William Kent Krueger
William Kent Krueger

The Birth of Cork O’Connor

More and more lately, I’ve been getting asked this question: How did I come up with Cork O’Connor as the protagonist for my series? So here’s the answer.

Long before I began to think about writing a mystery, a character began to take shape in my imagination. The first thing I knew about him was that he was going to be the kind of guy who was so resilient that no matter how far down life pushed him, he would always bob back to the surface. His name would be Cork. Because I was about forty then and going through the first of a couple of midlife crises, I imagined him confused about life, maybe in some kind of meltdown, struggling, pushed about as far down as he’d ever been. I saw him as having a family (probably because I had a family and it was easy to imagine). I saw him as a guy ordinary-looking as sidewalk concrete, and not very macho. But I also thought he would be the kind of guy you knew instinctively that you could trust, that if you asked something of him and he gave his word, he would walk through hell barefooted, if necessary, to keep his promise. He wouldn’t be brilliant, but he would be dogged.

When I began to think about the story that eventually became my first published novel, Iron Lake, and made the decision to set the tale in the great Northwoods, I realized I couldn’t write about that part of Minnesota without somehow dealing with the Ojibwe, whose influence there is ubiquitous.

To digress just a moment, when writers of fiction are thinking of a story, any story, what we look for is conflict. Conflict drives great stories. And when I looked at the north country of Minnesota, all I saw was conflict. In the harsh, beautiful landscape. In the weather. In the struggle of different cultures to live together. I realized that if I created a character of mixed heritage in this setting, a man who had a foot in two different cultures, white and Ojibwe, I could mirror the conflict of those cultures in all his thinking and his being. Conflict would be a natural part of who he was.

Then I began to consider the issue of what would that mix of heritage be. Ojibwe-Swedish? Ojibwe-Finn? Ojibwe-French? Ojibwe-Italian? Ojibwe-Slovakian? All these combinations do, in fact, exist up north where a world of differing ethnic groups migrated because of the logging and the iron mining. I finally settled on Ojibwe-Irish. Cork became Corcoran (quite naturally), and I added O’Connor.

Cork isn’t me, but the way he sees the world and what’s important to him come very much out of who I am. He believes in family. He believes in justice. He believes you make commitments and stand by them. He’s become a wonderfully complex character over the course of ten books, and I’m still learning about him. I’m thinking that even if I write twenty books, he’ll still be able to surprise me.

13 thoughts on “The Birth of Cork O’Connor”

  1. Cool to know!

    Did I ever tell you that one of my online buddies, Maggie Stiefvater, writes a YA werewolf series set in…. [drumroll please] Mercy Falls, MN? She hadn’t read you, so I had to point that out to her. 🙂

    Cheers!

  2. I was fortunate to catch your “Northern Noir” panel at the Kerrytown Book Festival in Ann Arbor this weekend, and I wanted to reach out again to say thank you for being such an intelligent and entertaining speaker. I traveled from Los Angeles, where I worked in the film industry for almost 10 years, for two reasons: to attend your panel and to celebrate my father’s 64th birthday. I broke my cardinal rule again paying full price for a book in order to buy an autographed copy for my dad (meeting you, Steve, and Bryan absolutely made his day). Having also read and loved all your published novels, I’m eager for my Amazon shipment to arrive. Once again, thanks for a memorable experience on Sunday, and congratulations on all the acclaim you’re so deservedly receiving.

  3. Hey Mr. Krueger,
    I am a book blogger from Saint Paul and I have a feature on my blog where I spotlight MN authors, called Hometown Track. I am wondering if you would be a participant. I have a worldwide reading audience and I would like to promote you and your books. If you are interested please e-mail me back and I will send you some details. I am looking for an author for the month of November or December.

    I haven’t read any of your books YET, but they come highly recommended by many of the teachers at South High, where I teach in Minneapolis. In fact, one of the teachers I work with, Sue Kehr, says you attend her church. Small world.

    Thanks for taking time out of your busy day to check out my blog and e-mail me back.
    Laura

  4. Hi, Kent;

    Hello from Peace Corps/Romania, where we received a wonderful care package from family, with Purgatory Ridge, Mercy Falls, and Copper River to get us started with your fantastic books! I loved them and raced through the group in about a week, even with everything else we do here as teachers! Now my husband James just raced through Purgatory Ridge, and will be on to Mercy Falls tonight. I was sooo relieved to find our relatives had picked Copper River to send, when I opened it to find the storyline from Mercy Falls continuing. I’d been trying to get over the frustration of thinking that I’d have to wait 2 years to get back to a U.S. bookstore, before reading what happened to resolve Cork’s having a hit put on him!!

    Anyway, I just want to tell you these are page-turners with substance and heart, and I’m not surprised to find them filled with characters any of us would love to know … and villains who reap what they sow. I’m so happy for you AND the readers who will discover you and relish the good works you have created, now that you’ve made the Bestseller List. We’ll do our part here in Romania; when we’ve finished these 3, we’ll donate them to the Peace Corps Volunteer Lounge in Bucharest, when we visit at Thanksgiving, whence they’ll find their way into the hands of other volunteers looking for some good American novels to savor in their free time. Keep ’em coming, so we’ll have 10 or 12 (?) more to read when we get home in a couple of years! Such success couldn’t happen to a more deserving writer!

    Say hi to the gang at The Broiler! A stop in there for a meal and to say thanks is a new piece of Americana I think I’ll be adding to my bucket list …

    My best regards,
    Kristi St.Amant

  5. You are my favorite author. I love your characters and settings. I’m always very happy to hear of a new book in the series. I ordered Vermillion Drift today.That’s it, I’m done, just wanted you to know.

  6. You killed off Jo? I haven’t seen such literary carnage since Lucy Kellaway killed off Martin Lukes.

  7. Just wanted to say that I’ve read all of your books and I’m shocked that it’s taken number 10 for the NYT’s best seller list to notice! I’ve enjoyed them all! Looking forward to more of your writing.

  8. It is such a good thing for a dedciated reader to discover on her own such a wonderful author. I bought Heavens Keep because I liked the forward. I had never heard or read Wm Krueger’s books.
    What a delight, now I am obsessed and devoring each and every one. I love a good book that takes me right into the character and their world and out of mine. Not that my world is so bad, but Cork’s is so interesting, exciting, intimate and full of true love not to mention all the action.
    Thank you Wm Kent Krueger for believing in yourself and keep on writing as I know you will. You and your books are a treasure. Thanks.

  9. WOW! I love how you described Cork and how he got his name….”The first thing I knew about him was that he was going to be the kind of guy who was so resilient that no matter how far down life pushed him, he would always bob back to the surface. His name would be Cork.” That description really touched me! Thank you for your series. It has given me many hours of wonderful escape! And as much as I love Cork and company I am looking forward to Ordinary Grace.

    You have some big fans here in New Ulm, Minnesota.

  10. I would like to know if Cork O’Connor will ever team up with Mitch Rapp to counter terrorists coming across the border from Canada! What a bang up book that would be! Those two would be awesome together!

  11. I’ve noticed little things about Corcoran Liam O’Connor since 2005 when I picked up Iron Lake. The cover of Iron Lake is largely part of why I decided to buy it. So glad I did. There was so much going on in that little paperback. I had to read Mercy Falls and Purgatory Ridge right after I was done. I went to bookstores and libraries like a woman on a mission. I love the rhythm of the name Corcoran Liam O’Connor.
    I consider every time I read one of your books a mental vacation to Minnesota.

    This summer I reread Heaven’s Keep as I wait for Northwest Angle to come out. I keep thinking I will reread Iron Lake, but haven’t yet. There were a lot of things in those film negatives that Cork found in Iron Lake, that I often wonder will come out in later books. I’ve also wondered if there is any family of Molly in the Aurora area that Cork will encounter later on.

    Anyway I am looking forward to Northwest Angle!

  12. Thanks to the Duluth Public Library and the abundance of exposure for your books in this area, we were connected about eight years ago. Since then I have read all of your stuff and you have become a favorite author of mine. I won’t miss any of your offerings and recommend you to my fellow readers regularly. You resonate the pulse of the Northwoods and Cork personifies the resiliency essential to its inhabitants. Your video for Northwest Angle tugs at heart and I eagerly full immersion into your story. Thank you, again and again. p.s. I still want you to write a book about Ely…..please.

  13. Thanks for letting us know how you developed Cork O’Connor! In my mind, you have achieved what you set out to do. Having only read Iron Lake so far, I feel like I know him. All the qualities you describe in your blog are what makes Cork so interesting as a main character. Foremost, he is real, with problems, faults, and foibles like the rest of us. I have a little trouble with central characters who tend to be too perfect. But he also exhibits a strength of character that I see in many people, in all walks of life.

    Again, thanks. I look froward to reading many more of the series, if not all of them.

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