I first met Michael Koryta after the Edgar Awards in 2004. I was having a post-ceremony party. A long-time friend asked if she could bring agent David Hale Smith and one of his clients. The client’s name was Michael Koryta. His novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye, had been published by St. Martin’s Press after winning the PWA/SMP Prize for Best First PI Novel. Now it had been nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel.
When the three of them showed up at my apartment door, I played hostess by immediately offering cocktails to my new guests. I paused as I poured Michael’s Makers Mark.
“Should I be carding you?” I asked.
“No.” He assured me I would not be breaking New York law by serving him. “A few months ago, yes, this would’ve been a problem. But I’m officially legal now.”
Wow. Twenty-one years old and already nominated for an Edgar. I told him I hated him, and we’ve been buddies ever since.
Because we’re friends, I hope Michael will forgive me for even mentioning age more than seven years later. In that time, he has become a full-time writer. He has published an additional seven novels. He teaches creative writing at the side of none other than Dennis Lehane. He has found fans in writers as diverse as Ridley Pearson, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, and Dean Koontz.
As the Wall Street Journal pronounced in a profile last year, “Michael Koryta does not fool around.”
He’s also one of my favorite writer friends. He writes, in my view, for the right reason (because he has to) and with the right objective (to create a better book every single time). It’s my pleasure to host him here at Murderati before the launch of his latest book, THE RIDGE.
AB: Congratulations on the launch of your new book, THE RIDGE. Tell us a little bit about the book.
MK: Thanks! It’s a kind of hybrid detective novel and ghost story, which is the blend I’ve been playing around with in these last three (SO COLD THE RIVER, THE CYPRESS HOUSE, and THE RIDGE). The book opens with a rural Kentucky sheriff’s deputy being called out to investigate the apparent suicide of a local eccentric who built — and lived in — a lighthouse in the woods. I wanted to write something that called upon a lot of the flavor of Appalachian folklore and legend.
AB: Let’s talk about the genre shift. As you mentioned, after five well-received crime novels, you switched gears in 2010 with SO COLD THE RIVER, which had enough of a horror/supernatural feel that reviewers were comparing you to Steven King. Since then, with both THE CYPRESS HOUSE and THE RIDGE, your work has continued in the direction of the supernatural. So what happened to move your work away from nuts-and-bolts investigating into the realm of the unexplained? Did you start seeing ghosts or something?
MK: I keep hoping to spot one, but so far no luck. I really hadn’t anticipated making this change. SO COLD just seemed to cry out for a ghost story — I was writing about a place that had a really bizarre history, bridged a full century, and was built on the legendary reputation of healing mineral springs. To go purely procedural with that seemed wrong. Once I’d introduced myself to writing mysteries that had a component of the unexplained, I fell in love with it. The change in form was really refreshing, and challenging. I found the supernatural stories a great deal harder to plot. That was part of the fun, though, figuring out how to sell this new wrinkle, first to myself and then — hopefully — to the reader.
AB: PD recently blogged here about genre shifting — and our readers’ reactions to it. How have your early readers reacted to the most recent books? And was their response a consideration when you envisioned your most recent books?
MK: Well, most of the feedback I heard was positive. Surprised, maybe, but positive. A lot of “I don’t usually read this sort of thing, but I decided I’d give it a chance because of your previous books, and I really enjoyed it.” That’s very rewarding, when readers are willing to follow you in some different directions. Now, I’m sure some people did not like the new direction, and that’s fine. You can’t worry about that. I really think you’re putting yourself in a very dangerous place when you consider reader response before writing a book. At that point you’re beginning to let the market dictate the material, and you can lose your creative soul awfully fast doing that. Was I worried people wouldn’t like the books? Sure. But I’m always worried that people won’t like a book, so that was hardly a new experience.
AB: Four of your first five novels featured investigator Lincoln Perry, who also earned you an Edgar nomination for your debut book, TONIGHT I SAID GOODBYE. Will readers be seeing anymore of Lincoln Perry any time soon? What’s next for you?
MK: I’d be very surprised if I never returned to Lincoln, which is interesting, because when I wrote the last lines of THE SILENT HOUR I had a pretty firm sense that, whether I liked it or not, I’d just written the coda for him. I just didn’t see that character calling me back, felt as if I’d run the well dry. Now, three books removed, I’m beginning to think about him again. I miss writing about Cleveland. Lincoln was my window into Cleveland. So we will see. The next book is a traditional crime novel, nary a ghost in sight, and it’s about two brothers who lost a sister to violent crime when they were in their teens. It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for several years, and it just kept circling back.
AB: You have now published three novels in twelve months. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with both the writing pace and the publishing pace?
MK: There’s an element of smoke and mirrors to it. It would appear that I stepped up my writing speed dramatically. That’s not really the case, though. In fact, THE RIDGE took me 16 or 17 months, which is the longest I’ve spent on a book. What has been stepped up is the production pace. When I came to Little, Brown, Michael Pietsch, my editor, suggested that we break the traditional approach of having the hardcover out, then 11 months later the paperback, then the next hardcover. He wanted to increase visibility by shortening the time between books. We had long lead time with SO COLD, so it didn’t seem too intimidating to me. My writing pace didn’t have to change, but all elements of production were crunched like crazy, and kudos to the Little, Brown team for somehow pulling it off. We are going from copy edits to finished books on THE RIDGE in 10 weeks, I believe. That’s pretty quick! It is also operating with the idea that you don’t need to have a galley floating around for a whole year before release, and I think that makes a lot of sense.
AB: I know you’ll be traveling a bit for The Ridge. In fact, I’ll see you in Phoenix on June 25, thanks to Barbara Peters and The Poisoned Pen. Thanks to JT, we were talking here recently about the value of touring. Your thoughts?
MK: Can’t wait to see you. Pack your golf clubs. And Duffer. This will be the shortest tour I’ve done. That’s another side to the three books in 12 months routine: lots of travel. I’ve got to shut that down for a while if I intend to publish again anytime soon. Book tours are kind of mysterious to me. Financially, I think publishers have to be looking at it as a long-term payoff, because the only writers who are going to sell enough copies by touring to offset the travel costs are the writers who don’t need to tour, anyhow.
Events are pretty critical to indie stores, and indie stores are absolutely imperative to authors, particularly new or lesser known writers. I don’t believe there’s enough value to justify an author investing large amounts of his or her own money into touring. There are dozens upon dozens of extremely successful writers who almost never make appearances. Dean Koontz has sold more than 400 million copies and has never toured. When was the last time anybody spotted Grisham on the road?
Now let’s look beyond the #1 bestsellers, to those of us who are trying to hang in there and improve sales enough to get another deal and live to fight another day. I think you’re far more likely to gain ground doing that in the hours spent at the keyboard than in the airport. So I suppose my long-winded answer here is: moderate value at best. We’ve all seen writers who come out and beat the trail for 500 events and it doesn’t catapult them beyond a writer who did 10 events. Good publicity and good word of mouth are far more critical, and those come from writing good books, unless you have some odd hook like, you know, being Snooki.
Touring can be addictive for the writer because A) you feel productive, running out of airports and into cabs, and B) most booksellers are flat-out awesome people and you want to be around them. But I remain convinced that you’re going to benefit yourself most in the hours spent at the desk.
AB: We also talk a lot here about the increased pressures on authors to be their own publicity machines, especially on the internet. You have maintained a fairly close zone of privacy. What boundaries, if any, do you have about your presence as an author online? We’re happy to have you here on Murderati as a guest, but what are your thoughts about blogging regularly, friending readers on Facebook, and Tweeting?
MK: Kind of funny — I’m the infamously young writer of our current pack, and I’m the least social network savvy. After about five years I finally advanced to having a news blog! The publisher runs a books page on Facebook that is really good, but I’m not too active with my own page beyond putting up fun profile photos from Seinfeld. I have yet to tweet, though I’ve promised Little, Brown that I will give it a try.
You’re right that there really is no way to reach me directly on the internet. Part of my reluctance is a privacy issue, I suppose, yes, but more of it is based in time loss. You can lose HOURS on Facebook so easily! It’s amazing. But there are other things I’d prefer to be doing with those hours. I can see enormous value in being able to interact with your readers, but ultimately the interaction I’m most concerned with is the one they have with the story. Lots of readers felt and continue to feel personally touched by Dickens, but as far as I know he has yet to send a tweet or poke anyone on Facebook.
AB: You worked for a private investigator before you were writing full-time. What’s your best story from your PI days?
MK: You’re an attorney, and a law professor, and yet you immediately ask me to violate the confidentiality agreement I signed? Nice. I’ve got lots of favorites. Kind of high up there was a woman who had made a full disability claim. I spent a week outside her house watching while absolutely nothing happened, then went into a bar to hear my friend’s band play, sat down, and saw this lady making a giddy drunken fool out of herself on the dance floor. Reason I always kept a video camera in the car!
I also kept a hardhat and a roll of old blueprints that I got from dad, who is an engineer, because nobody questions a guy who’s pulled off the side of the road if he’s wearing a hardhat and has construction diagrams spread out on the hood.
There were some funny stories — a theft case that involved more than 200 pairs of panties stolen from one girl (who has 200 pairs of panties?!) and some tragic ones — a wrongful death case in which a child had been killed; putting together the narrative of that poor kid’s life was the most haunting and disturbing thing I’ve been involved with — but the job was always grist for the mill.
AB: I know we’ve both been blessed to have some of the most generous mentors in the crime fiction world. Who have some of your mentors been, and what lessons have you learned from them?
MK: Wow, yes, blessed is the word. I find over and over again that this is a wildly generous community. There’s no better example than Michael Connelly. He’s just the guy you want to be like, from the way he approaches the craft to how he carries himself and treats other people. Dennis Lehane, of course. He was still teaching when I started publishing, which I think is a remarkable thing, and I certainly benefited enormously from that and from just from being around Dennis. The great Laura Lippman! George Pelecanos, Stewart O’Nan. Steve Hamilton, who probably pays more attention to rookie writers than anybody else out there. I get nervous working on the list because I can go very long with it and still leave people out. I think the generation of writers who came right before ours really set a standard that’s been recognized and hopefully will be emulated in our little crime fiction world. There are an awful lot of us who will not forget the way a Michael or a Laura or a Steve treated us when we showed up at our first Bouchercon with a debut book and a dazed expression.
AB: Who is cuter: Duffer or XXX? (Why the hell can’t I remember your dog’s name?)
Because the name doesn’t matter, Duffer is going to win this competition, and everybody knows it. Especially Duffer.
AB: Aw, the sign of a true Mensch. Koryta doesn’t want Duffer subjected to competition.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little more about Michael Koryta today. Today’s a travel day as he heads into New York for BEA, but we’ll both be checking in periodically to chat. One lucky commenter will win a copy of Michael’s new book, THE RIDGE. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says, “Koryta delivers another supernatural thriller with punch….Part ghost story, part murder mystery, all thriller, this fast-paced and engaging read will have readers leaving the night-light on long after they have finished the book.” James Patterson says, “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.”
THE RIDGE hits stores on June 8. You can order THE RIDGE here.
P.S. Speaking of time wasted online, for the entire month of June, my website will host the first annual Duffer Awards. Each day we will post a new poll featuring two beloved characters nominated for very, very serious award categories like Most Likely to Win a Hot Dog Eating Contest and Best Shoes. Post a comment to enter to win weekly prizes including signed copies of my books and $50 gift certificates to your favorite bookseller! I hope the Murderati crowd will check out the Duffer Awards starting June 1 and every day in June.