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An Interview with Michael Koryta

[This conversation first appeared at MysteryPeople’s blog and is reprinted here with their kind permission]

While The Prophet definitely has your voice, it’s a bit different from your Lincoln Perry series and the five other thrillers you wrote. How did it come about?

The Prophet is a book I’d wanted to write for a long time, actually, and I couldn’t find the right way in. I knew the starting point – a kid who was supposed to get his sister home from school safely and didn’t. She was abducted while walking a short distance home, killed by a guy who was supposed to be in jail and had skipped out on bond. As an adult, the older brother is a bond agent, he’s made his life a mission of atonement for something he can never set right. But I wanted to pair him against another brother who had gone another way. At first I started with a minister. That didn’t take, though, it was too on-the-nose, I think. So it wasn’t until I found the other brother, Kent, as the high school football coach and community hero and who has involved himself with prison outreach programs that I really got the story rolling. I needed that dramatic tension between the two of them.

What I love about the book is that the emotions of Adam and Kent ring true for the violent situations they have to deal with. How difficult was it to deal with such sobering subject matter?

I appreciate hearing that, because it was certainly the goal. I told my editor early, this one has to hurt, it has to cut to the bone, or I didn’t do it right. If people ask me my favorite of my own work I’d probably say The Cypress House, and then I’d say that The Prophet is the best, and the reason would be that I think it does have a higher level of emotional reality and depth. Though you know an author is the worst judge of his own work. It was a damn sad book to write, though, it really was. I remember commenting on that a lot to the people close to me. I’d finish a writing session feeling wrung out and exhausted in a way I never had with a book. It wore on me emotionally and I was surprised by that. My emotional investment with Adam was very deep, and as you can imagine, that made it a painful story most of the time. He’s a pretty wounded guy, he’s very damaged. In this really bizarre way, I kept wishing I could save him, that I could force him to make different choices. Now, of course I could, I’m the writer. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels as if the characters have free will and you’re narrating a drama that you can’t stop.

You last three books had an element of the supernatural to them. Did it seem much of a change dealing with more banal or “real” evil?

Well, because I’d started my career with straight crime fiction, I don’t think it was as much of a shock to the system. I originally anticipated the killer’s voice would be used more than just in the prologue and that would provide almost a support system for the creepiness I was losing by giving up the supernatural edge. But that didn’t hang together. In the end I felt as if I wanted him to be the guy who walks us around the town and introduces us. And we know he’s there, but the town doesn’t, and then he smiles and winks at us and he’s gone into the fog and we’re waiting to see him again. And knowing that we will.

Both with The Prophet and your Lincoln Perry books, you appear to use the characters as the source of style and mood. How do you approach creating them when they dictate so much?

Yeah, that’s a fair observation, though I can’t explain much about the process. Their moods feed the narrative, and the atmosphere of the books build from the inside-out, but that’s not something I can sit back and assess at the start. It just develops as I get to know them better.

One rule some writers follow is never to discuss politics and religion, but you explore Kent’s faith very deftly. Did you find it a challenge?

No, and I don’t get the idea that you’d never discuss those things — unless you wanted to avoid making a point and thus limiting your audience, in which case you’re writing with marketing in mind. Dangerous ground to tread. But I’m not making a point, I’m trying to turn them into real people as much as possible. And real people have religious and political views, you know? To real people, those things tend to matter a great deal, no matter what camp they are in. So I’d feel odd hiding those traits away. I’d feel odder still writing about “good people” who have to be in one camp or the other, that’s the sort of cable-news world I have no interest in exploring. I’m interested in flaws and struggles. So in this one I’m writing about two brothers who had to cope with intense grief. I considered the ways in which people do cope, in real life, and I landed in a place where one brother would have gone down the road of faith and forgiveness and a desperate need to believe that this happened for a reason, that sort of assurance against a random act of violence, while the other believes the only thing that can possibly be done to set it right is to kill the killer. Revenge, blood for blood. And I think we see a lot of the latter in crime fiction but not much of the former, perhaps because it seems such a passive route to take? I don’t know. But I thought back to my days working as a reporter and a PI and observing how people dealt with tragedy, and those were the two paths that seemed most dominant. So I sent one brother down each path with the idea that they’d meet along the way.

I found out that you’re contributing a piece on Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan for Books To Die For, a collection of essays from crime fiction authors about one of their favorite crime novels. What do you want to draw from that book for your own work?

Oh, wow, so much. He’s a master. That book certainly informed The Prophet because I think it’s a great novel about brothers, dark though it may be. What Smith does there is create a wonderful character arc in that when we meet Hank, we not only understand his decisions, we can buy into them. Is he making the right choice? Well, no. But is he making one we might just possibly make ourselves, given the same opportunity? Sure. And then we watch it play out from there, and it is all the more intense because throughout the story you have that uneasiness that stems from the sense of “I am not so far from this…” I think about it a lot watching BREAKING BAD, I would be stunned if Vince Gilligan did not read that book. If he didn’t read it, he’d enjoy it. Because there is a shared sensibility at play there. I just love that book. Adore it. One of the greatest debut novels in crime fiction history.

Michael Koryta’s The Prophet is now available in bookstores everywhere.