Iron Lake (the first in his Cork O'Connor series)--the thirteenth Cork, Trickster's Point, has just been released and Kent is on tour. Yes, that means he took time from his book tour to talk to my class of undergraduate literature students. (Followers of this blog may also recall that a year ago, Krueger was kind enough to talk to my fiction writing class and for me, it was interesting to hear two different conversations--one about fiction craft, the other about the novel as literature.)
We talked to Kent for about 40 minutes, an incredibly generous space of time, considering he's off to the north country in about half an hour. As we hung up and collected ourselves in the last few minutes of the class, my students were so incredibly thrilled, that bubbly kind of excitement. They were so excited that he answered their questions, had great answers that went deeper into the questions, illuminated parts of the story and the process that had been dark to them before. Of course, we hadn't actually gotten to the part where a certain character dies, so it was a spoiler when he asked "Do you want to know why [this character] dies?" (And if you click the above link, my fiction class had a great answer when he asked that question of them.) Methinks that a great majority of my class will read the rest of the book this weekend to find out what happens... Which is not a bad thing...
So, here's what we talked about.
What was your biggest challenge in writing Iron Lake?
Kent said that beyond the challenge of working full time was that he knew nothing about writing a novel, nothing about writing a book. "Words are jewels," he told us, "and when you set them on a page right, man, do they sparkle!" Writing every day is essential for him, that writing takes practice. He talked about needing a good editorial eye (an eye that does not belong to the writer). And it was most important, he said, that he needed to learn about what motivates ordinary people to do the things they do, how they live their lives, because those motivations are the heart of any story.
What did you originally include in Iron Lake that you took out?
Originally, he said, Iron Lake was a 500 page manuscript and his agent told him that she couldn't sell a 500 page manuscript. So in the process of trying to cut a hundred pages, he went through the book and looked to see what whole chapters he could cut, then what whole scenes could be cut, then lines, then down to cutting individual words. In the process, he lost Jo's backstory that illuminated quite a bit about her character and why she is the way that she is. That backstory didn't disappear completely, though, and it became part of the next two books.
Do you know how a story ends when you start it?
There are two camps, he said. Some writers know and some don't want to know. His process works like this: he starts with a seed of an idea, leaves it in his head for a few weeks, maybe months, and lets it grow. Over the course of those weeks, the plot works itself out in his head, the characters, the motivations. At the end of that process, he knows how the book is going to go. In the first seven or eight books, he said, he went to a computer at that point and outlined the books. He hasn't done that in the last several, hasn't needed to.
Is there anything you'd change about Iron Lake if you could?
Laughing, he said he'd change the name of the town. There is a real place up on the Iron Range called Aurora, but it is not his Aurora, and it is about 40-50 miles from the fictional Aurora. He says this confuses readers who know Minnesota well--and when he did an event in the real Aurora, he said he had quite a bit of explaining to do. He also said he'd make the relationship between Jo and Sandy Parrant more nuanced.
How did you go about writing the Ojibwe culture, since you are not a part of it?
When he started, he said, he knew nothing at all about the Ojibwe culture. And like the cultural anthropology student he used to be at Stanford (before they kicked him out), he started where all academics start: by reading. He read all the early ethnographies, works by Ojibwe writers. Then, when he's finished a draft of a book, he gives it to several Ojibwe friends to read, to correct him on what he got wrong. The response from the Ojibwe community, he said, has been overwhelmingly positive.
In a separate question (see further down) about literary influences, Krueger mentioned his indebtedness to Tony Hillerman, who was really the first to write about another culture in a mystery novel. He mentioned Margaret Coel (and some other names I couldn't write fast enough to catch).
Minnesota has become quite a place for mystery writers--why do you think that is?
The flip answer is cabin fever, he said, laughing. (We all spent quite a bit of this conversation laughing.) At the end of a cold winter, it could make you want to kill somebody. But in all seriousness, he said that the choices and values that Minnesota has come to cultivate contribute to this: Minnesota has decided that the arts are important and Minnesota spends a lot of money on the arts, from film and theater to visual arts and writing. Minnesota has made itself into a place that cultivates and supports artists, which is why there are so many fine writers coming from and writing about the state. He said that he's tried to write about other environments where he's lived--Colorado, California--and they simply haven't inspired him in the same way that Minnesota has.
Do you base your characters on people you know?
Most of his characters are Frankenstein creations, bits and pieces of real people, human nature, that sort of thing. Every once in a while a real person does show up in a book, but that usually happens as a result of things like charity auctions, and he creates a character in a book specifically for that person. When he asks them, "Would you like to be a good person or a bad person?" the overwhelming answer was that people wanted to be bad--even his wife's cousin was thrilled to be written in as a prostitute. :)
Do you think about the block element of "too little information" when creating suspense?
Though I'm not sure he knew exactly what we were asking, Krueger said that the willing suspension of disbelief in a mystery novel is based on one thing: that a reader believes that a character is desperate enough, greedy enough, scared enough to commit murder.
What writers influenced you as you were starting to write mysteries and who do you read now?
He said that his father, being an English teacher, raised his kids on Literature With a Capital L. (And I anticipate this aspect being a part of our classroom conversation as we continue to discuss "what is literature?") So he was raised on the classics, not even reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. So when he started writing mysteries, he read Tony Hillerman and other contemporaries, and now he's going back to read the classics, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Ross McDonald and James M. Cain, those ones. (I wanted to talk to him more about this classic aspect, because we've read some of the same works--Poe and Conan Doyle and Christie--and Krueger did say to send him an email when we finish the book (this was in the spoiler alert about the character who died) and I might ask him to elaborate on this at that point.)
We asked other questions, about the role of the Windigo, about revision and drafting, about writing a series. We finished up by talking about his new non-Cork novel, Ordinary Grace, which is set in southern Minnesota in 1961 (it's being released in March) and I asked about the difference in writing a novel set in northern Minnesota and a novel set in southern Minnesota. For myself, I know these two areas fairly well and I know there would have to be some differences. He said in reality, the sense of place is just as important in Ordinary Grace as it is in the Cork novels, and we didn't really have time to get into the ways that the flat, agrarian, very-German aspects of the Minnesota River Valley shape people differently than the wooded areas of the Iron Range, other than he said that the very individualistic aspects of people in the north contrast very strongly with the need for community conforming in the more agrarian south.
At the end, we thanked him, signed off, and in the remaining few minutes, my class and I talked about what we'd just heard. They were so excited. Bubbly kind of sparkle in their eye kind of excited. A few of my students stayed after class as I packed up my bag, seemingly unwilling to want the experience to end. Yes, my dear students, this is learning at its best, where the conversations and the learning and what you know and what you don't know crosses the boundaries of the classroom and you take that energy with you into the rest of your day.