Up Close: Michael Koryta

In a Class of His Own

By Rick Pullen

New York Times bestselling author Michael Koryta got the call from the records office at Indiana University shortly before he was scheduled to graduate. Looking back, it’s easy to understand why he overlooked a single core prerequisite.

Koryta was busy writing part-time for the Bloomington Herald-Times, he worked occasionally for a private detective, and in what little spare time he had left, he was writing novels. He did all of this while studying for a degree in criminal justice because he never lost sight of his goal to become a crime fiction writer.

A precocious kid, he can’t recall when the lightbulb flipped on. “I don’t remember a time I wasn’t reading and not wanting to write. That goes back to the earliest part of my childhood,” he says.

Koryta was a college sophomore when he sold his first novel. While shopping his first manuscript, the 19-year-old didn’t tell anyone he was a student for fear they wouldn’t take him seriously. Tonight I Said Goodbye was published the next year. He’d just turned 20, too young to walk up to the bar or rent a car, but old enough to be nominated for an Edgar that year.

His second novel, Sorrow’s Anthem, was published before he was scheduled to graduate. With so much on his plate, it’s easy to forgive him for overlooking that one required course in his curriculum. He was told he couldn’t walk across the stage and pick up his diploma in May 2006.

Koryta in his hometown of Bloomington, Ind.

“They informed me I hadn’t completed my intensive writing requirement.”

That’s right. Indiana University was insisting he complete a writing course (he chose creative writing—go figure) before he could graduate. At the time, his creative writing was already published in 10 languages around the world. So, he spent the summer of 2006 taking a correspondence course to graduate while still writing for the newspaper and working on his third novel.

Indiana University, after all, has its standards.

Koryta has published 17 crime and supernatural novels since his sophomore year. His 18th, NEVER FAR AWAY, launches February 9. It’s the story of a mother who is a witness to a terrible crime that forces her to fake her own death, go into hiding, and give up her family. When her husband dies unexpectedly, and with her children believing she died long ago, she reemerges as their aunt and guardian. In doing so, she inadvertently leaves a trail for an assassin who failed to complete the job the first time.

NEVER FAR AWAY is another example of Koryta’s prolific output at just age 38. He may now be old enough to drink, but he still looks like he gets carded regularly. His early start enabled him as a young man to mingle with some of the great crime writers at various conferences and pick their brains to improve his craft.

“With a little distance, now I look back and see just how bizarre that whole experience was,” he says. “I appreciate how strange I must have seemed to a lot of people.  . . . It just points out to me how so many in our business were so generous to a kid with so many questions. I had the chance to pick the brains of writers who were my heroes and remain my heroes.”

Koryta in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains—a region that frequently shows up in his work

Before he was a novelist, his first mentor was Bob Hammel, a sportswriter at the Bloomington Herald-Times and somewhat of a hero to young Michael, who worked part-time in the sports department during afternoons after high school. “He went well out of his way in terms of time and teaching,” Koryta says.

“I loved the newsroom. I loved everything about journalism. Being in that environment. . .  There’s no substitute for the pressure of being told we need to have this now. It removes some of the elements of second guessing. . . You trust yourself to step into the darkness with your characters and the blank page becomes more of a friend instead of an enemy.”

On weekends he would write general assignment stories and cover the police beat. “The police beat was the holy grail to me.”

After college he worked for a local private investigator where he’d interned during high school and college. The newspaper wanted him to come on full time but told him he couldn’t continue to work at the same time for the private investigator. He opted for the PI job instead. He’d already proven to himself he could write. Now he was looking for more material for his novels. He was lucky that he didn’t have to gumshoe the wandering-spouse culture. Instead, Bloomington is large enough that he worked insurance fraud cases, wrongful death lawsuits, and even an Innocence Project case where he investigated an innocent man who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.

Koryta makes an appearance at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ind., to promote his 2018 thriller How It Happened.

“I had a mix of nuanced, layered cases,” he says. “I had a chance to work on a really wide range of investigations. . . Talk about grist for the mill. Every day was a different experience. Bloomington, in and of itself, was interesting with the university there.”

“For a writer, it’s perfect,” he says. “I got the texture. I got the details there. I was never good at grabbing a plot out of the reality.” But he seems to have gotten everything else he needed.

Finally, at the ripe age of 25, he determined it was time to become a full-time writer and achieve his lifelong dream—the one for which he could never remember the beginning.

Koryta is known for his smooth and fluid writing style where words seem to pair together as if they were engaged. He credits his style to “reading outside of the genre. It’s so important. Within the business, we probably don’t do enough of that. Reading widely within prose styles, to me, is so crucial.”

His style is evident in NEVER FAR AWAY, which is set in Maine’s mountainous terrain and coastline. “I’m always interested in a story where the landscape can be a friend or foe. Maine, with its beauty, can be a real threat. It’s so visually compelling and dramatic, I thought about being isolated up there,” he says.

The setting fits his love of the outdoors, where he can be found camping, fishing, hiking, or out on a lake somewhere, maybe in Maine, Indiana, Wisconsin, or Montana. His wife, Christine, is from southern Maine, and they now have a summer (sometimes winter) home in Camden, Maine, the setting for his new novel.

Koryta on the Megunticook River in Camden, Me.

Koryta was doing his final edits on NEVER FAR AWAY during the beginning of last year’s COVID-19 shutdown. “It was such a bizarre and frightening time and I was working with people in New York, and New York was going through hell,” he says. “You’ll never need to nudge me on where I was when I was doing that.”

Fans of Koryta’s If You Wish Me Dead will recognize some similarities with his latest novel, NEVER FAR AWAY. While it’s not a sequel, he says, it could be a distant cousin—the protagonist and supporting cast are different, but one of his antagonists makes a return appearance.

“I don’t know why I can’t write a protagonist to save my life [he can], but villains I can spend more time with,” he says. “I don’t want to analyze that too deeply.” [Insert raised eyebrow here.]

“I’m working on the screenplay adaptation,” he says. “It’s been a fun chance to go back and look at the book and look at everything I screwed up.” It will be his third novel to be made into a movie. Nine have been optioned for film.

Koryta has now been a published author for half his life, having written 18 novels in the past 19 years. It can all be traced back to his laser-like preoccupation with writing, which delayed his Indiana University graduation. He finally received his diploma at home in the mail at the end of the summer of 2006, which only goes to prove Michael Koryta is truly in a class of his own.

 

Rick Pullen
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