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Writer Finds Inspiration in Local Landmark
By Mary Stucky
July 22, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Many writers will tell you habit is important in the discipline of writing. That's certainly the case for Kent Krueger. His new novel, Iron Lake , was written as he sat in a booth at the St. Clair Broiler, a St. Paul landmark. Same booth, same time, for years. The book has now been published and, in honor of this feat, the Broiler will host a reading and book signing for Krueger August 2.

EVEN ON A SUNNY DAY it's almost impossible to miss the sign above the restaurant door. Neon flames licking the words "St. Clair Broiler." It's a neighborhood fixture - a landmark. "Meet me at the Broiler," were words spoken since the 1950s. A meeting place even before that.

Female Customer: My friend Barbara and I used to come here in the '40s after school. We went to Central, and it wasn't called the Broiler, it was called the St. Clair Sweet Shop, and here we are. We're still here. My dad came here too, and they would always have his breakfast ready and waiting for him, so this has been going on a long time. A very special place.
This is a place where community lives, where neighbors do know each other - making connections that last.
Jimmy Theros: By the way, the person that just sat at that booth there, he's been coming here for 42 years. He sits in the same booth. If it's filled, he doesn't know what to do.
Jimmy Theros has owned the broiler since 1969. He started as a cook in 1956, and in all those years, to his knowledge, this is the first book that's ever been produced here. Every morning, from 6:30 until 8:00 for some 10 years, Kent Krueger's been hunched over a notebook writing in longhand.
Kent Krueger: I think there's an energy here that fuels the writing as much as the coffee does. There are people coming and going and you're involved in life and occasionally, if I need to look up from the page, I look out there, and I see life passing me by on the street as well. Sometimes I'll see somebody wearing something and I'll think, "That's really striking," and make a note of it, and that's an outfit I'll have somebody wear. I think the thing about the Broiler is you don't take yourself outside of life, you sink yourself into it, and out of that a whole lot comes.
Krueger's latest book, Iron Lake, is just out, and Jimmy and the Broiler staff are tickled pink.
Theros: It's great. I love it. It turns me on. We're doing something, you know? And something's happeneing here. It's exciting.
Iron Lake is a mystery set in Northern Minnesota on the Iron Range. A boy stumbles across the body of a dead politician. The boy vanishes, revealing the secrets of this isolated place. Krueger's manuscript won the Loft McKnight award this year for creative prose. With Jimmy sitting next to him in "his" booth - number four - Kruegur begins to read:
Krueger: This is one of the passages that deals with a place called "Johnny's Flamewood Broiler." (Laughter)

Stucky (reporter) : You haven't heard this, Jimmy?

Theros: No, no, no. He wouldn't say anything. I kept telling him, "Where's the Broiler in the book?" Well go ahead. Read it.

Krueger: The Broiler was a popular stop for people on their way to work. The clientele were regulars. Men mostly. They ordered the same breakfast every day, said the same things day in and day out. They worked at the brewery, or the saw mill, or for the highway department, or they were shop owners killing time before they headed to the task of clearing the walks in front of their stores. Johnny had taken over the cooking. Two other waitresses had arrived, but it was Molly who caught everyone's eye. She moved quickly and efficiently.

Theros: Cool. Isn't that great? I love it. Perfect. That is the Broiler. Absolutely. I want to know who Molly is.

Krueger: She's actually a composite of a lot of the waitresses who kindly serve me coffee over the years.
The Broiler staff call Kreuger "The Writing Man." They are wearing t-shirts advertising the book in his honor.

Jefferson Smith, a Broiler cook, has been watching Krueger, curious about his writing.

Smith: I think he's an awesome kind of character. He's just a man that knows what he wants to do. I'm anxious to see what it's about, really. I'm more of a sports fanatic, but hey man, this is the first time I've worked somewhere where there's someone writing a book, you know?
Carol Simel has been waitressing for 23 years. An avid reader, she normally sticks to romance novels, but she'll make an exception this time.
Simel: I'll be reading it, I can tell you that.
It's waitresses like Carol Simel and other regulars that inspire Kent Kruger.
Kruger: Occasionally, I'll tune in to some of the regulars talking at the counter, and I love the sound of their conversation, how they put words together, what their dialogue is like. What you do is you catch the rhythm of people's words, and although you might not use the words specifically, you listen to how they say specific things like, "You catch the fins?" "Ah, we went up there fishing, and dem guys over there, they said the fish was biting out farther out than we was," - that kind of thing.
As it turns out, Kent Kruger isn't the only one who's chosen the Broiler as his writing venue. A few minutes into our interview, we're joined by Steve Hatelsted who works here as a waiter but hangs out after work - writing.
Hatelsted: Right now I'm working on a non-fiction book. It applies the science of complexity to contemporary society. The thing with writing is it gets really lonely doing it alone at home. So just to have people around you makes it easier for me to concentrate.

Stucky: So do you have a place where you write?

Hatelsted: Right there.
Stucky: Do you think you could write if you had to sit back there?

Kruger:You see the whole world from a different perspective if you move to another booth.
That may be debatable, but for Jimmy Theros, a book written in his restaurant has confirmed what he says has been his purpose all along.
Theros: It's fun. It's all people, that's what it is.
Kruger: The book would have been written anyway, but I feel a great debt of gratitude to the Broiler for giving me the spot where it was done.
The party and book signing for Kent Krueger's novel Iron Lake will be at the St. Clair Broiler in St. Paul on August 2.