Author Interview

A Conversation with William Kent Krueger

Q. Heaven’s Keep is your ninth Cork O’ Connor novel. What makes you keep bringing Cork back? Have you ever thought of focusing on a new character? How has Cork grown over the course of the novels? What impact will the events in Heaven’s Keep have on him? How has your writing changed?

A. With each book I write in the series, I get to know Cork a little better and continue to discover elements of his character that are new to me. I find him an interesting person, marvelously flawed but always holding tightly to the values that have defined him, which is essentially what makes him a humanly heroic figure.

With each book, I try to augment the normal cast of characters in Aurora with new complex characters whose relationships to the story and to Cork add a unique dimension to that particular entry in the series. At the same time, I usually feature a member of Cork’s family in a very important and personal adjunct storyline, so I don’t worry about focusing on new characters, introducing and building them in order to have them become a part of the series eventually, because they probably will not.

What’s been interesting for me and, I hope, for readers has been watching the development of Cork and the O’Connor family across the nine books in the series. In Iron Lake, Cork was introduced as a fairly morose, often cynical, and nearly failed man in his early forties. He’s more than fifty now and his children are growing or grown, and with Heaven’s Keep he’s become a widower. Despite all his tribulations, his outlook on life has become more optimistic, more spiritual, and more forgiving. I’m very interested in discovering what kind of man he’ll grow into in his old age.

As for my writing, mostly I hope it’s improved.

Q. All of your novels with Cork have taken place in the northern part of the United States. What keeps bringing you back to this locale? Are you a native of Minnesota? Is there a “Sam’s Place” where you are from?

A. Sam’s Place, like most of the landmarks in my fictional Aurora, is inspired by reality. For a couple of summers in high school, I delivered food supplies to grocery stores and small hamburger joints in rural Oregon, so I came to know and love establishments that are, in their essentials, just like Sam’s Place. And because I spent many years growing up in small towns in America—in Ohio and Oregon and California—I enjoy tapping my own recollections and emotions about this kind of environment. I love the upper Midwest—Minnesota especially—because it delivers everything I appreciate in a landscape: four distinct seasons (oh, fall is gorgeous); a remarkably varied and stunningly beautiful geography; fine people with solid values; and some of the best swimming lakes on earth.

Q. Cork’s Ojibwe heritage plays a significant part in all of your works. Why have you found it so important to have Ojibwe heritage and culture as a constant presence in your works? Do you have some Ojibwe blood running through your veins? Have you even been on a vision quest?

A. The first book in a series dictates so much of what will follow in subsequent stories. When I conceived Cork O’Connor as part Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) and subsequently introduced a good deal of information about the Anishinaabe culture in the work, I set up an expectation on the part of my readership. Readers anticipate that a significant element of every story will be additional exposure to the ways of the Ojibwe. The truth is that I enjoy this aspect of the work. Although I have no Indian blood running through my veins, in college I prepared to be a cultural anthropologist, so exploring other cultures is exciting to me. As for a vision quest, I have never participated in the Ojibwe version of this particular very personal and spiritual journey, but I continue to look on my writing as a kind of vision quest.

Q. You made the decision to kill off a major character in this book. Did you struggle to make the decision? Was there ever a draft where the character did not die?

A. When I conceived the story, I thought it would have a different ending, an ending with the question of what really became of Jo O’Connor unanswered. I thought it would be interesting to have her fate remain in doubt going forward in the series. But I decided that would be too unsatisfying for readers. So I wrote the initial draft with Cork’s wife miraculously surviving her ordeal, though greatly damaged. I didn’t like this ending and I felt the story itself resisting it. So I rewrote the final chapters as they now stand, and although I knew that it would be a heartbreaking ending and I would probably get a lot of response from unhappy readers, I believed—and still do—that it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Q. You touch on a number of issues sensitive to the Native American population in this book: land harvesting, casinos, poverty, survival, etc. Do you ever receive any backlash from the Native American community? Do your opinions make it into the book or do you try to remain neutral for the most part?

A. I think that whether we acknowledge it or not, our opinions as authors always influence our work. How can they not? My belief is that my opinions are well informed, and so my hope is that the way in which they influence the story will be acceptable to the Indian communities and cultures I deal with. The response to my work that I’ve received from the Ojibwe community has been without exception positive. That doesn’t mean that all the Anishinaabeg agree with how I portray their culture and their community, only those who take the time to contact me. Honestly, I’m painfully aware that I’m a white guy writing about a culture not my own, and although I try my best to get it right, I don’t for one moment believe that I’m a hundred percent successful.
Q. Cork finds a helpful and affable partner in Hugh Parmer. Who, if anyone, is Hugh based upon? Will we be seeing him again?

A. Hugh Parmer is a real guy in many respects. A while back I was asked to donate a character name for an auction to benefit the American Refugee Committee. That fine organization was, at that time, headed by a man named Hugh Parmer, and it was Hugh who won the bidding for the character name. Whenever I use an auctioned name, I try to incorporate as much of the actual person as possible in the creation of the fictional character. So, much of the fictional Hugh Parmer is informed by the admirable qualities of the real Hugh Parmer—except the vast wealth. I don’t know any real billionaires. And as for seeing him again in a story, I don’t have any immediate plans for Hugh’s return, but I intend to continue the series for a good long while, so who knows?

Q. What type of research did you have to do for this book? Is Heaven’s Keep a real place?

A. Much of Heaven’s Keep takes place in Wyoming, which is the state of my birth. I’ve spent a good deal of time throughout my life visiting friends and relatives who still live there, but going back for the express purpose of researching locations for the book helped me see the landscape in a different, more appreciative way. I asked questions I’d never asked before and went out of my way to see places up close that I’d only glimpsed from a distance. I loved every minute of the research for this book. And in all that researching and all that asking and all that looking, I did, indeed, find a real land formation upon which I based the fictional Heaven’s Keep. But for a variety of reasons, I keep that location to myself.
Q. Throughout the course of your novels, Cork has been both a sheriff and a PI. Besides being a writer, what have been some of your previous occupations? Did you ever consider a career in law enforcement?

A. In the past, I have, among other things, logged timber, worked construction, mopped hospital floors, shuffled office paper, and collected baby spit. I never considered a career in law enforcement. I have always believed that I don’t have the right temperament. Recently, however, as a result of so many of the good people I’ve come to know who are officers of the law, I’ve decided it would have been a fine career choice. There are moments when I’d give my right arm for the kind of experience, skills, and knowledge these folks possess. And I so admire the women and men in law enforcement for their commitment to the difficult, and often thankless jobs they do.

Q. Since you are now a veteran writer, what advice would you give to a budding writer? Are you ever plagued by writer’s block? If so, how do you combat it?

A. My advice? Write, write, write. And try not to despair. Write because you love the work, not because of what might come from it. The journey is the purpose. Very Zen-like, I know, but honest to god it’s the truth. And I have never had to deal with writer’s block. Knock on wood.
Q. What’s next for you? For Cork?

A. I’ve finished the next book in the series, a novel titled Vermilion Drift. I’m excited because I’ve been able to incorporate as an element of the story the rich culture and history of iron mining on Minnesota’s famous Iron Range. The tale also deals significantly with frightening secrets from Cork’s childhood, so I’ve been able to explore more deeply than ever before his relationship with his father and mother. It’s been fascinating for me, and I think readers will have a great time with the story.
A Conversation with William Kent Krueger, Author of Heaven's Keep

Q. Heaven’s Keep is your ninth Cork O’ Connor novel. What makes you keep bringing Cork back? Have you ever thought of focusing on a new character? How has Cork grown over the course of the novels? What impact will the events in Heaven’s Keep have on him? How has your writing changed?


A. With each book I write in the series, I get to know Cork a little better and continue to discover elements of his character that are new to me. I find him an interesting person, marvelously flawed but always holding tightly to the values that have defined him, which is essentially what makes him a humanly heroic figure.
With each book, I try to augment the normal cast of characters in Aurora with new complex characters whose relationships to the story and to Cork add a unique dimension to that particular entry in the series. At the same time, I usually feature a member of Cork’s family in a very important and personal adjunct storyline, so I don’t worry about focusing on new characters, introducing and building them in order to have them become a part of the series eventually, because they probably will not.

What’s been interesting for me and, I hope, for readers has been watching the development of Cork and the O’Connor family across the nine books in the series. In Iron Lake, Cork was introduced as a fairly morose, often cynical, and nearly failed man in his early forties. He’s more than fifty now and his children are growing or grown, and with Heaven’s Keep he’s become a widower. Despite all his tribulations, his outlook on life has become more optimistic, more spiritual, and more forgiving. I’m very interested in discovering what kind of man he’ll grow into in his old age.

As for my writing, mostly I hope it’s improved.

Q. All of your novels with Cork have taken place in the northern part of the United States. What keeps bringing you back to this locale? Are you a native of Minnesota? Is there a “Sam’s Place” where you are from?

A. Sam’s Place, like most of the landmarks in my fictional Aurora, is inspired by reality. For a couple of summers in high school, I delivered food supplies to grocery stores and small hamburger joints in rural Oregon, so I came to know and love establishments that are, in their essentials, just like Sam’s Place. And because I spent many years growing up in small towns in America—in Ohio and Oregon and California—I enjoy tapping my own recollections and emotions about this kind of environment. I love the upper Midwest—Minnesota especially—because it delivers everything I appreciate in a landscape: four distinct seasons (oh, fall is gorgeous); a remarkably varied and stunningly beautiful geography; fine people with solid values; and some of the best swimming lakes on earth.

Q. Cork’s Ojibwe heritage plays a significant part in all of your works. Why have you found it so important to have Ojibwe heritage and culture as a constant presence in your works? Do you have some Ojibwe blood running through your veins? Have you even been on a vision quest?

A. The first book in a series dictates so much of what will follow in subsequent stories. When I conceived Cork O’Connor as part Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) and subsequently introduced a good deal of information about the Anishinaabe culture in the work, I set up an expectation on the part of my readership. Readers anticipate that a significant element of every story will be additional exposure to the ways of the Ojibwe. The truth is that I enjoy this aspect of the work. Although I have no Indian blood running through my veins, in college I prepared to be a cultural anthropologist, so exploring other cultures is exciting to me. As for a vision quest, I have never participated in the Ojibwe version of this particular very personal and spiritual journey, but I continue to look on my writing as a kind of vision quest.

Q. You made the decision to kill off a major character in this book. Did you struggle to make the decision? Was there ever a draft where the character did not die?

A. When I conceived the story, I thought it would have a different ending, an ending with the question of what really became of Jo O’Connor unanswered. I thought it would be interesting to have her fate remain in doubt going forward in the series. But I decided that would be too unsatisfying for readers. So I wrote the initial draft with Cork’s wife miraculously surviving her ordeal, though greatly damaged. I didn’t like this ending and I felt the story itself resisting it. So I rewrote the final chapters as they now stand, and although I knew that it would be a heartbreaking ending and I would probably get a lot of response from unhappy readers, I believed—and still do—that it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Q. You touch on a number of issues sensitive to the Native American population in this book: land harvesting, casinos, poverty, survival, etc. Do you ever receive any backlash from the Native American community? Do your opinions make it into the book or do you try to remain neutral for the most part?

A. I think that whether we acknowledge it or not, our opinions as authors always influence our work. How can they not? My belief is that my opinions are well informed, and so my hope is that the way in which they influence the story will be acceptable to the Indian communities and cultures I deal with. The response to my work that I’ve received from the Ojibwe community has been without exception positive. That doesn’t mean that all the Anishinaabeg agree with how I portray their culture and their community, only those who take the time to contact me. Honestly, I’m painfully aware that I’m a white guy writing about a culture not my own, and although I try my best to get it right, I don’t for one moment believe that I’m a hundred percent successful.

Q. Cork finds a helpful and affable partner in Hugh Parmer. Who, if anyone, is Hugh based upon? Will we be seeing him again?

A. Hugh Parmer is a real guy in many respects. A while back I was asked to donate a character name for an auction to benefit the American Refugee Committee. That fine organization was, at that time, headed by a man named Hugh Parmer, and it was Hugh who won the bidding for the character name. Whenever I use an auctioned name, I try to incorporate as much of the actual person as possible in the creation of the fictional character. So, much of the fictional Hugh Parmer is informed by the admirable qualities of the real Hugh Parmer—except the vast wealth. I don’t know any real billionaires. And as for seeing him again in a story, I don’t have any immediate plans for Hugh’s return, but I intend to continue the series for a good long while, so who knows?

Q. What type of research did you have to do for this book? Is Heaven’s Keep a real place?

A. Much of Heaven’s Keep takes place in Wyoming, which is the state of my birth. I’ve spent a good deal of time throughout my life visiting friends and relatives who still live there, but going back for the express purpose of researching locations for the book helped me see the landscape in a different, more appreciative way. I asked questions I’d never asked before and went out of my way to see places up close that I’d only glimpsed from a distance. I loved every minute of the research for this book. And in all that researching and all that asking and all that looking, I did, indeed, find a real land formation upon which I based the fictional Heaven’s Keep. But for a variety of reasons, I keep that location to myself.

Q. Throughout the course of your novels, Cork has been both a sheriff and a PI. Besides being a writer, what have been some of your previous occupations? Did you ever consider a career in law enforcement?

A. In the past, I have, among other things, logged timber, worked construction, mopped hospital floors, shuffled office paper, and collected baby spit. I never considered a career in law enforcement. I have always believed that I don’t have the right temperament. Recently, however, as a result of so many of the good people I’ve come to know who are officers of the law, I’ve decided it would have been a fine career choice. There are moments when I’d give my right arm for the kind of experience, skills, and knowledge these folks possess. And I so admire the women and men in law enforcement for their commitment to the difficult, and often thankless jobs they do.

Q. Since you are now a veteran writer, what advice would you give to a budding writer? Are you ever plagued by writer’s block? If so, how do you combat it?

A. My advice? Write, write, write. And try not to despair. Write because you love the work, not because of what might come from it. The journey is the purpose. Very Zen-like, I know, but honest to god it’s the truth. And I have never had to deal with writer’s block. Knock on wood.

Q. What’s next for you? For Cork?

A. I’ve finished the next book in the series, a novel titled Vermilion Drift. I’m excited because I’ve been able to incorporate as an element of the story the rich culture and history of iron mining on Minnesota’s famous Iron Range. The tale also deals significantly with frightening secrets from Cork’s childhood, so I’ve been able to explore more deeply than ever before his relationship with his father and mother. It’s been fascinating for me, and I think readers will have a great time with the story.
A Conversation with William Kent Krueger, Author of Vermilion Drift

Where did you get the idea for this story? Does any of it come from real events?


For a very long time, I’ve wanted to write a story that would allow me to highlight the unique history and culture of the area in northern Minnesota known as the Iron Range. I’ve also wanted to explore more significantly than I have in the past Cork’s relationship with his mother and father. These were the people who shaped the man Cork O’Connor has become. and I wanted to know more about them.

So, these ideas were part of the inspiration. The other part came from a scary but real possibility facing the Iron Range in the early 1990s. For a very brief period, there was significant interest in using the Soudan underground ,ine in Tower, Minnesota, as a site for storage of nuclear waste. Fortunately the idea was scrapped, but I resurrected the situation for Vermilion Drift.



You did a lot of research about the Iron Range and mining. How much time did you actually spend in the mines Vermillion Drift was based on?

With any book, I begin first with a good deal of reading research. Vermilion Drift was no exception. I read everything I could about iron mining on the Range, both underground and in pits. But this kind of research can take you only so far. When I had what I thought was a good grasp of the generalities of iron mining, I made arrangements for a private tour of the Soudan mine, an abandoned underground iron mine that has become a Minnesota state park. I spent most of a morning touring the lowest level of that mine, an experience that gave me a greater appreciation and admiration for the men who spent their lives extracting iron in near-dark conditions. Over the years, I’ve visited the open-pit mines on the Range a number of times, but I was glad finally to have an opportunity to study them more carefully, with an eye to including them in the story.

Your main character resides in Minnesota; why do you choose to focus your novels on this part of America? Is that because that’s where you currently live? Would you consider writing a book set in another location?

The primary reason I set my work in northern Minnesota is because it’s one of the most intriguing and beautiful areas I know. I love this part of the country. The land is amazing, all forest and fresh water and dramatic geology. The people are a wild mix of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. The politics are independent and all over the place. Before I began the Cork O’Connor series, I’d tried writing about other settings, without much success. I’m certain that my love of the North Country is a significant element in what makes my writing come alive.

A large part of the novel is the relationship between the Anishinaabeg and local people. How closely do the novel’s events compare to that of real life?

The Anishinaabeg, or Ojibwe, have always been at odds, one way or another, with the white community in Minnesota. Over the years, they’ve suffered greatly at the hands of greedy land grabbers and shady politicians. They constantly battle to maintain the rights granted them in treaties. And they battle as well the stereotypes about native people that a lot of whites still believe in. As a result, there’s often mistrust between the two groups, white and Ojibwe. The tense and often tenuous relationship I try to portray isn’t fiction.

The novel discusses bad spirits, sweat lodges, and other parts of Indian tradition. Do you indentify at all with those beliefs?

I’d be a damned fool not to believe in the possibilities.

On your website you talk about a number of blue-collar jobs you’ve had over the years, as well as run-ins with police as a college student. How do those events color your writing, especially when it comes to Cork O’Connor?

In my wild and wildly antiauthoritarian youth, I believed, as did many who came of age in the turbulent 1960s, that cops were brutal, mindless enforcers of unjust laws. Thank God that the years since have mellowed me and given me a broader perspective. In my research for the books, I’ve talked to a lot of men and women in law enforcement. They have been, without exception, bright, dedicated, and skilled in their work. As a result, I try to bring to my stories a wiser sensibility about the people who enter this difficult, very necessary profession. As for Cork himself, he’s a down-to-earth kind of guy, and in many ways he reflects the respect I gained for working stiffs during all those years I was one myself.

Now that you’re a full-time writer, were there things you preferred about having a regular job and writing on the side?

Not a single one that I can think of. This is the best job ever!

You blogged about rereading your own work and how you viewed it years later. How did that process affect you and your writing style?

This is going to sound awful and egotistic, but here it goes. What I discovered on rereading was that I’m a pretty good storyteller. I didn’t have major issues with how the books were structured or the language I used in telling the tales. Mostly, I came away with a realization that I can rely on my instincts as a storyteller and my skills as a writer. I wish I could say that this has made the writing easier. The truth is that when I sit down to write a new book in the series, I still feel a little inadequate to the task.

Where do you see Cork going from here? He seems so lonely now that his family is gone—do you see him breaking out of that? How?

The book on which I’m currently at work, the next novel in the series, is titled Northwest Angle. It brings Cork’s family together again in a dangerous situation that threatens the safety of them all. There is a central event in this story that will change the direction of the series in a way that excites me no end. I think readers will be excited, too. That’s all I can tell you at this point.

What projects are you working on now?

In addition to Northwest Angle, I’m working on a non-series novel that I hope to have ready within the next year. I’d rather not say anything more about this piece, except that in my opinion it’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done.

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