Interview With The Author: Michael Koryta
John Dwaine McKenna
After a few hiccups and a couple of minor setbacks, we’re fortunate to hear from a busy and prolific writer who’s also a perennial Best-selling and award winning talent whose work is widely read, greatly admired and a personal favorite of mine. With many thanks Michael Koryta here’s our first question:
When do you write?
I’ll read the previous day’s work in the morning, then work out or hike or do anything that gets the blood moving, and come back to settle in at the desk around noon. When it’s going well, I do a second shift in the evening. When it’s going poorly, I limit myself to nocturnal hours. Always seems to knock the rust off the gears.
Where do you write?
Same desk in a space that’s detached from the house, dedicated to writing and reading. Everything is very consistent. I almost always have a notebook handy, though, and as I’m working deeper into a first draft, I like to sit somewhere outside of the office and just scribble questions and possibilities and observations about the story and characters. This was where 2020 was hardest on the process – that chance to sit in a coffee shop or at a bar and fade into a corner that wasn’t my own workspace was gone. I also love to sketch thoughts out while on planes and in airports.
Do you prefer stand-alone novels or series characters when writing?
The math says I must prefer standalones, as I’ve got 10 of those to 6 with recurring characters. I really don’t think much about that.
Are any of your characters autobiographical?
All of them are in some ways. None of them are in the obvious way of, say, Pat Conroy.
Why do you write?
Because I can’t imagine not writing. The desire to write emerged alongside the desire to read, and fortunately they’ve never parted ways. It’s the way I make sense of the world, the way I understand more about myself and people around me, the way I escape. Simply put, it is the way I most enjoy passing the time.
Who inspired you to write?
This would be an endless list. Early on, there were children’s writers like Keith Robertson and John Bellairs and Jim Kjelgaard and Lois Duncan and Willo Davis Roberts, among countless others. The first adult books I read were by Sue Grafton and Dean Koontz. My grandmother had all of those cat mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun. I still remember those fondly; good old James Qwilleran. At the start of my publishing career, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, Laura Lippman and Lee Child and George Pelecanos, all of that group was particularly big in my PI-writing days. I then found myself drifting toward Southern Gothic – William Gay, Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, and Daniel Woodrell alongside O’Connor and Faulkner’s ghosts. Toni Morrison and James Lee Burke. That southern vibe with regard to the treatment of evil in the narrative began to creep in. Cormac McCarthy, always Cormac. And then there’s The Godfather, Stephen King. I’ve felt his influence over my shoulder since the first time I read On Writing. His fiction is hugely important to me, but On Writing was a different experience, like being handed the launch codes. I read that book when I was 18. Meant the world then, still does.
How many books do you read in an average year?
Right around 100. It dipped a bit last year because I became obsessed with audiobooks, and it takes longer to listen to a book than it does to read one. But somewhere between 90 and 110 books a year, pretty evenly distributed between fiction and non-fiction.
What makes a character endearing?
The sense that they’re making their own decisions, not being engineered by a writer. When a character is capable of surprising me and I understand what she wants out of a scene, I’m locked in. I don’t need much physical description of a character; my imagination will fill that in. I care how they act and speak and think. Think of Phillip Marlowe – how much do you know about this guy’s appearance? It’s minimal at best. But how well do you feel like you know the guy? That’s a deep relationship. The word endearing suggests a sympathetic relationship, but Hannibal Lecter is endearing to the reader precisely because of how he speaks and thinks. And acts, of course. His choices and his actions are enthralling; his speech patterns are endearing – and terrifying.
How long, start to finish, do you take to write a finished novel, on average?
There have been exceptions on either side, but I’d say from first page to a production draft averages between 12 and 15 months.
Do you have a daily writing goal you shoot for?
I shoot for 1,500 words.
How do you deal with a negative review?
I don’t allow myself to read Amazon or GoodReads reviews. That seems problematic. I do see the professional critics, and if it’s a negative review, I allow myself the space to be defensive at first, and then require myself to be considerate in the aftermath. In some cases, I’ve learned from a negative review, have gotten better because of it. In others, I’ve learned that I simply disagree with the reviewer. That’s fine. It’s a subjective medium.
What’s the most important element for writing success?
Write every day and read intensely.
What makes a character compelling?
I think I answered this with the endearing question, actually. Same ideas apply – clear desires, capacity for surprise, and anchor it in emotional authenticity.
Do you plot-outline or wing it?
I see a few chapters out, at best. Have never been able to outline.
What makes a character despicable?
I don’t think of character in these terms. I don’t have a one-note goal for any character, not even a villain. Especially not a villain, actually. I suppose a character’s despicable choices make a character despicable. Abuse of power, for example. Betrayal. Torturing a man with his own chainsaw. That sort of thing.
Do any one of the above attributes make a more interesting character than another?
No. It’s all in the execution. You know who I would actually love to teach from a character perspective – Ted Lasso. Lasso is not plagued by a series of revealed flaws. Any description of him would sound one-note and yet he is not. I was intrigued by that. I put it down to his capacity to surprise me. He doesn’t need to surprise me by selling his soul, becoming an anti-hero, or discovering a new, better version of himself. I’m just never exactly certain what he’s going to do in the moment, and that alone makes him compelling. Odd that I’m pointing to a feel-good character from a comedy sitcom, I suppose, but I had to ask myself why I was willing to follow that show when it felt so far from what I’d usually enjoy.
How did your first book get published?
What was Hemingway’s line about how he went bankrupt? “Gradually, then suddenly.” I’ll use that.
How long did it take?
Well, it was the fourth book I’d written. It was the second Lincoln Perry novel. It was a third draft. So, five years?
Do you write in more than one genre?
I am told that I do. I would categorize them all under the broad heading of suspense.
If yes: which ones?
Thriller and detective and crime and supernatural and horror. Again: suspense. The genre beneath the genre is a western, but nobody ever seems to notice that.
Does your style make heavy use of adjectives and adverbs?
What method do you use to keep track of plot details?
The Brain Box Method (patent pending). And I bow before my copyeditors, who never receive their due share of credit.
Where do you get most, some, or any your story ideas from?
Reading books and watching people, probably, but I am unduly influenced by place. I can point to many books where the setting was the impetus for the whole thing. The Beartooth Mountains = Those Who Wish Me Dead. West Baden Springs Resort = So Cold the River. Exotic Feline Rescue Center = The Ridge. And so on. An intriguing location with unique challenges or history is catnip to me.
Do you use long, detailed and in-depth descriptions of your characters and their environs?
No. My agent always wants to know more about how a character looks. I’m always perplexed by this, having counted on him to imagine the character on his own. But he’s smarter than me, so I try to meet him halfway. As for their environs…maybe? I’m a sucker for atmospheric setting. I’m sure there are those who believe I overwrite landscape.
Do you use humor in your work?
Yes. I’ve borrowed from many great humorists.
What type of scene is most difficult for you to write?
The “and now we will make sense of the plot” scenes. Those tend to be problematic.
Are you more comfortable writing in the first, or third person POV?
Depends on character and story. I’ve written five books in first now; eleven in third. But if I’m going to remain with a single point-of-view character, then I need a compelling reason to sacrifice the intimacy of first-person narration. The only time I’ve done that was in The Cypress House. I needed the reader to experience Arlen with a little more distance; it seemed to increase his sense of isolation and responsibility. He was a withdrawn, guarded man, always putting up walls, and that felt harder to write from within a first-person lens. He was reluctant to speak about himself. To deliver that in first-person narration felt coy, dishonest, and unreliable.
Do you belong to a writers group?
No. I have attended writer’s conferences and workshops, though.
If so: How has it helped you?
I learned a hell of a lot and I met my wife. A rather transformative experience.
What’s your next project?
I’m finishing a creepy little book, Where They Wait, that will be published under the Scott Carson name, and I’m working on the screenplay adaptation of Never Far Away.
- 27. Do you write under another name?
If so: Why?
Yes, Scott Carson. It began to feel easier to separate the supernatural stories from the crime stories. Some readers want one or the other. Let’s make it clear for them. Branding! Gag.
Bonus questions, and your last chance for brilliance . . .
Do you have any other comments, suggestions, tips, anecdotes, quotes or inspirational material you’d like to share?
“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what will happen. Most of my friends who have been put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” Ray Bradbury.
Where could you be reached on the World Wide Web?
www.michaelkoryta.com, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The nice thing about the name Koryta is that I’m easy to find. The hard thing is spelling it and pronouncing it properly. I’ve finally figured it out: Carson. Scott Carson.
Thx again for your insights and expertise, and for taking time to speak with our audience today. Please keep us in your contacts list and let the MBR know about your next literary project. And if you have any suggestions for improvements or other questions we might ask—put them here. God knows, we can always use all the help we can get!
Thank you! It was a true pleasure.
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