In If She Wakes (Little, Brown, May), Koryta looks inside the mind of a victim of locked-in syndrome who is a crucial witness to a murder.
What gave you the idea for the plot?
A friend recommended a book called Into the Gray Zone by Adrien Owen, who is a neuroscientist researching locked-in syndrome, the condition in which a patient seems to be in a vegetative state, but is actually fully alert and aware. There was one test in particular that fascinated me, in which they used a short movie—it’s a Hitchcock piece, actually—and an MRI test to demonstrate cognitive and emotional processing. An element of the film involves a child carrying around a loaded gun—the audience knows it’s loaded, but the characters do not. The patients were responding to the risk, to the suspense. They were emotionally and mentally engaged by the narrative. The idea of someone undergoing that test just fascinated me, and then I thought, “What if that patient was a witness to something?” They’d be like the key to a lock, when previously everyone thought the key had been lost. I was off and running then.
How did you research what it’s like for someone with locked-in syndrome?
I did extensive reading on the subject, countless journal articles and books, and I spoke with some neuroscientists, but I didn’t reach out to any survivors. That’s an unusual choice for me because I love direct research. I wonder, looking back, if I was afraid that would make me overcommit to accuracy at the expense of the story.
How has your prior experience as a PI, journalist, and screenwriter influenced the way you write novels?
They all produce wonderful cynicism, and an innate instinct to doubt whatever you’re told, to question everything. When you’re a PI or a journalist, you’re aware that people might be lying to you, but in Hollywood, you have the confidence of knowing that they are. In all seriousness, I’ve taken benefits from all of those work experiences, of course. The essentials are self-discipline and a need to ask questions. I’ve been drawn to careers for the curious, and I love that.
Is there a way in which If She Wakes shares any themes with your previous fiction?
I can’t seem to stay away from the haunted characters, those plagued by choices they made in the past. I’m pretty clearly drawn to survivor narratives and to redemption narratives. I have both here. When you pick up any one of my books, the past will be active. The past is usually breathing down someone’s neck.