Welcome back to Written in Blood, an interview series featuring novelists and screenwriters in the horror genre.
Novelists often have a hard time pinning down exactly where ideas originate, but Michael Koryta knows where they don’t come from. “The good story ideas almost always come any place but the desk. The words come at the desk.” And he would know. Since his first book, Tonight I Said Goodbye, was accepted for publication when he was 20, Koryta has gone on to become the New York Times-bestselling author of 17 novels, many of which have earned literary awards and garnered praise from the likes of Stephen King and Dennis Lehane.
Although many of his books (and those of pseudonym Scott Carson) feature a heavy dose of the supernatural, Koryta’s success doesn’t come mystically. “You gotta have your ass in the chair to actually get the book done,” he says, showing reverence for both storytelling and the craft of writing. It certainly seems to be paying off. The past year has brought the release of two novels as well as film adaptations of Those Who Wish Me Dead and So Cold the River.
With a computer screen bridging the distance between our respective residences of rainy Baltimore and a fog-laden Camden, Maine, I sat down with Koryta to talk about the role of setting in his books, the drafting process, his experiences working on film adaptations of his work, whether or not he believes in the paranormal, writing a new story set in his hometown, and more.
Wicked Horror: I’m gonna start off by picking on you a little bit because I’ve been reading your stuff since The Cypress House in 2011 and every time you have a new book out, I check for tour dates…and never a Baltimore stop.
Michael Koryta: That’s a great point and I will use this to harass my publishers because I love the city. I have only been there once, I think ever, that was related to any sort of book tour business. They had a Con that was more [on the] crime fiction side and that was…before The Cypress House, so yeah, it’s been a long time. But I love the city, too.
WH: It’s time. We’ve gotta get you back.
Michael Koryta: Agreed.
WH: Since we’re talking about locations already, your books always tend to have a really strong sense of place and it comes through that you have an obvious admiration and respect for the outdoors. So, I’m wondering if that was something more inborn or something you had to learn to appreciate over the years.
Michael Koryta: Sure. That’s a really good point. I would say with regards to needing to have that moment of absence that makes you appreciate things in a different way, I probably felt that more with regard to the larger community. I found myself writing more about Florida after I had left Florida. I wrote about Indiana after I had left Indiana. Montana’s a place that I write about a lot, and I love that part of the world. But I’m only there a few times a year, at best, as a tourist. Maine has, for whatever reason, been the one place that…I can write about Maine when I’m still at the place. But that’s a really good observation about setting and the importance of nature in my work. I’m definite drawn to it, both as a writer and as a human. I would always be more drawn toward an outdoors, rural environment compared to the urban on a day-to-day basis. But I think it’s particularly important in horror fiction because, in my mind, the supernatural stories that are really effective have the natural world layered within them and it’s in those elements of realism that kind of ground you. The stories that scare me are the stories that feel plausible on sort of an interior level. They get down under your skin and I think you achieve that by grounding the reader in reality, so setting is one of the best ways to do that. And then, also, I just think nature is so fundamentally creepy.
WH: It’s almost creepy in the sense that nature has all of these built-in secrets, like anything could be out there—the woods or a cave or…there’s so many opportunities for things to be hidden. It’s horrifying.
Michael Koryta: Absolutely. And the things that we feel we understand and have control over…we don’t. We don’t understand them and we don’t have control over them…I think great horror is so frequently rooted in creating a sensory moment where the protagonist believed he or she could shape things, sort of bend them to her will, and then you turn the page and uh oh. That didn’t work.
WH: Interesting. Yeah, I like that. I recently found out that there are states in the western part of the country where you can go on actual dinosaur digs with a real paleontologist and now that’s all I can think about. So, I was wondering if there are any places or any type of experience that you find interesting, research-wise, that you’d like to turn into a story you haven’t yet.
Michael Koryta: Oh, sure. I’ve never written about the Southwest and I think the Southwest—Arizona and New Mexico, some of the Texas border country—there are good characters down there. I love places where if you are not from that place, it is immediately obvious.
WH: You’ve said that about Maine a lot, right? Because you’re not from there.
Michael Koryta: Exactly. I might live here at the moment but I will never be considered from Maine. And Montana is the same way. You know, it’s interesting on an individual level to sort of explore those new areas, but what it brings to fiction is immediate tension and the character is not of that place and doesn’t understand the place…and there are other people in the community who can immediately identify that person as being, you know, “from away.” I just love the inherent tension there. So the Southwest comes to mind. And also, I would love to get back to [New York]. I love New York but I haven’t really written about New York…the closest I came was a book called The Chill, so there was a rural world and the city.
WH: Which is something also horrifying rooted in nature.
Michael Koryta: Exactly. Yes. Yeah. There you go. I think there are any number of places but, on the top of my mind, going back to New York and something in the Southwest. I don’t know where, exactly, but one of the great old ghost towns…I love the legends and mythology of the South.
WH: That would be interesting, and it’s interesting hearing you say that because I would almost consider the Blackwell brothers [from Those Who Wish Me Dead] and Dax [from Never Far Away] as Western characters in a way.
Michael Koryta: You are 100% right. And The Cypress House [is] the first book I wrote that I consider a Western. It’s a crime novel, it’s a supernatural novel, yes. But ultimately, Arlen Wagner’s playing the role of the classic gunslinger. He comes into town, he has an unusual set of skills, there are people in need menaced by locals, and when the right thing for him to do—the selfish thing for him to do—would be to just ride out of town, he refuses to do that. So, in a structure sense, that one’s a pure Western, too. You’re very astute in catching that. Westerns are a big influence to me.
WH: I know you like to take walks in the morning before you kind of sit down for your [writing] day and get started. Do you find that ideas come to you when you’re not actively working?
Michael Koryta: Always, yeah. The good story ideas almost always come any place but the desk. The words come at the desk. You gotta have your ass in the chair to actually get the book done. But from a story standpoint, yeah, being out on a walk…
WH: There’s something about exercise and music that just tunes out everything else.
Michael Koryta: Those two, absolutely. I’ve realized if I’m listening to an audiobook, I can go on a five-mile hike with an audiobook and I won’t think about my own stuff at all. So taking the same walk with music, I’ll begin thinking about my own stuff. So as much as I love audiobooks, I’ve kind of been putting the brakes on those a little bit now just to create that moment that you’re talking about. It’s the thing where you’re not trying to force it along, but you also understand the conditions that will allow it to occur and so you recreate those as much as possible.
WH: I know you don’t like to outline, so I was wondering what’s the most surprising place a character or plot thread has taken you where you said, Woah, I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t plan for that.
Michael Koryta: Wow. There are so many. Because by virtue of not having an outline, it means I have really ugly drafts. I’ve had so many different characters who started out as heroes or villains and then rolls reversed. I guess one of my favorites was…I wrote a book called Envy the Night. There’s a guy in there named Ezra Ballard and, through I don’t know how many drafts, he died. And he would die at different points in the book and then I would kind of miss him…so I think in the early drafts he didn’t even make it out of the first act, and by the third draft he was in the more finale action. But at the end of the day, he made it out of the book and I remember being kind of pleasantly surprised like, Damn, good for him. He really does not want to go away.
WH: That’s funny. He refused to go.
Michael Koryta: Yes, literally. I mean, I always thought I was done with him.
WH: I usually feel like the rewriting process is rewarding in that you’ve got a complete draft to work through, but it’s also equally daunting because that’s when the real work begins. Do you feel like it’s a love/hate relationship for you?
Michael Koryta: Yes. That’s the perfect question. You just nailed it…I can’t say that I’m never thrilled about needing three, four, or five, whatever it is, drafts, to get it right, but I do know that that’s where the fun stuff will eventually show up, too.
WH: So, after you finish what will end up being the final draft, there’s got to be an enormous sense of relief that it’s done, but do you also feel the sense of being kind of adrift after spending so long with one project, like What do I do now? Or do you kind of just barrel into the next one?
Michael Koryta: You’re dealing with copyedits months after the book’s turned in so the old book…sticks around long enough that I don’t really have a chance to miss it…and then I’m into the next thing. So I want to get the old one off the desk and just focus on the new one. Then the book comes out and by the time the book comes out I usually kind of hate the thing because I’ve seen it too much and, also, I can’t fix it. I can’t address anything. So publication day is, I guess…it’s rewarding but I can’t say it’s ever a great feeling to look through the book when it is finally bound and out there because, inevitably, I’ll open to a page and wish I had changed—at the very least—a word or…something much bigger, and at that point it’s too late.
WH: It’s like that party guest who says goodbye to everybody for an hour and takes an hour to leave and then you don’t have a chance to miss them because they’re still here.
Michael Koryta: They’re still saying goodbye. Exactly. That is publishing.
WH: During the day after you hit your word count you get to ring the bell [in your office], but after you finish a book is there anything that you like to do to reward yourself to say, Go me! Yeah! I did another one.
Michael Koryta: Great question. Yes. So, I’m kind of like a bourbon and whiskey fan. A bit of a collector. So I’ll have a bottle that I’ll hold off on until the book is done. You know, something…that I’ve never had before. So that’s kind of the ceremony of it. When the book is actually out of my hands and before copyedits, but when the last draft is done…then okay, let’s open that bottle I’ve been wondering about for six, nine, twelve months and do a little bit of a ceremonial toast. Because I do think you make a good point in that question. It’s very important to show gratitude for the process and part of that is acknowledging the end of it, too.
WH: The past year has seen adaptations of Those Who Wish Me Dead, which I loved, and So Cold the River. One’s been more of an indie feature while the other is a higher profile [and bigger budget] film. When you were working with the production team on getting these to come to fruition, did you notice any similarities or big differences between the two productions?
Michael Koryta: Oh, they’re such different worlds. I liked being around both of them but just the sheer volume of resources that a major studio can bring to a large budget film is extraordinary. I mean, one of the [ending] scenes in Those Who Wish Me Dead…is a beautiful shot, but being up there and seeing just the sheer amount of logistical effort that had to go into creating that for basically one shot…that day alone would’ve been the entire budget of So Cold the River probably a couple times over. So, it’s fascinating to watch that but I was really impressed with watching, on the indie level, So Cold the River. It’s a different game from a writing and directing standpoint because there is no room for error. I mean, every take…you’ve got that one opportunity to get it. They’ll shoot from different angles and have different shots, but no different than a major studio. All of those things are blocked out in advance. But the difference is you’re not able to go back and do reshoots. You’ve got to make it work there. So, as a writer I was very impressed with the writer-director on that project. His name is Paul Shoulberg. His ability to be both creative and hold this vision of a story while also being aware of all of these potential landmines that kind of awaited him on the production side, so yeah, it was a fun year to see just how different those worlds are. But then at the end of the day it comes down to everybody executing on their jobs in the same way, too. The difference really is in zeros more than anything else.
WH: I think that’s really interesting in bringing up the budgetary aspect because one of the main scenes that I’m thinking about in Those Who Wish Me Dead is the house explosion at the beginning of the film. I don’t know how much of that was practical and how much was CGI, but I’ve never jumped in my theater seat so much as I have in that single scene.
Michael Koryta: I love that you mention that because that’s actually a perfect illustration of my point. I wrote that scene. There were a couple different writers involved with that script but that scene was one that I had written in draft. I’d done screenwriting before but never had anything produced. So I approached a script in similar ways to the way I approach a book. Like, there’s no budget in a novel, right?
Michael Koryta: So I’m aware that there will be budget considerations in a script but adding something in like a house blowing up, I don’t think about how they’re going to pull off that shot or how much it’s going to cost. And then talking to Paul Shoulberg on So Cold the River, it’s like, you know, something as seemingly simple as good makeup on a wound that sells a believable fight sequence…those things are all on his mind. It’s like, Okay, here’s the practical shot. It might look cool but it’ll eat up a full day and can we sacrifice one day for that shot? Do we need to? That calculus is just something that I’m trying to learn but I definitely did not have it when I wrote in the house blowing up.
WH: But it works!
Michael Koryta: It works. That’s the beauty of budget.
WH: Both your and Carson’s books often feature a supernatural element. What’s your stance on the paranormal, and have you ever had any ghostly experiences yourself?
Michael Koryta: No, I keep hunting for one, too. I’ve been to many very creepy places and famously haunted places. I’ve talked to a lot of people who believed that they have had that kind of experience and I think writers, we tend to be hopeful skeptics, so my stance on…is it possible? Sure. I’ll say that in kind of a hopeful way even though I’m writing these things that are designed to scare you. But it’s also like, you’re gonna have to show me the evidence. I need to experience that myself. So I have not had that moment yet.
WH: Have you been to Savannah?
Michael Koryta: I’ve been through Savannah. One place that stands out to me is…The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park [Colorado], The Shining location. So I’ve been in some very creepy places. West Baden Springs where So Cold the River is shot is one of the most fundamentally eerie locations I’ve ever been to, but if the ghosts are there, they’re keeping their distance from me.
WH: When—or if—do you think we might see Markus Novak [from Last Words and Rise the Dark] again? Because he hasn’t been around for a while.
Michael Koryta: He hasn’t. And he was supposed to come back. He was supposed to be in three books in a row and I actually wrote the first maybe 200 pages. I have a lot of the third book and it was going in a direction that, to me at the time, felt like this wild kind of story, but then it bumped into the 2016 election and all of a sudden it felt as if I was going to be doing the sort of ripped from the headlines [story] when I hadn’t set out to do that at all. And that kind of got in my head a little bit. It felt like it could be a real negative for the book, so I backed off and wrote a book called How It Happened which was more [of a] straight down the middle crime story and a family story and I kept thinking, Well, I’ll go back to Novak after this. But that’s, what, five books ago. I still think about him quite a bit. I know exactly where he is. I know I left him with his uncle and a woman named Lynn. They made it from Montana to Maine and I know what they’re up to, but I haven’t gone back.
WH: Which I can’t fault you too much for because you did give us The Last Honest Horse Thief, which I really enjoyed, so I feel like that’s kind of a balm to soothe the pain of not having another Novak book for now.
Michael Koryta: It was for me, too. I’m impressed that you even are aware of that one. But it was nice to go back and, you know, I really became intrigued as I wrote those books with his uncles and his relationship with his uncles and his mother, and so I wanted to write something that wasn’t by any means a thriller. You know, there’s not much of a crime story there. It was just a family moment. But it was fun to see him as a kid.
WH: And I think that’s what I really enjoyed about it. It’s not particularly plot- or crime- or drama-heavy. It’s kind of a slice of his childhood, really well-written, really thoughtfully realized, and the characterization just really carries it through.
Michael Koryta: I appreciate that.
WH: Is there anything you can tease about what you’re working on now either as Michael Koryta or Scott Carson?
Michael Koryta: Sure. On the Koryta side…last year was pretty heavy on the script front. I was working on an adaptation of Never Far Away and feeling guardedly optimistic about that one’s odds of going into production here soon. We’ll see. You never know. I’ve been here a couple times before where I thought things were definitely going to go forward and they didn’t, and other things I thought were dead suddenly resurfaced and made it. On the book front, I’ve written one as Koryta called An Honest Man, and that’s the story of a guy who’s returning to an island community after 15 years in prison for murdering his own father. It’s a book that fought back. You were asking about drafts earlier…this one has been through so many different iterations that there are times when I kind of hated this book, but overall, I love the characters and the community so much that I’m excited to have that one out there. I think that should be next spring.
WH: [The] small town almost gives me [The] Prophet vibes.
Michael Koryta: That is exactly the wheelhouse that I’m trying to hit again.
WH: Love it.
Michael Koryta: That kind of family story in a smaller community…I always like to have the backstory breathing down the neck of the present as much as possible so, yeah, it’s in that camp. And then I need to put on my Scott Carson hat and finish up one there… It’s the first time I’ve written anything set in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana.
WH: That doesn’t sound right, though. It seems like you should’ve.
Michael Koryta: It seems like I should’ve, yeah.
WH: It hasn’t happened?
Michael Koryta: It hasn’t. I’ve written things inspired by the hometown—How It Happened definitely was—and I’ve kind of passed through the hometown in Envy the Night and So Cold the River, and [in] Last Words I have characters who drift through Bloomington, but I’ve never written anything that actually took place there. And I have to admit, it’s been an interesting challenge—more difficult in some ways than I would have guessed—just because I’m so familiar with the place…so one of the things that has been a challenge for me is, Okay, don’t put too much inside baseball. It becomes very tempting to drop all these little Easter eggs and references. It’s like, Okay, you also have to tell a story so move it along.
WH: So, for Bloomington, is the horror there pre-loaded or is it something you’re transplanting into Bloomington.
Michael Koryta: Really good question, and it’s a mix. There will be some elements that are taken from the town’s actual story and then some that are completely my own mind.
WH: Awesome. I like that. It’s a good blend.
Michael Koryta: Yeah, I hope it works.
WH: Before we go, is there anything in the horror space you’ve seen or read recently that you would find worthwhile to recommend?
Michael Koryta: I’m really excited about seeing The Black Phone, [a film adaptation of] one of Joe Hill’s short stories. It seems like it’s been getting great reviews although I’ve been staying away from them. I want to come into it without any spoilers but I’m curious to see how they did that. And a book I just finished—my guess is you probably have read it but it was new to me—is The Troop by Nick Cutter.
WH: Oh, I love it. So gross.
Michael Koryta: Okay, so I heard about it for a few years, [but] I had not come around to it. I very much enjoyed that one. Would you recommend the rest of his stuff too?
WH: I have The Deep ready to go but I haven’t read it yet. I just read Dean Koontz’s upcoming The Big Dark Sky. Fantastic.
Michael Koryta: Yeah. Really, really good. Also, Paul Tremblay has a book coming out next week called The Pallbearers Club. It’s really good. It’s a cool, creative, very meta kind of approach…he’s such a good writer and he goes and pushes himself in different directions. And then I had the privilege of reading [Stephen King’s] Fairy Tale, an early draft of that.
WH: Oh man, I’m jealous. How was it?
Michael Koryta: Fantastic.
WH: It’s giving me [The] Talisman vibes a little bit.
Michael Koryta: Yes, for sure. It has that feel.
WH: Well, Michael, this has been so much fun. I really appreciate you being so generous with your time and chatting with me for the past 40 minutes. This was fantastic. Thanks so much for your time.
Michael Koryta: No, thank you. I want to make sure I let you know, too, it is so much fun and also so humbling when you have someone who’s doing the interview and is actually well-versed in your work and is a sharp reader, but to have the chance to talk with someone who has read as widely as you have, I mean, the fact that you knew The Last Honest Horse Thief is…that’s a lot of fun. That means a lot to me, so thank you.
[This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity]