After jumping from a quarry ledge, a young teenage boy of 13, Jace Wilson, finds a dead man in the water. A few moments later, the boy witnesses the killing of another man who is also thrown in the water. The only person who can identify the two killers, Jace needs to be protected during the investigation.
So Jace Wilson becomes Connor Reynolds under a non-traditional witness protection program; he is sent to a summer camp in the mountains of Montana. Run by Ethan and Alison Serbin, the wilderness survival program helps out damaged kids, from difficult backgrounds and troubled homes, build back their self-confidence and prepare them for the rest of their lives against everything the world will throw at them.
Meanwhile, the two killers –known as the Blackwell Brothers—are on the hunt for Jace/Connor. They show great patience and deadpan humour when obtaining information but they show no mercy for anyone who stands in their way; for them, killing is not a game it is a survival skill. They will hit, maim, and burn only if necessary but they’ll never hesitate to act. And then they will kill. Always.
As the brothers get closer to Jace/Connor and his new friends, out in the wilderness, the elements of nature are also crowding the mountain and forest; a fire is burning with increasing intensity, and the sky is thundering with the whole package of special effects it contains. Staying outside under these unpredictable conditions, even without two killers on your trail, would be extremely dangerous and life-threatening for anyone. For Jace/Connor, it might just be the safest place on Earth.
Michael Koryta’s writing blazes on the page and seers through your mind and bloodstream until your heart-rate starts climbing to dangerous levels. You’ll rush through the book as if running from a wildfire. Almost every single character in Those Who Wish Me Dead are directly involved in Jace’s fate: Ethan and Alison Serbin will need to dig far deeper into their knowledge of the wilderness in order to protect Jace, while giving themselves a chance to survive; Hannah Faber, posted in a fire lookout tower in the forest, will have to deal with events that she can affect rather than dwelling on her recent, traumatizing past; others will influence in varying degrees by helping or not, willingly or not; but the Blackwell Brothers –two of the most dangerous and brilliantly insane characters I’ve come across in recent years—will learn to stretch the limits of their destructive ways while realising that their mission in the wilderness is not the walk in the park they thought it would be.
Every character and natural element can influence the unfolding events one way or the other, but whatever their intent, they can also destroy everything at a moment’s notice. That unpredictability throughout the story is one of the main hooks keeping the reader involved; it holds the intensity very high at all times, from the very beginning until the last pages. Even during the quieter moments, it is always felt in the background. Michael Koryta is a specialist of pacing; every scene is at the right place in the build-up of the suspense, like dry wood before the approaching flames. Just don’t expect too many of these quiet moments.
Koryta never overwhelms you with unnecessary details either, preferring sharp descriptions like this one “Up above them, lightning was working on the mountaintops. Below, to their right, the forest fire glowed in the woods just south of Silver Gate. The wind fed it and drove acrid smoke toward them.” From there, in bits and pieces scattered through the pages, Koryta slowly brings the elements of nature into play, closer to the characters; where at first thunder could be heard from a distance and the forest fire could only be detected by the smoke over the trees, now lightning is hitting closer, and fire is seen and felt. Koryta continues until the blaze and the storm rage all around, and nature becomes fully involved.
Look out, your summer is about to get insanely hot.
Rating: 4 thumbprints (see Review Room for rating system)
And now, here’s a short Q & A I did with Michael Koryta.
HoCaM—Those Who Wish Me Dead is not only about survival but also, I think, about self-discovery, introspection, and the possibility of changes for most of the characters; Jace Wilson learns more about himself than any teenagers ever will about themselves; Ethan and Alison Serbin, each on their own, reassess deep-rooted values and face life-altering choices –for them and for others; Hannah Faber, still carrying the heavy baggage of a painful past, is now forced to relive it; even the Blackwell Brothers, these two dangerous sociopaths, are not entirely prepared for what lurks in the wilderness.
So my question is: when you work on character development, what do you aim for and how much of it reveals itself while writing the story?
M.K.—Wow, that’s a tricky one. Let’s start with the surface layer: I know that I need character development or the story is dead. If the events of the story do not change the characters in some fashion, then what was the point of the journey? Now we get into the second layer, which is how those changes reveal themselves. Sometimes I’ve been fortunate to have a good sense at the start. In The Prophet, I understood where Adam and Kent were going from almost the first page. At times I wanted to stop them. With Those Who Wish Me Dead, I didn’t have as good of a sense of the characters early, which led to many, many drafts of the opening 100 pages. I think I attempted seven different entries, and in each case the character relationships were different. In one, Jace was Ethan’s son. In another, Jace was much older and working as a counselor for the program, playing more of Ethan’s role, and another kid was handling the “Jace” role, but I didn’t give him a point of view. That was an epic failure. For the first five attempts, there was only one Blackwell. (What a loss that would have been for my fun! Ha.) All of this is to say that the process is incredibly varied from book to book, and I’m comfortable with the story only when I understand how the events of the book will shape and change the cast.
HoCaM—The mountain, the fire, and other elements of nature (wind, rain, lightning, etc.) are characters on their own, highly unpredictable, but important parts of the unfolding events. They are completely neutral in regards to the objectives of humans. In fact, it’s how the human characters adapt themselves to the forces of nature and to the mountain itself that could have an impact on the final outcome. Both nature and humans are part of the finely tuned crescendo of the story arc, right up until the climax. How did you envision the balance between all the elements in place, and how difficult was it to keep that balance (while making sure not to overdo it)?
M.K.—Trusting the subconscious. You articulated the role of nature in the story perfectly, and I knew it was going to be, on some level, a story about the timeless power of that mountain landscape and about how even the most competent human can be made laughably small and weak in the face of nature. The balance is just something you have to feel. I’m better when I get out of my own way in overthinking things like that. Over the years I think my internal warning system has improved: I can feel the scales tilt a little easier now than I could before. And, of course, I have great editors!
HoCaM—Do you regularly trek in forests and on mountains? Any special experiences you can share that either inspired you to write this book or happened while researching for it?
M.K.—Absolutely. This book was born on backpacking trips in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana and Wyoming. I’ve hiked the same ground of the story, and I’ve felt the incredible beauty and menace of that landscape, which is quite powerful. I’ve never felt as small as I do in those mountains, which is no doubt why I feel the pull to return to them. Talk about a place that provides you with a sense of perspective. It’s a wilderness in the most real sense of the word. This book is a product of the setting, without question.
HoCaM—Which one of your books is closer to a movie adaptation at the moment or has the best chance of becoming one?
M.K.—I’m told they are all close to development, and yet nothing has been made! Each project has wonderful people attached. I’ve stopped trying to guess, honestly, because it can be enormously frustrating. I’m hopeful for each project, but right now I suppose I feel the best about Those Who Wish Me Dead, because it’s fresh! I’m excited to see that script. Chris Columbus wrote a beautiful script for The Cypress House, so I’d love to see that one move forward, too. There’s a chance of a TV series for The Ridge. I live in hope!
HoCaM—TWWMD is your 10th book. I have a vivid memory of reading your first one Tonight I Said Goodbye, back in late September 2004: I had it with me at the very last game the Expos played in Montréal (against the Florida Marlins) and I even caught a foul ball without dropping the book. (Still have both the book and the ball). When you look back at those ten years, how do you assess what you’ve accomplished, how you’ve grown as a writer, and where do you want to go from here?
M.K.—Love that story! Ha. Nice catch, too! I honestly haven’t done too much backward-looking assessment. I don’t see the gain in it. Onward and upward, right? My only real look back has been to flip through some of the early books and realize that I couldn’t tell you all the character names if you had a gun to my head. I’ve published about a million words now, which means I’ve surely written about five million in the last decade, because about 20% makes the final draft, and I’ve also started four books that I never finished. That is sort of staggering for me to consider, just the sheer volume. It’s been fun, though. It has been a constant joy. I believe that I’m a better writer now, and I believe that I need to improve enormously going forward. So you take it one day at a time and remind yourself how fortunate you are to have the chance. My only clear goal for I want to do from here is to continue to let the story pick me, and not the other way around. Challenging as it might be for the marketing folks and even some readers, I firmly believe that the only way to go about this craft is to write the book that you feel passionate about, and not to worry about finding the book that the mass audience desires. You hope that cream rises, and that if you write well and try to get better every day, the audience will be there. I’ve been very fortunate so far.
HoCaM—Can you share a little about the next book?
M.K.—It’s all of the stops I’ve made on the page in the past 10 years showing their impact, I think. A detective novel à la Lincoln books, an eerie, atmospheric vibe à la the supernatural stories, and it continues to show my fascination with the natural world. We’re dealing with caves instead of mountains in this one, and snow, and a 10-year-old cold case of a murdered girl whose body was discovered in a little tourist trap cave in the rural Midwest. My detective in this one will probably rear his head in books to come, which was a surprise to realize, as I thought I was done with a series approach. But I feel as if he’ll have work to do by the time I put THE END on this one, so I suspect you will see him again. It has been great fun and I’m hoping to have a draft done in early summer, so it should be a 2015 release. The tentative title is LAST WORDS.
HoCaM—Thank you again!
M.K.—Thank you. Truly my pleasure, and I appreciate the great questions and the support.
GIVEAWAY: for a chance to win a copy of the book, send me an email to email@example.com along with your name and address. You need to be 18 years or older, and a resident of the US or Canada. You have until Wednesday, June 11th, at noon, Montréal Time. Bonne chance!
UPDATE: I've just realised that I have an extra copy of Michael's THE PROPHET. I'm including it as a bonus prize; winner will get, not one, but two books!
To read a longer interview with Michael Koryta, from March 2011, and a review of The Cypress House just go to my Interrogation Room page.
To know more about Michael Koryta and his books, visit his website and blog, his Facebook page, and Twitter account. If you’ve never read his books and still need convincing, read these amazing comments by some of the more successful writers out there:
“Oustanding in every way, and a guaranteed thriller-of-the-year…Stephen King would be proud of the set up, Cormac McCarthy would be proud of the writing, and I would proud of the action. Don’t you dare miss it.” –Lee Child about Those Who Wish Me Dead
“…a relentless, heart-in-your-throat thriller about ordinary people caught in the middle of an extraordinary nightmare.” –Dennis Lehane about The Prophet
“A man in love with the woman who shot him. Who could possibly resist that story? Not me. Read on, and discover one of the scariest and most touching horror tales in years.” –James Patterson about The Ridge
“He uses the psychology of place to penetrate the human heart and delivers his tale of hurricanes and love and hauntings with great narrative force. Koryta’s becoming a wonder we’ll appreciate for a long time.” –Daniel Woodrell about The Cypress House
Thanks for visiting and for reading,
June 8th, 2014