So sweet the success: www.heraldtimesonline.com
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Local author leaps from writing successful mystery novels to the supernatural
By Mike Leonard
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By Mike Leonard
331-4368 | firstname.lastname@example.org
First published at age 19, the 27-year-old Koryta left a mystery-detective genre where he’d already passed from “rising” to “established” star into the supernatural-influenced fiction most associated with Stephen King.
He left the respected St. Martin’s Press for Little, Brown and Co. and the marketing muscle of the publishing powerhouse.
With “So Cold the River,” Koryta set a novel for the first time in his home territory, mining the rich history and dazzling backdrop of French Lick/West Baden and in the process, fleshed out a richer writing and storytelling style.
While the book’s official release date is coming up on Wednesday, the pre-release reviews have sufficiently impressed the clean-cut and typically stoic Koryta. “The amount of attention this book has gotten already exceeds the first five books put together,” he said last week in an interview inside the vast and spectacular West Baden Springs Hotel atrium.
The Wall Street Journal published an entire chapter of “So Cold the River” online and Entertainment Weekly called it “An edgy, seat-of-your-pants thriller” that’s on its “18 Books We Can’t Wait to Read This Summer.”
Fellow novelist Dennis Lehane contributed the following book jacket quotation: “An icy, terrifying winner. Few novelists warrant mention alongside Stephen King or Peter Straub — Koryta earns comparison to both.”
The high praise both flatters and exasperates Koryta, a Bloomington High School North and Indiana University graduate. “I knew I didn’t want to write a haunted hotel story and I knew that comparison would inevitably come up,” he said with a grin. “It’s more about the Pluto Water (of French Lick/West Baden lore) and the Lost River than the hotels. But despite my best efforts to separate my story from (King’s) “The Shining,” the media make that comparison anyway.”
His own publisher makes the comparison as well. “Koryta’s rendering of the West Baden Springs Hotel — and the evil that flows beneath and around it in the Lost River — instantly calls to mind “The Shining’s” Overlook Hotel. Until now, no other hotel has managed to personify such eerie dread and pure terror,” a Little, Brown press release reads.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had writing,” Koryta acknowledged. “I never saw myself writing a supernatural story.”
The genesis to “So Cold the River” actually began with Koryta’s first visit to what was a dilapidated dump in disrepair with his parents, Jim and Cheryl, at age 8. As time went on, and Koryta became successful with novels starring his Lincoln Perry detective character and settings in Cleveland and Wisconsin, he started increasingly viewing French Lick/West Baden possessively.
“I thought of all the history, of how (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt announced his candidacy there, how Al Capone used to go there, I started thinking some novelist is going to grab onto this. It seemed so rich to me that I knew I wanted to get there first.”
Koryta was further motivated by the spectacular renovation of the French Lick and West Baden hotels, spearheaded by Bill and Gayle Cook and Stephen Ferguson, chairman of the board of Cook Group Incorporated. “This place never fails to take my breath away,” Koryta said, surveying the West Baden Springs atrium last week.
The fantastic setting has elicited some high but amusing praise for Koryta’s writing. “Nobody in New York could imagine this place,” he said. “I kept getting praise for the details and description of the dome (at West Baden) and I’d have to say, uh, no, I didn’t make that up. That’s what it looks like.
“They’d say, ‘this Pluto water idea is marvelous. It works on so many levels,’” he continued. “Again, I’d have to say, no, I stole that from reality. The water is the reason the spas and hotels sprang up here.”
Though Koryta knew he wanted to base a story in the region, he initially thought he’d write a novella. “My writing skills are not that good,” he said in a self-deprecating tone. “My novella turned into 500 pages.”
At that point, he knew he had a problem — a good problem, but a problem nonetheless. Representatives for his publisher, St. Martin’s Press, wanted more of Lincoln Perry, and who could blame them? “Envy the Night” and protagonist Lincoln Perry had won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best mystery/thriller, and his Lincoln Perry series had already earned nominations for the Edgar, Shamus and Quill awards.
“It could have been a bad, bad career move,” he said of his foray into supernatural fiction. “I really liked it but I didn’t know if people on the business side would accept that type of shift.
“Honestly,” he said, “I thought the (detective/mystery) genre was where I was going to live for my writing career.”
With St. Martin’s chilly reaction to “So Cold the River” contrasting with Little, Brown’s enthusiasm, Koryta made the uncomfortable jump. “They offered a three-book deal and they just signed me for three more, which is a great leap of faith considering the first book hadn’t been released when they made the second offer,” he said.
Film inquiries already are coming in. Koryta’s agent has been telling him to wait. The offers will get sweeter if the reading public embraces “So Cold the River” as enthusiastically as the reviewers.
With the success he’s already achieved, Koryta divides his time between St. Petersburg, Fla., and Bloomington these days, spending as many as eight months a year in Florida while reserving summer and fall for his hometown. He likes to have a writing space identified in both places, and while book tours are good for business, they’re also time wasted when it comes to writing. “Hotel rooms are creative dead zones for me,” he said.
Continuing a habit picked up while living in Walnut Knolls Apartments while a student at IU, Koryta likes to write while listening to music. The “Short Trip Home” album by IU music school graduates Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer provided a lot of the Americana vibe for the Southern Indiana setting of “So Cold the River.” For the less pastoral passages featuring the rough and crass character Josiah Bradford, Koryta turned to outlaw country artists including the bands Reckless Kelly and Drive-By Truckers, and artists such as James McMurtry and Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Koryta clearly enjoyed weaving his Bloomington and Indiana roots into “So Cold the River” and noted he’d woven Nick’s English Hut, Upland Wheat Beer and Josh Bell, among other references, into the book. He also talked about what a great mentor longtime H-T sports editor, Bob Hammel, has been. “Poor Bob gets confused with my books because he’s read several drafts of each one. But his advice through the years has just been invaluable. Good writing is good writing, and Bob is not just a great writer himself but a good teacher.”
He also had kind words for The Herald-Times, where he began working, particularly as a police reporter, fresh out of high school. “I consider the H-T my alma mater more than IU, really,” he said. “Working at the paper was a great experience in not only developing the skills to write better but to produce on deadline. Even when I was going to school, I felt like I was learning more covering stories for the paper than I was writing papers for classes.”
With all of the success Koryta has experienced, it looks like nothing compared with what’s ahead. Prior to his interview with this newspaper last week, he sat down with a writer for GQ and The New Yorker. A radio interview with Michele Norris of NPR is scheduled this week. And after completing a couple of European book tours already, the summer ahead includes stops in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and many more.
Does it feel good? Can he stop and smell the proverbial roses?
“Good question,” Koryta said with a sigh. “Very good question. I have literally at this point been afforded the opportunity to live my dream and for that I am so grateful. I do try to stop and tell myself to think about how great that is,” he said. “But on the other hand, the bar has been set higher now. I am aware of the pressure. So I guess my challenge is to find that balance of soaking up the moment and enjoying it and addressing the fact that there is more pressure than ever to produce quality work.”
Michael Koryta will sign copies of his new novel, “So Cold the River,” at Borders in Bloomington, 2634 E. Third St., 7 p.m. Wednesday. The next day he’s at Big Hat Books in Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple.