Leaving the Surprises to the Bitter End
By R. G. Belsky
The woman at the heart of Michael Koryta’s electrifying new thriller IF SHE WAKES is in a coma for most of the book—trapped inside her body in a vegetative state, but still aware that she must somehow find a way to stop the powerful forces out to kill her.
So how did Koryta ever come up with such a unique concept—and then find a way to write a story told in part from a coma victim’s point of view?
“A friend gave me a book written by a neuroscientist who studies locked-in syndrome,” he says, “and there was a specific test that really captured my imagination. They would show the patient an old Hitchcock short film while administering an MRI, and watch to see whether the brain engaged with the story, both from a cognitive and emotional standpoint.
“That test fascinated me, and then the whole idea of being alert but unable to communicate your existence to the world seemed like the ultimate in claustrophobic terror. I mean, I’d written some claustrophobic scenes before—people trapped in caves in the dark, for example—but trapped in silence in your own body? That felt like a fresh terror to me.
“It took a few approaches before I found a style that seemed to work for her POV, but like anything else, it was essentially a matter of trying to slip into her skin and see the world through her eyes, feel that journey.”
Tara Beckley, a young college student in Maine, goes into the coma after a horrifying car crash, but that’s just the beginning of her nightmare. In a vegetative state and unable to communicate with anyone, she realizes someone wants her dead—because they fear she could reveal a mysterious secret if she ever wakes up.
The other heroine here is Abby Kaplan, an insurance investigator with a troubled past as a stunt driver haunted by an accident that killed someone she loved. Abby believes Tara is still alive inside her body, and she is determined to save her by finding out the secret everyone wants to stay hidden.
“Abby is the engine of the book, yeah,” Koryta says. “She’s got the action burden, while Tara is more like the key to the lock. Abby was just one of those characters who kicked the door open, introduced herself, and then set about taking over. I was grateful to her for arriving, and then it was just a matter of trying to keep up with her. She got in a hell of a lot of trouble really fast.”
Hot on the trail of both Abby and Tara is one of the most unusual and fascinating hit men you’ll ever read about in thriller fiction—a complex young man named Dax Blackwell. He’s the son of another memorable hit man who appeared in one of Koryta’s previous books, Those Who Wish Me Dead.
“I began imagining what it would be like if your dad was the LeBron James of contract killers,” Koryta says. “I decided I’d give Dax Blackwell a try for one chapter and see if it felt like a disaster or something with potential. By the time I was done with that chapter, I knew he was there to stay.”
We don’t find out the secret reason everyone is trying to kill Tara—and a lot of other people—until the end of the book. Amazingly, Koryta admits he considered not telling anyone even then.
“I was actually very, very tempted not to reveal the secret at all. To have a character destroy the information rather than reveal it,” he says. “I think that would have pissed off a lot of readers, but some might have enjoyed it.
“What was fun about this narrative was realizing that I could motivate all of these characters into action without providing any of them with full knowledge of the game. Characters are forced to make life-or-death choices based on their understanding of how their opponents are moving, and everyone anticipates that their rival has more knowledge than they do.”
For Koryta—who worked as both a newspaper reporter and a private investigator before writing fiction full-time—this is the 14th in a string of highly-acclaimed, award-winning, and bestselling novels that include series characters (Markus Novak and Lincoln Perry); stand-alone thrillers; and some paranormal suspense.
Like his earlier books, Koryta says he began this one with an idea for the start—but wasn’t sure if Tara would eventually wake up from her coma, or any other details about where the story would go.
“Absolutely no idea. I knew her situation, that was all,” he says. “I know the characters, and I know the opening scenario, and that is really all that I see at the start of a book.
“First sentences and first chapters are probably the only portions of a book that I write without expecting that they may be cut at some point. I throw so much out, but the entry point needs to be on solid footing before I’ll wander into the darkness with the characters. It’s probably an ex-newspaper reporter’s obsession with the lede, too. You’ve got to earn the reader’s time.”
He’s also known for writing a number of different kinds of books, saying he doesn’t want to be “put in a box” as an author.
“I mean that strictly in the creative sense. I don’t care where I’m shelved or what label the books are given so long as I’m allowed to write the book that I want to write,” he says. “The world of thrillers is a big house, and I want to visit all of the rooms—detective stories, ghost stories, chase stories, survival stories, on and on.
“Some readers are going to hang out in only one of those rooms. That’s fine. Other readers will follow you around, though—and that’s sacred. Nothing has meant more to me as a writer than to have someone approach at a signing and say, ‘I don’t read this kind of book, but because it was you, I did.’ That’s truly a humbling thing to hear.”
What’s next for Koryta?
“Classified and Top Secret,” he says. “Which obviously translates to: I haven’t figured it out yet. But I’m trying!”