One of the great US writers of Private Eye [PI] Fiction is the award-winning Michael Koryta, and Shots are delighted to report that his work has finally arrived onto British shores thanks to Hodder and Stoughton. He debuted in Britain with the chilling ‘SO COLD THE RIVER’, a standalone which is a scary crime fiction novel tinged with a supernatural edge. As a former private eye himself, Kortya’s work is as authentic as a reader could hope for, but his real skill is his ability to draw pictures in your mind, some of which chill and some me you weep. I have been bumping into Koryta on my Bouchercon travels and was delighted last year to learn that his work had been picked up by Hodder and Stoughton.
This book builds like a summer storm. Beautiful to watch until it shes the house and knocks out the lights, leaving you alone in the dark. Another masterful work from Michael Koryta, So Cold The River is guaranteed to put the cold finger down your spine.
Michael, can you tell us a little about your early readings? Were you from a bookish family?
Yes, both of my parents were big readers, and it was never a matter of my being coaxed or encouraged to read, as I see with some parents, but simply the ever-present idea that it was a wonderful thing to do, that if you had a few free hours you’d be lucky to spend them with a book. I fell in love with stories early, and read constantly as a child. Still do.
And what about schooling? What were the early books that furnished your interest in fiction and perhaps made you attempt to pen a book yourself?
I started writing when I started reading. Anytime I read a book that excited me, which was often, I would immediately set out to recreate it in my own words and with my own characters. I’d generally me it about five pages before finding a new story that excited me more and off I’d charge in that direction. By the time I was 17 I’d written two full-length YA novels, 250 or so pages each. I always knew it was what I wanted to do professionally. Some of those childhood influences were Keith Robertson, August Derleth, Robb White, Frank Crisp, Lois Duncan and John Bellairs.
You had an eclectic series of jobs from Journalism to being a Private Investigator, so can you tell us a little of that time in the day jobs?
My start in both professions came from high school internships. I worked full-time hours at the newspaper while I was in college, covering everything from crime beat to sports, and then left the paper when I graduated. At that point, I’d published my first two novels, but the money wasn’t there to sustain as a full-time writer yet, so I went to work as a private investigator. That was my day job for several years, until I sold So Cold the River to Little, Brown and made the jump to being a full-time writer.
And were you writing whilst being a working PI?
I’ve always been writing, no matter how many day jobs I was juggling! I’d done part-time detective work ever since that internship, which I began when I was 16, and I was doing the job full-time while I wrote A Welcome Grave, Envy the Night, The Silent Hour, and So Cold the River. The first book I wrote as a full-time writer was The Cypress House, which releases early next year in both the states and the UK.
Tell us about getting Tonight I said Goodbye into print and also about Lincoln Perry, your series character?
I wrote my first Lincoln Perry novel when I was 19, setting out with the simplest of goals: to write the best detective story I could, honoring the great traditions while bringing my own voice and a different setting to the table. Through a mentor at the newspaper I got it on the desk of an editor at St. Martin’s Press named Pete Wolverton, who for some wildly generous reason actually read the manuscript. There was a moment when it looked as if they’d publish it, but they backed off late, with Pete expressing great enthusiasm toward seeing my future projects.
By then I was well underway with Tonight I Said Goodbye, and I dropped it on his desk about three months after he passed on the first book. To hedge my bets, I also submitted it to the PWA/SMP contest for best first novel. Well, Pete came back and said that he wanted to publish it, and I explained that I’d made it to the final round of cuts in the contest, and he said let’s wait and see what happens. It turned out I won the contest, which landed me with St. Martin’s, but I was edited by Pete. All of the prior winners had been edited by Ruth Cavin, but Pete and I had been in conversation for awhile by that point and so he claimed me and we worked together for five books.
So what was it like seeing your debut novel shortlisted for an Edgar?
One of those things that’s hard to appreciate fully at the time, of course, but I knew the incredible tradition and I knew what a wonderful honor it was. I’ve been told I’m the youngest nominee in the history of the Edgars – I was 20 when I wrote the book, 21 when it was published – and I am quite certain I was the only nominee who had to reschedule a political science exam to me it to the ceremony. My professor was kind about that. It was a special experience, and I may well never me it back, so I’m glad I was able to so it in and savor it as best as I could.
After two more Lincoln Perry novels (Sorrow’s Anthem and A Welcome Grave), you published Envy the Night a standalone. How were your publishers about this change of direction?
That book actually was a break in contract terms – it was supposed to be a Lincoln novel. But the characters and story for Envy were really beginning to boil, and I showed Pete some pages and said, please let me take a shot at this one. He rallied behind the book, which I’ll always appreciate, and it went on to win the L.A. Times Book Prize, so I think we made the right call! Shifting to third-person felt as if it really strengthened my writing, and it’s so important to try new things if you really intend to grow and improve.
Was the break from Perry’s nightmare world good in terms of your own writing, or it did it take time to get back into his world in The Silent Hour?
I think Lincoln would object to his world being called a nightmare! I mean, he’s had some rough times, sure, but he rallies. He rallies. I think the break was critical for me as a writer. It allowed me to stretch and try new techniques and you’ve just got to do that to improve, you simply have to. I didn’t have much trouble returning to his voice for The Silent Hour, but I did find myself realizing that I’d had more fun working in third-person and that I believed the writing was better. All of this was happening as I began to really consider the story that became So Cold the River, and I knew it would be a big departure.
And then another standalone, with a supernatural element in So Cold The River, so tell me how your agent and your publishers felt with this change in direction?
Well, in this regard, my agent felt one way and my publishers another. St. Martin’s passed on the proposal because they didn’t relish the idea of my writing in the supernatural genre, but I was in love with the story and my agent, David Hale Smith, supported me fully. We developed a short list of “dream” publishers, and, what do you know, the #1 guy on that list not only bought the book, but said he wanted to do a three-book deal and that he would also edit. This is Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, and before he took over the reins of the company he’d edited the likes of Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, David Foster Wallace, Anita Shreve, James Patterson, etc. He has an unparalleled body of editorial work behind him, and I could not – and still cannot – believe my good fortune. Just before So Cold the River was released, we extended the contract for another three novels, so I have a six-book commitment from them, which is, as you can imagine, an extraordinary blessing in this economy and uncertain publishing marketplace. I’m very fortunate.
So Cold The River is a big book in terms of ambition as well as themes, so tell us where the seeds germinated for this dark tale? And was it related to the ‘photograph’ or was it about the ‘water’?
The story stems from the place. I grew up near these forgotten resort towns that had once thrived due to mineral springs with a mythical reputation for healing, places where politicians and gangsters and athletes and movie stars had once mingled, and I’d seen the resorts as ruins and then moving toward restoration. It was a one-in-a-million setting, with an incredible history, and I wanted to claim it before someone else beat me to it. I’d wanted to write a book about the double-edged sword of ambition for awhile, about that point where it can take you from healthy drive to dangerous narcissism and thirst for power, and considering that these resorts of West Baden Springs and French Lick had seen their own rise-and-fall ebb in an era of American hubris, it felt as if the setting matched the material nicely.
Could you tell me why it was So Cold The River that got Hodder and Stoughton interested rather than the Envy The Night or your Lincoln Perry novels?
That question is better posed to Hodder! I’m thrilled to be with the house, that’s all I know. And they have since gone back and acquired my entire backlist, so perhaps it was just a matter of getting the material to the right people. Regardless, all I can do is write well and hope the books do well for them, because they’ve done well by me.
Was it anything to do with Hodder and Stoughton being Stephen King’s British publisher? I assume you’ve read the odd King novel or story?
Again, you’re asking me to answer on behalf of the publisher, which I cannot do. King is, of course, the titanic figure in this genre, and with good reason – he’s the best we’ve seen. He’s one of the truly great storytellers in American history, and his popularity is a worldwide phenomenon because he’s possessed of so many gifts. He’s also a grinder, which I deeply respect, someone who just writes and writes and writes and in that dedication you see love of story. I’ve obviously been deeply influenced by his work, and I’m thrilled to join him on the Hodder and Stoughton list.
In that case, could you name your favourite Stephen King Novel[s] and why?
The most important King book for me was On Writing, which came out when I was in high school and offered instruction and inspiration at a critical time, but in terms of his fiction I would say the personal favorites are The Shining, The Stand, Bag Of Bones, Christine, Different Seasons, and The Green Mile. The reasons are simple: he creates a deep emotional investment between reader and character. You’re a partner in the story; you’ve been transported to another world. That’s a remarkable achievement, and he does it so well and so often.
Are Hodder planning to launch your backlist?
Yes, they have all of the titles now. I’m not sure on the release schedule yet.
I enjoyed your Michael Connelly Interview last year at Bouchercon in Indianapolis? So tell me if you prefer his Harry Bosch or his standalones?
Wow, talk about an impossible question! I love The Poet and The Lincoln Lawyer and so many others, but I would argue that Mike really doesn’t do true standalones very often. Rather, he introduces new characters and blends them into this beautifully created fictional version of Los Angeles and then they tend to reappear down the road. The Bosch series has held up as well as any detective series ever written, and the way he has managed to keep the character fresh and evolving is dazzling and requires a tremendous work ethic. There is no greater role model for me, in writing and in conduct and professionalism, than Michael Connelly. He’s The Man, you’ve got to stand back and truly study how he does what he does, and how he’s managed to remain so consistent.
Apart from the Michael Connelly Interview, what else did you get up to in Indianapolis as you are from Indiana I believe?
Yes, I grew up in Bloomington, which is about an hour to the south, so I’m very familiar with the area. The towns of West Baden Springs and French Lick are also south of Indianapolis, and as mentioned, they are the setting for So Cold The River. It’s a beautiful part of the state, edging away from the flatlands of the north and toward the hills and forests of Kentucky.
I find your writing style in the Lincoln Perry novels sharing themes [of friendship and compassion] with the early Dennis Lehane - Patrick and Angie novels, so are you familiar with Lehane’s work?
Certainly, Dennis was a huge influence, particularly in the early work. I’m sure it’s apparent. His attention to craft and character and his ear for dialogue offered inspiration from the start, and then I had the good fortune to study under him at a few writing conferences and then for a semester in an MFA program in Massachusetts. Studying under an excellent teacher is such a valuable experience, and the notion that Dennis was still teaching back then, when he’d already enjoyed such wild success, is rather remarkable.
And your thoughts about that little known Gothic novel and film - Shutter Island?
Love it, love it, love it. The popular opinion is that Mystic River is his best work, and I could me that argument, but Shutter Island
contains some of his finest writing and is certainly his most tightly plotted and diabolically crafted novel. Now, granted, I’m a sucker for the Gothic, but I think that’s just a wonderful novel and one that works ingeniously on a lot of levels. As for the film, I enjoyed it. I appreciated how faithful it was. I wasn’t wowed by it, and I don’t agree for a moment that it is to Scorsese’s body of work what The Shining was to Kubrick’s or anything like that, but I think it was a fine film and I’m grateful that they were so faithful to the story.
Were you surprised that Lehane is returning to Patrick and Angie with his next book Moonlight Mile is to be a sequel to Gone Baby Gone?
Not particularly. Dennis is a writer who thrives on challenges, and that’s a pretty natural challenge. I was interviewing him at an event in Milwaukee when he announced it, in fact, and I remember thinking that it made some sense. He’d just committed five years of his life to The Given Day and a break was natural, but for Dennis it would need to be a bre that also challenged, and a return to Patrick and Angie offered that. Everyone wants to see, you know, if he’s still got it. Can he still write a knock-out detective novel? And I think Dennis wants to see those things, himself. He likes challenge, likes conflict, and surprising the audience with where he’s going – and thus inviting their skepticism and doubt – provides those things. So he went after it. It will be interesting to see the response when Moonlight Mile comes out.
I first came across your work when you commented on an interview I conducted with Robert McCammon so I was not surprised that So Called The River has a supernatural edge so can you tell us if you will continue to weave these into your next book The Cypress House?
Yeah, I really enjoyed your interview with Mr. McCammon, that was great to see. I’d always enjoyed a good supernatural suspense tale but hadn’t expected to write one, and then it began to nibble around the edges of the brain a little and I thought why not give it a try? Once I did, though, man, the hook was set. I loved the form, loved the freshness it offered me. So, yes, The Cypress House will continue to involve an element of the supernatural. I tried to wed elements of the horror story with a 1930s-era gangster tale, and I loved writing this book, just absolutely loved it.
It picks up on a train bound for the Florida Keys in 1935, just ahead of the terrible hurricane of that September, and my protagonist abandons the train after a disturbing premonition, finding himself alone with a young kid from New Jersey in the Florida backwoods, hitchhiking their way through the swamps and right into a corrupt county known for its smuggling and powerful crime boss. Hope that’s enough of a tease.
Are your planning to continue with Lincoln Perry?
My plan right now doesn’t involve Lincoln Perry. Now that is not to say, at all, that I will abandon him for good. I’d rather expect that didn’t happen, in fact. I just don’t have any ideas for the old boy right now, and he wouldn’t appreciate it at all if I dumped him into some half-assed plot that didn’t provide the right challenge. No, Lincoln would be awfully disappointed if I did that. So we will wait and see.
And tell us a little about your own reading? Do you read only crime and horror? And what recently passed your reading table that got you excited?
No, I read all over the map. My favorite book of the summer has been Hellhound On His Trail by Hampton Sides, about James Earl Ray and the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. There was also a wonderful history of the Comanche Wars on the Great Plains called Empire of the Summer Moon. As far as fiction, you have to be excited about Joe Hill, I think, if you enjoy horror stories. In the crime world, Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston and Paul Doiron’s The Poacher’s Son were exciting debut works. Michael Connelly’s The Reversal, is excellent.
Thank you for your time, and welcome to Britain thanks to the Hodder and Stoughton team!
Thank YOU. And I couldn’t be happier to be part of the Hodder and Stoughton team.
Lincoln Perry PI series
Tonight I Said Goodbye 
Sorrow's Anthem 
A Welcome Grave 
The Silent Hour 
Envy the Night 
So Cold the River 
The Cypress House 
Buy So Cold the River Here
BUY THE CYPRESS HERE