Koryta’s work took a while to cross the Atlantic. This had much to do with the fact that his first four books, concluding with The Silent Hour (2009), were all P.I. tales, and professional investigators-for-hire have never been staples of Britain’s literary culture. (The tradition over here has been much better stocked with amateur or aristocratic sleuths of the sort created by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton.)
But in early 2009 I was delighted to learn that Koryta’s standalone novel So Cold the River had been picked up by UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton. When, later that year, I met the author at Bouchercon in Indianapolis, Indiana, we toasted his success at finally cracking the British market and recorded an interview for the e-zine Shots. He followed that book with The Cypress House (2011) and The Ridge (2012), firmly establishing favor among British readers.
Not long ago, Hodder & Stoughton invited me to join my fellow UK critics Jake Kerridge and Barry Forshaw for a dinner in London, celebrating Koryta’s first British promotional tour. At the time, I’d just wrapped up my reading of his latest novel, The Prophet, another standalone work, the plot of which I synopsized in Shots:
When Adam Austin and his younger brother, Kent, played American football for their local team, the Cardinals of Chambers County in northern Ohio, they were involved in a tragedy that shaped the course of their lives. Before the millennium, Kent asked his older brother to drive their sister Marie home, but Adam let her walk, as he was on a promise to his girlfriend Chelsea. A decision that both brothers learn would cost their family dearly. Marie never made it home, and later she would be discovered, dead--the victim of a psychopath named Gideon Pearce.Following that Hodder & Stoughton dinner, Koryta agreed to answer some questions I had about his personal history and published fiction. While tipping back a few beers, we discussed his fondness for AMC-TV’s Breaking Bad, the significance of an award win for his first novel, film adaptations of his stories, and how Koryta came to be published at such a remarkably early age.
The murder of Marie Austin would rock the local community and tear the Austin family apart. With Gideon Pearce behind bars at the local prison, captured more by chance than judicious police work, the younger brother, Kent, buries himself into the world of American football as coach for the local town. In his free time he visits criminals behind bars, with his mentor and friend, the pastor Dan Grissom, praying for the forgiveness of their sins and introducing them to religion. Older brother Adam is not amused by his little brother’s prison visitations, and becomes enraged when he learns that Kent [and] Grissom have visited (and prayed for forgiveness) for the soul of Gideon Pearce--their sister’s murderer. Kent even doubts his own motivations when the evil Pearce laughs at him as he prays for the forgiveness of Pearce’s soul. The Austin brothers no longer speak to each other. ...
Thus begins this small-town tale of loss, the darkness in the hearts of the truly evil, redemption, and avenging the past. Filled with red herrings, compassion, and a knowing eye that makes small-town America so menacing, Koryta navigates the narrative like a master storyteller. It is disappointing that there were no supernatural undercurrents propelling the story like some of his previous work, though there is sufficient malevolence in the backdrop (and characters) to keep you haunted by the developments until the dénouement.
Ali Karim: Welcome to London. Can you tell us what you’ve been up to during your time on our shores?
Michael Koryta: I’ve been wreaking havoc wherever I go. Helicopters are crashing into buildings, blizzards are gathering off the coast ... I’m beginning to feel a little bit responsible. But everyone I meet couldn’t be nicer, so it will take some real discouragement for me to want to head out.
AK: And how have the people with Hodder & Stoughton, your British publisher, been treating you? I hear they’ve been working you hard!
MK: Honestly, this is one of the best publishing teams I’ve had the chance to be around. I feel very fortunate to be with Little, Brown in the U.S. and with Hodder in the UK. They are both exceptional houses in that they truly care about the quality of the books at all levels, from story to product, and that they’re passionate about what they do. That’s not always the case. You look at the history of this company and see how many wonderful authors have published with them, and it gives you a little perspective. Nick Sayers and Rosie Gailer and Laura Macdougall and the rest of them are just great people to be around.
AK: Before we get into the nitty-gritty, I have to say that I’m dumbfounded by your physical resemblance to Aaron Paul, the actor who plays Jesse Pinkman in the TV series Breaking Bad. Has anyone else remarked on this? And are you a fan of that show?
(Left) Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad
MK: Yo, that’s a weird observation, bitch. I just don’t see it, yo. Ha! There are other people who have remarked on it, yes; you should check with your friend Alafair Burke, who was the first. And I think [Michael] Connelly agreed with her. But I have to say, no one was as struck by it as you. I am a huge fan of the show, and of Aaron Paul, so I’m OK with it. More so than I was when Alafair also insisted that I looked like David Duchovny. Breaking Bad is up there with The Sopranos to me--just one of the all-time-great television achievements. I’m already steeling myself for [Breaking Bad’s] inevitable end this summer.
AK: Yeah, bitch! Magnets! [Laughs]
MK: Ha! Love that scene, even though they tried to whack [Pinkman] in that episode. Actually, I believe [Breaking Bad creator Vince] Gilligan wanted to kill Jesse very early on, and then the writers’ strike led to a delay. My favorite Jesse line is: “When I was comin’ up it was just possum. Opossum makes it sound like he’s Irish or something.”
AK: But on to your own work ... I devoured The Prophet like a crystal meth addict discovering one of Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg stashes. But I thought it would have been perfect had it contained a supernatural undercurrent, like some of your previous yarns.
MK: I go book-by-book with it. I don’t really have a grand plan for what will have a supernatural undercurrent or not, but this one never struck me as benefiting from that. I wanted Adam [Austin] to be haunted in a way that felt as painful to us as possible, and adding a layer of supernatural component to that, I think, might have reduced it. Put up a wall of distance between his feelings and the readers. But obviously, it’s all a matter of execution. The one area where I really see that being an issue is that Adam’s overwhelming desire throughout the book is a chance to speak to [his sister] Marie ... again, to tell her that he’s sorry, to justify himself and explain how he’s made things right, all of that. And in reality, we don’t get those chances. So holding her off from him in the way the dead are held apart from us daily seemed a better choice for this particular story. To me.
AK: Do you like the hint of otherworldly influences in fiction, by say, John Connolly, Michael Marshall, Peter Straub, and Stephen King?
MK: Of course, I’m a huge fan of that genre, or I wouldn’t have written in it. King is one of the most influential writers to me, by far, and I have read Straub on a hit-and-miss basis, probably most of his work. There are indelible classics like Ghost Story in there--wow, what a great novel. Marshall I’ve read and enjoyed, and Connolly as well. [Robert] McCammon, Joe Hill--there are a bunch out there, though I do think the genre isn’t as robust as it was once in terms of talent, and that is probably due to the fact that the industry is geared more toward selling crime fiction than supernatural fiction now. I just read a great supernatural novel, The Demonologist, by Andrew Pyper. So you can always find it.
But I’d written three [books] in a row in that vein, and creatively needed to change it up a bit. Which is how I found myself there in the first place: I kind of burned out on detective novels, which led me to write So Cold the River, my first attempt at a ghost story.
AK: The Prophet is your ninth novel and you’re just barely into your 30s. So tell us a little about where the reading and writing bug started for you.
MK: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Always. From the moment I started reading. My parents were readers, and what they taught me that was indispensable was the idea of reading for pleasure. It was not some forced educational merit badge work. Books became a huge part of my life, and of my sister’s, when we were very young. It was a big deal to go to a bookstore or a library--that was setting up your entertainment for a while. But then again, we went outdoors to play, too, so obviously we were raised in a very strange way. An alternative lifestyle. Ha! I would finish a book that I loved and then set out to write my own story that was basically a clone but dropped into a life closer to my own. That was the early writing, just mimicking the voices I liked. I’d written three novels by the time I was 19 and the third one sold, that was Tonight I Said Goodbye, which was the first one published in the U.S.
AK: What about influences from your schooling?
MK: Much more of the impact came at home, I think, but I did have very good teachers and most importantly I had teachers who went out of their way in indulge my desire to write. That was a constant, really, throughout my school career. It seemed each year the notion that I was so interested in writing would catch someone’s eye and they’d work out some sort of project or opportunity to encourage it. Very appreciated.
AK: Your early adult years were spent as a reporter for the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald Times and as a private investigator in Cleveland. What did those experiences bring to your writing?
MK: Well, I was always writing. So those things actually came on the heels of it, not ahead of it. I knew what sort of writing I wanted to do, that I loved crime fiction, and so those careers--being a P.I. and a journalist--always appealed to me as not just interesting and valuable work, but as grist for the mill, too. It was like being paid for research, essentially. And for years, that is exactly how it went. I can point out elements in every novel that came from that work experience. From a writing perspective, I learned a great deal at the newspaper; being forced to write on deadline is the best education any writer can have. And then on the story front, the P.I. work added some verisimilitude, I’m sure, and definitely provided ideas. A few stories, like A Welcome Grave , came largely from casework. There is a lot about that business that I miss. In both journalism and detective work, I had tremendous mentors, and that was critical.
AK: Your debut novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye, won the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Prize for Best First P.I. Novel. Tell us what winning that commendation meant to you and your career.
MK: Sigh of relief. Some sense of validation, because you’ve worked alone for so long believing that you’re good enough to publish, but obviously it doesn’t happen right away, and so one of your primary responsibilities is to find a way to keep convincing yourself that it’s worth the time. Keep convincing yourself you’re any good, because there are more days than not when you won’t believe that. Winning that prize meant nothing to me in terms of beating out the rest of the submissions. It was the publishing deal [with St. Martin’s] that meant something. Had it been just a cash prize, I doubt I would have even entered it, but it came with a publishing contract, and that was my dream. I can’t say enough about what a great opportunity that contest has been to so many writers.
AK: I hear that The Prophet, like much of your work, has been optioned for the screen. Do you know if any of those projects are approaching the green-light stage? Or are they all still stuck in “development hell”?
MK: Yeah, I try to keep my distance now [from those film projects]. The only one I ever got close to, and I was attached to that as a screenwriter, turned into a disaster. It was this micromanaged destruction of the novel I’d written, with me being required to do the destroying, but I was not in charge of fairly large concepts such as, oh, whether there should be a ghost in the ghost story. I was suddenly writing an Amish murder mystery. (This is the truth.) So that was a terrible but valuable experience, in that I learned if I’m attached to my own book in the future, I would need much more creative control to preserve my sanity. Otherwise, just hand it off and step far, far away. On the others, I have sold them to people who I believe can make good films, and I go with the approach of “cross your fingers, but don’t hold your breath.” It’s a hard business, most stuff doesn’t get made. The Prophet is with a fantastic producer, Nick Wechsler, and a talented screenwriter, Reid Carolin, and I have high hopes for it. I’ve read Chris Columbus’ script for The Cypress House and I think it is fantastic. But we will wait and see. You never know.
AK: The Prophet, like so much of your work, is set in small-town America, mostly in the Midwest. Is this simply because you grew up in Indiana, or do you find a special attraction in writing about the claustrophobia of those regional towns?
MK: Both. I know these places and these worlds, which obviously helps, but you also hit on something in that idea of claustrophobia. I couldn’t have dropped The Prophet into a large urban landscape, because the ripple effect of this one killing wouldn’t carry so far into the community. Almost 500 people are murdered in Chicago in a year. That sort of setting wasn’t right for the story. I wanted a setting in which the survivor’s guilt could be amplified by removing their ability to escape within their hometown. A place where everyone knows and whispers, that sort of thing.
Michael Koryta talks with Ann Bartholomew of Google Play about his latest suspense novel, The Prophet.
AK: The theme of The Prophet is that one must live with the consequences of his or her actions in life, and that you can’t see the future. Would you agree?
MK: Certainly those ideas are vital to it. I don’t boil a novel down to a single theme, which is perhaps one of the reasons screenwriting was a problem for me--they like you to. “On every page, we should see our theme.” I have a sense of these things as I write, but they don’t really show themselves until I’m done with drafts.
With The Prophet, beyond the two [themes] you highlight, I thought it was really about the flawed concept of being righteous in your decision-making, in the emphatic belief that this is the right choice. It’s a disorganized world. You don’t get to see all of the cards before you make your bet. There’s a price to the hubris of believing you’ve got anything under control. We have nothing under control, and that can be proven to us in a matter of seconds. Control may be the greatest illusion of human existence. Yet the various characters in The Prophet all believe they have it. If you go back and chart the decisions made by the lead players, you see that idea over and over again: I am one move away from regaining control.
AK: The Prophet provides multiple viewpoints and a sizable cast of characters. Yet each of your players has a richness to his or her delineation--they seem so real, even the bad guys and losers. What’s your secret for making all of this possible?
MK: I’m glad you think so! For me this is always a matter of listening to the story, and sacrificing the heavy hand of guiding it. Stephen King talks about this in his book On Writing. ... That notion that you’re discovering the story more than telling it--that’s where I find the greatest joy and the best writing. It’s when a character steps onto the stage who I didn’t anticipate, or when one of my leads makes a choice I didn’t anticipate, that things really begin to pop. And I realize that can sound like mystical absurdity, but that’s what it feels like to me when I’m writing. I don’t have the characters under my thumb. When it’s going well, I feel more like a reporter trying to capture their actions as they play out in front of me.
AK: Do you plot out your books extensively?
MK: Not at all. I know the back story when I come to the book. The present action is always a process of discovery. Outlining a book is the perfect way to kill it for me. I could tell you every detail about Marie Austin’s death in 1989, before the novel begins, but not a thing about what would happen in the case of Rachel Bond, whose murder kicks off the present action.
AK: The Prophet has a melancholic air, yet in that book you also show the compassionate side of living with tragedy. So what were you like as a person while holding that tale in your head?
MK: That’s a wonderful question. I love it. Very perceptive, because of course the material you’re dealing with each day does take its emotional toll on you over the year or however long it takes to get it out. This is a very sad story. I wouldn’t say I was a sad person, or melancholic, throughout its writing, but I was worn out, emotionally. No doubt about that. I’d finish a writing session and feel tired. Like I picked up some of Adam’s persona, that weary determination. That could take a few hours to shake, certainly. I’d never felt that in quite the same way with a book before. As I got to the end of The Prophet, I was really carrying him with me at that point. I’d have these random moments of inexplicable sorrow for a fictional character, because by then I knew where he was going, and I hated to watch it.
Koryta interviews Michael Connelly in Indianapolis, 2009
AK: You’re certainly riding high in critical acclaim these days. As I recall, during the 2009 Bouchercon in Indianapolis, a special hall had to be hired for your onstage interview with Michael Connelly. So tell us, what was it like to be in a room with more than 1,000 people assembled to listen to you and Connelly?
MK: Well, let’s be clear: there were that many people in the room to listen to Michael Connelly. Nobody was there to listen to Koryta, I assure you. But, that said, it was an incredible experience. I’d try to sum up what Michael has meant to me as a writer and a friend here, but I really couldn’t do it justice. My thought at that event was simply that I hoped to give him a good forum to be heard by his fans, and maybe let them learn a few new things. He represents everything a writer should want to achieve, both on the page and off the page, particularly the way he has handled his success, the humility with which he carries himself at all times.
AK: We’ve bumped into each other at various Bouchercons in the past. What do you get out of those events?
MK: Great chance to see friends you don’t often get to see in person, and not a bad place to find a few free drinks, provided you don’t care what you’re drinking. Remember Jesse [Pinkman]’s line about making meth: “I like making cherry product, but this is poison for people who don’t care. We probably have the most unpicky customers in the world.” Those are your drinkers at Bouchercon. It’s an awful lot of fun to be around people who love crime fiction so much.
AK: Are you planning to attend the Albany, New York, Bouchercon this fall? And what about Bouchercon 2015, which will be held in Raleigh, North Carolina? I’ll be in charge of programming for that latter event.
MK: Albany is unlikely, I’m afraid, as I’ve got a hiking/climbing trip that falls the same week and nobody who is going on that cares much about my professional schedule. Raleigh, clearly, is up to you.
AK: And what are you working on currently?
MK: I just turned in a draft of a crime novel last week, it should be out early in 2014--a cheerful wilderness thriller, much like Deliverance was. I’m also working on a short story for a horror anthology and shaping the plan for the next book. Whether I start on it before the rewrite depends upon my editor’s speed. I don’t like to take much time off between writing, so there is a good chance I will have [the next book] underway before I finish the rewrite.
AK: Finally, tell us about some of the more memorable books you’ve read during the last year or so.
MK: This is the toughest question. I hate to leave anything out. I will say that I absolutely loved NOS4A2, by Joe Hill, which comes out in April. And it was great to see Sean Doolittle back with a book called Lake Country. He’s a terrific writer.
(The Rap Sheet would like to thank Rosie Galier and Nick Sayers of Hodder & Stoughton Publishing UK for arranging this interview.)