write Ordinary Grace,” he said. “I wrote it not knowing if anyone was ever going to want it. Of course, when my publisher saw how well it did, they wanted me to write a companion novel.”
A writer’s writer
For someone with such a talent for writing best-selling mysteries, you’d think Krueger grew up reading the genre or at least watching Perry Mason or The Fugitive.
Not so much.
Remember, he was the son of an English teacher.
“Growing up, all I was allowed to read was literature with a capital L,” he said. “I didn’t even get to read The Hardy Boys.”
So how did Krueger become such an expert at the slight of hand that is the mystery genre?
He did what so many local aspiring writers do: He took a class at The Loft Literacy Center in Minneapolis, a haven for writers since 1975.
“A bunch of us formed a group called Crème de la Crime, which I participated in for more than 20 years,” he said of the informal mystery writers’ support group. “It’s still active now, but I had to quit a couple years ago because of my busy schedule.”
Love for indie booksellers
That busy schedule currently includes a book tour for Sulfur Springs and numerous readings and guest appearances around the country. (FYI: Sulfur Springs comes out in paperback on June 5, 2018.)
Krueger appears at roughly 100 book events each year, many of which are held at libraries and bookstores in rural communities. He’s a fierce supporter of local booksellers, often driving hundreds of miles to attend events.
Why would a best-selling author feel the need to visit these small-town shops when he could probably be accepting an award somewhere — or definitely be writing another best seller in the comfort of his local coffee shop?
“There used to be a lot of players in the game, and every neighborhood had a bookstore,” he said. “If the independent booksellers are gone, who is making the choices about what we read? I want to make sure the independents are strong so all our voices are heard.”
Another reason he loves to visit local libraries and booksellers? The people.
“Booksellers are friendly, knowledgeable, and with every book they sell comes a smile. There’s heart in the transaction. And that’s priceless.”
Tina Mortimer is an essayist and a contributing writer for many local publications. She lives in White Bear Lake with her husband and two children. Follow her work at tinatwotimes.com.