With numerous accolades to his name, including the prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize, bestselling writer Michael Koryta is a master of his craft. The author of 12 suspense and crime novels, his success comes from both an understanding of his audience’s appetite and a demonstrated ability to feed that literary hunger. But with How It Happened, Koryta set out to do something more—he wanted to finally put to rest a thought that had been banging around in his head for half his life.
When Koryta was 17, there was a murder case that captivated his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. A young woman had been abducted while riding her bicycle, and a confession obtained by local police in conjunction with the FBI was believed with such conviction that, even after divers failed to find the body, a dam was built to drain the creek that was believed to be her final resting place. But the body wasn’t there. It wouldn’t be found for years, and then only in a completely different location.
“As a community,” Koryta explains, “we'd been following this for so long, and everything seemed to be pointing in one direction and toward a certain narrative. And then all of a sudden, it all spun around. That disorienting sensation of thinking that we knew the truth of a crime and then having the ground pulled out from under our feet—I wanted to capture that.”
It was important, however, that he not offer a fictionalized account of the case from his youth; more than the murder itself, it was the way in which the aftermath played out that caused it to stick with Koryta through the years. After spending time in coastal Maine, where his wife grew up, he realized that the setting was ideal to finally tell the story he’d wanted to tell for so long. Not only were there certain similarities with his hometown, such as the town-and-gown/seasonal visitors versus year-round residents dynamic, but it also offered a way to simultaneously explore issues that had come to dominate national discourse in America.
“There's been so much talk since the last election cycle about what is real, what is truth,” Koryta says. Who should we believe? Do we always need tangible evidence in order to believe something? In delving into the practice of obtaining confessions and verifying their veracity, Koryta found a way to touch upon these questions about the nature of truth without writing too overtly or clumsily about it. “I've always been really interested in how you determine when to believe someone, in how you identify a lie and the price of getting it wrong.”
Set against a deeply sympathetic and humanizing portrayal of the opioid epidemic that has so devastated Maine’s fishing communities, How It Happened prompts readers to question their preconceptions. How much can you trust the word of a known drug addict? What does it say about a person’s character or integrity that they have an addiction?
“I wanted to show the reality of this crisis,” Koryta says. “I didn’t want to just portray this as, ‘and here we have our stereotypical addict,’ because the scope and sweep is what makes this epidemic so terrifying. It’s touching everyone. You can’t pretend it’s an abstract thing. I wanted to show the way it ripples through so many different segments of society, because that’s really what it’s doing.”
James Feder is a Tel Aviv–based writer.