GLEN STUBBE • GSTUBBE@STARTRIBUNE.COMFor years, writer William Kent Krueger has been writing his books in St. Paul coffee shops – for a long time at the St. Clair Broiler, and now at the Como Park Grill in his new neighborhood.
No one is truly ordinary, of course. But it would be easy to be fooled by William Kent Krueger.
To look at him as he sits in the front window of the Como Park Grill — tapping at his laptop, sipping his coffee — is to see someone who could be any guy in any coffee shop anywhere. He wears a khaki ballcap, a faded denim shirt and a neatly trimmed beard, and when he glances up, his blue eyes are merry and gentle. He looks like a nice guy. He is a nice guy.
But observers cannot see inside his head: They can’t see the steely determination that drives him, or the dark thoughts of betrayal, conspiracy, kidnapping, rape and murder that fascinate him.
“When you’re a writer, you’re always looking for conflict,” said Krueger, known to his friends as Kent. “It’s conflict that drives great stories.”
Krueger sees conflict, or the potential for conflict, everywhere; it is his stock in trade. He is the author of a string of mysteries starring Cork O’Connor, a private detective who lives in a remote town in northern Minnesota. Over time, Cork has survived blizzards and Lake Superior storms, tracked down bad guys, rescued a baby, encountered a beheaded dog, lost his wife in a plane crash, nearly lost his son to a shooter, been shot himself. Through it all, he has been at odds with himself, his Irish half not always in sync with his Ojibwe half.
“Windigo Island,” Krueger’s 16th novel (and 14th Cork O’Connor book), will be published Tuesday. It is the mystery of a young Ojibwe girl whose body washes up on an island in Lake Superior and whose friend has disappeared, and it delves into the world of the sexual trafficking of young teens.
Krueger’s last five novels have made the New York Times bestseller list and sell all over the world. (His seventh novel, “Thunder Bay,” is called “Roar of Blood” in Japan.) He is just “a few good months away from selling his 1 millionth book,” said his publicist, David Brown of Atria Books, to whom Krueger has dedicated his most recent book. He is tied with Louise Erdrich for winning the most Minnesota Book Awards — five.
But his heart belongs to his 2013 stand-alone novel, “Ordinary Grace” — not a Cork O’Connor mystery, but a quiet coming-of-age story set in southern Minnesota during the summer of 1961. It won several national awards, including this year’s Edgar Award for best novel, and became the favorite of book clubs and “one community-one reads” across the country.
It’s the book that was pushing inside Krueger for years, trying to get out.
That steely determination
Krueger was almost 50 when he sold his first two books, “Iron Lake” and “Boundary Waters,” in a bidding war. That heady success (“one of the most exciting moments of my whole writing career,” he said) came after 15 years of diligent, daily work.
“I served a very long apprenticeship,” he said.
For those 15 years, Krueger got up early every morning, walked two blocks to the St. Clair Broiler (then his neighborhood coffee shop) and wrote for precisely one hour and 15 minutes.
“At 7:15 I closed my notebook, paid for my coffee, and went outside, because at 7:20 a bus would pick me up and take me to the university where I worked,” Krueger said. “I did that day in and day out.”
Over those 15 years, he had some modest successes. He sold some short stories, won a Bush artist fellowship, giddily quit his job to write full-time — and fairly quickly went back to work. But he kept writing, arriving at the Broiler every morning as they unlocked the doors at 6 a.m.
“I was able to establish discipline, but I became aware of the fact that I was doing a great deal more,” he said. “I was feeding myself. I was feeding that artistic hunger in me.”
Now 64, he makes his living writing books. He is a popular speaker, and his book tours take him all over the country. But he still gets up every day at the crack of dawn, walks to the coffee shop and writes. He writes when he’s on vacation, and when he’s on book tours. He writes for four hours on weekdays, two on weekends.
“I’ve seen him at conferences,” said Gary Shulze, co-owner of Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in south Minneapolis. Between sessions, Krueger isn’t socializing — “he’s in the nearest coffee shop, typing away. He doesn’t take a break. He works his butt off.”
No ordinary book
That discipline is what allowed Krueger to write “Ordinary Grace,” a novel he had been thinking about for years.
“The summer I was 13 years old is a summer I have always remembered extremely well,” he said. “I wanted to go back and recall that summer.” He also wanted to write a story “that would allow me to explore more deeply questions for a spiritual journey.”
“Ordinary Grace” is told by a narrator named Frank Drum who is looking back on the summer he was 13. (“Frank is the me I wish I would have been,” Krueger said. “Frank doesn’t follow the rules. I was a Boy Scout.”) The story hinges on several deaths that happened that summer and the repercussions for Frank and his family.
The process of writing the book was unusual for him. “I always think the Cork O’Connor novels out pretty much completely before I begin to write them, so I know how they begin and how they end,” he said. “I didn’t do that with ‘Ordinary Grace.’ The story just rolled out of me. I just followed it. I would come here in the morning not having any idea what I was going to write that day, but just believing that whatever it was was going to be right.”
He worked on it for three years, carving out time between writing Cork O’Connor mysteries. He had no contract for the book, which he found liberating. “I would write whatever I wanted to write. I was doing something that I was so compelled to do.”
The reviews were almost entirely positive. The Detroit Free Press compared it to “To Kill a Mockingbird”; the Star Tribune praised its deep characters; the Washington Post said his “elegy to innocence is a deeply memorable tale.”
Has its publication changed Krueger’s life? His approach to writing? Nah. He still gets up early, walks to the coffee shop, writes for hours.
He is working on a companion book called “This Tender Land,” which is set in the same place, and he thinks there will be a third book, but he doesn’t yet know what that is. Meanwhile, he has a contract for at least one more O’Connor book and hopes there will be more. “I have no intention of abandoning Cork,” he said.
But “Ordinary Grace,” he said, “freed me. I don’t have to write only Cork O’Connor novels now. I’m liberated. I can write whatever I want to write.”