When author Michael Koryta was a teenage aspiring writer in Indiana, he was mentored by a sports editor at the Bloomington Herald-Leader. Bob Hammel was a deep believer in William Strunk and E.B. White’s “Elements of Style” as well as William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” When he was out of the office, Koryta would sit and wait for him, and there, in the fall of 2000, he noticed a new book on Hammel’s desk: “On Writing” by Stephen King.

He picked it up and discovered something he’d never expected about the famous writer he so admired – “that he is anchored in Strunk and White and the same lessons that I’m getting in this basement of my little local newspaper,” he said. “That was revelatory.”

Koryta (pronounced Ko-ree-ta) was telling this story on a day late last month as he was about to head into an event at Longfellow Books. This spring Koryta published his 13th novel, “How It Happened,” a Maine-set tale of two missing bodies, the opioid epidemic in a coastal town and an FBI agent who can’t get over his instinct that a confession no one else believes is true. Koryta, now a Maine resident about half the year and married to a woman from Biddeford, said he values “On Writing” so much he usually keeps a copy on his desk when he’s writing, along with two other items: a coffee cup and a calendar to log the number of words he’s written.

Three days after he told the story of discovering King’s book on writing, King surprised him again. This time, it was on Twitter, where Maine’s most famous author is known to be prolific and have unshakable opinions, like this one: “How It Happened, by Michael Koryta: Excellent mystery-suspense novel. Page turner. Perfect summer reading.”

This was, in Koryta’s description, “Surreal. He’s generous in the most authentic way, casually giving the book a nod like it’s nothing, and yet for me, it’s huge.”

He didn’t get the news about King’s tweet until hours later because he’d deliberately disconnected for the day. He had driven out to Tenants Harbor and Port Clyde, revisiting the territory where he and his wife, Christine, lived for much of the time that he was writing “How It Happened.” He finally looked at his email on the wharf in Port Clyde, and only then because it seemed as though he had an odd number of messages for a Sunday evening.

Did he check his sales numbers right afterward? “If I watched sales ranks, I’d have leapt to my death from Mount Battie long ago,” he said.

THIS TIME, IT’S PERSONAL

Koryta, 35, is hardly a starry-eyed newcomer to publishing. He sold his first book, to St. Martin’s Press, when he was just 20 years old, and was nominated for an Edgar Award for it.

Nor is this is first praise from King, who blurbed his eighth novel, “The Ridge” (2011), calling it “a classic ghost story, penned by a master” and put “The Cypress House,” published earlier in 2011, on his summer reading list in Entertainment Weekly that year as well. He’s gone back and forth between supernatural and crime writing. “How It Happened” is solidly in the crime genre, and it has two elements drawn from real life.

The first is a story he’s had in his mind since he was 17 and living in Bloomington, Indiana. A college student named Jill Behrman disappeared one morning. Her bike showed up near his parents’ house. Behrman was a freshman at Indiana University. Koryta joined in search parties looking for her body. One day, he saw her father, staring into a creek, misery written all over his face. “It is not cliche or hyperbole to say he looked gray,” Koryta said. “There was this intensity about him that I almost remember as being threatening.”

At this point in his young life, Koryta had already determined he wanted to be a writer and devised two ways to go about it. The first was to land an internship at 16 with a local private investigator. There were three in the Yellow Pages in Bloomington. The first said no, kindly. The second hung up on him. The third, whose name was Don Johnson (“He is 72 now, you can imagine how tired he is of the jokes?” Koryta said), said sure, let’s talk, and proceeded to give him a crash course in public records searches and, eventually, surveillance. Koryta worked part-time with Johnson through college.

He also worked part-time at the Bloomington Herald-Leader. The first front page story he had was when he was a freshman at Indiana University himself – majoring in criminal justice – and a lead came in that authorities were searching a pond for Behrman’s body, based on a confession from a not exactly reliable source. That pond search shows up in “How It Happened,” reimagined, moved to Maine and with a very different outcome. Koryta said he’s been holding onto this story – he even flew back into town to attend the trial of the man who was convicted of Behrman’s killing – for 18 long years. It felt so personal to him that it took him that long to start writing.

“It was the dominant crime story of my formative years,” Koryta said. “Moving to Maine was what gave me the freedom to see the characters as characters, and not feel as if I was writing about Jill Berhman.”

He didn’t want to exploit that family’s tragedy, but the image of her father staring into the creek, and a mirror image he saw when he wandered onto that search scene in Indiana to see an agent from the FBI staring into that pond, inform the hearts and souls of characters in “How It Happened,” including lobsterman Howard Pelletier, whose daughter goes missing, and FBI agent Rob Barrett, who has ties to the fictional Port Hope, where the novel takes place.

THE FRONT PAGE

This is also the first of his novels to be set in Maine, a place he’s been coming to and living part-time in for four years, ever since marrying Christine. They still live in Bloomington for much of the year but wintered in Tenants Harbor while he was writing the book. “I wanted to see it off-season,” he said. “To me that is how you really get a sense of a place.” They now have a house in Camden.

“Even setting it in Maine is very personal and intimate to me because it represents this portion of my life that I didn’t see coming; it merges these two things,” he said.

Koryta and his wife met at Eckerd College in Florida. He’d gone there to take a class from mystery novelist Dennis Lehane; she was running the writing conference. In a twist worthy of a novel, she’s now a licensed private investigator, focused on background checks, and he is a full-time writer. And she’s the one who brought him to Maine, home state to his literary hero Stephen King. Who is now blurbing him.

He deliberately steered away from using a real town to set his story and made Barrett, his protagonist, someone who spent time in Maine in the summer as a child, but never lived there.

“I am very much from away, so I thought I’d feel a little more freedom if I wrote as an outsider,” Koryta said. “I didn’t want to pretend I really know this place.” He still considers himself a novice on Maine. “I can get the setting down. I can paint you a picture.”

Port Hope may be fictional, but it, like so many real Maine towns, has an opioid problem. Heroin addicts and deaths from overdoses dovetail with the missing bodies plot (the young woman in “How It Happened,” Jackie Pelletier, disappears with her boyfriend, the son of wealthy summer residents). Koryta said adding the opioid angle was another means of diverging from the real-life story that inspired him.

“But honestly, it was reading the newspaper,” he said. “Everywhere I went, every newspaper had an opioid story on the front page.” That included the Press Herald’s “Lost” series, which Koryta credits in a blog post about writing this novel. You can see his own newspaper training in the details he weaves into the thriller, including accurate statistics and his deft handling of complex elements, like the role fentanyl often plays in overdose deaths.

Given all the personal connections in “How It Happened,” does it feel like his best book? He winced.

“When a book comes out, I absolutely hate it,” he said. That’s a result of “the journalist rising up in me. Every time a book comes out, I’m convinced it is the worst thing I have ever done. But what I am writing next, I am convinced will be the best.”

In this case, that’s another novel set in Maine.

“Once it is out there in black and white, and I can’t fix it anymore, I don’t have any faith in it,” he said.

Good thing Stephen King does.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

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