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Book Talk: Haunting image of lighthouse inspires thriller

Michael Koryta was working on a completely different book when he became haunted by the image of a lighthouse built in the woods, despite the fact that he didn't have a story for it.
/ Source: Reuters

Michael Koryta was working on a completely different book when he became haunted by the image of a lighthouse built in the woods, despite the fact that he didn't have a story for it.

But the image persisted, eventually leading Koryta through numerous drafts to the book that became "The Ridge," a supernatural thriller that mixes elements of folklore with reality to create a Midwestern ghost story.

The 29-year-old Koryta, who has published eight novels -- the first written when he was 20 -- first thought he wanted to write detective novels and even interned with a private investigator during high school to gain practical experience.

In a telephone interview, Koryta spoke about his determination to be a writer and how he works.

Q: The idea for this came from an image of a lighthouse?

A: "I just had the image, I didn't have much of a story to go with it. 'The Ridge' is really about an eccentric person who's dismissed by others in his area as being crazy, and he builds this lighthouse in the woods. And once he's gone, the question arises, what if there really was a method to the madness? I liked that idea because I think it resonates with every one of us -- we all choose to hear certain people, certain theories on a daily basis, whether it's political or religious or merely ignoring that raving drunk in the corner. You're making that selection constantly. The question that fascinated me was, what if you tuned out the one voice you should hear?"

Q: You say this was an unusual experience. Did that make it harder to write?

A: "Absolutely. It took I think 2,500 pages -- how long's the book, I think 350 pages? I threw out more than 2,000 pages, and that's not standard. I originally thought the newspaper reporter was the protagonist, I thought that through about five drafts, and then Kevin Kimble steps forward on his way to visit the woman who shot him. I was well into the book before I realized that the heart of the book appeared to be with Kevin.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a little exhausting -- three months' work you just hit the delete key on -- but it is fun, too. I'm of the belief that there's a book there that your subconscious gets and the real challenge for the writer is to get your conscious mind out of the way to find the real story. I struggled with that on this one."

Q: Once you have an idea, where do you go from there and what do you emphasize: character, plot or setting?

A: "It's all of the above, particularly with the supernatural stories I've written of late. I'm trying three things: characters who draw an emotional investment from the reader. The second would be an atmosphere that feels real, but also feels a few clicks off, as though there's something wrong in this world. That allows the uncanny elements, when I begin to introduce them, to hopefully feel more organic. The third, which is really crucial for these books, is to add the elements of a procedural mystery, a detective story, so I have the reader invested in a pursuit of the truth."

Q: When you're working on something supernatural, does the world look different afterwards?

A: "I would say that when I'm working on a supernatural book, I do a lot of my thinking on hikes. When I run into plot problems, the first place that I go to fix those is take long hikes in the woods. I'm definitely capable of spooking myself out in the woods, but hopefully in a good, healthy way. The right sound of wind in the trees, the right look of the moon in the clouds, there's fuel for fiction -- no question. But I'm not seeing ghosts capering through my bedroom or anything."

Q: I heard that when you were a teenager, you interned with a private investigator?

A: "It was kind of a fascination with the business. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and at the time I wanted to write detective novels. All the writers who really influenced me all worked in the world of the detective, and I thought what better way to understand it than to try and get a little taste of the real thing. I had the incredible good fortune of finding a mentor who was both really qualified and also really patient with the learning curve."

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: "Beyond the obvious -- read, read, read -- I'd just say writing every day is just really critical. You don't need to do 1,500 words a day, you don't even need to do 500 words a day. But I am a big believer in the fact that writers write. It requires a massive amount of self-discipline, particularly before you publish, and no one cares if you hand them pages or not. So you need to find that discipline to deliver pages and produce consistently from a place within yourself. And that can be really hard.

"Usually I write in the afternoons and evenings. I always listen to music and the 1,500 word minimum is the only rigid thing. It's a good way to keep my head in the story, and the closer I am to a story the better chance I stand of knowing when something's coming off the rails. In the last week, one day I got my 1,500 words in an hour and ten minutes, and on another day it took me eight hours. I'll crawl the 1,500 words on my hands and knees if I have to. I've done it many a time." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)