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In the Morgue

Day 4: The MorgueWe celebrate the publication of Michael Koryta’s THE RIDGE, a novel that the New York Times Book Review calls “a freshly imagined and elegantly constructed variation on the dead-of-night ghost story.” Here, Koryta, a former journalist, explores the appeal of the newspaper morgue–a treasure trove of long, lost stories.

Journalists tend to have a rather odd sense of humor. I have an enormous framed banner in my home that reads: “If you’re looking for Koryta, he’s in the morgue,” and every journalist I worked with found it quite amusing.

It was a parting gift from my friends and colleagues at the Bloomington Herald-Times when I left the newspaper, and it had hung for several years on the wall beside my desk. The reason I could be found in the morgue so often: I was fascinated with the old stories, the forgotten local history recorded by people who had once played the same role that I was now carrying out.

My writing career, though, really did begin in the newspaper morgue, and I think that’s entirely appropriate. I’ve always viewed my sort of fiction writing as coming more from a place of old stories than from the breaking-news side. In both my detective novels and the supernatural stories, there’s a Gothic sensibility at play: the past is reaching out and grabbing the present by its throat. I’ve also always written with the idea that I’m not so much creating the story as discovering it, and for every plot manipulation and alteration, I’m convinced that I’m working toward something that was already there, that I’m just trying to get the fiction sorted properly in the same way I tried to get the facts sorted properly while working as a reporter or private investigator.

The newspaper morgue had a hold on me from the beginning. I started my journalism career there, as an intern asked to cull from the massive old bound volumes of newspapers for a column we called Hoosier History that ran every Sunday. The first published story I ever wrote came from those bound volumes: I read a piece, published in 1950, about a Bloomington man who’d been awarded a posthumous Bronze Star for heroism after dying in combat in Korea. He’d also been with the battalion that retook Bataan in World War II. Reading the article more than fifty years later, I found that the tale was still powerful. It mentioned the man had left behind a widow and two young children, and I discovered that the widow, Mrs. Leota Terman, was still in town. I interviewed her and learned that her husband had been killed on August 22, 1950, which was their thirteenth wedding anniversary. He died in the afternoon, but that morning he’d written her a letter saying he hoped it would be the last time they ever would be apart for their wedding anniversary. She received the telegram notifying her of his death first; the letter arrived a few days later. It was, she told me, very difficult to read. She wondered why she couldn’t have been taken, too. Then she reminded herself that she had two sons to raise — two sons who went on to earn doctorates.

All of it struck me as an incredible story; it struck Mrs. Leota Terman as deeply special that anyone would remember and want to write about her husband after all those years. It took me a while to get that piece in the paper — Memorial Day had to roll around before they’d run it — but it was technically the first thing I wrote that would see publication, though many other articles had appeared by then. It wasn’t surprising to me that in THE RIDGE I found myself returning to a newspaper morgue, to thoughts of the stories written and preserved by a small-town newspaper, to thoughts of how much they mattered. How many people have a yellowing, brittle copy of some aged newspaper story that memorialized someone important to them, be it for good news or tragic? The idea that someone told the story is what matters. For all of the odd and mysterious happenings in THE RIDGE, the genesis of the story, both for the novel’s characters and for its writer, can be found in a newspaper morgue. The initial file name, before I had a title or a plot or really much of a book at all, was simply “morgue.docx.”

I knew where the book was coming from, if nothing else.

There are good lessons for me there, probably the most important being the fact that, gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you a single reporter’s name from any of those old stories, but I could recite the tales for hours. I certainly couldn’t think of the name of the reporter who wrote about the death of Bill Terman in 1950, and it’s likely that writer was long dead before I found the article in those dusty pages, but from that story came another, more than five decades removed, and from that one came a novel, nine years removed. It is the tale, not he who tells it, cautions one of the most critical pieces of advice any writer could find, and I believe that deeply. You shouldn’t care if anybody remembers your name. You should hope they might remember the stories.

Before writing this piece, I went to the online site for the Bloomington Herald-Times and did a search to make sure my memory of the dates was correct. It was, but the first match for Leota Terman was not my story about her husband, published in 2002, fifty-two years after his death on the day of their wedding anniversary. It was her obituary, published in 2007. She died at the age of ninety-one.

I’m very sad about that — she was a great lady, pure class — but I’m glad that five years earlier, she took the time to share that story about her husband. I know it mattered not only to her but to many readers — and, Lord knows, it mattered to me.

Michael Koryta has won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Great Lake Books Award, and St. Martin’s Press/PWA Best First Novel prize, while also earning nominations for the Edgar, Quill, Shamus and Barry awards. In addition to winning the Los Angeles Times prize for best mystery, his novel Envy the Night was selected as a Reader’s Digest condensed book. His work has been translated into nearly twenty languages. A former private investigator and newspaper reporter, Koryta graduated from Indiana University with a degree in criminal justice. He currently lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Bloomington, Indiana. His novel THE RIDGE hits bookstores this week. Learn more at http://www.facebook.com/michaelkoryta