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An Interview With Michael Koryta, Author of So Cold The River

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I have been hearing raves about author Michael Koryta for several years but it was when I read, in this Wall Street Journal piece, that he was now not only a colleague of some of my favorite writers but also getting praise and help from a few specific ones I love that I decided to check it out. He thanks at the end of the book Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos. (The links take you to interviews with each.)

So Cold the River is a departure from Koryta’s usual crime writing, but it’s still fascinating. Put simply it meets the hype. It is more reminiscent at times of Stephen King’s The Shining than Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, a book and author which Kortya often praises in interviews.

Our email interview follows. I mention in the interview bottled water. A bottle of water and its mysterious origin, content and effect plays a major role in this book.

How did you pitch this book? Why did you decide to try to do
something outside of the crime genre?

Well, ironically it was supposed to be a novella. As you can see from the 500-plus pages, that plan got away from me. The idea of doing something in the supernatural vein came from the place itself. It seemed to call for that kind of story, and it allowed me to bridge eras smoothly. It was also the kind of creative change that can refresh you. But it basically comes down to the Springs Valley region, the folklore, and all of those elements that kept shouting “ghost story” in my ear.

I have told your publicist – and this is true – that I’m scared now
to drink bottled drinks. Are you proud of yourself? Actually you
probably are because it means you’ve thoroughly freaked out a reader.

Haha, yes, deeply proud to hear this. Stay away from the antique bottles and I imagine you’ll be fine. But you just never know… 

You have some amazing friends and supporters: Michael Connelly and
Dennis Lehane.  What’s that like to rub elbows with them? From what I’ve read it sounds like Lehane – and his decision to try different styles and genre – influenced you. Is that correct?

Having support from those guys means a great deal because ultimately you write because you love to read, and those are two of my favorite writers. I’ve enjoyed their work for years, so the idea that they’ve enjoyed any of my work is really, really humbling. I was a student in a couple writing conferences and programs with Dennis so his perspective was extremely influential, yes. Michael is influential on every single level; he’s at the pinnacle of quality writing but also of class and generosity.

What would you say to those new to you, who are trying to decide
whether to start with you and this large (500-plus page) book or with
your others? What would you tell them?

I’d tell them to start with this one. It’s a standalone, it’s my most recent work, and hopefully I’ve been improving along the way.

I read somewhere that your contract calls for you to put out two or three other books within a year. Are those already written? Can you tell us what those two are going to be about?

My contract calls for one book a year. There were not, and will not be, any fast-track deadlines. We’ll be going out with more books in a shorter span this time simply because they were ready.

I write a lot – 1,500 words a day minimum, seven days a week – and I got on a hot streak in 2009, really produced. So we had a book that was ready, and Michael Pietsch (my editor and the publisher of Little, Brown) said he didn’t see the point in holding off on it. So that’ll come out in January. It’s called The Cypress House and I’m very, very excited about it. One of the reasons it came pouring out so fast is that the story really sunk its teeth into me. It’s set on the Gulf Coast in 1935 in the aftermath of a terrible hurricane and involves a couple CCC workers stranded on the road who run afoul of gangsters.

I understand you, like me, once worked as a newspaper journalist.
What did you cover? How did that work affect you as a writer?

I covered a little bit of everything in my run, from sports to police beat, and even had a column for a time. Working for a newspaper is a tremendous experience for a novelist – you’re required to work on deadline, to work fast and well, to build scenes and learn quote selection and develop an eye for the telling detail. All useful techniques in the craft of fiction. I think that newspaper experience shaved years off my development as a novelist because I was around some very good reporters and writers who were generous in terms of helping me improve my craft.

I read that you began corresponding with your favorite writers as
early as age eight. What did you ask them and what kind of responses did you get?

They were fan letters essentially. Telling them how much I loved their stuff. The questions I recall including in the letters were requests for advice in developing as a writer – even way back then that’s what I wanted to do – and suggestions for other authors to read. I was always looking for new stuff.

What is the biggest misconception about you? You seem to be
portrayed as quite the early achiever, having won your first awards
before you were even 21. Do you object to that portrayal?

Well, the age and the awards are facts, so I don’t know how I could object to them. My age has always been a double-edged sword: some readers are intrigued by it, some are dismissive because of it. This is certainly true for reviewers, too. I’m happy to be at the point where I’ve built a body of work that should trump the age discussion. Love my stuff or hate it, at least the talk should be focused on the books by now.

The biggest misconception I suppose would be the idea that I sold my first novel at a very young age. That wasn’t my first novel, it was my fourth, and the second featuring my detective Lincoln Perry. So I’d been grinding for awhile before I had any publishing luck.

By mentioning Stephen King you knew, I assume, you’d get reviewers
and writers mentioning his work. I understand you’re a fan of his. Has
he commented on your new book?

Not to my knowledge. I admire him greatly and his book On Writing was absolutely critical to me. It’s funny that people are reacting to the fact that I name-check his work in So Cold the River. I’ve done the same in many previous books – Christine gets mentioned in Envy the Night; there’s a bar called Cujo’s in A Welcome Grave, etc. – and nobody ever commented on those references. Now that I’ve drifted closer to him in story content, it’s catching more eyes. The references are a gesture of respect, a tip of the hat.

I have read this book was sparked by a visit to an interesting
place. Can you tell about that as well as how this work was influenced
by some musicians?

Yes, the story itself is a product of both the fascinating history of West Baden Springs and French Lick, Indiana, small towns that were thriving resorts before the Depression, and of a wonderful song called Short Trip Home, played by the violinist Joshua Bell. It’s a gorgeous melody and I had the idea of such a tune being played by a young, Depression-era prodigy who was working for tips in the lobby of the grand West Baden Springs Hotel. From that notion came a large portion of the plot.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://www.sbutki.newsvine.com scott butki

    Apparently someone liked something I said in this interview as it’s been turned into a blurb for the paperback edition of this book.

    that’s right i’ve become a blurb… butki book blurb – say that ten times fast.