Growing up in a variety of states including Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas and Ohio (where he spent his fourth-grade year in Worthington), William Kent Krueger always knew he would become a writer.
But what this novelist with “not one drop of Native American blood” in him didn’t know was that he would produce a celebrated mystery series set in and around tribal lands in Minnesota and that his protagonist would be part Ojibwe.
“Lightning Strikes” is the 18th and newest book in Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series — a prequel that explores the adolescent years of the half-Irish, half-Native American former Tamarack County sheriff turned private investigator. Krueger (he goes by Kent) will talk about the book in an April 27 event presented by the Delaware County District Library.
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Born in Wyoming, Krueger briefly attended Stanford University in California until he was kicked out for being part of an office-occupying protest in the 1970s. He worked in logging, construction and freelance journalism until finally publishing his first book at age 48. “Iron Lake” started the Cork O’Connor series in 1998.
In addition to the series, Krueger, 71, is the author of two acclaimed stand-alone novels, “Ordinary Grace” and “This Tender Land.”
He lives with his wife of nearly 50 years in St. Paul, Minnesota, but spoke recently with the Dispatch from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Question: In “Lightning Strikes,” readers get to see Cork as a boy. Why did you decide to write this one?
Kruger: Across the course of the 17 previous books, I’ve made mention of individuals and events in his life that have been important and had an impact on him. My agent kept telling me this was rich territory. The truth is that I didn’t have another idea. But I had a ball with it. I pretty much patterned his adolescence after my own of him. I was a Boy Scout, delivered newspapers and got new perspectives on my parents.
Q: Will you return to your adult life?
Kruger: Yes, in the next book, “Fox Creek” (to be published in August), I bring him back to the adult years. I have two more Cork novels under contract, so there will be at least 21.
Q: The series is filled with Ojibwe characters, traditions and sensibilities. How did you get interested in writing about Native Americans, specifically the Ojibwe of the northern Midwest United States and Canada?
Kruger: In the beginning, it was a mercenary decision. I thought it was little use to try to write the Great American Novel. I wanted to write something that people would want to read, and everyone reads mysteries. I had never been a big mystery reader, but I began and one of the first (authors I read) was Tony Hillerman (who writes Navajo mysteries). And I thought nobody was doing that with the Ojibwe in Minnesota.
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Q: How did you learn enough to write about the Ojibwe?
Kruger: At the start, I knew almost nothing, but I had been an anthropology major in college. I did and do an enormous amount of reading… on the rituals, traditions. I’m always on the internet finding out what’s going on with Native Americans…. The question of cultural appropriation is one that I discuss a lot with readers. I try to point out that I am a white guy trespassing on a culture that’s not my home and I work hard to get it right but it’s not from an Ojibwe perspective. I do try to dispel a lot of the stereotypes about Natives.
Q: Do you hear from Ojibwe readers?
Kruger: I do, and those who’ve contacted me have been complimentary. I also have some of my Ojibwe friends read the drafts before they’re published.
Q: Is it hard to carry a character like Cork O’Connor through so many books?
Kruger: I haven’t found it so. Cork ages and his children age and relationships change. And I monkey around with a lot of things, structure, narrative points of view. I try to stretch my abilities in storytelling.
Q: Your books — not just the Cork O’Connor series but also “Ordinary Grace” and “The Tender Land” — have elements of the supernatural in them.
Kruger: They do, but I prefer to call it a spiritual element. One of the things that I’ve always believed is that there is so much more going on in life than we typically see with our eyes or understand with our brains.
Q: What do you remember about your one year spent living in Ohio?
Kruger: My father was working for Standard Oil Co. of Ohio, and we moved to Worthington, which I just loved. That was in 1960 and the suburbs hadn’t grown up around it. It had this wonderful small-town feel and I think it still does. Whenever I’m back in Ohio, I try to pass through Worthington.
at a glance
William Kent Krueger will appear in an event presented by the Delaware County District Library from 7 to 9 pm April 27, at The Barn at Stratford, 2690 Stratford Road, Delaware. Tickets cost $25 with proceeds benefiting the Friends of the Library. For details, go to www.delawarelibrary.org.