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Author William Kent Krueger On His 22nd Book, His Love For Minnesota, and Advice For Aspiring Authors

Friday, September 08, 2023

“Every art requires discipline.”

By Diana Tramontano

William Kent Krueger is the New York Times bestselling author of 22 books, and Zibby Mag is thrilled to help celebrate his latest novel, The River We Remember, a September Book of the Month pick! Though Krueger moved around as a child, he and his family ultimately settled in Minnesota, where he sets many of his stories. Krueger shares his writing process, the experience of publishing numerous books (including 19 books in the Cork O’Conner series), and the inspiration behind The River We Remember. For the aspiring authors out there, Krueger also offers invaluable advice about what he wishes he knew before publishing a book.

Though Krueger moved around as a child, he and his family ultimately settled in Minnesota, where he sets many of his stories. Krueger shares his writing process, the experience of publishing numerous books, and the inspiration behind The River We Remember. For the aspiring authors out there, Krueger also offers invaluable advice about what he wishes he knew before publishing a book.

Read the full interview below.

Zibby Mag: We’re so excited about the upcoming release of The River We Remember, so can you tell us a little about the research and inspiration that went into writing this novel?

William Kent Krueger: My father marched off to fight in World War II immediately following his graduation from high school. He returned years later suffering from what I now realize was PTSD, although back then it was called shell shock or battle fatigue. His experience was so horrific that when, as a child, I pestered him for war stories, he refused to talk about it. He was like so many men of his generation who’d gone away to war as kids, 18 years old, some not even old enough to shave. When they came home from their service, they were men deeply wounded by the horrors they’d seen and the horrors they’d been a part of. All my life I’ve wondered: how did any of these men manage to heal from such deep wounds? That was the seed for the story I wrote.

The novel is set in the summer of 1958, and I did a lot of digging to make sure that all of my cultural references—songs, movies, books, current events—were accurate. Because my father refused to talk about his experiences in battle, I read a slew of personal accounts by those who’d fought in the wars of the 20th century, trying to get a sense of how humans respond to the bloody necessities of brutal conflict. In writing this story, I came to a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices made by my father and the men like him and further confirmed my belief that all the grand ideas of noble warriors and warfare are myths that shroud the terrible truth of what we ask of those we send into battle.

What are the most exciting and challenging aspects of writing?

The initial imagining of a story always excites me, all the great possibilities I see ahead. The story exists in a kind of golden haze at first, and I always delight in the scenes that begin to emerge from that haze. The difficulty comes when I finally sit down to make sense of it all, weave the disparate elements into a cohesive and compelling whole. When I made my first attempt at writing this story, I failed miserably. I simply couldn’t hear the story speak to me in a way profound enough to write it true, as Hemingway might have said. I completed the initial draft of the manuscript several years ago, and although I had a contractually obligated deadline, I told my publisher that I couldn’t deliver. They were understanding, thank God. It took another six years before I was able to pull the story together in a way that completely satisfied me. I never want to publish a manuscript in which my heart isn’t fully invested. The hardest part of this whole experience was not feeling as if I was a failure for having botched that first attempt and having the patience to wait until the story spoke to me in a voice so true that I knew I could do it justice.

Is there anything in particular you hope people take away from reading The River We Remember?

I suppose in many ways this can be read as an anti-war novel. It deals with the terrible toll war takes on the human spirit. It’s not just about those who march off to war, but also about those left behind—mothers, wives, fathers—who pray desperately for their loved ones and who, in the end, may lose them. But there are domestic battles we fight as well, physical and mental abuse in so many forms, including the hurt that comes from ignorance and bigotry. Human beings are wounded in myriad ways besides warfare, and their healing is also a part of this story. In the end, I suppose, I wanted readers to have a sense that healing is possible. My own belief is that it begins with forgiveness. We need to forgive ourselves for the harm we’ve done to others and we need to forgive others for the harm they’ve done to us.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you fell in love with Minnesota, and why you’ve chosen to set a lot of your stories in Minnesota?

I come from a nomadic family. Before I graduated from high school, I’d lived in ten different houses, in eight different towns, in six different states. I never had a place that I truly thought of or called home. My wife and I moved to Minnesota more than forty years ago so that she could attend law school at the University of Minnesota. I swear that the minute I set foot in the state, I knew I’d found home. The land and its people spoke to me in a deeply welcoming way. Maybe some of this was because I’d spent several of my growing-up years in the Midwest. I’m a firm believer that once the Midwest sets a hook in your heart it will always pull you back. That’s certainly been true for me. Although the locale for almost all the 19 novels in my Cork O’Connor mystery series has been the stunningly beautiful Northwoods of northern Minnesota, every one of my standalones takes place in the southern region of the state, which has a very Midwest feel to it—rolling farmlands, vast fields of corn and soybeans, small, lovely river valleys. My heart is in Minnesota now, and whenever I write a novel, it’s always, in a sense, a valentine to this adopted homeland of mine.

Now that you’ve successfully published so many books and have seen amazing responses from readers, has the excitement around pub day changed? Do you still feel the same excitement and nerves you felt when publishing your first book?

From the first, I’ve always felt a great deal of fear and trepidation surrounding the release of a novel. Even today, after publishing 22 books, I still have a great deal of anxiety about the reception the new work will receive from critics and readers. But the truth is that by the time the novel is released, I’m deeply into the writing of the next manuscript, so my focus is mostly there. Which is good in many ways, not least of which is that it continues to remind me that I’m on a journey, and each novel is simply another stop along the way.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? What do you wish you knew before publishing a book?

Whenever aspiring writers ask me for advice, this is the first thing I tell them: marry someone with a good job! The second piece of advice I offer is about the practice of writing. Every art requires discipline. Whether you’re a visual artist or an actor or a dancer or a sculptor, if you’re going to accomplish anything, I believe you need to approach your art in a disciplined way. For more than 40 years, I’ve risen before 6:00 a.m., seven days a week, and bent to the work of writing. You don’t have to write for hours. You can accomplish a lot in 45 minutes, if that’s all the time you’ve got. This discipline is a confirmation to you and to those who love you of the importance of writing in your life. As for what I wish I’d known, it’s all about the business that goes along with being a published author. The fantasy is that you write the best story you possibly can, and your publisher will do the rest. The truth is that in the beginning every author should expect to shoulder the responsibility for getting their book into the hands of readers. This requires a lot of work that has nothing to do with the deep pleasure that comes from the creative process.

William Kent Krueger briefly attended Stanford University—before being kicked out for radical activities. After that, he logged timber, worked construction, tried his hand at freelance journalism, and eventually ended up researching child development at the University of Minnesota. He’s been married for fifty years to a marvelous woman who is a retired attorney. He makes his home in St. Paul, a city he dearly loves.

Posted September 7, 2023