Most writers wisely don’t read their own reviews, but it’s hard to ignore Kirkus Reviews’ judgment of Michael Koryta’s latest thriller, Those Who Wish Me Dead, which ends, “Summer reading doesn’t get better than this.”
The novel is a stand-alone thriller about a teenager named Jace Wilson, who is put into witness protection when he witnesses a murder. Two killers, Jack and Patrick Blackwell, are closing in on Jace with murder in mind. Charged with protecting the boy, former U.S. Marshall Jamie Bennett asks Ethan and Allison Serbin to shelter the boy in their wilderness survival program in remote Montana. It’s an eerie setting with palpable threats at every turn, one that plays out somewhere between Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and David Mamet’s screenplay for The Edge. To capture the violent underpinnings of the American West, Koryta went there to experience the setting personally.
“Setting and place are very important to me,” says the author from his home in Indiana. “Anything that makes the world feel ‘off’ to a character is a way of raising the stakes. I came to Montana and Wyoming several times to try to do this book justice. You can read about it and you can see pictures and hear people talk about the quality of the wilderness out there, but until you are standing on top of a mountain range and you literally cannot see anyone else, you don’t have quite the appreciation as to just how dangerous it really is. Being in a part of the world that removes our illusion of safety is a really unique experience.”
To get into the mindset of a survival expert like Ethan Serbin, Koryta went to a survival school taught by a retired U.S. Air Force survival instructor, where he learned that what most people would consider priorities—food, water, shelter, for example—fall far down the list from the most important element of survival in the wilderness.
“The aspect of that experience that was most interesting to me was the focus on psychology,” Koryta explains. “The instructor’s first priority was all about positive mental attitude. If your head isn’t right and you’re not thinking like a survivor from the very start, you’re in a really bad place. You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re expecting to be rescued from the outside. I thought that was fascinating to explore with these characters.”
Koryta took two years to craft Those Who Wish Me Dead after the phenomenal success of his previous stand-alone, The Prophet, and the effort shows how accomplished he’s becoming as a suspense writer. The book most successfully captures the character of Jace Wilson, who in the age of gripping child endangerment scenarios like The Last of Us, is a realistically terrified protagonist and child catalyst for the accompanying action.
“I wanted to make sure that Jace felt resourceful and empowered but also read like a child, appropriate for his age,” Koryta says. “I had to find that balance between Jace taking the initiative and growing courageous as the events of the book unfold without tilting him away from the genuine emotions of a child in that situation.”
On the part of his villains, the Blackwell brothers, Koryta is grateful that early readers have found them just as despicable as he intended. In an age when many writers are trying to humanize their bad guys, Koryta has given readers a pair of genuine black hat villains to root against.
“I wanted them to be able to talk to each other, as opposed to presenting the lone, evil crusader,” the author explains. “I thought there should be touches of dark humor to them as well. They take pleasure, especially Jack Blackwell, in the torment and menace they bring. Once I felt the dynamic between them taking shape, I began to have as much fun writing those characters as I ever have.”
It’s a violent story that pits its deliciously malevolent villains against protagonists who are not only fleeing their potential murderers but also the very elements around them. Koryta says that kind of ferocity is an integral element to suspense but he also believes it’s important that readers feel the change that violence brings.
“For lack of a better term, the choreography of violence has to feel believable—not over the top but also not understated, which is a hard balance to find,” he says. “The most important thing is dealing with the emotional element of the violence. I’ve always had a problem as a reader when you go through a scene of intense violence and the characters don’t seem to experience true pain or terror. When faced with real violence and pain, for most of us, our emotions turn a little more primal. The rules of the world have been taken away from you at that point.”
It’s a terrifying scenario but hopefully bravery, courage and that survivor mentality will help Koryta’s new heroes not become, as his original title read, “The dying kind.”
“The novels that stand out to me are the ones that have a heightened sense of suspense,” Koryta says. “I always want that sense of fear and high tension. That’s one of my favorite emotional experiences as a reader, so as a writer I want to deliver the stories that make the heart race.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.