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- I love how you approach each of your books in the Cork O’Conner series with a different point-of-view or narrator. Sometimes it’s from first person, sometimes it is third person filtered, sometimes it is omniscient. How do you determine which narrator is the best for the story?
In large measure, it’s simply the way the story speaks to me. Sometimes I want to develop a particular character or relationship—i.e. Cork with one his children. So that child will have a voice along with Cork. Sometimes it’s a question of whose story I’m telling. Occasionally it’s very much Cork’s story, so we see it through his eyes alone. And every once in a while, I just want to stretch and see what I can do. Thunder Bay, for example, is the only book I’ve written in the series that uses the first person narrative voice. Mostly, I just wanted to hear what Cork might sound like if he told the story.
- You do an amazing job at building the setting of all of your books. In Iron Lake, I could almost feel how cold it was, or the foul stench of decaying bodies in Vermilion Drift. How do you choose the concrete details that help make your setting of each scene pop off the page to create such a visceral reaction?
I think that one of the reasons those of us who write profoundly out of a sense of place do that is because we’re able to soak up and hold all that sensual information and when the time comes to imagine the story that requires it, we’re able to sink ourselves into the imagining significantly enough that all those lovely, salient sensual details come back to us. So for me, rather anything I do consciously, it’s more what happens on a deeper level, for me very much a part of the mystery of creation.
- Your structure on each book of the Cork O’Conner series varies a lot as well. Do you use an outline for each book? If you do, how do you do an outline and not become bored with the story?
For most of the books in the series, I’ve always thought the story through significantly before setting anything on the page. This is a process that takes many weeks, or sometimes even months. But by the time I’m ready to write the story, I know how I want it to begin and to end. I know the motivations at the heart of what’s occurred. I understand the characters involved. I have a pretty good idea of how to misdirect the reader’s attention. I know many of the peak moments of suspense I’m going to write to. In my very early years, I would actually outline the story, chapter by chapter. I don’t do that anymore, because I’m able to keep it all pretty well together in my head.
I never think of this process as the potential for boredom. For me, it offers freedom. What’s more important to me than what happens and why, which is all plot, the story, is the art of the story telling. It’s how best to use all the narrative elements that make a story resonate. I’m talking about language, setting, character, themes, atmosphere and those other facets of storytelling that give flesh and humanity and beauty to the lifeless skeleton that is plotting.
- There’s obviously a ton of research involved in your Cork O’Conner series. How do you draw the line from overloading your reader with research details verses helping your reader understand what is believable?
This is always a fine line to walk, and honestly, a lot of it has to do with simply looking at the page. If there’s a great deal of exposition on a page and very little dialogue, it makes me rethink what I’ve put there. Because the worst mistake those of us who write in the crime genre can make is to laden the story with so much information (or detail about setting or character or whatever) that the pace begins to creep. In mysteries particularly, it’s all about moving the story forward.
- You made an interesting decision making Cork, his family, and his neighbor’s age and grow in each new book in the series. The Cork the reader meets in Iron Lake is different from the Cork in Tamarack County. They aren’t like other series where the characters never grow. Why did you make this decision and how can other writers implement this in their own writing?
In my own reading, I prefer those series that feature a dynamic protagonist. This is a character who ages across the course of the series, for whom what happens in one story is reflected in how that character responds to the world in subsequent novels. That feels more real to me than a character who never changes, whose perspective isn’t affected by what’s happened to him or her in the past. I really believe this helps keep the character and the stories fresh for me and for readers. When I sit down to write a new book, I’m always writing about people who are different, at least a little, from the way they were before. They’re older. Their relationships have changed. I love discovering who Cork and all those in his family are at that point in time.
- Every scene you write is packed with tension or suspense. What are some tips you could give to writers who maybe struggle with building tension?
Great stories are driven by conflict. And conflict can exist on almost every level of every interaction. We all see the world through our own lenses, our own perspectives, our own priorities, our own beliefs. It seems to me that a lot of our interactions in a day involve negotiation with others who see the world very differently. That ought to be reflected on every page of the stories we write. It’s the believable tension between two normal forces that pull the readers from page to page. There are, of course, moments of great conflict, great tension, great suspense, but those should be sprinkled judiciously across the whole course of a book. Otherwise, I think a writer risks the read becoming exhausting, or worse, unbelievable.
- How do you weave the relationships Cork has so well without the relationships getting in the way of the story?
I try to make them feel real. Watching the development of any real relationship is fascinating. It involves love, conflict, hopes dashed and hopes realized. It’s kind of a story in microcosm. But I also make sure the relationship feeds the larger storyline. Otherwise it just dangles and gets in the way.
- You’ve written at least 13 stories about Cork and his adventures. With each story the characters grow but each story is a stand alone novel. How would a future series author do this without killing the reader with back story but keeping the reader aware of what’s going on with Cork?
This is maybe the single greatest challenge in writing a series that features a dynamic protagonist. The best pieces of advice I can offer in this regard are these: 1) Don’t overload with backstory. Sprinkle it across the course of the immediate story as much as possible so that it’s carefully offered and slowly absorbed. Otherwise, that tale is going to drag; and 2) Get yourself a good editor who can help you walk that difficult tightrope between too much backstory and too little.
- In the non-Cork O’Conner book, Ordinary Grace, you created this beautiful story that is so deep and multilayered. How do you do this without complicating the story or confusing the reader?
A story like Ordinary Grace comes along maybe once in a writer’s lifetime. To get to the heart of how this story was composed is pretty much impossible for me. This was a story with no outline. I wrote it pretty much as it came to me. And I think it simply rose deeply out of my own experience and was written with an understanding, often unconscious, of the art of storytelling honed across all the years my years of writing.
- In all of your books, the writing is incredibly tight with well chosen words. Does this occur naturally or do you spend time trying to come up with the perfect word in every sentence?
I write slowly and read out loud as I write. I hear every word and consider carefully every sentence. Doesn’t every writer?
- What advice would you give to a young writer?
Write from your heart.