The Big Idea: Michael Koryta

Reporters are often told to ask the “W”s — Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? (which does not start with a “w” but which has a “w” in it, so there) — because in a news story, all of these things are usually relevant. Author Michael Koryta is a former reporter, so it would be no surprise to discover he knows to ask these questions, and you’ll read, for So Cold the River, one of these “w”s — “Where?” — plays a significant role in how all those other “w”s unfold in the course of the story.


I’ve been patiently waiting for a Big Idea for years. I continue to do so. In the meantime, I’ve done the best I can with my small ideas.

I’d love to claim that So Cold the River is a work of staggering imaginative powers but I’m afraid someone might get around to using the interwebs and determining that all of the wonderfully creative elements – a subterranean river! a hotel with an incredible glass dome! mineral water reputed to cure all ills! – are actually real. Then I’d have some egg on my face, wouldn’t I? So, I suppose I should cop to it and admit that the Big Ideas for So Cold the River were extracted almost entirely from the true history of its setting in the small towns of West Baden and French Lick, Indiana.

At this point, the only thing most people are aware of about these places is that the name French Lick is funny and that Larry Bird once played his basketball there and not in Boston. From 1901 until 1929, though, the towns were internationally renowned resorts, with two of the finest hotels in the world, elegance of the first order, and more than a small dose of corruption. Guests ranged from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Al Capone, and while the hotels are the lasting testaments to these glory days, what built the resort in this rural portion of the Midwest was its mineral water. One brand was called Pluto Water, the other Sprudel Water, and they were believed to be healers of extraordinary power.

The Depression, as was its way, killed off the thriving little resorts. They’re coming back now – restored hotels, a Pete Dye-designed golf course, a casino that pretends to be a riverboat for reasons that no one but an Indiana legislator could possibly explain. I’m excited about all those developments, but it was the past and not the future that inspired So Cold the River. That so much fascinating history had transpired in such an out-of-the-way place was intriguing, but it was the idea of the water and the legends and folklore surrounding it that really gave life to the story.

The Big Idea couldn’t have been smaller, or simpler, but then seeds generally are, no? The idea: what if there was some truth to the mythic reputation of the water?

It was a question, really, an idle notion, but I’ve found that’s where most of my story ideas develop. This one intrigued me, but it certainly didn’t fit into the Lincoln Perry series I was writing, or into traditional crime fiction at all. The nature of the question itself called for a touch of the supernatural, of the fantastic, and there was certainly a large part of me that was leery of dabbling in something so different. But in the end, the writing is most fun when you feel a challenge, and there are a host of inherent challenges to trying something different. Whether this departure was a success will be for the readers to determine, but I know one thing: I had a hell of a lot of fun writing it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look for a Big Idea. It’s around here somewhere, damn it. I’ll find the thing…


So Cold the River: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of the novel, via the Wall Street Journal. See a video about the book. Visit Koryta’s blog.

5 Comments on “The Big Idea: Michael Koryta”

  1. That is so cool. I have very personal reasons for finding this such a cool idea, and book — and I will definitely be picking this up.

  2. Sounds really interesting – I just grabbed the audiobook from audible. Thanks for the Big Idea post!

  3. I would be very surprised if the town of West Baden was not named for Baden-Baden, a spa town in South-West Germany famous for its thermal springs with healing properties.

    Also “Sprudel” is a colloquial term for carbonated mineral water in some parts of Germany. Hence, I bet that “Sprudel” water used to come from West Baden and that it’s very likely naturally carbonated.

    Anyway, “So Cold the River” sounds like a fascinating book and one that – unlike some other recent big idea books – was not on my radar at all. I’ll be sure to look for a copy, though – I have a weakness for old hotels and vintage resort towns.

  4. After reading the first two pages I was hooked and did nothing for two days until I reached the end of the book..was so intrigued that I had to
    learn what was coming next. This was one of the most enthralling novels I’ve read in a long time. Michael Koryta is so fresh and it showed in each vibrant page. I am now curious about the locale in Indiana where the story is centered. Was worried about what to get my
    sister for her birthday. Problem solved. I will give her a copy of So Cold the River. No matter
    what one’s reading taste is, this novel is bound to encompass it and please.

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