The first novel in the Cork O’Connor series, Iron Lake, was originally published in 1998. At the time, did you envision an entire series revolved around Cork? What was your intent at the beginning? Has the series evolved into something other than what you had initially perceived, or has Cork been a fairly predictable guide for you and your storytelling?
Like so many of the authors I know in this genre, I began writing the first novel in the series without any idea that it would lead to more. I just wanted to write a book that pleased me and that was good enough to be published. When I was maybe halfway through that first manuscript, I realized I was creating relationships so complicated that it would take more than a single book to bring all the characters to the places in their lives I wanted them to be. At that point, I think I understood that Cork was going to be coming back again and again. How many times, God alone knew. I certainly didn’t envision the number that have been published already, and with still more to come.
As for Cork, he’s been the anchor all along. He’s been beaten and battered and suffered loss, but he inevitably rebounds. I named him Cork because, from the very beginning, I saw him as the kind of guy who was so resilient that no matter how far life pushed him down, he would always bob back to the surface.
Your novels frequently incorporate timely, controversial topics (nuclear waste storage in Vermilion Drift, racial gang violence in Red Knife, teen runaways in Copper River). In Northwest Angle, a fanatical religious community plays a large role in the plot. What inspired you to explore such a group, particularly its dark side, and what kind of reaction have you received from readers?
I’ve been fascinated by the fringe groups that exist in this country. When I understood that Cork was going to have to square off against an organization that was brutal in its thinking and actions and felt wholly justified in that brutality, I didn’t have to look far for examples. In March of 2010, federal law officers and state police in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana arrested a number of the members of the Hutaree organization in connection with a plot to murder police officers in an effort to instigate a national anti-government uprising. Those arrested were deep into preparing for End Times and believed themselves to be Christian warriors in the forefront of the battle against the anti-Christ. And this was only one example of many extremists who live among us and who think in a way that’s difficult to comprehend.
I didn’t set out to discuss religion or spirituality, but was simply looking for a reasonable and believable way to create conflict and suspense in the story. Once you wade into religion, however, you find yourself in some pretty tricky currents. I’ve been surprised by the number of readers and reviewers who’ve commented on this aspect of the story, because for me, there are so many other themes at work, particularly the question of emotional healing. I think part of the religious discussion comes from a comparison of the O’Connor’s spirituality, which is informed by both white Catholicism and Ojibwe beliefs and is a pretty humanistic approach, with the unthinking religious dogma they end up battling.
Mostly, I just liked the idea of two forces, good and evil, at odds. The classic confrontation that’s the bread and butter of the crime genre.
Your protagonist, Cork O’Connor, is half Irish-American, half Native American. His dual heritage has defined his character in many ways and has served as the root of many of his inner conflicts, especially in regard to violence. In Red Knife, after a deadly shooting takes place at his daughter’s high school, Cork decides that he is never again going to carry a gun, yet his profession keeps him in the midst of violence. Obviously, this must have an effect on you as a suspense writer! How are you grappling with the topic of violence in your writing?
I’m always intrigued by the moral questions that Cork grapples with, and one of those is why he often ends up in a situation where one of the choices he has to make is whether to respond with violence. In the book on which I’m currently at work, Cork is told by his wise Ojibwe mentor, Henry Meloux, that he is ogichida. This is an Ojibwe word that often is used to mean “warrior.” Meloux’s interpretation is different. For Meloux, ogichida means one who stands between bad things and his people. That’s certainly Cork. And because he’s sworn off the use of firearms, the question of how he will stand between those bad things and the people he cares about becomes another, often very powerful, element of suspense.
The beauty of the northern Minnesota landscape plays almost as big a role as murder in your novels. Tell us about how the setting has inspired your writing.
I’m not native to Minnesota. As a kid, I believed that my family must have had gypsy blood in them because we moved a lot—six different states before I graduated from high school. As a result, I never really had a place that I thought of as home. I came with my wife to Minnesota in 1980, and, honest to God, the moment I set foot here it felt to me as if I’d finally found home. I fell in love with this state. And I knew that when I finally got serious about writing a novel, it would be set in this adopted homeland of mine. My love of Minnesota informs all my writing. I sometimes wonder if, because I didn’t grow up here, the beauty of the North Country is something I don’t take for granted, and so I can write about it through eyes that are always full of marvel.
There are, however, other very good reasons for using Minnesota as a setting. As a writer of fiction, I understand perfectly well that conflict is what drives great stories. When I look at northern Minnesota, conflict is much of what I see. Conflict in the rugged landscape. Conflict in the extremes of weather. Conflict in the groups that inhabit the area, particularly the Ojibwe and the whites. Stories come naturally to me out of this place. I never hunger for ideas or inspiration. And I love Minnesota for that as much as anything else.
Spoiler alert! Cork’s wife Jo, a fan favorite, was killed in Heaven’s Keep. That was a bold move, Kent! Cork has been adjusting to life as a widower since then. Any romance on the horizon for the lonely detective?
This is a question I’ve been getting a lot from readers. What it tells me is that folks who read my work have become emotionally invested in Cork. They care about his well being. As do I. I’ve put Cork through the wringer in the last few books. In the next novel in the series, the one I’m currently working on, which is titled Trickster’s Point, he finds happiness—at least momentarily—in his relationship with one of the characters in the story. Really, it’s quite lovely, and I’m happy for him.
Tell us more about what you’re working on now.
Trickster’s Point, which is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2012, is the twelfth book in the Cork O’Connor series. In a way, it’s my homage to one of my favorite American novels, All the King’s Men. At heart, it’s about how power corrupts. The down and dirty is this: Cork O’Connor’s best friend from his boyhood has just been elected the first governor of Minnesota with Native blood. A few days after the election, he and Cork go bow hunting, something they’ve often done together. On that outing, the governor-elect ends up with an arrow in his heart, and the arrow belongs to Cork. So you know, of course, who gets blamed. I’ve been having a wonderful time with this story. I think it’ll be a great addition to the series.
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