Debut Thriller Draws Raves

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"I do everything late in life," said 55-year-old Kurt Corriher, author of the debut thriller Someone to Kill (Forge). "I have my children late in life -- I have a son who’s nine, and a daughter who’s 13 -- and I publish a novel late in life."

But Someone to Kill, a global post-Cold War tale that has drawn enthusiastic responses from booksellers and other readers ("astonishing and satisfying," Publishers Weekly), was no midlife whim. Corriher, a North Carolina academic with a doctorate in German literature, has been caught up with books and writing his entire career. His first published fiction is the result of years of persistent effort.

A seasoned professor who’s taught at half a dozen institutions (including, currently, part-time at Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina), Corriher’s first effort in novel-writing was an unpublished academic satire.

"Every frustrated, would-be-writer in every English department in the United States writes an academic satire," he said, "and I never tried to publish it. But I had a great time writing it, and a lot of my friends had a great time reading it."

One of those friends was French author Vladimir Volkoff. "Vladimir was really the reason that I stopped diddling around with the idea of ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be a writer,’" Corriher said, "and actually started writing. He encouraged me, to a great degree. When he read that satire, he said, ‘You know you’re very gifted, you can be a writer, if you want to be.’ And it was through his encouragement, really, that I got a bit more serious about sitting down and trying to finish some books."

When push came to pen, what Corriher tried to create was not more satire but an "intelligent" thriller: "I decided I wanted to write what I like to read, and I’ve always enjoyed reading good thrillers -- particularly Frederick Forsyth’s; I’m also very fond of Ken Follett."

In 1992, Corriher quit his job as an information-systems manager and began crafting the manuscript that would become Someone to Kill: a fast-paced story of political and emotional intrigue that moves from North Carolina to Germany to Crete.

"I tried to have a little bit of character development in there," said Corriher, "I tried to touch on some more serious themes. You can’t go into great depth with them, but I tried to put some themes in there that a more contemplative reader would be interested in -- but at the same time meet the demands of a thriller, which is that it be a page-turner."

A spiritual dimension is one of the aspects Corriher worked into his story. "I’m not a particularly religious person in the way most people understand the term," the author said. "But I have always been interested in spirituality, because those are the questions that matter. And I think that literature and religion really are both addressing the same fundamental questions of human existence: Why are we here? How should we live? How do we deal with the fact of our existence?"

Corriher, whose wife had taken a job so he could write a book (Someone to Kill is dedicated to her), had been working on his manuscript about a year when the couple’s son was born: "At that point, I had to go back to work."

He took a full-time post at Catawba College; and, over the next three years, he wrote and rewrote the novel in his spare time. Once it was finished to his satisfaction, he went about finding someone to place it with a publisher. Corriher wrote to five agents in 1995, and one of them -- Mildred Marmur -- agreed to represent his book.

The road to publishing, Corriher said, was "very rough."

After several rejections, Corriher took the manuscript back from his agent and (acting on feedback from editors) cut about 100 pages. "I cut a lot of the things I loved the best," he said, "but I’m sure it’s a better novel for my having cut them. They were some of the things that were more, I guess, ‘literary,’ for lack of a better adjective, but that really just didn’t fit the genre very well and slowed the novel down."

He sent the revised version to Marmur in January of 1996. But the new draft didn’t sell quickly, either.

"I had given up on it," Corriher admits with a rueful laugh. "I had written it off. I thought, ‘Oh well, I tried. I did the best I could!’"

However, the story wasn’t over. In 2000, Marmur called to say they’d gotten an offer on the book. After minor revisions ("I think I did all of them in a day"), Someone to Kill was put on Forge’s production schedule.

Earlier this year, Kurt Corriher stood on the deck of his home in China Grove, North Carolina, and opened an envelope containing a finished copy of the novel he’d begun writing in 1992. "That was a nice moment," he said.

The new author sees Someone to Kill as "definitely the first of many books" he hopes and intends to write -- but not for a while.

"I don’t have time," he explained. "I work four part-time jobs, I have two young children, I have a mortgage and house and car payments. Until I can get out from under some of those responsibilities, I’m not gonna be able to start the next one."

He does jot down notes and thoughts for future fiction, though. "I have ideas," Corriher said. "I’ll be ready to go, when the time comes." -- Tom Nolan