By Julie Kramer
William Kent Krueger’s twelve-year quest to make the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list is a tale as compelling as the ones he writes featuring Cork O’Connor, a half Ojibwe/half Irish private investigator in Minnesota’s remote north woods.
Krueger’s work brought acclaim – plenty of awards and starred reviews – but not widespread sales. He remained determined to hit the list and that magic happened with the tenth book in his series, VERMILLION DRIFT. That success followed with three more NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers – and most recently, TAMARACK COUNTY – which received starred reviews from PUBLISHERS WEEKLY and BOOKLIST, yet faced a special challenge.
You’re living every writer’s dream: to break out. How did you grow from mid-list to A-List?
I’d love to say it was my incredible progression as an author, that the quality just got better and better and better, but I believe I’ve written quality books all along. What finally made the difference was my publisher’s decision to put money behind the promotion of the book. They started doing multi-level promotions at Barnes and Noble and Amazon and other outlets and actually the first hit, VERMILLION DRIFT, was kind of a surprise to them, too. After that they were willing to spend money to get the book on the up front tables, which is certainly the kind of thing that helps propel an already good book onto the best seller list.
Every mid-list author knows this. You can do everything possible that you can do – great website blog, tour, lots of wonderful promotional materials, but until your publisher gets behind you and starts putting that coop money there so that it’s displayed everywhere it just ain’t going to happen.
What do you think made your publisher – Atria (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) – back you?
I’d proved I could deliver a book a year to consistently starred reviews, consistently solid climbing sales. But another element comes into play in all of this. The wave effect. That is, the more books you have, the more people get on board, and eventually that kind of crests. And I think that cresting of my own work and building readership dovetailed with my publishers decision to get behind me and promote me more. VERMILLION DRIFT hit the NEW YORK TIMES list at 34, NORTHWEST ANGLE hit at 18, TRICKSTER’S POINT hit at 12. So the sales graph line was always going up. And that’s one of the problems, suddenly the expectation is not only that the next book is going to hit the best seller list, but it has to do better than the last.
Your current novel, TAMARACK COUNTY, was caught in a dispute between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster, reportedly over book pricing. That meant the book chain wouldn’t allow you to sign there or stock many copies of your new book. B&N and S&S settled about two weeks ago, the day of your release. How did that conflict affect you?
The standoff between my publisher and B&N was certainly a deep concern as the release of TAMARACK COUNTY approached. I tried to be as proactive as possible, getting the word out to readers that they should patronize their local independent booksellers (always a good thing regardless of circumstances). Like so much about the publishing/book-selling business, in the end, I simply had to let go of the worry. I’d done all that, as an author, I could do. If you’re not careful, this is exactly the kind of situation in this incomprehensible business that can drive you nuts. In the end, TAMARACK COUNTY debuted at #16 on the NEW YORK TIMES list. A great relief! And maybe evidence that all the independent booksellers out there really can have a significant impact.
Let’s talk about Cork’s love life. IN HEAVEN’S KEEP, you killed off his wife, Jo. Do you have any regrets?
Do readers think you’re mean and heartless?
One question I’m sure to be asked whenever I do an event is why did you kill Jo? What I try to do is write fiction depicting life in as realistic a way as I can possibly manage. And one of the things that happens in life is we lose people that we love and we have to figure out how to live beyond that. That was the question for Cork and his family – how do we heal from Jo’s death and move forward? And if you look at the progression of the series, the next three books are about that healing process.
How risky is it when an author kills off a principal character in a series?
This is important, because how much tension do you get out of putting your central protagonist in danger? The astute readers knows you have to pull his or her ass out of the fire. One thing that does is signal to my readership Cork is always going to be there, but anybody else I put in danger, you can’t be sure of, and that’s where the true suspense comes in. The other thing losing a character does is keep the series dynamic. I want readers to open a book not knowing what I’m going to give them this time.
So Cork’s a widower. Do your readers want him to date?
Yeah. After Jo died, a lady wrote me: First of all Mr. Krueger, I want to tell you that I love the Cork O’Connor series. I’ve got to tell you I’m a grandmother and just finished VERMILLION DRIFT and Cork just seems so lost and so lonely. When is he going to get some? That’s exactly how she put it. So I wrote back and said, keep reading because in TRICKSTER’S POINT which was several books beyond that Cork finds his love life. In TAMARACK COUNTY he almost loses his love life because the course of true love never runs smooth. But in the book I’m working on now, Cork’s new love and Cork will solidify their relationship.
When writing a series, some authors age their main characters, such as Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch; other protagonists don’t, such as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Even the Hardy Boys stayed boys for more than sixty years. Do you ever wish you’d kept Cork in a time warp?
I think one of the best decisions I made was to age Cork and the other characters involved in the stories. What this does, I believe, is keep the characters and their lives dynamic. Every time I sit down to write another in the series, I’m writing about different people. Their lives, their perspectives, their relationships are different from when I last visited them. It’s always an intriguing adventure discovering who they are now. And I firmly believe this is one element of the series that readers appreciate as well. Mostly, I think Cork has mellowed with age. He’s still a kick-ass protagonist, but family seems to be the most important element in his life – kind of like me.
Your books are released first in hardcover, later in paperback. A few years ago your publisher changed your paperback size from mass market to trade. Why?
That decision was made to change readers’ perception of the work. Mass-market paperback is thought of as a throwaway beach read, whereas a trade paperback carries a little more literary weight. Not just a mystery, but a literary mystery.
The business of publishing is changing. Does talk about the future scare you?
The demise of publishing was being predicted when I entered. I think the fear of digital books is overplayed. The way I look at it is, it augments what’s already out there in the same way that audio books augment what’s out there. It’s a different way to offer readers the story. I don’t care how readers come to my story. I just want them to read the book or listen to the book.
Some in publishing think author touring doesn’t matter anymore – that it’s been replaced by online social networking. Yet, you do at least 50 events for each book. How effective is that face-to-face contact with fans?
I absolutely believe touring is important for two reasons. Independent booksellers are going to hand-sell your books like crazy if they like you. That groundswell movement can lift the book up. We see that time and time again. The second reason is the more you do the appearances and return to those stores, the larger and larger the audience grows from there. And those people go out and give you word of mouth. I understand what publishers are saying, that if you don’t use the internet you are missing out on that opportunity. But why would you want to utilize one and ignore the other? They are both very helpful venues.
This spring your publisher released a stand-alone novel, ORDINARY GRACE. You were riding a good wave with Cork O’Connor, why did you want to write something different?
I had other stories speaking to me that I couldn’t turn away from. ORDINARY GRACE was certainly that way. My publisher long ago indicated they only wanted Cork O’Connor novels from me – after the sales debacle of the DEVIL’ S BED, which was the only stand-alone thriller I’d ever done. It came out to great reviews, but nobody bought it because it wasn’t a Cork O’Connor novel.
So when the idea for ORDINARY GRACE came to me, and it was such a compelling idea, I knew it was going to be an enormous risk to write because I didn’t think my publisher would be interested in it. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in it. But the story comes to you and speaks to you in a way you can’t turn your back on. So I had to write it. It’s the best book I’ve ever written. It’s the book that I think will have the longest legs.
To learn more about William Kent Krueger, please visit his website.
His next Cork O’Connor book, WINDIGO ISLAND, will be released in Fall 2014. THIS TENDER LAND, the sister novel to ORDINARY GRACE, is scheduled for release in Fall 2015.