OVERRIDE

Michael Koryta

Michael Koryta Photo: Tom Stio

MICHAEL KORYTA’s first novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye, was published when he was just twenty-one. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he began working as a newspaper reporter and for a private investigator while still in high school. Tonight I Said Goodbye won the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Contest for first novel and the Great Lakes Book Award for best mystery, and was a finalist for the Edgar Award for best first novel.

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  • Michael Koryta Photo: Tom Stio
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Q & A

What was the inspiration for your first book? 

I've always enjoyed detective fiction, from the work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet to modern novelists like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Robert Crais. Writing a book came naturally; it has always been a goal. Crime fiction went from a preference to a serious pursuit when I was in high school. When I was 16, I read Lehane's novel Gone, Baby, Gone, and it was the book that blew me away to the point that I put it down and said, "I have to try to do something like this; I have to write in this genre."

How much are you like Lincoln Perry? 

If I were taller, tougher, smarter, stronger, better looking and funnier, we'd be the same person. The good news is I'm younger than Lincoln, so I can always hold that over his head. And, of course, I can end his existence at any time I choose, in any method I choose, which is another way to keep him in control. In all seriousness, Lincoln is simply a character—he's not me. There are definite similarities that make writing from his point of view more enjoyable for me, however. I'd say the biggest similarity is in the sense of humor and probably in the dialogue exchanges between Lincoln and Joe. I know writers of series characters—particularly in the first-person voice—who struggle to keep readers from constantly identifying author and character as one and the same. I'd argue, though, that many of those same writers hold a pretty strong resemblance to their characters both in conversation and world view.

Who are your favorite authors? What authors have influenced your book? 

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet hooked me on the genre, and then I moved on to modern writers like Lehane, Crais, Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard. Lehane's books have been particularly inspiring to me as a writer, and Leonard's essay on fiction writing, with his Ten Rules, was influential. Stephen King's book On Writing came out while I was still in high school and it made a dramatic difference in my appreciation for the craft of writing and my approach to the task. I believe it is the finest book on writing that I've ever read, and cannot recommend it highly enough.

If you could choose any famous person you'd love to read your books, who would it be? 

Ah, marketing books to the dead. If it can be done, James Patterson would have figured it out already, so I imagine it doesn't look possible. I'm not really sure about this one. The people I'd most like to read my books, and the opinions I'd most like to hear, are those of the writers I respect and admire. Obviously, it would be interesting to hear what the early writers of this genre—Chandler, Hammett, etc.—would think not just of my novels but of all the writing that owes a great debt to their own work. I suppose of contemporary celebrities I'd have to take a comedian like Jerry Seinfeld or Jon Stewart, because even if they hate the book, the criticism will be entertaining.

What is one of the best things anyone has ever said about your writing? 

I try not to worry too much about the things people say about my writing, whether they be praise or criticism. Reading is subjective, everyone has their own tastes, and the minute you get too down about a jab from one critic or too cocky over the praise of another is the minute you begin to lose focus on the task at hand. The comments that have meant the most to me, by far, are the comments from other writers, particularly those whose work I've been reading and admiring for a long time.

What's the most unusual place you've ever received fan mail from? 

Someone from Tennessee mailed a letter to the tuition payment office at my college, which somehow did find its way to my home, which is a credit to the people at Indiana University more than anything. That was unusual. As for locations, nothing too exotic...New Zealand once.

How and why did you first start working on your book? 

I've always wanted to write detective fiction. It wasn't so much a conscious decision as a consistent part of my life. I think that comes from two places: books and movies. I grew up watching old crime movies, because my dad was a fan of the genre, from Humphrey Bogart and that type of noir to Alfred Hitchcock suspense. I wrote my first crime novel the summer after my freshman year of college, and it was rejected by St. Martin's, but generated enough enthusiasm that I felt good about returning to work with the same characters. Tonight I Said Goodbye was originally intended to be the second book in a series, but instead it became the first, and I think the series is better off for that.

Why Cleveland? 

I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, but my family is originally from Cleveland. My father was born and raised on Clark Avenue, which is the setting for Sorrow's Anthem, and my mother grew up on Chatfield Avenue, which is where Joe Pritchard lives in my books. I spent a lot of time in Cleveland as a kid—still make several trips back each year—and I know the city well enough to write about it with a good sense of place. I think Cleveland is a great city, and a woefully under-appreciated and misunderstood city. Cleveland is the punchline to a lot of jokes, but it is a place that is very special to me and I've enjoyed bringing it to life in my books. Hopefully, the city's residents appreciate it as well.

Do you think about your book even when you're not writing? 

I find that the time spent writing is always enjoyable, and the time away from the book is when the negative emotions begin to creep into my head. When I am not writing, I tend to worry about plot direction, character development, etc. When I am writing, all of that fades away and it is just me and the characters.

When do you find time to write and what is your writing space like? 

I wrote Tonight I Said Goodbye from midnight to 3 a.m., and I found that was about the perfect time for writing, when the rest of the world is asleep and distractions and interruptions are rare. I know some writers love to work in the early part of the morning, around dawn, but for me that's never been an option. I'm just not enough of a morning person in terms of mood or creative energy to pull that off. I don't write in long sessions, either, but in fairly short, intense bursts. I almost always have headphones on and music playing while I write. My writing space? A desk with a computer on it. Sometimes the desk is neat. Other times it is not. There's a window above it, but I don't notice that when the writing is going well.
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