One of the first lessons any writer should learn is that where you start isn't necessarily where you end up and that your defining books are often beyond your control. Michael Koryta arrived auspiciously at the authorial gates when his first novel, "Tonight I Said Goodbye," won a contest co-sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America and his eventual publisher, St. Martin's Press. The accolades continued through last year, when his standalone novel "Envy the Night" took home the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Award in the Mystery/Thriller category (full disclosure: That was my first year of a three-year-term judging said category).
But Koryta's new novel, which will be published June 9, marks a new, more genre-blind phase in his career. "So Cold the River" (Little, Brown: 504 pp., $24.99) is almost twice as long as his previous books (though it doesn't feel that way in the slightest), is more firmly set in small-town Indiana not far from where the author grew up, and dives headlong into supernatural territory -- so much so that after finishing the book I cast a suspicious eye on the water bottle on the nearby night-table, an unspoken admonition not to drink it sounding off loudly in my mind.
Once a filmmaker on the cusp of, if not stardom, then Hollywood respectability, Eric Shaw is reduced to helming videos at public memorials (looking for what he terms the "artifacts of their ambition") and it is at one such event that he meets Alyssa Bradford, a well-to-do lady with a usual request — make a short documentary about her dying nonagenarian father-in-law, Campbell, and his hometown of French Lick —and, in an 80-year-old bottle of Pluto Water, an unusual artifact. It keeps getting colder despite ambient temperatures. It entices Eric to drink its contents. And its contents hold the key to what made Campbell leave town so many years ago, and why, despite the boundaries of death and the unpredictable patterns of the nearby Lost River, he has unfinished, nasty business.
The irony, according to Koryta, on a recent visit to New York for Book Expo America, is that "So Cold the River" was meant to be a novella ("my agent was very supportive of my raving about haunted mineral water"). But when the first 300 pages were written at a torrid pace, Koryta knew the book would be something much bigger and altogether different from his previous work, not to mention being part of a genre he never thought he would explore (even though he would also classify it as a crime novel).
Much of "So Cold The River" takes place at the opulent West Baden Springs Hotel, which Eric visits soon after its restoration: "It started with that misplaced quality out here in the middle of nowhere, and then built on the astonishing design and a restoration job so carefully and perfectly completed that entering the building was like walking out of one century and into another."
Koryta had a similar reaction upon seeing the hotel's actual restoration in 2007 (West Baden and French Lick are real towns, the Lost River is an actual river, and Pluto Water was a real bottling plant) after decades of disrepair and ruin, a long way from its heyday. "Ask anyone involved in the town in 1924 what its future was: It would have been glorious. It was an international destination. This was where [ Franklin] Roosevelt first announced his presidency run. Then the Depression hit, and the town really died, just vanished."
The sight of the restored hotel helped transform some half-formed ideas ("In terms of crime novels, everything kept turning into a casino heist novel," he said) into a story full of all sorts of ghosts: "I thought that was such a beautiful slice of real history that could say so much, that I could manipulate so well for story purposes."
Koryta cites Stephen King — name-checked, along with Stanley Kubrick, in a humorous manner — as a key influence on how he kept "So Cold the River's" supernatural flights grounded in the stark reality of the setting.
"[King]'s books are grounded in relatable characters and moments and lives, and then he adds a stroke of the extraordinary," he said. "That always worked for me because I can suspend disbelief much easier if I can connect with the world. It's like that line of G.K. Chesterton's about why new novels die and fairy tales live forever, that a boy is ordinary, his adventures are extraordinary. Readers can connect with that idea."
Aside from water, tornadoes and their effects on weather patterns feature heavily in "So Cold The River," specifically through the eyes of Anne McKinney, an elderly woman who has spent all of her life waiting for the veritable Big One, constant checks of barometric pressure and other acts of persistence endearing her to the reader. "We understand tornadoes scientifically, but it still feels supernatural," Koryta said, going on to describe how he learned more about the phenomenon as a reporter covering homes obliterated in Southern Indiana. "The randomness makes it feel supernatural. People felt singled out by the storm."
Adding in the natural features of the Lost River offered Koryta "a great thematic opportunity, a great metaphor for Eric and other characters. Storms, the river, the water, all of it had a quality of mystery that we can't really answer and that seemed to get to the heart of why I love a supernatural story."
Expect to see many more such stories soon. Two more novels, "The Cypress House" and "The Ridge," will be released in January and June 2011, respectively, and Koryta has just inked a deal for three additional books. He credits becoming a full-time writer last year, leaving behind his previous career in private investigation, for why he "got a little ahead of himself" and produced so prolifically.
But Koryta also recently realized how much a long out-of-print book by Keith Robertson, "The Crow and the Castle" (1957), which initially hooked him on his twin loves of crime-writing and detection at age 8, also unwittingly set him on his current path, as he also explained in a recent essay for Mystery Scene.
"Robertson was a writer influenced by the land around him, history of the people, and even in kids' books you pick up on this, generations echoed from one to the next," said Koryta.
Connections between past and present are very much apparent in his crime novels, but as he points out, "they are also there in virtually any ghost story."
Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at http://www.sarahweinman.com. "Dark Passages" appears monthly at latimes.com/books.