Exclusive: William Kent Krueger On the Art of Literary Suspense

By Clay Stafford

Literary suspense is a term tossed around as a genre, but it’s not really; literary suspense is more of a writing technique. It is an expansive term that goes across genres and, sometimes, no genres at all. It is a style of writing that cares as much for the way a sentence is framed, as it does for plot and character.

There is a sense of anticipation not present in other books, as though each sentence—and not just the last line of each chapter—propels the reader uncontrollably to the next. And it is a style of writing that elevates a book, not within its genre, but above its genre to a place ethereal—should I dare say the arrogant term “literature.” And while many excellent writers and many excellent works come to mind, there is one particular author who bridges that gap for me in the mystery genre: William Kent Krueger. And to be specific, one particular book from the mystery field: Ordinary Grace.

Clay – Kent, I’ve read your Cork O’Connor novels, all first-rate, second-to-none, but it was Ordinary Grace that won you an Edgar Award. Yet, when it was pitched before it was written, it was the novel that no one wanted, the novel you had to write “on spec” on your own. But, it was the novel that put you on the map with the Edgar. It’s the one that resonates with many new readers that I speak with. Tell us about the writing of that novel.

Kent I hope all writers, at some point in their careers, have the experience of finding the story that feels to them as if they were always meant to write it. That’s how I felt about Ordinary Grace. Yes, it was an idea my publisher was pretty tepid about, but it was a story that spoke to me on such a deep level that I had to write it. The story came to me in a unique way, very organically, as I bent to the work. Honestly, it was the easiest piece of writing I’ve ever done, and this was, I believe, because I was tapping the deep roots of my own experience in creating the story.

“My advice to writers of mysteries, or any writer for that matter, is to remember that a story is not about what happens; it’s really about the people things happen to.”

Clay – So many people have been attracted to Ordinary Grace who would not necessarily read the Cork O’Connor novels. These are non-mystery readers. What do you think is the attraction and how can other writers incorporate what you did with that book into their own works?

Kent Although the story has a solid mystery component, it’s not really a whodunnit. It’s a novel about family, about faith, about the painful way in which wisdom comes to us, things all people understand and can relate to. Ultimately it is, as the title suggests, about the power of grace in its everyday expression as human beings relate to one another, especially in our willingness to forgive and to embrace the brokenness in others and in ourselves. And so it reaches for places in the heart that a typical mystery might not. My advice to writers of mysteries, or any writer for that matter, is to remember that a story is not about what happens; it’s really about the people things happen to.

Even from the first lines of Ordinary Grace and another random Krueger book, which I had a staff member pull at her unguided discretion from the shelf (to ensure I wasn’t stacking the deck), you can almost tell immediately that there is something different about the prose of Ordinary Grace, a different style that does not fall squarely into what one might think is a traditional mystery. Listen:

He woke long before it was necessary, had wakened in this way for weeks, troubled and afraid. —Northwest Angle by William Kent Krueger

All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

It is not the length of the sentences that seem to make the difference. It is the imagery, right from the start, that continues poetically throughout the book. Just in the first sentences, one can see a difference.

Clay – What do you think is happening here with this book?

Kent I wanted this story to feel like reminiscence rather than a simple recounting of what occurred in that fateful summer of 1961. So I knew I had to be careful with the voice. I wanted the story to flow in a kind of reverie, in the way our recall of the past often comes to us. I wanted the language to be both ordinary and at the same time lyrical. When I heard the voice of Frank Drum begin to tell this story, I knew I had it.

As those close to me know, I was a devoted fan of Kent’s and had asked him to be Guest of Honor at Killer Nashville even before I read Ordinary Grace and even before it won an Edgar. But upon the release of Ordinary Grace, suddenly new fans appeared, which—of course—is what all writers want!

But there is just something special about a special book, and sometimes the industry itself does not even know what that is. How do we find that?

Clay – What do you think it takes to transcend your genre, regardless of the genre? Should authors try? Or does it just come? Is it a gamble?

Kent I’m a firm believer in following your heart. If you’re true to this, to your own vision, I believe you’ll create work that satisfies you artistically. Does that ensure a readership or fame or fortune? Of course not, but it does mean that every day you write, you’ll be living your passion, and what could be better than that? But I also believe that if you’re true to yourself, eventually you’ll discover the writer you were always meant to be and you’ll be writing the stories you were always meant to write, and that’s when the doors will open.

Clay – Was this difference in voice—for the lack of a better term—something that was planned? Or was it organic from you? Did you make a conscious effort to style this book differently from that of your other very popular works? Or did it style itself?

Kent Because this was such a personal story, and because I wanted to do something very different than I’ve accomplished with my mystery series, I set out to make this book stand out from my others in a unique way. It’s structured very differently from a typical mystery. The message it delivers is not at all typical for the genre. And the language is very different from the kind that a reader might find in most novels, mystery or otherwise. Some of this I knew going in, and some of it I realized during the writing.

J.K. Rowling started the first Harry Potter as expected, in genre. But when she found that sweet spot in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and then really in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Potter books exploded. You can see it in the language, the depth of character, the complexity of the plotting.

Clay – I haven’t read anything from Manitou Canyon yet, but has any of that voice from Ordinary Grace leaked now into your other works? Is this inclusion or absence intentional? Can you make it happen without coming across as forced?

Kent – I hope my writing is fine regardless of the story I tell, but with a straightforward mystery or suspense novel, the structure and language both are very different from Ordinary Grace. The point of view in most of the novels in the Cork O’Connor series is third person, which can never be as intimate as first person, which was the point of view in Ordinary Grace. And I believe you’re right in that trying to force the story to be what Ordinary Grace is would prove disastrous.

So I had to ask myself when looking at Ordinary Grace, is the first sentence example a fluke? I could choose random phrases from Krueger books like I choose Bible reading, open the book, put my finger down, and choose at random. But instead, to be fair, I’ll look at last two lines. (I’m trying to be fair by including two, not one.) Curiously, I look at the last lines from Northwest Angle quoted above:

“A beautiful life,” she replied.

And she kissed him, boundless in her appreciation and her love.
Northwest Angle by William Kent Krueger

And, to be fair, I had a different staff member pull another Krueger book of his choice off the shelf for me to look at its last two lines:

He smiled beautifully and his lips formed a single word that Cork could not hear but understood absolutely.

—Copper River by William Kent Krueger


Now, if you’ve read both of the above books, you know these are perfect and great ending lines for each story. Loved them both. Nothing wrong with either one. But let’s look at the last line from Ordinary Grace:

The dead are never far from us. They’re in our hearts and on our minds and in the end all that separates us from them is a single breath, one final puff of air.
—Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger.

Holy cow! We don’t have an ending line here. We have a deep, 307-page theme (in the trade paperback version handed by my staff member to me) summed up here in these two last lines.

Clay – Is that the difference? Ordinary Grace is a well-plotted book (as are your others) with memorable characters (as definitely are your others), but was it the theme that caused people to notice? And, is it indicative that, sometimes maybe, when a writer sees something the publishing world can’t, and is pushed by something that the writer himself cannot even see, that the story runs deeper than just a story, and becomes a parable of life itself? And then—crazy as it sounds—the publishing industry champions the very risks it has previously rejected?

Kent You’ve pretty much nailed it. I didn’t have any thematic agenda in mind when I began writing the novel other than wanting to explore more deeply than I had before the question of the spiritual journey in our lives. The story of the Drum family as it developed spoke more intimately about this to readers than any treatise I could have written. I so firmly believe that when, as a writer, you sink your whole self into the imagining of a story, you tap something so much deeper than conscious thought. And when that happens successfully, readers and publishers alike take notice.

Clay – Out of curiosity, have there been any negative reviews of Ordinary Grace from those who are pure mystery readers? Was Ordinary Grace written to include those who are faithful to your O’Connor novels? Was it written to expand your audience? Or did you even have a reader in mind when you wrote it?

Kent The only review I’ve seen that is in any way negative is the one from Booklist, which, for reasons I can’t fathom, is the one most prominently displayed on the Amazon listing for the book. Go figure. In writing Ordinary Grace, I used a lot of the tools of suspense that I’ve developed as a genre writer. I hoped the story would appeal both to those who enjoy mysteries and also those who wouldn’t touch a mystery with a ten-foot pole.

Clay – You are such a hit speaking to audiences. For writers wanting to find appreciative audiences with which to share themselves and their ideas, how did you go about making yourself available, and how do your frame your presentations so that they are so popular?

Kent My father was not only a high school English teacher, he was also the speech and drama guy at the school I attended. So I made a lot of speeches and was in beaucoup plays while I was in high school. The take-away for me was the importance of doing two things for an audience—entertain them and enlighten them. That’s what I shoot for. I’ve always thought that if an audience enjoys you, it doesn’t matter what you talk about, they’ll buy your books.

Clay – You wrote a companion novel to follow Ordinary Grace this past year. Then you trashed it. Why? Is it the plot? Or are you being too hard on yourself?

Kent I spent two years on that manuscript, and in the end, I simply couldn’t corral all the unruly elements of that ambitious effort. I’d been paid a big advance, but I didn’t want to deliver to my publisher or offer to my readers a book that, because it disappointed me, I was sure would disappoint everyone else. So I pulled it. My publisher was incredibly understanding. I still owe them a companion. And I’m at work on that now, a story so much clearer to me and a much, much better follow-up to Ordinary Grace. We’re looking at a publication date in the spring of 2018.

Clay – Ernest Hemingway was an early role model for you. I still chuckle when you spoke at Killer Nashville and said, “F*** Hemingway.” But in Ordinary Grace, I can’t help but feel that Papa might have smiled when you typed “The End” on the very last draft of Ordinary Grace. What do you think?

Kent My favorite Hemingway work is The Old Man and the Sea. It’s his most mature piece, I think, written by a man coming to terms with so much of his own brokenness. I think he would have found Ordinary Grace a bit too lyrical for his tastes, but I think he would have appreciated the story.

Clay – Kent, I think Papa would have been proud.

CClay Staffordlay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com), founder of Killer Nashville (www.killernashville.com) and publisher of Killer Nashville Magazine (www.killernashvillemagazine.com). In addition to selling over 1.5 million copies of his own books, Stafford’s latest projects are the documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.oneofthemiracles.com) and writing the music CD “XO” with Kathryn Dance / Lincoln Rhymes author Jeffery Deaver (www.jefferdeaverxomusic.com). He is currently writing a film script based on Peter Straub’s “Pork Pie Hat” for American Blackguard Entertainment (www.americanblackguard.com).

Killer Nashville is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. If you purchase a book from the links on this page, Amazon will give Killer Nashville a small percentage of the total sale.