William Kent Krueger, THE RIVER WE REMEMBER

William Kent Krueger, THE RIVER WE REMEMBER

Zibby interviews William Kent Krueger about his novel THE RIVER WE REMEMBER, a dazzling, instant New York Times bestseller. Krueger shares insights into his writing process, the inspiration behind his work, and the importance of the setting as a character. This novel, which is set in 1958 Minnesota, revolves around a mysterious murder in a small town, but its deeper themes explore the impacts of war and the quest for healing. Krueger, not a Minnesota native, describes his profound connection to the state and how it influences his writing. And, reflecting on his father’s experience in World War II and its impact on family dynamics, Krueger illustrates how personal history can shape his stories. Finally, Krueger shares his best advice for aspiring writers (it includes writing from the heart and marrying someone with a stable job).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kent. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The River We Remember: A Novel.

William Kent Krueger: Pleasure to be with you. Thank you for the invitation.

Zibby: Of course. I have to say, this impressed my mother the most of probably any podcast I’ve done. She is your biggest fan ever. This Tender Land is literally her favorite book. She’s like, “No! I can’t believe it. You’re talking to him?”

Kent: Would you give her my best?

Zibby: I will. I will give her your best. I will make sure she listens. Actually, speaking of listening, I listened to part of this book on audiobook, which was really wonderful. I had this long Central Park walk. I got right into the feel of it. It was wonderful. Then read the rest on paper. Kudos to the audiobook team as well.

Kent: You know, I haven’t had a chance to listen to the audio version. I listened to the audition tape, the voice. Honestly, I don’t tend to listen to my audiobooks because no matter how good the reader is, they don’t read it quite the way I would.

Zibby: And you don’t want to?

Kent: I auditioned. Didn’t get the job.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Next time, you better pull some strings. For listeners who have not read The River We Remember, can you please tell them about this book?

Kent: The River We Remember is set in the summer of 1958. It takes place in Southern Minnesota in an area I call Black Earth County. It opens on Memorial Day, 1958, when the county’s leading citizen, a man named Jimmy Quinn, is found floating in the Alabaster River, which runs through town, dead from a shotgun blast and nearly naked. Zibby, this is truly a mystery because the question at the heart of the story is, who killed Jimmy Quinn? But that’s not really what it’s about.

Zibby: That’s true. I like that pitch, by the way. Very well done. Leaves some intrigue and all of that. I feel like the setting is as much a character as anybody else in this book. Tell me about the landscape, how you evoke this sense of imagery, and just how immersive you make it. I feel like we are all sort of trotting along as we go through the story.

Kent: I write profoundly out of a sense of place, as do most of the writers whose work I admire. I am not native to Minnesota. I didn’t move here until I was in my very early thirties so my wife could go to the University of Minnesota Law School. Before that, I was a nomad kid. I lived all over the place. I never really had anywhere that I called or thought of as home. I swear to you, the minute that I set foot in Minnesota, I knew I found home. I fell madly in love with this place. Every time I sit down to write a story set here, whether it’s up north in my New York Times best-selling Cork O’Connor Mystery series or if it’s in Southern Minnesota where all my standalones have been set, it is, in a way, a Valentine to this adopted homeland of mine. I did, in fact, spend a number of years growing up in the Midwest when I was a kid. My adolescence was spent there. My heart really is invested in that sense of place because it’s so important to me. When I used to teach creative writing, I always told my students, you should create a sense of place in the same way that you create character because place has all of the characteristics that we would think of when we’re establishing character. It has a voice. It has a face. If you’ve been in the Midwest, you know it has a particular smell. It has a culture to it. I create my place in the way I create all of the important characters of my stories because I think place is one of the most important characters in a story.

Zibby: Very true. Who are some of those authors you mentioned that in the “authors you admire” place has an equal role?

Kent: In the mystery genre, I might cite Louise Penny, her Three Pines in Canada; C.J. Box or Craig Johnson in Wyoming; certainly, James Lee Burke, his Dave Robicheaux series, which is set in the New Orleans area. In terms of the genre, you’ve got a few there. Certainly, there are fine writers outside our genre we think of as literary authors who have a profound sense of place. My favorite novel of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird. The sense of place that Harper Lee establishes there is just profound. I think we all should study that novel for lessons in how to create that profound sense of time and place. Hers was also set in an earlier time. Mine is set in 1958, which causes my novel to be called a historical novel, which always tickles me because I was alive then. I don’t think of myself as a historical figure. Not yet anyway.

Zibby: For my publishing company, we don’t publish historical fiction. I was born in 1976. I’m like, anything after that is not historical fiction. It’s too depressing. Oh, my goodness. If I were a student of yours in your creative writing class and you’ve sold me on the idea that place is just as important, how do you do it? What are two things to keep in mind when you’re really creating a great sense of place?

Kent: I used to tell my students the first thing you don’t do is give your reader a travelogue. There’s nothing that’s going to slow a story down than detail after detail after detail of sense of place. Typically, I would encourage them to find what is specific that can give a larger sense of the place, and maybe unique, something that they’re not going to see somewhere else. Then slowly across the course of your work, you give them more additional details. You build place as you build character, over time and patiently.

Zibby: Interesting. I was drawn to the scene, in particular, where Jimmy’s family is told that he’s not coming back and the way that they respond to the loss, the children and the wife, and how even though they thought maybe he was up to no good, this is for good. Tell me about how you recreate that sense of timing and the emotion that it evokes in the moment because a lot of people have been in that moment.

Kent: When you write a mystery, part of the art is misdirection. While you are trying to give important information, you’re also trying to give clues in a way that the reader is not necessarily going to pick up on immediately. When I wrote the scene in which Sheriff Brody Dern delivers the news of Jimmy Quinn’s death, his family reacts in the way many families would react, with this stun. You can’t quite comprehend the reality of it quite yet. His son responds in a very different way from the rest of the family. There’s a great deal of resentment on his part. The others, as Brody Dern reflects on it later, understands — he has delivered many forms of bad news to families. He understands that grief, if it’s going to come, can take a while and can take unusual forms. That’s how I constructed that particular scene, with all that in mind.

Zibby: Have you received bad news? Did you draw on any of your own on those moments where you had trouble processing what you know from what you feel or all of that?

Kent: Zibby, I have never received that kind of bad news, but I think one of the reasons I’m a storyteller, and those of us who are storytellers are practitioners of our art, is that for whatever reason, we possess the ability to sink ourselves deeply into the imagining of experiences, events that we have not been a part of or had ourselves and find the words to create them in a realistic way on the page. If you’re really a storyteller, I think you sink yourself so deeply into the imagining of things that are maybe a little deeper than conscious thought. I think you touch the universals. When you come up from these places, you bring insights that are — you can just sit back and say, I have no idea where that came from. Thank you, Lord.

Zibby: Interesting. I know, it is magic what our subconscious can do.

Kent: Boy, howdy.

Zibby: When you started writing this book, what was the initial spark? Where did you start? What made you want to write it? What was the piece of it that appealed to you?

Kent: On my elevator version, I said that that’s not what the book is really about. Here’s what the book is really about. In the early 1940s, my father graduated from high school, enlisted in the military service, and headed over to Europe to fight in World War II. He was just a kid. He was eighteen years old. He came back years later, a man deeply wounded in body and in spirit by what the war had done to him. I recognize now that he was probably suffering from PTSD, but they didn’t talk about that back then. If they made reference to that at all, they called it shell shock or battle fatigue. When I was a kid, like all kids, I pestered my dad for war stories. Did you kill any Germans, Dad? He absolutely refused to talk about it. Like the fathers of my friends, guys who, like my dad, had gone away to fight in World War II or the Korean War, they all went away boys. Some of them weren’t even old enough to shave yet. They came back men wounded deeply by the horrors that they had seen and the horrors that they had been a part of. I’ve wondered all my life, how could anyone heal from that kind of wound? What about the people they left behind, their wives, their mothers, their fathers, their sisters, people who, I’m sure, were praying for them desperately while they were off fighting and maybe who, in the end, lost them on the battlefield? How did they heal from their wounds? How did anybody find a way to heal? That’s really what The River We Remember is about.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. What gets you out of bed in the morning to keep writing? What is it about it that is just so appealing to you?

Kent: I’ve always been a storyteller as far back as I can remember. I began over forty years ago, a regimen that I follow to this day. I get up at six o’clock every morning seven days a week. Back in the old days before the pandemic made us shelter in place, I would go to a coffee shop and spend the first two or three hours of the day writing. During the pandemic, I had to exchange my kitchen counter for the coffee shop, but I still write every morning for two or three hours. The idea of doing what I love most first thing in the day just pops me right out of bed, particularly if I’m at work on a project that has captured my heart in a profound way. That’s usually the way it is. I typically don’t write something that I can’t invest my heart in. That has certainly been true of my standalones, all of those novels that I set in Southern Minnesota.

Zibby: Interesting. What is something that someone who hasn’t been to Southern Minnesota should know about it?

Kent: So much of the country ignores the Midwest, the Heartland. We’re the great flyover. The sophisticated people on the East Coast and the sophisticated people on the West Coast, they really have no idea of what they’re missing. The Heartland is such a beautiful place. It has an agrarian beauty. It has beautiful little river valleys. If you drive through in the spring and the crops are just coming up and the fields are these beautiful rows of green sprouts or you come through during the summer and you see the corn knee-high by the Fourth of July or you drive through in the fall at harvest time and you see those big combines out there late into night harvesting the corn or the wheat or the soybeans or whatever they’re harvesting, it’s just stunningly beautiful, particularly in the fall when we have so much color here. You can tell, I hope, that my heart is in the Heartland. I try to give that love to readers. When I write novels set here in Minnesota, I try to make them a Valentine to this adopted home of mine.

Zibby: That’s lovely. It’s really wonderful. Who do you miss writing about the most? Which character in The River We Remember?

Kent: In The River We Remember, I love Connie Graff. He was such a citizen of his time, a guy who has lots of wisdom, has lots of guilt for his own reasons, has this huge, embracing heart. I loved creating him as a character. I loved spending time with him. The other character that I really appreciated a lot was Scott Madison, a kid who’s trying to understand what it is to be a man, particularly in the post-World War II, post-Korean War era when we were looked at as a victorious nation. We had heroes abounding, the Audie Murphy “to hell and back” kind of a thing. Scott’s really struggling to figure out what it is to be a man. Those of us, particularly, who grew up in that period really understand that because for us, so much of manhood seemed to be linked to your ability to be a warrior. Scott’s really struggling with that. I so identified and loved that kid.

Zibby: How did you come to terms with — I imagine your relationship with your father, if he’s closed off to talking about war, might have closed off a whole section of him to you, and the emotional connection, perhaps. What was that relationship like?

Kent: That was absolutely true, but I think that was true of so many men of my father’s generation. These were guys who were typically unemotional. They’ll talk sports with you. They’ll teach you how to ride a bike, throw a football, hit a baseball. When it comes to talking about feelings, they’re just not comfortable with that. Later on in his life, my father was much better at it. When I was growing up, that wasn’t him. He was a loving father, wonderful father, but we didn’t talk heart-to-heart stuff.

Zibby: Have you done things differently yourself?

Kent: I hope so. I think you would have to talk to my children to find if that is in fact true, that I have opened my heart to them. I hope I have.

Zibby: They always say we do everything in opposite. It’s either in reaction to and we do the opposite, or we do the same. It’s hard to just make up the rules of parenting. It comes from somewhere, some response to what .

Kent: Absolutely. The truth is, in the end, we don’t really have an idea of what our children think of us as parents until they are parents themselves and they begin to share, oh, now I get it. I understand. Oh, I see what you had to deal with when I was growing up.

Zibby: So true, oh, my goodness. In terms of plotting out your novel and figuring out when to tell the reader what, do you outline? What is your process of putting these books together?

Kent: I follow two different processes depending upon the kind of story that I’m going to be writing. If I’m writing a story in my Cork O’Connor series, those are all, essentially, mysteries. Mystery is a very tightly woven fabric of storytelling. Everything depends so significantly on everything else. I think that the success of a mystery depends largely on the timing of the reveals. When do you give the reader the clues that are going to be necessary to solving the mystery at the heart of the story? When I write a story in my Cork O’Connor series, I think that story through as completely as I can before I ever put my fingers to the keyboard. At the end of that long process, it can take weeks or sometimes months. I know how the story begins. I know how it ends. I know who did what to whom and why. I know the themes that I want to weave through the story.

With my standalones, Ordinary Grace, This Tender Land, and now The River We Remember, I wanted a different process. A mystery is an intellectual construct. You create a puzzle in your head. You’re working like crazy to make sure all the pieces fit seamlessly together. My standalones didn’t come from my head. They came from my heart. I wanted a process that would help the reader feel like I was telling you this story straight from my own heart. Going into the writing of these novels, these standalones, I’ve only known a few elements that I was going to include in the story. Then I let the story reveal itself to me as I was writing it, let the characters come to me, reveal themselves to me. That creative process, I got to tell you, Zibby, is just extraordinary. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, but I would never approach a Cork O’Connor novel that way.

Zibby: Interesting. How do you keep all of these going? Do you ever get tired of it? How do you feel about having to continue to do book publicity and talk to people like me after writing so many books? Do you get tired of this? Do you like it? I don’t mean me specifically. Going on tour when you have to market all of your books, do you get tired of that? Are there parts of it that you absolutely love or parts of it you like less? I’m curious.

Kent: The first cold splash of reality that every published author is hit with with that first book is the realization that probably, your publisher’s not going to do a lot to help get that book into the hands of readers. That’s going to be on your shoulders. In addition, then, to being a writer, you have to become a promoter. Some people are better at it than others. Very early on, one of the primary forms, for me, of promotion were personal appearances. With my advance on my very first novel, because my publisher didn’t get together a tour, I put a lot of money into touring across the country myself and meeting booksellers everywhere. Those relationships that I established with that very first book are still important to me today. I still think, for me, the best and most enjoyable form of promotion are the personal appearances that I make. For The River We Remember, I have somewhere between forty-five and fifty events that I’m doing. I’m about halfway finished with those. We have quite a few ahead of me. Then you’ve got to be on social media. That, maybe, is the most difficult part for me. I have a Facebook page and Twitter and Instagram. I have to come up with content to put out there for readers so they don’t forget who I am. That’s a little onerous at times and can sometimes be intrusive.

Zibby: Don’t you get tired? You don’t get tired? You seem to have boundless energy.

Kent: You caught me on a good morning. I just got back from a very long swing in the South and in the Southeast for The River We Remember. I was tired yesterday. I just came back from a bike ride. Nothing energizes me like a bike ride. I have a lot still going ahead. I know that I will be very tired by the end of everything. I will be saying to myself, never again. Then the book that will come out next year will come out, and I’ll probably be doing the same thing once again.

Zibby: What is the book coming out next year?

Kent: It will be the next book in my Cork O’Connor series, number twenty in my Cork O’Connor series, a novel called Spirit Creek. I’m sorry, Spirit Crossing. It’s called Spirit Crossing. I’m fine. My brain is fried.

Zibby: At least you’re not perfect.

Kent: Who is?

Zibby: Are you going to do a standalone after the next one? Are you going to keep alternating? Yes?

Kent: Not necessarily keep alternating. I have contractual obligations that I have to meet in my Cork O’Connor series. The manuscript to the book that will be coming out next year is the first of two books that I’m under contract to write for the series. Before I embark on that next Cork O’Connor novel, I have a standalone that has just been pounding at the door begging to be written for some time now. I’ll probably spend a couple of years on that manuscript.

Zibby: How long did The River We Remember take?

Kent: The initial writing of it took two years. Then I set it aside for six years. Then I came back to it and spent another year and a half on it.

Zibby: Why did you set it aside?

Kent: It wasn’t good enough. My publisher had paid me an enormous amount for that manuscript. Shortly before deadline I let them know, “There is no way I know how to tell this story correctly right now. I’m not going to give you something that is, in my opinion, failed simply because I need to meet contract.” They were really very understanding. They told me, “You still owe us a companion novel to Ordinary Grace, a standalone novel.” What I gave them instead, Zibby, was a novel called This Tender Land, which ended up spending six months on The New York Times best-seller list. I think all in all, it was a good decision.

Zibby: They were okay with it, I guess. Good for you for trusting your instincts and all of that. It would’ve been so easy just to hand it in.

Kent: Again, when I used to teach creative writing, I would tell my students, don’t write what the industry says you should be writing, what your agent says you should be writing, what you think your publisher wants, what you think readers want. Write what’s in your heart. Write what your heart tells you to write. I think in the long run, you’re going to be much happier with what you do and with yourself. The River We Remember, when I was writing it, I just hadn’t heard the voice of that story really speak to me in a way that I could do justice to it. Because I had a contractual obligation to meet, I worked on it. The whole time, I felt like I was pushing against the river. As a result, I just botched that early attempt.

Zibby: People think, though, by the time you’re as successful as you, you can’t botch books. It just doesn’t happen, but it does.

Kent: If you stop challenging yourself as a writer, readers are going to feel that. They’ll stop reading you.

Zibby: That’s true. I know you’ve already given a lot of advice, but what’s one parting piece of advice for aspiring authors?

Kent: I have two pieces of advice to give to aspiring writers. The first is this. Write because it’s what you love to do, not because you think it’s going to make you rich and famous. The second is this. Marry somebody with a good job.

Zibby: That’s great. No one has ever given me that advice before. Kent, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Congratulations on The River We Remember. Thank you. I feel like I just took a little trip to the Midwest. I appreciate it.

Kent: I have to tell you, I’ve just had a delightful time. Thank you very much.

Zibby: Good. I’m so glad. I’ll tell my mom you said hello. She’s from Ohio, by the way, so I feel like you get some Midwest points for that.

Kent: There you go. You take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

THE RIVER WE REMEMBER by William Kent Krueger

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