Interview w/ Michael Koryta (& Review of The Cypress House)

The interview with Michael Koryta is finally back on Sunday! We have experienced some technical problems and we thank you for your patience. This blog is barely three months old, so we're still adjusting. After reading the following interview, I hope you'll want to read Michael's latest book The Cypress House (if you haven't done so yet) before the new one comes out, next June: The Ridge. And pay him a visit at 
He's a very nice guy. And a great writer. And he's so young too. 
I will also be adding another interview during the weekend (hint: the author's latest book is titled One True Sentence).


## Your first novel was published when you were 21 years old. Did you start reading and writing earlier than the average kid?

M.K.--I don't think I started reading earlier, but I probably started writing earlier. The two basically were a simultaneous experience for me. As soon as I could read, I wanted to write. I'd read a book and then sit down and try to write my own version of the story, provided it was one I liked. And I liked about everything - I was an insatiable reader as a child.

## Apparently, you wrote a novel before Tonight I Said Goodbye but it was rejected. Why do you think it didn't work out, and do you have any other unpublished novels?

M.K.--I actually wrote three novels. Two in high school, one as a freshman in college. The only one I sent anywhere was the third of the rejected novels, and it didn't work out because it wasn't very good. It was about 450 pages with 50 pages of plot. I was learning how to write, that's all, learning how to tell a story. By the time I started on Tonight, I had a good sense of my characters and that allowed me to focus more on the story and I think that was a good thing. To me, Tonight has always been a sequel, even if it was the first of my published books.
## What is your best memory of reading a book?

M.K.--Wow, there are so many. The two most profound, I suppose, would be discovering Dennis Lehane's excellent PI novel Gone, Baby, Gone when I was 16. It was the first time I saw what a contemporary writer could do with the form that lifted it well above the genre. Probably also the first time I found myself entranced by prose as well as story. So discovering Dennis's work was pretty huge for me. The other really key moment came a few years later when I read Stephen King's book On Writing. I hadn't read much of King's fiction at all - The Shining was, to that point, the only novel of his I'd read, though by now I'm pretty much through his entire body of work - and I was so blown away by his approach to writing, the clear rules of good prose paired with an obvious and overriding love of storytelling. That book was awfully influential to my approach.
## You studied criminal justice at Indiana University; what was the career goal at the time?

M.K.--The career goal was to be a writer. But I was well aware that writing might be slow in paying the bills, so I was working for a private detective as well and I thought the CJ degree would help in both career paths. It has, too. It was a good choice for my interests, I think.

## You also worked as a newspaper reporter; did you work the crime beat?

M.K.--I worked virtually every possible beat at the newspaper, including crime beat, and the experience was invaluable. Learning to write on deadline, to write clean and tight, all those things were helpful. But the diverse variety of people I met and stories I covered had the greatest influence. I can read virtually any chapter of any pf my novels and see some thread of connection to a story I worked on as a reporter. It's a pervasive influence and one that shaved years off my development time, I suspect.

## My guess is that you probably hear all sorts of jokes about your age from fellow writers. What's the funniest one you've heard?

M.K.--Oh, man, there have been so many. I guess my favorite came from Dennis Lehane when he introduced me for a reading a while back. He recited my accomplishments to date, then said my age, and followed up with "If there weren't signs that he's beginning to lose his hair, I would absolutely hate him." That wasn't bad. But for the record, that hairline is continuing to hold its position thus far. Fingers crossed and knocking on wood as I type that.

## Anyone asked if you've ever used a typewriter or a pen to write a story? And did you?

M.K.--I did both as a kid. I had a little fascination with my dad's electric typewriter, and of course I wrote some longhand in notebooks, but I am young enough that I was raised with computers and discovered early on that the only way I could keep the words close to pace with the thoughts was to type. I type extremely quickly, though not with proper form. I drove my typing teacher in middle school crazy with that - I had these unbelievable words-per-minute rates, and no errors, but my hands were always floating around the keyboard. I thought that was funny as hell, and she could never really grade me down for it.

## How did you end up working for a P.I. and what were you asked to do? How long did you do it?

M.K.--I actually started that in high school, through an independent study program. I'd always wanted to work in the profession and that gave me a chance to get a sense of it. He liked me enough that he offered me a part-time job, and that turned into a full-time job, and that turned into one of the most important opportunities and relationships of my life. I can never thank my boss, Don Johnson, enough for what he allowed me to do, for his generosity and insight and guidance. He's a first-class guy, and I'm still in touch with him often. In terms of case work, I handled a bit of everything - background investigations, fraud, wrongful death, accidents, custody disputes, one death penalty defense case...just a real wide range. I worked with him from the time I was 16 until last December, so that was, believe it or not, a full decade of PI experience before I turned 27. i quit the job when i signed my new contract with Little, Brown. I still miss it, time to time. But writing for a living is the best gig in the world. Should things go poorly with the books, though, I'd not hesitate to go back to that business. I enjoyed it, and I felt it was making a difference daily, which is a rewarding thing.

## Was working in the P.I. world the influence to start writing full-time or did you always want to become a full-time writer?

M.K.--No, I always wanted to write full time. That was always the dream.

## When you found the idea for Tonight, did you realize that you were creating a series with Lincoln Perry?

M.K.--As mentioned earlier, Tonight is in my mind a sequel, so yeah I had a plan for a series character from the start. the idea, actually, began with the title. I had that title from the time I was 17, and I knew its significance. I knew it would be the final entry in the diary of a girl who had gone missing. That was all I knew, but everything else grew from that. Just that phrase. It's funny to think about - an entire book, an entire career, coming from four words that floated into my brain one day when I was mowing my parent's lawn.
## Did you try out different names for L.P. and how did you choose this one? And how do you normally go about choosing characters's names; do you put a lot of thought behind that?

M.K.--Nope, he was always Lincoln Perry, and there wasn't any real choosing. Though I can, again, remember the moment specifically - I was 16 years old, it was about 10 p.m., and I was walking my neighbor's dog (one of the odd jobs I always had in the neighborhood) and thinking about the books I wanted to write. The character name just clicked in. I liked it. There's no symbolism or special meaning. I just liked the sound. I think that's interesting that I can remember those moments, though, the name and the title and exactly where I was and what I was doing when they came to me. Because I was always daydreaming about stories, you know, so the fact that I remember those moments so vividly is interesting to me.

## Are you aware that writer Ann Beatie is married to Lincoln Perry (a painter) and have you heard of Lincoln 'Stepin Fetchit' Perry? Any links with your Lincoln Perry?

M.K.--Yes, I learned of both of those after my first book was published. Fans e-mailed me to point that out. I'd never heard of either prior to publication, and I never did any Internet searches on the name. I always avoid that, because I don't want anything to taint the identity I have in my head. For example, I might have been bothered by the actor's name, because while the achievements of that Lincoln Perry were extraordinary - he was the first black film star, really - there is also a good deal of negativity surrounding that specific role due to race concerns. So had I known all of that at the time, it might have gotten into my head a little, and maybe I change the name. Who knows? I just try not to confuse real people with my fictional characters.

## Are you inspired much by real-life events (or crimes) at all or do you mostly start from scratch all the time?

M.K.--I've been inspired by real-life events but generally things I've worked on or encountered. I've never done a "ripped from the headlines" kind of story. That's just not my thing.

## How does your research process work and do you do it mostly before writing a book?

M.K.--I do as much as possible after the first draft. I prefer to get the story hammered out first. There are times, of course, where the story can't progress unless I understand something, and then I'll research while I'm writing.
## After setting your first two books in Cleveland, in the third one you get out of Ohio for parts of the story; then you wrote a standalone (Envy the Night) that was mainly in the woods, on the edge of a lake. Did you need a change of scenery and of characters at this point in your career, or did it just happen because the idea was there and you wanted to write it now?

M.K.--A little of both, I think. One thing I was clear on: I did not want to become known as a series writer. I didn't want to be branded as "author of the Lincoln Perry novels." I was way too young to commit to one character for the rest of my career, and sometimes it is really, really hard to break away from that once you've reached a certain point. So in terms of Envy the Night, I wanted to go in a different direction entirely. In terms of sending Lincoln out of Ohio, that's actually true in the first book, as well - a good portion of the action in Tonight takes place outside of Cleveland, down in South Carolina. So that wasn't really much of a departure.

## Do you have a career plan for the near future or do you simply go year by year?

M.K.--Michael Connelly, who I think is the consummate pro in this business, says it best: you write with your head down. So my focus is book-to-book. No grand plan. The only thing that's close, I suppose, is my really firm desire not to write myself into a niche I can't get out of, as mentioned with the series concerns. I want to push my range fairly early so that publishers, booksellers, and readers can accept that I'll try different things.

## Is there any possibility in your mind that Frank Temple could come back at some point and Envy the Night wouldn't be a standalone, but the first book in your second series?

M.K.--When I wrote it, the answer was a firm, resounding no. When it was published, my answer was no. Now, two years later, my answer is a faint, whispering no. That's because I miss the characters I created in that novel. Frank, sure, but particularly Ezra Ballard and Nora Stafford. With that said, though, what it would take the right story concept, and I don't have that yet. I've kicked around some ideas - almost unintentionally - but nothing's jumped up and bitten me yet. So we'll see. I liked the cast, I really did. I also liked that book, though, and a follow-up that doesn't build on it in a satisfying way would be very, very disappointing to me.

## In your recent books, you thank other writers (like Lehane, Connelly, Lippman, etc) for different reasons; what was the best advice you ever received from someone in the book industry?

M.K.--I've gotten so much generous guidance from people in the business, from the three you name to people like George Pelecanos and Steve Hamilton and a host of others, that I'd hate to narrow it down. But Connelly's guiding light: "Write with your head down" is the one I remind myself of the most, right alongside Lehane's constant urge to his students to do it because they love it. I don't need to remind myself of that one quite as much because the love is always there. But it's a damned difficult business and because of that you can get overly worried about sales and marketing and chain store numbers and reviews and all of that, and anytime I feel myself doing it, I tell myself to put my head down and focus on the book and the rest will take care of itself. So far, it has, too. So far it has.
## Your novel "The Silent Hour" is in part the character study of a PI; where some authors would write their main character into the ground, book after book, you showed a lot of maturity (or one could say 'balls') in taking a step back and having your PI hesitate, reflect and reconsider the purpose of his work. Tell me what you can about how you decided to do that; was it also a way for you to refresh or reinvent L.P. to keep him (and the series) interesting, both for you and for the readers?

M.K.--Absolutely, absolutely. I want to write LP as a real person, and real people are damaged by, and suffer consequences from, their actions. You see so many series characters out there who bounce back untouched in each new book, the past tragedies forgotten. Well, that's bullshit. That's not real, that's not good fiction. So I wanted to write a book in which you see LP struggle with the events of the first three, and I wanted to do a character study of "The Detective" in a way that went beyond him and focused on the people who do this work every day. The response has been interesting. Some readers love it, and they seem to appreciate what I was trying to do. Others have chastised me, wishing that the book had been lighter and happier and faster-paced, with more gunplay, etc. For me, though, that was a risk I was willing to take. I knew I'd lose some people with this one, I really did. I also knew that in order for me to feel as if I was creating fiction that did what good fiction is supposed to do, I had to write a novel in which Lincoln tried to walk away, in which he felt beaten, felt defeated. Because that, to me, is the reality of someone in his role would feel. I don't like Superman characters, never have. I didn't want to write one, and it's hard to avoid that sense when you use the same hero book after book. So I ran a little bit of a gamble. I don't think it is my best book - to date, Envy the Night is, in my opinion - but it's one I'm awfully proud of because I pushed myself hard on it and didn't give myself what seemed like an easy way out. Didn't let the past just roll off him and shove him happily into a new plot.

## Would you have been ready to accept it if your thinking process had concluded that you were done with L.P.? Was there any doubt in your mind that it could happen, even after only four books?

M.K.--I may be done with LP. I was filled with doubts while writing that book, and I think they are evident. I think you can see me, if not wrapping things up, trying to get him to a place where he can rest comfortably. I'm done with the next book (So Cold the River) and a draft of the one after that (The Cypress House) and have started the third (The Ridge), and none of them are LP novels. I had the sense, when I wrote the last sentence of The Silent Hour (which I'd known, word for word, for over nine months...just the sentence, not the conclusion) that it would be his parting words. Then I went back to Cleveland. I walked around the neighborhoods from which all of his back story comes, and I felt a pang. That's the best way to describe it, because it actually seemed like a kind of painful thing, a grief. A "too-soon" feeling. maybe that means I'll need to go back to him at some point. I really can't say right now.

## Does the Whisper Ridge house really exist? What is the inspiration behind it?

M.K.--Yes, it does. I saw a home exactly like that - sans dead body and bizarre history - when I was a reporter, and it was just this haunting, gorgeous place. I knew I'd write about it someday. The story behind the house I saw isn't as fascinating, but the home itself and the grounds at the time that I saw them, when it was abandoned, were incredibly powerful.
## Your next book is titled So Cold the River (2010). What can you say about it?

M.K.--I can say without reservation that I've never been more excited about a book release, and that includes my first novel excitement. This is a step in a very different direction - it's part crime novel, but it's also a ghost story, a literary story, a look at a place and piece of history that I absolutely adore - and I'm just anxious as hell for it to come out. It has gotten some wonderful support so far, and my hopes are high for it, but in keeping with Mr. Connelly's mantra, my head is down.


## How long have you been teaching at the Indiana University School of Journalism? What are your classes?

M.K.--I'm not teaching this semester. I taught journalism for a couple years, I may do it again. I like teaching, particularly when the students are enthusiastic and there are a few in the bunch who clearly have a love of the written word, but my preference is for teaching creative writing. I'm teaching again at Dennis Lehane's writing conference at Eckerd College this winter, which is a wonderful, wonderful conference. I spent a few years there as a student, and now I teach there, and it's really a sacred week to me.

## If there is one thing you'd like your students to remember from your teaching, what would it be?

M.K.--On the first day of class, I give them three mantras. They are asked to repeat them to me on the last day. these are 1) Every word counts; 2) Story is character; 3) Write because you love it.

## What is your motivation in teaching? Wouldn't you rather keep the hours for your own writing?

M.K.--My motivation in teaching is that I've benefited so extraordinarily from the teaching of others - Lehane, and my journalism mentor and dear friend, Bob Hammel - who also didn't need to give up their hours toward it but did because they knew there was someone out there, like me, who desperately needed the help. When you've been touched by a great teacher, you have no reluctance to teach. I'll always teach somewhere, because I'll always remember the impact some people had on me.
## You studied under Dennis Lehane at Eckerd College; what kind of teacher is he and can you name the one aspect of your writing that you improved the most with him?

M.K.--He is, quite simply, the best classroom instructor I ever had. I took classes with him at Eckerd's conference and one semester of a low-residency MFA program at Pine Manor. I can't name one aspect of my writing that improved from the experiences, because every aspect improved. I've got a long way to go, but Dennis, man, Dennis is motivation to me like you would not believe. The thing I took away with most respect from watching him and learning from him was how determined he is to always get better. Everyone says that, every writer you ever talk to will tell you they want to get better with each book, and most of them are either full of shit or they don't really know how to improve. Dennis, he's so ambitious, so driven, and so talented, but he's also so demanding of himself. That's how the great ones always are, I think. He wants a better book out of himself every single time. Always will.

## What could Michael Koryta the teacher say about Michael Koryta the writer?

M.K.--His reach exceeds his grasp, and hopefully it always will.

## In crime fiction (or fiction in general) what is the difference between a good writer and a great writer?

M.K.--Ability to get to the core of human emotion. To elicit from the reader a sense of oneness with the characters, a sense of the shared journey we are all on. In this regard, David Sedaris is a great writer - you don't laugh that hard unless someone has hit the core of your emotions. In this regard, Cormac McCarthy is a great writer, and Richard Price, and Stephen King. Maybe some are known for working one specific emotion dominantly - horror for King, humor for Sedaris - but they get down to you, they're telling a story that hits you in an intimate way.


## To better understand your creative process, can you share some information on how you create a novel?

M.K.--It's generally a collision of ideas to me. Like flint on a stone - something small hits on something bigger and all of a sudden we're cooking. There are always major obstacles, always, but that's the fun of it. Writing is a journey of discovery.

## What is better: creating a great character or a great plot?

M.K.--I refer to one of my mantras for teaching: story is character. They have to work in tandem in good writing. Have to. But if you're going to make me bend one way or the other, I'd say that the most fascinating person alive is only fascinating based upon what they've done. Right? Their actions provide the fascination. have to give plot the nod. But I repeat - they can't be separated in a good piece of work.

## Do you fuss a lot over words and sentences, rhythms, etc? Do you find it difficult to edit your own writings?

M.K.--Refer to another mantra: every word counts. Absolutely. I'm kind of obsessed with sound and rhythm in particular. Pick any paragraph from Cormac McCarthy's novel The Crossing and read it aloud. Pure gold. I love that.
## Do you write many drafts or do you rewrite chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, etc?

M.K.--Many drafts. Many, many drafts.

## What do you find is the most difficult part of writing a book?

M.K.--The middle of the first draft, without exception. Since I don't have an outline, the middle is where I begin to founder on the rocks. So you figure out a way to right the ship and sail on.

## Do you write short stories? How different is your writing process for those, if you do?

M.K.--I really don't. I need to try. I feel as if that's something I'm lacking as a writer, that skill set.

## What sort of schedule do you keep most of the time?

M.K.--Unless I'm traveling, I write 1,500 words a day, seven days a week.

## What is the best environment and atmosphere to write in? Any specific music, ritual, etc?

M.K.--For me, music is key. I like the background noise, try to match it to mood sometimes. It helps block everything else out.

## What do you want to achieve as a writer?

M.K.--I'd like to write at least one book that lingers. One book that people will read long after I'm gone.


## Do you write while on a promo tour?

M.K.--Can't write in a hotel room. Just terrible results when I try.

## What are your favourite book and movie set in Cleveland?

M.K.--Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner is a good novel. Major League is the definite sports comedy.
## Which one of your books would you most want to see as a movie? Are there projects in development?

M.K.--I've had offers, none of which have been exciting enough with regard to talent or dollars to make me bite yet, but if I could pick one it would actually be the book that won't come out until 2011, The Cypress House.

## Can you name two books you wish you'd written? And why?

M.K.--I can name two thousand. Here's two: Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. He achieves everything I want to achieve as a writer in that book. It's just gorgeous, in every facet. And A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan. One of the most haunting pieces of writing I've ever encountered.
## If I could ask them, what would L.P., Joe and Amy have to say about the life you gave them?

M.K.--"Stop throwing punches, dude. We're hurting!"

## Last question, the one I ask every writer I interview: If there's a crime novel written and you are the main character, what would be the first sentence of the book, and how would your character die?

M.K.--Good one. First sentences: "As usual, he thought he saw it coming. As usual, he did not." As for the death, all I ask is, make it swift.

I'd like to thank Michael Koryta for agreeing to do this.
Thank you also to Melanie Storoschuk and Donna Nopper.

(Read my interview with Michael Koryta in the Interrogation Room section)

It was a dark and very stormy night. There would be smoke; there would be blood; and tears –of sadness, of hurt, of loss. Of longing and belonging.
But there would be hope too.
Although not before many other nights would follow, as dark and stormy.

When Arlen Wagner, former soldier who fought during WWI, sees smoke in the eyes of all the passengers aboard a train, he knows that death awaits and that everyone is doomed unless they get out. Wagner convinces only one man though, 19-year old Paul Brickhill. Together they get off at the next stop and continue their journey on foot. Wagner’s terrible gift has never been wrong before, especially on the battlefields, and it just saved his and Brickhill’s life. Problem is, it might be only temporarily.

The two travelers soon find themselves at the Cypress House, a battered down boarding house that doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of customers, except for a group of shady and violent characters that include the local sheriff and a judge. With a ferocious hurricane approaching (the historical 1935 Labour Day one), Wagner and Brickhill decide to help out Rebecca Cady, Cypress House’s owner, to protect and board up the place. They also intend to protect Rebecca against the powerful control that judge Wade and sheriff Tolliver hold over her. When Wagner’s dark ability again shows him that death is very close, he knows he must act as soon as possible. Will it be enough to save others? What about himself?    

In The Cypress House, Koryta paints a realistic portrait of an era (the 1930s during the Depression in the South) by intelligently using some historical events and places around which he creates characters that seem so real and alive you can’t believe they haven’t existed. The triangle delineated by Arlen, Paul and Rebecca is a driving force of emotions and conflicts that sends the story into a spinning forward movement, not dissimilar to the devastating hurricane coming towards them. Although the trio would take its chances against the storm, when Arlen's dark gift shows death in the eyes of Paul, it's the killing, evil power of the judge's gang that becomes the main threat and the one against which they need to protect themselves more.

Then, when Rebecca's brother shows up, it changes the whole dynamic of the group, things start to get out of control and the nucleus explodes. Koryta brilliantly helps define these characters by giving each of them a complex and troubled past. "Everybody's got a few things they'd like to keep quiet on", Arlen points out to Rebecca. Arlen's got a dark, emotional secret about his father; Rebecca has a necessary, although forced, relationship with the judge; and Paul has a more foggy past and family secrets of his own. Of course, there is also judge Wade's posse, its own small-scale storm charged with a magnetic field of violence and blood. 

Koryta drives this thrilling ride by showing you that no one is perfect, that everyone eventually has to redeem themselves, to deal with their past and accept it, or their past will haunt them always. No one is perfect but everyone can make the best of what was dealt to them. Especially in adversity...and in really bad weather.

Regarding adversity, it is sometimes said that an athlete is as good as her last performance. Gold medal? You’re the best until someone else wins it. Sure, but it would be unfair to say that a writer is as good as his last book, mainly because it is only human to have uneven performances, be it in sports, in writing, in your everyday work, etc. Nonetheless, a writer is supposed to never be satisfied with the most recent success –in sales, reviews, or other—and to always aim at writing a better book than the previous one, whatever ‘better’ means to the writer (it might not be the same for the publisher, the agent, the readers) but better it should try to be.

Michael Koryta is not only better from book to book he also finds a way to reinvent himself at the same time. Which is impressive for someone who’s not yet 30. He could use a different pseudonym on each book cover and no one would ever guess that the same guy had created these stories. That’s how clever and original his stories are; he uses recurring 'accessories' like the weather –the forces of nature and the devastation they bring on the planet and its inhabitants become a sort of veil over events and characters, enveloping them tightly while sending them towards their destiny. Koryta also uses locations that play a major role in his stories, like the gigantic West Baden Spring hotel (So Cold the River) that is surrounded by haunted and haunting people, and by evil water; a boarding house that seems to bring the bad out of everyone who enters it (The Cypress House) and also an abandoned house, the Whisper Ridge, that has kept secrets for many years but seems ready–and willing—to reveal them (The Silent Hour). His forthcoming novel (The Ridge) will focus on a lighthouse that was built hundreds of miles from any significant body of water and on the reporter who is sent to write about it.

Koryta uses all these 'accessories' with a subtle restraint which renders them more effective. They are there all the time, but they're not overused nor do they overwhelm. They serve a purpose like a supporting actor, sometimes stealing a scene and at other times just hovering in the background. You might even forget them for a while but they come back to remind you of their importance. Koryta deftly manages the growing suspense with a perfect pacing. As the tension mounts, you find yourself less inclined to pause in your reading. Your eyes frenetically pursue the words while your hands keep pace by turning pages after pages after pages. The Cypress House is one of the most engrossing books I've read in the past three years.
After writing five thrilling crime novels, four of those starring PI Lincoln Perry, Koryta left his comfort zone to explore the genre’s limits by stretching them until they exploded and fused back together into a new and original sub-genre; one that straddles the edge between reality and the unexplained, exploring the hidden and often haunted side of people, places, and things. It touches on the gothic, on the supernatural, on the noir, but isn’t limited by any of these. It is a sum of all its parts. Michael Koryta is not the first one to stretch the limits of the crime genre into supernatural territory, of course, but he’s one of the few who can succeed at it by making it believable and natural. He is certainly one of the best at it, on a short list where I would include Peter Straub, John Connolly and just a few others. In any case, it would be a disservice to Koryta (as it is to most writers) to try and categorize his writing too specifically. 

Some books have a visual, cinematic strength that make you feel as if you’re watching a movie. Koryta’s stories, and especially The Cypress House, make you believe you’re in a movie. He is a specialist like Scorsese and Hitchcock are in their field. Michael Koryta has already been compared to writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub and Dennis Lehane; soon, if they are very good, other writers will be compared to Michael Koryta.

The Cypress House

(I've read an ARC from Hachette Book Group Canada)
JF   2 March 2011

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