How I Wrote It: Michael Koryta on "The Prophet"
More than a murder mystery, Koryta's new novel, The Prophet (one of our mystery & thriller Best of the Month picks for August), is an exploration of the complicated relationship between two brothers who years earlier lost their sister to a violent crime. I learned during a recent visit with Koryta that the origins of this story came from a very personal place.
So what's the backstory? How’d you come to this story? What triggered it?
It’s actually more of a personal story, a family story. My mother’s sister was hit and killed by a drunk driver when she was walking home from school in Cleveland. She was 6 at the time she died; my mother was 10. And I had an uncle and an aunt who were there and saw it happen. My mother wasn’t there, she was at girl scouts. But I grew up with that story, and it was obviously a pretty traumatic event for my mother’s family. Her father was a minister and so he had spent time in that capacity dealing with other grieving families - someone in the church who’d lost someone, it was his role to go comfort. And suddenly it was in his own home.
Now, my grandfather on my dad’s side was a very different person from my mother’s father, still someone I admired in so many ways, but someone who had a pretty rough life circumstance and was a very different person. I got caught up in wondering how things might have played out differently if it had been my dad’s sister, and that side of the family. So that was something that had been kicking around in my head for, literally, years.
Also an image stands out, a memory… I don’t even know if my mother remembers this, but there was one time, I was leaving for school and we were arguing. I was being a pain-in-the-neck kid and tried to storm out for the bus. And she brought me back and told me that we could not ever leave on bad terms, because that could be the last time we saw each other. It was the only time I recall her mentioning her sister's death in such concrete terms, with regard to our relationship. And so that stuck in my head for a long time.
Years later, as a writer, I thought about putting these brothers together, these contrasting personalities and contrasting coping mechanisms that I’d wondered about with my two different grandfathers. I wanted to put them together as brothers and build those different worlds and personalities, and thought that could really be the grain of a great story. And I thought that sense of responsibility--however misplaced--that someone can feel when they make a really innocent decision, one that you can make a hundred times, a thousand times, ten thousand times, and nothing bad will happen from it, but then you make it once and something bad happens… how do you cope with that? From that question, that moment, we get Adam. And we also get Kent, of course. Both brothers are shaped by this moment. But Adam’s dealing with a different level of personal guilt because he’s the one who made the decision to drive away that night and let his sister walk home, and she was never seen alive again.
Because it’s so personal, have you shared it with family?
Yeah, I talked with my mother about it. I was interested in getting some of her thoughts and memories after the book was written, because as I said, this memory is just a seed, it's not the story. It’s a very different circumstance. The victim in my book is older and is the victim of a crime--abducted and killed. But at the same time, it’s that idea of how loss affects a family. And I think that certainly continued to affect her family. Certainly, growing up with that story, it affected us. It’s that notion of the past never really letting go--the past is never the past. That made an impact.
Was it difficult for your mom to revisit that?
Not in a visceral way, because again, the novel is so far removed from that seed, that initial moment. My mother was so young at the time, and she spent a lot of time trying to assess the way in which it changed the family and how everyone dealt with it. And my grandmother at that point had a one-month-old baby. She gave birth to a son and lost a daughter in the matter of weeks. It's astonishing and horrifying to consider. My mother’s belief is that that’s what helped get my grandmother through it, though. That how she was really able to stand up against that loss was in part because she had the new child, the new baby, who demanded constant care. My grandmother had five other children to raise in the midst of this loss, all between the ages of one month and 10 years. It just staggers me to consider that.
So my mother and I have had conversations about it, certainly. It was the one time she heard my grandfather cry. Did not see him cry--heard him. He went upstairs to shave and she heard him crying in the bathroom. And then he came back downstairs, and he was in his role again, he was a father of five, he was leading, but above all else he was enduring. I consider that, and I wonder: how? How do you do that? I asked her, when she read the book, if she thought about her sister at all during the story. And she said, “Of course. As soon as you’ve got Marie walking home from school, I thought about it.” I was curious if it would upset her or any family members.
Obviously the story is very different, the story is about violent crime, as opposed to a tragic accident. But it’s going back to this shared emotional core. And when I asked if she was bothered by that, or thought others would be, she said, “It’s nice to have her remembered. It's been 52 years.” That made some sense to me. Elaine was my aunt. I never knew her, but she was--is--my aunt. She's family. That doesn't go away. I didn't meet her, but she's part of me, part of my life.
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