Having a new book published is an anxious time for any writer, no matter how experienced. But when Stephen King said ‘You can’t put this baby down’ Michael Koryta’s new release, Last Words, that must have soothed some of the worry. A series of suspense novels including last year’s Those Who Wish Me Dead have made Michael a bestseller in the States. With Last Words recently out in the UK, it looks like he might find that same level of fame over here.
First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I rarely commit any of the crimes described in my books. At least not the heavy stuff. Just casual breaking-and-entering, maybe some forgery and counterfeiting, things like that. In seriousness, I worked as a private investigator and a newspaper reporter before going into fiction full-time, and beyond writing and reading the biggest interests I have are camping, hiking, doing research that gets me field experience in the world of the books, and music. I’m a huge music geek. But for the most part, I’m very involved with story – thinking about it, creating it, consuming it. And I also like to consume a good beer and a good Scotch.
How did Last Words come about?
The book is the product of an idea I had more than a decade ago, actually. I worked a case in my PI days that was sponsored by a group called The Innocence Project, a pro bono firm that looks into the possibility of wrongful convictions on Death Row. They’ve done amazing work. The case I was affiliated with led to a successful exoneration. It was a fascinating experience, and I wanted to write about that type of world. But… my investigator didn’t cooperate. He was in some trouble, and so I sent him to a rural part of middle America on a cold case. The client is the suspect – a man named Ridley Barnes, who some believe retrieved the body of a murder victim from deep in a cave system, and others believe killed her there.
Writing Ridley Barnes was probably the most interesting element of the book for me – he’s a game-player, but he also has a set of disturbing beliefs that he is very devoted to. I found him to be the spark that kept Mark Novak on his heels and off-balance.
The experiences Mark Novak and others have in The Trapdoor Cavern are incredibly tense, and felt very authentic. Is caving one of your interests?
I’ve always been interested in caving, and I really wanted to get the feel of the place down to the most authentic experience possible. One of the exercises I did was ‘full dark’ work, in which I went totally blind and just tried to take in that emotional sensation, then recreate it on the page for the reader as best as possible. I loved that research. Two things stood out to me in full dark. One, I lost all ability to do things like track time, I couldn’t even guess at it accurately. Two, the cave had seemed very silent to me when I had lights on. When it was black, the cave seemed alive with sounds. I thought that was really cool, the way other senses heighten – or tease you? – when you remove one.
That is where the research comes in – I believe I’m able to deliver a better fictional scene when I’ve experienced at least a taste of the emotions that come from that world.
Novak is almost defeated, but regroups in Last Words. Do you work your characters out first, or do they gain lives of their own as you write?
Character is everything. If the characters are not changing as a result of the events of the plot, then you’ve written a really hollow story, I think. So I had to get a sense of where this guy was at the start. I didn’t want to just write him as the dogged detective, because that wasn’t honest – he’s in exile, and all of his real concerns are back in Florida. His wife was murdered there, her case still unsolved, and his career is in jeopardy there, and they’ve shipped him off to a remote corner of the world on a case he doesn’t care about. I thought that was important – let’s take him from disinterest in the Sarah Martin case to real resolve.
Now, I have none of this understanding at the start. It is not until I’m pretty far along in the novel that I begin to realise the things I should have already understood. But that is the joy of the process to me. The sense of discovering something new, or having a character surprise me, is when I am happiest in the work, by far.
Last Words and Those Who Wish Me Dead both feature protagonists imperilled not just by their enemies, but also by nature. Why did you choose this?
I love writing scenarios in which the characters are confronted with as much obstacle as possible, and stripped down to their essential selves. Using nature and setting to heighten this is a lot of fun for me. But I’m also someone who has a real fascination with the natural world, and so that will always bleed into my books. I’m obsessed with weather, for example, and how it affects our moods. Not just the mood of a story, but our moods in real life. So I really enjoy bringing those elements into play.
The other element of writing about nature and weather that appeals to me is that these are things that can make the powerful into the powerless very swiftly. The most successful, ruthless tycoon is not going to be able to buy his way out of a tornado or a hurricane. The most cunning man may not be able to find his way out of a cave in the dark. I enjoy those situations, where we see characters – good or bad, for better or worse – forced to have that reckoning that their place in the world is a small one.
You’ve written supernatural and PI crime. Do you get restless within one genre?
I am very concerned about falling into too repetitive a pattern, certainly. I want to mix things up, it keeps the storytelling fresh and exciting for me, and hopefully the reader. I consider my books to fall under the very broad heading of suspense, and from there I’ll go in a lot of different directions. If there’s any one consistent element that I want the reader to feel, it is the sense of suspense, those moments when the heart beats a little faster, and you feel an emotional squeeze of apprehension. If I can deliver that in many different ways, I’ll be even happier.
Will we see more of Mark Novak?
He’s back! I realised early in this book that he would have unfinished business by the end of it. He still has his wife’s murder case hanging over his head, unsolved. He’s still in trouble at work due to his own actions. I didn’t want to put a tidy bow on the end of Last Words and make all of that okay. I wanted to send him back to confront those things as a changed man, more prepared now than he was before.
The next book is titled Echoes and I’m in the midst of it right now. I’m very, very excited about this one.
If you haven’t already, head over to our review of Last Words.