Dark Passages: Michael Koryta Tackles Ghosts New & Old

My newest Dark Passages column for the Los Angeles Times had a small agenda, I must admit. Most reviews and profiles concerning Michael Koryta, who debuted with quite the deserved splash in 2003 with his award-winning PI novel TONIGHT I SAID GOODBYE, tend to stress certain topics, and understandably so. But with his sixth book, SO COLD THE RIVER, Koryta has a new direction (reality-grounded supernatural thrillers) and a new publisher (Little, Brown) and those seemed more important matters to discuss than how old he is.

Age, specifically youth, as a hook is fine for a first novel, maybe a second – it’s a marketing game, and anything that garners attention when an author is just starting out is part of that game* — but several books in, who cares? Readers don’t. They want to embrace a good book or ignore a bad one. SO COLD THE RIVER is a good book, so the conversation stuck pretty close to its contents. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Much of [the book] takes place at the opulent West Baden

Springs Hotel, which Eric visits soon after its restoration: “It started

with that misplaced quality out here in the middle of nowhere, and then

built on the astonishing design and a restoration job so carefully and

perfectly completed that entering the building was like walking out of

one century and into another.”

Koryta had a similar reaction upon seeing the hotel’s actual restoration

in 2007 (West Baden and French Lick are real towns, the Lost River is

an actual river, and Pluto Water was a real bottling plant) after

decades of disrepair and ruin, a long way from its heyday. “Ask anyone

involved in the town in 1924 what its future was: It would have been

glorious. It was an international destination. This was where [

Franklin] Roosevelt first announced his presidency run. Then the

Depression hit, and the town really died, just vanished.”

The sight of the restored hotel helped transform some half-formed ideas

(“In terms of crime novels, everything kept turning into a casino heist

novel,” he said) into a story full of all sorts of ghosts: “I thought

that was such a beautiful slice of real history that could say so much,

that I could manipulate so well for story purposes.”

For what it’s worth, age did come up in my talk with Koryta, who was in New York for BEA, but in a different way: many of his novels, SO COLD THE RIVER included, feature elderly characters with a significant role in the story. I asked Koryta what drew him to writing about such folks, specifically Anne McKinney, an eighty-something lady with a very spry personality and an obsession with the weather:

I think part of real fun of writing is

to put yourself in a very different place from your own life. I don’t

like to try and pass off a young character as a wise voice, as it’s not

generally true. It also renders books hollow, in a way, if you only feature perspectives of youth. I’ve always drawn towards wiser influences because they have been important in my own life. There’s a little element of…I hear lots about my

age – it’s mostly good-natured, and I take it that way. But there is certainly an

element of wanting to write from perspective of 87 year old woman to

see if anyone would buy it. It seemed like a lot of fun.

For a complementary take on Koryta and SO COLD THE RIVER, see Lauren Mechling’s profile in the Wall Street Journal, part of their epic Summer Book Preview.

*Boy, am I glad I am no longer in my 20s. That’s one trap I avoid when I get around to publishing a book.