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July 2007

Michael Koryta interview

What the Dead Know Last month, when my Morrow publicist read to me the shortlist of Quill nominees, I laughed out loud when I heard that Michael Koryta was on the list. I wasn't surprised -- I had, in fact, blurbed the book, A Welcome Grave, for which Michael was nominated. But Mike and I have a relationship outside of the publishing/PI fiction world: He will be my assistant next January, when I return to the Writers in Paradise workshop at Eckerd College.

I had heard of Michael years before I met him -- his first book, Tonight I Said Goodbye, caused quite a stir when it won the annual St. Martins/PWA contest, for reasons that will be explained below. But I first really got to know him in St. Petersburg last January, where he often provided me a ride to campus. We also bonded over our love of this story, while agreeing never to speak of his fondness for the Indianapolis Colts. It helps that Michael wasn't even alive on this ignominious date. A little.

A Welcome Grave was just published last month, and you can find tour information here. Michael and I spoke July 2nd, via IM. I was drinking an Arnold Palmer, which is also known as a half-and-half in certain Baltimore establishments. I forgot to ask Michael what he was drinking, but I know we had both been to the gym that day, and both had punishing workouts. It's something else we share, the perverse desire to feel as if we've been beaten up during a good workout. It may explain why we are both drawn to the subgenre of PI fiction.

LL: Let's go right at the obvious question -- what's your DOB? (And I know you, as a former reporter, know that DOB stands for date-of-birth.)
MK: It is 9/20/1982. So I am almost to that big 25th year...SSN next?
LL: Yes, I'll need that for the identity theft scam I'm running. Seriously -- do you like forward to a time when it won't be such a prominent part of your bio? I'm very close to a one-time wunderkind, and despite the success he's enjoyed, he professes to miss being the young guy. Sometimes.
MK: You know, I expect I'll have a mid-life crisis at about 29. There's going to be a day when my age is not part of the conversation, and it will probably leave me feeling washed up, past my prime. Do I look forward to that? Hmm...only slightly.
LL: Is it true that there was some milestone in your publication career -- acceptance, the St. Martin's contest -- where you weren't old enough to drink, legally?
MK: Well, my editor called right after the book was accepted to tell me that they were sending me to Bouchercon in Vegas, and he told me John Cunningham (then the Minotaur publisher) was going to be out there and that I should try to get some time with him, buy him a drink. And I said, in total sincerity, "When is this?" and he said October, and my reaction was, "Great, I'll be 21 by then." That was the first time he knew how old I was.
LL: That's a wonderful story. But to continue with the prodigy theme, you started working for a local private investigator while still in high school, right? Was it with an eye to researching a novel, or a genuine interest in learning what a PI does?
MK: Both, with more weight toward the former. I knew when I was 16 that I wanted to write in this genre, and I thought one of the best ways to go about it would be learning the reality of the business. There was some real interest there, though...I figured if I never broke through as a writer I could still very much enjoy being a PI. So I called around and found a PI willing to take me on, and I had to ride a city bus to meet him, because I didn't have a driver's license yet.
LL: You turned 16 in 1998. How was it that you were interested in PI fiction? Who were you reading?
MK: I found my way to PI fiction through my father's obsession with Bogart and film noir. Started with Hammett and Chandler, etc. But THE book for me, the real watershed moment, was when I found [Dennis Lehane's] Gone, Baby, Gone. That was honestly the moment I knew what I wanted to do as a writer. Until then I wanted to write comedy scripts for film or TV, believe it or not.
LL: How did you find Gone Baby Gone? Random chance? Did someone recommend it to you?
MK: Random chance. I skimmed the dust jacket so briefly that I was surprised when I started reading and found out Patrick's partner was a woman. The draw was a blurb that called Dennis "the hippest heir to Chandler and Hammett." And since those were the guys I'd started with, I thought, okay, here's the next step.
LL: And what made such an impression? Was it simply that the book was set in the present-day, or that Dennis's sensibility was young and hip?
MK: I think it was the prose, really. Until that point I had been interested only in story. And that was the first book where I thought, damn, there are 100 ways to say the exact same thing, but the way he just said it makes it sing. There's such a power and resonance to Dennis's prose.

The other factor was Broussard. He remains my all-time favorite character in crime fiction. He is at once a bad, bad guy, and a great guy. You root for him and against him in the same moment, and I was in awe of that. It was this taste of the tragic hero in a modern, exciting novel, and I'd never seen anything quite like that before.
LL: Do you feel optimistic about the genre? I happened to run into a fairly prominent critic Saturday night and he told me he thinks it's increasingly irrelevant.
MK: I hope he's wrong, and I think he is wrong. It would seem more relevant than ever to me, in this age of secret wiretaps and drug wars and terrorism, etc. There's an increasing social class divide in this country, increasing crime-related tensions levels big and small, and to me that would make the crime fiction genre one of the more relevant areas of fiction. Does this critic find Daniel Woodrell an irrelevant writer? Dennis Lehane? Michael Connelly? I can't buy that.
LL: I worded my question incorrectly -- it's the PI subgenre he finds increasingly irrelevant. He's bullish on crime fiction in general, although he says there are a lot of mediocre books being published.
MK: Okay, that does make a difference. I think the PI genre has taken a bit of a hit lately, as some really talented writers have stepped outside to try other things. And while I admire that and think it is something they should do, it does leave a void. The PI form has lasted through all these years, though, because the PI offers a lens into the same sort of issues we were talking about. So I don't see how that could be rendered irrelevant, but there are peaks and valleys in the genre, certainly. I have faith in it, though.
LL: When I started (in 1997), there wasn't a single twenty-something writer in the room. (I think Lehane published his first book at the age of 30, and he was always the youngster.) Now I know several twenty-somethings who are writing PI fiction, which suggests . . . something. But didn't you tell another interviewer that you're working on a crime novel with no PI, no cop? A stand-alone?
MK: Yes, my next one is a stand-alone with no PI...really no detective, period. That was something I felt I needed to try just to grow a bit, do some different things creatively. I am not leaving Lincoln behind just yet. But you're right, there are quite a few young PI writers, and I think that's a product of all the great work people like Dennis and George [Pelecanos] and Robert Crais, etc. did in the 90s. Some excitement was injected into the PI genre, and we're seeing the influence of that. Now, it's up to us young writers to carry the baton well. By which I mean, don't use clichés like "carry the baton."
LL: I know that you have family from Cleveland, but was there something else in your decision to use that city as the base for your series? Is there something about Cleveland that meshes with PI/crime fiction?
MK: Oh, absolutely. It's a very blue-collar city and one that suffered a lot when the manufacturing jobs disappeared, and those are things that really feed a noir world. My father grew up in a fairly rough neighborhood on the near west side, Clark Avenue area, and when I was a kid we'd go back up there and walk those streets and he'd tell me stories about the people he'd known in the neighborhood. When I started to write my own stuff, my storytelling roots seemed to be in place back there.
LL: What's your definition of noir? Don't say it's French for black.
MK: My definition, which is probably miles away from an accurate definition, is a world that's seen in shades of gray. None of the black-and-white, good vs. evil struggle in the pure sense, less moral certainty. A story where you can have some empathy for the "bad guys" and some distrust or disappointment in the "good guys" meets my definition of noir. And it is French for black.
LL: I asked because a little kerfuffle started on the Internet recently, with Kevin Burton Smith and Ed Gorman worrying about the gratuitous violence in the "new noir" and others countering that the genre has always been violent. I like Eddie Muller's breakdown -- a woman walks into a PI's office and asks him to follow her husband; that's a PI novel. A woman walks into a PI's office, asks him to follow her husband, the PI falls in love with her and decides to kill the husband and split the insurance money with the widow -- that's noir.
MK: Not surprisingly, that is a much better definition than I gave, and simpler. I like Eddie's answer a great deal.
LL: Your work strikes me as very lean. Is that a deliberate choice?
MK: My writing mentor/teacher hammered that Strunk "omit needless words" rule into my head, so he would be thrilled to hear you say that. I'd like to do as much with as little as I can, in terms of prose. So the leanness, yes, is a deliberate choice.
LL: You quit reporting, but you still work part-time for a private investigator? What do you do exactly?
MK: We do a little of everything, mostly civil cases, some criminal. This is the time of year where I just hope the phone won't ring with surveillance work, because there's nothing like sitting in a 100-degree car watching a house for eight hours.
LL: Do you have a license to carry?
MK: We try to avoid cases where carrying is an issue. There are some PIs who love to carry, and they tend to get into trouble. I know of one guy who worked a great interview, got all sorts of wonderful testimony, and then had it thrown out of court because he'd been wearing a gun under his jacket and the judge decided that qualified as intimidation and coercion.
LL: Now that's the kind of fascinating insight one gets from a real PI. What's your favorite thing to do, working for a PI?
MK: I like working custody cases where the subject of our investigation would be a danger to the children. Producing good work in a case like that feels very rewarding, because there are kids involved. We've seen some pretty horrendous parents who are bound and determined to take custody. But the most fun thing to do, no question, is two-car surveillance. Being in motion and having a partner on the radio can be a blast, and it's a hell of a lot easier than being in a single car and trying to follow someone.
LL: How much longer do you think you'll do this kind of work? Could you support yourself from writing, if you wanted to?
MK: At this point, I probably could, although I am uncomfortable with the slow payment process of the publishing world. But I think I'd feel restless, too. So I really like the balance I have right now, and I've got a boss who is incredibly understanding of my writing career and the demands that come with it.
LL: You came to Eckerd in 2006, as a student, then returned as Sterling Watson's assistant in 2007. Why did you initially decide to join a writers workshop, when you were on the verge of publishing your second novel?
MK: I actually went in 2005 and 2006 as a student in Dennis's class. I've been there since Day One, ha. And chased Dennis up the coast to a low-residency MFA in Boston last summer. The reason was simple: I knew I had to get a whole lot better. Dennis, as previously noted, was the most important influence I had. When I learned he was teaching, I thought it was a really special opportunity. I can honestly say I learned more in those workshops with him than I did in four years of college.
LL: Didn't you consider pursuing a doctorate? And didn't Dennis talk you out of it?
MK: Well, it was a master's, and I did one semester with Dennis and a great teacher and writer named Roland Merullo. It was wonderful, and I'd be back this summer if not for the book release. But Dennis essentially told me that I didn't need the MFA, and that he thought it was time to throw me out of the program. I intend to ignore him if he's back next summer. Ha.
LL: Stalker! Okay, here's what I'm really worried about -- what does a faculty assistant do? I'm afraid that you're just going to tell everyone what a fake I am.
MK: I intend to continue my parasite-like ways of stealing the genius of great crime writers. So basically I just sit in the room and soak up your narrative brilliance. It worked with Sterling, at least. And, of course, I drive you to and from the B&B...assuming; you are still courageous enough to ride?
LL: I think we determined that bad things happen to people who don't allow you to drive them places, so I'm happy to make the drive together. The sad thing is that everyone who sees us will think you're just a nice young man, driving his mom around Florida.

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