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Michael Koryta picks a familiar setting for 'The Cypress House,' his latest novel: Florida

Michael Koryta's seventh novel, a gripping noir thriller-ghost story called The Cypress House, will be published this week, graced with blurbs from, among others, Dean Koontz, Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly.

Koryta's sixth novel, So Cold the River, came out last June; his eighth, The Ridge, will be published this June.

He's 28 years old.

Does he ever sleep?

Chatting over lunch in downtown St. Petersburg, a few blocks from his home, Koryta grins. "Not very much."

His career suggests he doesn't waste time. Koryta published his first novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye, when he was 20, after winning a contest for best first private eye novel from St. Martin's Press and the Private Eye Writers of America. When he was 26, his fourth novel, Envy the Night, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best mystery.

"I've been very lucky," he says. Winning the St. Martin's Press contest (which no longer exists) brought him a publishing contract "that had to cut years out of the process" of selling a first novel. "In the current publishing climate, I appreciate how great the opportunity was."

Koryta's first five books were detective fiction, four of them about Cleveland investigator Lincoln Perry. The author brought to them a knowledge of the Midwest — he grew up in Bloomington, Ind., and graduated from Indiana University — as well as an unusual qualification: He actually worked as a private investigator. "It had always fascinated me, so I started when I was 16, as an intern." By the time he was 18, he was doing surveillance and background checks and, after he graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice, went on to full-time PI work while writing his first several novels.

Despite his success at detective novels, with his last book, So Cold the River, Koryta not only switched publishers (from St. Martin's to a six-book deal with Little, Brown) but genres, moving from crime fiction to a supernatural tale. Set at the West Baden Springs Hotel in Indiana, opened in 1902, River is a creepy, compelling story that involves old crimes, restless spirits and a bottle of spring water with far from healthful properties.

River started out in the workaday world and drew the reader slowly into the paranormal. Koryta's new book, The Cypress House, takes the plunge with its first sentence: "They'd been on the train for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men."

The men are not yet dead, though. Arlen has a talent he does not desire, the ability to know when others' deaths are imminent by seeing them in darkness as skeletons, in daylight as flesh and blood but with swirling smoke where their eyes should be.

In that opening scene, Arlen is on a train full of fellow World War I veterans, bound for a railroad work camp in the Florida Keys. It's Labor Day weekend, 1935 — the weekend a Category 5 hurricane slammed into the Keys, killing about 400 people.

"I loved the idea of writing about that hurricane. I'd read a couple of great books about it," Koryta says, Willie Drye's Storm of the Century and Les Standiford's Last Train to Paradise.

He also had an idea for a character who has premonitions of death. "He's been on the battlefield" — Arlen fought at Belleau Wood — "because I figured the only thing that could make war more terrible is knowing which of your comrades would die. But I didn't want to write a war book."

When he imagined Arlen riding that train to the Keys, the story clicked. But Arlen gets off that train and persuades his friend Paul Brickhill to get off with him. That doesn't exactly save them, though. It sends them to the house of the title, an isolated beachfront speakeasy some 50 miles north of Tampa Bay, where a beautiful young woman with a lot of secrets is menaced by a corrupt judge, and Arlen sees skeletons and smoky eyes everywhere he looks.

"I wanted to open with that quality of heavy dread and never have it let up. I wanted it to be claustrophobic from the start, to have that Key Largo feel," Koryta says, referring to the Oscar-winning 1948 Humphrey Bogart movie set during a hurricane.

He admits he'll lose some readers by writing books with supernatural elements. "I'm the kind of reader who's just as excited about a new Stephen King novel as a new Elmore Leonard novel, but for some people it's one or the other." But he sees both genres as essentially mysteries: "You put a character in a situation where the world is out of balance. He has to figure out why and then put it back in balance."

Writing stories with paranormal elements has been "very freeing," he says. "It's so much fun."

Although he has lived in Florida for several years, The Cypress House is his first novel set here. "I feel like I've been around the Gulf Coast long enough to feel comfortable. Still, I made my protagonist an outsider. You can't sell a character as local unless you are a local. Besides, I like bringing a character into a situation that's unfamiliar."

Koryta ended up living in St. Petersburg part time (he still spends time in Bloomington) because of the annual Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College. "I first came as a student (in 2005) when I was still an undergraduate. I skipped a week of classes and banged up my credit card to come and take Dennis' class. It was worth every penny."

That would be Dennis Lehane, author of Moonlight Mile, Mystic River and other bestsellers, co-founder of the conference and part-time St. Petersburg resident. Koryta has been at every Writers in Paradise since, as a teaching assistant, workshop leader and, this year, as one of the evening speakers during last week's program.

Koryta is engaged to Christine Caya, who coordinates the conference. "The Writers in Paradise romance," he says. "St. Petersburg has been good to me."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.

The

Cypress

House

By Michael Koryta

Little, Brown,

432 pages,

$24.99

Meet the author

Michael Koryta will read and sign his book at 6 p.m. Monday at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa, and at 2 p.m. Tuesday at a Friends of the Library event, presented by Circle Books, at the Selby Public Library, 1331 First St., Sarasota.

Michael Koryta picks a familiar setting for 'The Cypress House,' his latest novel: Florida 01/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 3:30am]
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