Writing scared and keeping up the suspense: 3Qs for Michael Koryta, author of So Cold the River

Michael Koryta is on a roll. Six novels in three years, most of which (including his latest, So Cold the River) scored starred reviews in PW. Michael Connelly says, "This book builds like a summer storm. Beautiful to watch until it shakes the house and knocks out the lights, leaving you alone in the dark. Another masterful work from Michael Koryta, So Cold the River is guaranteed to put the cold finger down your spine." A lot going on. But we managed to waylay him for a quick 3Qs.

Michael, thanks so much for your time. First of all, how are you holding up? Good Lord, you're prolific! Did you have a few manuscripts in a drawer when you started publishing or are you writing two books every year?
Hey, look at that, an incredibly generous question to start! Thanks for asking. Honestly, this year has been a wildly different experience -- wonderful in all regards, but different. Having publisher support of the kind Little, Brown offers is extraordinary, but it has put me on the road a great deal as well. In addition, I have done multiple international tours this year. I won't be able to hold a two-book pace in the future. One a year is a challenge enough. The stretch that's coming up -- three hardcover releases in something like 14 months -- is the product of my first year as a full-time writer, 2009. I didn't travel much, I was writing in a white heat because the change in direction had offered so much creative fuel, and, frankly, I was writing scared. Not in a bad way, but in a way that added motivation. I felt, and still do feel, as if I'd been afforded an unbelievable opportunity to work with the best house and best editor in the country. I didn't believe I had earned it, and I was determined to try and do that as best as I could. I'm still trying. So, no manuscripts came out of the drawer, all are fresh (and rewritten extensively, as is my way), and as to how I'm holding up: elated and exhausted. Right now, feeling more of the latter.

Setting the tone in So Cold the River is the compelling protagonist, Eric Shaw. I'm curious about the genesis of that character and wondering, did you ever fear for where he was heading?
The genesis of the character, and of the story, is the fine line between healthy ambition and damaging narcissism. At what point do drive and self-confidence become dangerous hubris? Although they are very different characters, Eric and Josiah and Kellen all share in this experience. One of the things I feared with Eric was my ability to allow the audience to see him both for what he had been and still empathize. He starts the novel as a selfish character, a bitter character, and I needed to find ways to counter that, to show both the dark side and the side that made him appealing as a protagonist. Some reviewers have focused on that dark side. I think they're missing the arc -- think Paul Newman in the "The Verdict" -- but then again I'm biased toward Eric!

Many of our regular constituents are not just rabid readers, they're aspiring writers. What advice can you offer when it comes to pacing this kind of plot? (And by that I mean one that sucks us in, gets us in a headlock, and scares us out of our wits?)
My mantra for suspense comes from Hitchcock: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the expectation of it." Filling a plot with wild action sequences often fails with the audience, no matter the creativity, because there is no emotional connection with the characters. You need to care about the character who is in jeopardy to make that jeopardy pay off. So, build an emotional bond between audience and character, present the idea that something bad is on the way for them, and then....hold it off. I love an excruciating build of tension. Hitchcock was a master, Stephen King is a master, but I don't know that anybody's done it better than Fitzgerald in Gatsby. The Gatsby/Daisy relationship is a clinical study in prolonged reader suspense. We HAVE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! And he takes his sweet time.


Thanks for stopping by, Michael! I agree with you, btw, about The Great Gatsby and also about the need for character development in thrillers. If we don't care about the characters, we won't need to know what happens. So many people think suspense comes from twists and turns, and to some extent it does, but mostly it comes from that lurking sense of impending doom.

Great interview.

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