Q&A with Bestselling Author Michael Koryta
The Bloomingtonian’s 11th novel, Last Words, debuts this month.
As a teenager, Michael Koryta worked for a private investigator in Southern Indiana. Years later, The Innocence Project hired him to do some surveillance, ultimately uncovering evidence that freed a woman on death row. Those experiences stuck with Koryta and inspired perhaps his most realistic crime novel to date. Last Words, which publishes on August 18, builds on the Bloomington author’s already-remarkable career. Fox Studios and others have optioned most of his 10 books. Stephen King and Dean Koontz are fans. In a new series, Koryta introduces a troubled investigator named Markus Novak who finds himself exiled in the fictional town of Garrison, Indiana, sniffing around a cold case. We excerpted the novel in the August issue and chatted with him before the debut.
Almost every one of your recent books has been a New York Times bestseller. Do you expect Last Words to continue that trend?
Actually, I’m a little anxious to see what people think of it. It’s a step away from what I’ve been doing the last few years in that it’s the start of a new series. My first three novels had a recurring character, and the seven since have been stand-alones.
What made you want to create a new series?
I knew that the main character was going to be haunted by his wife’s murder, but that this particular book wasn’t going to resolve that. Once I realized that in the early draft stage, I knew I’d have to bring him back for more.
Last Words takes place in Indiana, a location you haven’t visited in your writing for awhile. Why did you decide to set this story here?
I grew up in Bloomington and have been interested in the caves around here since childhood. I’ve spent a lot of time in the big tourist caves, but also plenty of it trying to find new ones. I even had topographic maps on my bedroom walls. So I’ve always had a fascination with that landscape, and have been kicking around ideas for a novel that would suit the setting. Until this story, though, I never had the right plot.
What are your favorite caves and how often do you go exploring?
I’m a big fan of Buckner Cave in Monroe County. And there’s one near Bedford called Donahue. Caves appeal to me because there’s the surface world that you see, and then there’s everything below. That’s true with people and with places. As for caving, I don’t get out as much as I used to, but I still do it 10 or 12 times a year.
How is writing about Indiana different than writing about settings with which you’re less familiar?
In a way, it’s more difficult to write about Indiana. I don’t have the detachment I enjoy with purely fictional worlds because I’m moving through it every day. That’s one of the reasons I chose a fictional town for Last Words. Now, it’s based on a real town, and I’ll be curious if readers pick up on that. Maybe I’ll launch a Facebook contest to see who can identify it.
Your time working for a private investigator and The Innocence Project informed this novel. Can you tell us about those experiences?
The P.I. work I did was for a company called Trace Investigations in Bloomington. I started in high school, and that was my day job until my writing started to do well enough that I could do it full time. The amount of grist for the mill that job provided me was tremendous. I wanted to write mystery novels, and my day job was working as a detective! At Trace, we worked some aspects of a case for The Innocence Project. And I started wondering how a person would feel if he committed his life to the cause of opposing capital punishment, and then his wife was murdered. Would his ideology change? It was thinking about that conflict that gave me the idea for the main character in Last Words, Markus Novak.
Can you give us an example of a typical day for a private investigator?
One morning, I conducted an interview way out in the backwoods of Southern Indiana. It felt more like Appalachia than anything we would call home. And I went directly from that interview to work surveillance on a doctor outside a multimillion-dollar house. Crime and secrets pervade every strata of society.
When you say surveillance, do you mean hiding in a van outside someone’s house?
Yeah, I’ve spent far too many hours in a surveillance vehicle. The days when you’re watching someone who goes nowhere are brutal.
Did you get any writing done during those long days?
I certainly sketched out a lot of ideas.
Do details of Bloomington ever find their way into your books?
I’ve never written about Bloomington directly, but I have used some details. The Ridge is technically set in Kentucky, but in my mind, the town is Bloomington. I’ve used The Bakehouse and Nick’s in my novels.
Where in town do you go when you need to get away from writing for a bit?
If I’m stumped, I’ll hike around Hoosier National Forest. If I just want to sit with a notepad and sketch out some ideas, you’re going to find me at Upland or Yogi’s.
As a former journalist, you must have an instinct to research your novels before you write them. What’s your process like?
I love field research. For Last Words, I went underground with a guy named Amar Mirza who runs cave rescues in Indiana. He was a big help. And then I did some tests on my own. I wanted to know what it would feel like to be in complete darkness for an extended period of time, how my sense of time would change. So I spent a couple of hours one afternoon in a cave, and the results were weird. I sat in the dark and tried to guess when 20 minutes had passed. The first time I checked my watch, only 7 minutes had gone by. The second time, an hour had.
Speaking of dark, the subject matter of your novels has been called that. To what extent does it reflect your personality?
I think I get my demons out on the page. I’m a lot more lighthearted in real life. There was a time in high school when I had the goal of being a comedian, but the work I’ve produced has been anything but funny.
Do you follow any true crime? Obviously Bloomington has had its share recently.
Yes, especially in my latest book, you can see a community still haunted by the unsolved murder of a girl. The Jill Behrman and Lauren Spierer cases really resonated with me.
How connected are you with the Indiana literary scene?
Well, this is my first full year back after dividing my time between Indiana and Florida for eight years. So I’m just getting to know the other writers here. But I know Frank Bill. Jim Thom has been really good to me.
What brought you back here full time? I have to believe it was nice to get away to Florida for a few months every year.
I have to admit I decided to make a lot of research trips to Florida this winter. [Laughs.] In all seriousness, my wife and I just really like the town of Bloomington.
You’re writing at an impressive pace—about one book a year. What’s up next?
I’m about 300 pages into the sequel to Last Words, which will be called Echoes. Isn’t that cute? There’s a pattern to the names. But I’m going to run out of those by the time I get to the third book.