Hoosier Michael Koryta will be front and center at Bouchercon 2009. Michael #2 in Friday's event that's billed as "The Two Michaels," he'll interview best-selling crime-writer Michael Connelly, this year's guest of honor at the conference. Koryta is the author of five critically acclaimed crime novels himself, including The Silent Hour, the fourth in his Lincoln Perry series, released in May. His first novel, Tonight I said Goodbye, was a finalist for the coveted Edgar Award. Other books in the series have earned nominations for the Edgar, Shamus, and Quill Awards and won the Great Lakes Book Award. His stand-alone novel, Envy the Night, won the 2008 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best mystery/thriller. Hailed by some of the best, most successful crime writers in the field, his work has been translated into more than 15 languages. His sixth novel, So Cold the River, will be released in 2010.
"I guess we should just get the obvious question out of the way first," I said when we sat down to talk in Bloomington a few weeks ago.
Koryta grinned. "That will involve my age, right?"
He's 26 years old.
"Yeah," I said. "What's your story?"
"I started writing when I started reading," he began. "The only thing I wanted to do from the time I was eight years old was to be a writer and a detective - and I ended up doing both."
He was working at the Bloomington Herald Times by the time he was in high school, where sports editor Bob Hammel, co-author of Knight: My Story, took him under his wing. Koryta wrote two "very bad" young adult novels during that time, which taught him how to take a story from beginning to end and, more importantly, taught him the importance of sitting down every day and getting words on the page. By nineteen, he'd created Lincoln Perry and written a first novel in the series. Hammel gave him his first break, sending the novel to his own editor at St. Martin's Press.
Koryta laughed. "He read it and gave me very nice feedback while passing on the book. I still remember the conversation vividly. I said, 'Well, good news! I have a sequel in the works!' There was this little silence where he was probably thinking, not the best approach after I just rejected the first book."
The sequel was Tonight I Said Goodbye, published when he was 21, an undergraduate student at Indiana University.
As for detecting: Koryta started doing that in high school, too.
"I wanted to do an independent study with a P.I.," he said. "This was when I was fifteen. I didn't even have a driver's license yet. I started going through the phone book, and the first guy flat hung up on me. The second was a little more polite, but dismissed me. I got to Trace Investigations, and Don Johnson agreed to meet me. Through dumb luck I ended up with this guy once named national investigator of the year. He worked for Burns in New York City for a long time, he was the editor of PI Magazine."
Another bit of luck was--Bloomington being a relatively small town--that Trace Investigations didn't have a niche market, as most urban private investigation agencies do. Koryta started working cases actively when he was 18, and for the next eight years, until he quit to write full-time, did a little bit of everything - death penalty defense, insurance fraud, custody investigations, accident investigation, wrongful death.
All the while, he kept writing - 1500 words a day. Every day.
While he received a great deal of journalistic instruction from his mentor Bob Hammel, Koryta never had any creative instruction until after he had several books in print. "I thought I was writing some stuff that was decent," he said. "But it was not in the league where I wanted to be." So he took classes from Dennis Lehane at the Eckerd College Writers' Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida and, later, began an MFA program at Pine Manor College in Boston to work with Lehane. He didn't finish it, though, partly on the advice of Lehane, who said he didn't need the degree, partly because of time constraints due to publishing obligations, and partly because he felt that graduate creative writing programs aren't realistic in terms of the way the publishing world actually works.
"You have, generally, two to three years to work on one piece of writing in this beautiful little cocoon," Koryta said. "But that isn't preparing you to be a professional writer. You're not going to have three years on the next one, you're not going to have a thesis advisor. You're going to have an editor, but that's a very different relationship, a different process."
And, of course, there was the genre question. That is, can genre writing be literature?
"There's a lot of frowning upon genre fiction in some MFA programs," Koryta said.
"Can genre fiction be literature?" I asked.
"I try not to engage in the debate because I see it running in circles and going nowhere," he said. "A novel is a novel. There are mystery writers who are not even in the ballpark of literature. But the argument that any sort of genre fiction isn't literature I have to discard immediately. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane, is a work of art. It's a piece of literature. Richard Price is considered a literary novelist, but what he writes, really, are crime novels. George Pelicanos is a literary writer who's labeled as a mystery-writer.
"The John Banville/Benjamin Black thing is at the heart of this debate right now. He's this esteemed literary novelist under his own name, but he doesn't sell that well, and he writes crime novels under the other name and he sells like crazy. To me, the elements of literature are depth of character, saying something about the human connection, striving to incorporate all of those higher artistic goals while telling a compelling story. That can be done in crime fiction; that can be done in horror; that can be done in a Western. The debate always chases its own tail, and always will."
Koryta's all-time favorite novel is The Great Gatsby - very much a literary novel, but, he pointed out, a crime novel, too. "The center of that novel involves a murder, a cover-up of an affair that leads to the murder," he said. To Kill a Mockingbird - what is that if not a crime novel? Crime is at the core of most really great literary fiction. Faulkner's Sanctuary is a pretty definitive southern crime novel, I would say."
What might literary novelists learn from crime novelists, I wonder.
"Elements of plot and a visceral, muscular pace to the story," Koryta said. "I see a lot of acclaimed literary fiction that is rich characterization spinning its wheels for 250 pages."
Koryta's plots have been variously described by critics as "logical and sophisticated," "inventive," "suspense-filled," "efficient," and (my favorite) "feisty." Having read all five of his novels and found each one absolutely impossible to put down, I concur. You might think, as most people do, that Koryta makes an elaborate outline before beginning a book to make sure he keeps the tension cranking and ties up every loose end.
In fact, he has no idea what the end of a book will be when he starts it.
"I know the opening problem, the inciting incident, I've got a sense of the character, and I wander off into the darkness from there," he said. "I can't outline to save my life."
People actually argue with him when he says he didn't know who committed the murder in Tonight I Said Goodbye until he'd done months of revision on the first draft. But it's true. Generally, he can see one or two scenes ahead of the scene he's writing, and works to the end of the book that way. He writes those 1500 words a day, no matter what.
"Sometimes I'll write for a week and I'll know that most of it isn't going to be worth keeping," he said. "But my brain is engaged in the story and is wrestling with it. Michael Connelly often talks about 'writing with your head down,' and that's what I've tried to do."
Connelly has provided more than just inspiration to Koryta since the 2004 release of Tonight I Said Goodbye. His blurb for A Welcome Grave declared Koryta to be "one of the best of the best, plain and simple."
Like Dennis Lehane, Connelly has become a friend and mentor, too.
Koryta is quick to acknowledge his gratitude for the support he's received from Lehane and Connelly, as well as others in the mystery community, incuding George Pelicanos, Laura Lippman, Ridley Pearson and S.J. Rozan. "I know I'm incredibly lucky," he said.
Which is true. But it's also true that he's a very, very good writer.
Lippman observed, "Koryta knows how to put his characters - and his readers - into an ever-tightening vise of twists, turns, and conspiracies, but it's his empathy that makes his work stand out."
Koryta's characters are complex and sympathetic, even the bad guys. He understands and honors the work of real private investigators and honors the burden that their work brings to bear in their lives. In fact, in addition to being a really good read, The Silent Hour is a case study of the toll that detective work has taken on Lincoln Perry, his partner, and the P.I. who involves them in the mystery at the heart of the novel. Muscular, tightly controlled prose in Koryta's action scenes brings the reader right into the violent world of his characters, but his writing is never over the top, and is balanced with a lyrical evocation of setting often reminiscent of James Lee Burke.
As a result, the Lincoln Perry series has been so successful that Koryta could probably make a career of cranking out Lincoln Perry novels. You might reasonably argue he already has. But having enjoyed the challenges of writing his stand-alone, Envy the Night, he feels ready to move on.
"I never wanted to be a person who threw out 30 books in a series," he said. "People talk at length about how to evolve a series character and keep it fresh. It can be done. But a lot of the excitement and pleasure I get out of writing is discovering the character. You can grow a series character, put him through new challenges, and discover new things about him, but after a while you know him too well. And there's the idea of leaving before you get worn out with it. I don't want to be Brett Favre."
His next book, So Cold the River, is a ghost story set in French Lick and West Baden, in southern Indiana. "I'm entranced with the history of that place, the fact that the grains and the mineral springs built it and the trains and the mineral springs are gone. It floats out there in the middle of nowhere. I spent a number of years trying to come up with a straight crime novel that would be set down there, but nothing was clicking. I was emphatic that it had to bridge era, and eventually I realized the best way to bridge eras was a ghost story. I also wanted to do something I'd never done before."
"Lehane's a very good example in that regard," he went on. "He was coming off such a peak with Mystic River - if he'd done a book a year in the crime genre he would've become an absolute franchise. Instead he takes five years off to write The Given Day, a 500-page historical novel. The most important thing to him was writing the book he wanted to write. I admire that tremendously."
It's something I admire, too, and I'll be first in line to buy a copy of So Cold the River when it's released next spring. Recently, best-selling author Ridley Pearson wrote, "I've read the heir apparent... This diabolical novel, laid out in simple but eloquent prose and pitch-perfect dialogue, heralds a changing of the guard. I have seen the future of 'The Best Mystery Writer in America' and his name is Michael Koryta."
Personally, I'd lay money on it.
Excerpts from The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta
I dreamed that I woke. Sounds crazy, maybe, but it happens to me now and then, always when I fall asleep somewhere other than my bed, and often when the mind is encouraged toward odd behavior by alcohol or fatigue. This time I dreamed that when I came out of sleep I was facing the trapdoor that led to the stairs, still in the lounge chair. A figure stood beside the trapdoor, and my dream-mind registered that with surprise but not alarm. I didn't move from the chair, didn't speak, just watched the figure standing there in the dark, and eventually my vision adjusted and I saw that it was Parker Harrison. (112)
He looked at me for a long time, and I knew that I should rise, say something, order him out of my home, but instead I watched silently. The longer I looked at him the more my surprise edged toward fear, a steady crawl, and I held my breath when he reached into the shadowed folds of his clothing with his right hand. The clouds blew past the moon and a shaft of white light fell onto him, and I saw that though his face was normal the flesh on his arm was gone, only thin bones protruding from his sleeve. When his hand came free again, it, too, was nothing but bones, a skeleton hand, and there was a silver coin between his fingers.
He looked across the roof at me, and then he flicked his thumb and spun the coin skyward. The moonlight gave it a bright, hard glint. He caught the coin and flipped it again, and again, and it seemed dangerous now, each flash as wicked as the edge of a sharp blade. My fear built with each toss and burst into pure terror when he caught the coin with an abrupt and theatrical slap of his hand, snatching it out of the air and folding it into his palm and hiding it from the light. When he clasped his hand shut, the bones shattered into a cloud of white powder that turned black as it drifted down to his feet. The coin landed on the roof and spun as the black dust settled around it, and suddenly I was awake and upright, my hands tight on the arms of the chair. (276)
I held that position for a few seconds while the wind fanned over the roof. It was much colder now than when I'd fallen asleep, and below me the avenue was silent. I swung my feet off the chair and stood up, forgetting about the glass resting against my side. It rolled off me and fell away from the chair and shattered on the stone, and I nearly jumped off the roof at the sound. (75)
The sparkle of the broken glass near my feet made me think of the coin from my dream and, like a child who can't trust that the dream world was a false one I turned and looked back at the trapdoor as if expecting to see Harrison there. The door was nothing but a dark square on the surface of the roof and it was also behind me and not in front of me as it had been in the dream. I took a deep breath and walked toward the door, stepping over the broken glass. That could be dealt with in the morning. Down on the avenue a car finally passed by, rap music thumping out of its speakers, and I was grateful for the noise. I walked to the trapdoor and climbed carefully down the steps and then folded them back into the roof, the door snapping closed with a bang. It was dark inside the building, and my head pounded with a pressurized ache, as if someone had pumped it full of air, searching for leaks in the skull. (182)
Love fest for mystery buffs
Celebrating the genre with authors and readers
Bouchercon, the annual World Mystery Convention, is a love fest for mystery buffs. It's run by fans, for fans - several thousand of them, who will gather in Indianapolis Oct. 15-18 to celebrate the mystery genre. This year's stellar cast of writers includes guest of honor, Michael Connelly, along with Sara Paretsky, Lee Childs, Sue Grafton, Giles Blunt, Harlen Coben, Barbara D'Amato, Loren Estelman, Hallie Ephron, and Wendolyn Van Draanen. In the company of fellow writers, agents, editors, publishers, critics, booksellers and readers, they will participate in panel discussions, lectures and other presentations covering all aspects of mystery fiction, thrillers, detective stories, suspense novels, and more.
Want to know what makes Indianapolis an ideal setting for murder? Attend "The Mean Streets of Indianapolis." If cozies are your cup of tea, you might enjoy "Killer Hobbies," in which five crafty authors will discuss the hobbies that drove them to murder. "Criminal Consumables" will address the craft and popularity of food and drink in mysteries.
Other Bouchercon programs include a Celebration of Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday, a presentation on a history of the book-packaging group that created Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys; a town hall conversation of Rex Stout's Some Buried Caesar, Bouchercon 2009's One Conference, One Book selection; and, for aspiring writers, a panel discussion of unusual and inspiring paths to publication. If you have a spare moment, you can sit in on the "Continuous Conversation," a free-flowing, non-stop conversation involving 73 writers over three days.
If you're a mystery reader or mystery writer, Bouchercon 2009 will give you four days of absolute delight. The registration fee for the conference is $150. Day passes are available for $65 if purchased ahead of time or $80 purchased at the conference. They allow access to all Bouchercon events on that day, except for events that have an additional cost. For information or to register, visit www.bouchercon.com
And, in case you're wondering how to pronounce Bouchercon, it's BOW as in "bow-wow," then a soft CH, as if you were blending CH to the front of the word her. Then CON, of course, is short for "convention." BOU-CHER-CON.
Jim Huang, Bookseller
Jim Huang has been selling mysteries since the 1980s - and reading them for as long as he can remember. Huang landed in Indianapolis when his wife took a job at Lilly Pharmaceuticals and established The Mystery Company bookstore in Carmel not long afterwards. Located just off the Monon Trail, The Mystery Company has become a gathering place for local mystery readers and writers, nirvana to the fan who happens to drop in and suddenly find himself at home. Huang presides, happy to offer tips on the best reads, along with inside scoops about mystery writers and their world.
Co-chairman of Bouchercon 2009, Huang is an active and well-respected member of the national mystery community. About the scope of his involvement, which some might call an obsession, Huang cites a favorite American Library Association T-shirt with "Free people write books, free people publish books, free people sell books, free people buy books, free people read books" printed on the back. "I missed the memo that I didn't have to do all these things myself," he said.
In addition to being an independent bookseller, Huang edited and published The Drood Review, a mystery book review newsletter and serves as the mystery expert for Cengage Gale's semiannual genre fiction guide. His Crum Creek Press publishes reference books for mystery readers and fiction under the Drood Review imprint and fiction under The Mystery Company imprint. Since 2002 he's been the program director for Magna Cum Murder, an annual festival for mystery book lovers in Muncie.
A visit to The Mystery Company bookstore is highly recommended - and be sure to allow plenty of time to check out the full array of books on offer. If you're lucky, Jim will be there and you can chat about them. For directions, visit www.themysterycompany.com.
Sisters in Crime
Best-selling author Sara Paretsky set off a firestorm around the mystery world when she spoke about the growing use of graphic sadism against women in mysteries at the first-ever Women in Mystery conference in 1986. Women began to call her from all over the country with their personal stories, and Phyllis Whitney boosted the growing sense of activism with a letter to the Mystery Writers of America pointing out that women authors weren't being nominated for awards. The following year Paretsky and a group of women writers founded Sisters in Crime, an organization that promotes the professional development and advancement of women crime writers to achieve equality in the industry. In fact, Sisters in Crime is so egalitarian that brothers can become members, too. In 2006 Jim Huang was the first brother to be named to its national board of directors.
Membership benefits include a quarterly newsletter; the Sisters in Crime listserv; an online support and critique group for unpublished writers; networking, mentoring, and much, much more. For more information, visit www.sistersincrime.org.
Indianapolis has an active chapter, Speed City, which meets every fourth Saturday of the month at Jim Huang's Mystery Company bookstore in Carmel. There's a critique group at 10 a.m., a short business meeting at 11:30 a.m., then a guest speaker who's an expert in some field of interest to crime writers, like police procedure, forensics, and the training of rescue dogs. A discussion of the monthly book selection follows. All Sisters in Crime events are open to the public.
"Having an active chapter right here in Central Indiana is so beneficial," member Suzanne Harding said. "You can sit down and talk to people about the problems they're having, the problems you're having. There's a real sense of community - locally and nationally. Some writers' associations are tiered and most benefits flow to the top. SinC is egalitarian and members are gracious. I'd never met Pari Noskin Taichert, but I e-mailed her about the best way to approach University of New Mexico Press and she ended up editing my query letter."
For information about Speed City, visit www.sistersincrimeindiana.org.
Hoosier Authors at Bouchercon
There are numerous successful mystery writers from Indiana. Those presenting at Bouchercon include Tony Perona (Plainfield), whose Nick Beretto, a stay-at-home dad, investigates cases with a supernatural cast; Kit Ehrman (Columbus), whose Steve Cline is a barn manager and amateur sleuth who solves mysteries in the equine world; and Jeanne M. Dams (South Bend), whose alter ego, Dorothy Martin, lives in a cozy little 17th-century cottage in the English countryside where murder is more common than you'd think.
Indianapolis resident Terence Faherty's Owen Keene series details the life journey of a failed seminarian who searches out mysteries in the hope of answering the metaphysical questions that still haunt him; his Scott Elliot series is set in Hollywood, just after World War II. Ronald Tierney, who lived at various times in Bloomington, Fort Wayne, and South Bend, uses Indianapolis as the setting for his "Deets" Shanahan series; Indianapolis-born Michael Z. Lewin's Albert Samson series is set in the city, as well.
To honor these and other Indiana writers, IMCPL is hosting the Indiana Authors Reception at the Central Library on Friday, October 16 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Free and open to the community, the evening will include an announcement of the Nero Wolfe novel that has been selected as "Indy's Choice" for the community-wide "One Book/One City" reading initiative. The first 500 attendees will receive a free copy of the selected title. This event is made possible with proceeds from the Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, a program of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library Foundation. For information about this and other IMCPL Bouchercon programs, visit www.imcpl.org