Alma Katsu found success as a writer after a long career as an intelligence analyst. Her first novel, The Taker (2011), gave birth to a series (the Immortals Trilogy), but her real breakthrough came in 2018 with The Hunger, a reimagining of the doomed Donner Party as the victims of supernatural forces. The Hunger won both praise and awards (in the suspense, horror, and western genres), and made numerous “best of the year” lists. Katsu followed that book up in March 2020 with another historical horror novel, The Deep, which weaves together the tragic fates of both the Titanic and its lesser-known sister ship the Britannic; The Deep also earned rave reviews (Library Journal called it “a riveting, seductively menacing tale”). Coming in 2021 is Red Widow, a contemporary spy thriller that uses some of her intelligence experience and is already being compared to the works of John le Carré.
How did someone with an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Program end up going into intelligence? Or did the intelligence career come first, and then the writing education?
I started writing fiction young and continued into my twenties, but quit all writing shortly after I started working in intelligence. At the time, the agencies were really sensitive about doing anything “on the outside,” even if your writing had nothing to do with your job or the targets you worked. I didn’t return to writing fiction for nearly twenty years, and getting a master’s degree seemed like a good idea. It was fun and I learned a lot, but it’s not something you definitely need.
Did you do any writing at all while working in intelligence?
Oddly enough, I was still a music journalist when I went into intelligence, but that lasted only about a year before I had to quit. I also wrote short stories—horror, science fiction, and fantasy—but hadn’t gotten very far. Placed one short story at a very small magazine somewhere. I figured I was starting out in a new career and owed it to myself to try to make it work (on their terms), so I stopped writing. Hopefully, there are a lot of people out there who can relate. I came back to writing at age forty, after a severe illness made me think about what I really wanted to do with my life.
Your first novel, The Taker (2011), not only switches between characters in just the first two chapters, it also switches tense (present to past) and point of view (third person to first person), all things that writers are often told not to do. Did you or any of your editors ever worry about that with The Taker?
The Taker is definitively not something you want to attempt for your first book. I had an idea for a story and had no idea that it was, basically, impossible to write. I ended up rewriting it many, many times over a period of ten years before it sold. On one hand, you could say that if you need to do all these crazy things, maybe the story is too complicated, and you should simplify it. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have been the same story if I’d done that. Something would’ve been lost. I learned a lot in the process of writing it, but could’ve just as easily given up. Flaws and all, I’m glad I wrote it.
You’ve cited Anne Rice as an inspiration; her influence is most apparent in the Immortals trilogy, but I detect a bit of her in your other books as well. What in particular did you take from her work?
Oddly, I haven’t actually read that much of her work. Interview with the Vampire and Cry to Heaven, and a little bit of the Beauty stories, but I think they made a big impression. I like the incredible emotionalism of her work. She’s not afraid to take the reader to extremes, or to bring up things that some might think of as deviant. As a woman, I naturally resist showing emotions in public because you’re going to be judged, so to just say “to heck with that” is quite freeing.
The Taker came out in 2011—that’s less than ten years ago. Are you happy with how your writing career has gone?
On one hand, it’s been better than I imagined. I’ve been very lucky. On the other hand, I have a hard time thinking of it as a career because we have so little control over any of it.
The main thing is that I want to write good books that are inventive and aren’t cliché, and hope that success will eventually follow.
Incidentally, it looks like the Taker Trilogy is getting a second chance. I thought of it as dead and buried, but just found out recently that the publisher is going to reissue the trilogy, which makes me feel much better about my early writing.
One of the things I enjoyed about The Hunger was that there’s almost a sense throughout the book that the women in the Donner Party are not just the smartest characters, but also secretly the most powerful. Do you think that might have been somewhat true in the real Donner Party?
It seems that if you’re not allowed to have power in any way, shape, or form, you have to learn how to navigate your reality in order to exist. You need to learn how to get power and exercise it, albeit not overtly. The oppressed (or suppressed) learn how to survive. I think this was the situation facing women at that time.
Tamsen Donner is a great case in point: she was widowed young, on her own, a former schoolteacher. She wasn’t a stupid woman, nor was she unambitious. She was capable, and I could see her plotting and scheming to getting the wagon train out of a jam and not waiting on someone else to save her.
Like I suspect many of your readers, The Hunger inspired me to go look up the real people of the Donner Party. I was intrigued by the fact that you chose to present Tamsen Donner as much younger than she really was. What inspired that decision?
I come from the school of writers that don’t believe historical fiction has to be 100 percent accurate (more on that in a bit). And changing her age seemed like only a little bit of a fudge. There was a significant age difference between Tamsen and her husband George, so the dynamic was the same. But the film rights had been optioned at that point, and Tamsen had to carry some of the romantic load, so . . .
You’ve noted before that one of the pleasures of writing historical fiction for you is how the past resonates with the present. What in The Hunger particularly resembles life in the twenty-first century (aside from the ultra-contemporary isolation theme)?
I wrote The Hunger during the 2016 election, and I got a little nervous when the editor pointed out how it seemed to mirror what we were going through. I didn’t want to project the present day onto the story. When I looked at the big societal issues of 1846, however, I was relieved (and a little disappointed) to see how little they’d changed in our times: the belief that Americans were a special people, singled out by God to possess the land from coast to coast (Manifest Destiny, which could be seen as an excuse to force Native Americans and Mexicans off land); freedom of religion, as Mormons were being persecuted (and persecuting each other); and stratification of classes. That is, as the Donner Party fell apart, the wagon party broke along class lines and the poor among them suffered the most.
When you’re writing about the past and trying to remain as accurate as possible, do you worry about what some readers might think of the nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century attitudes and/or language?
That’s a problem with writing in another historical period. You need to find a balance, because believe me, modern readers don’t want you writing entirely in the style of the period. Luckily, historical fiction is a big tent with many different styles, which means satisfying a variety of readers’ tastes. Considering I’m very upfront about writing horror twists into my stories, I don’t feel that I have to be slavish to historical fact. Don’t get me wrong; I put a lot of work into research, but I’m not writing a reference book.
Whereas The Hunger begins with the events leading up to a famous historical tragedy, The Deep starts four years after its legendary disaster (the sinking of the Titanic) has occurred. Why did you start The Deep in that way?
I loved the uncanniness of the Titanic’s sister ship also sinking, so I wanted to work that in, and of course there had to be a tie between the two sinkings.
It was also a way to address an elephant in the room: when you’re writing about a well-known event, you get people thinking they already know the story, so why read the book? Very few people knew about the Britannic, so that became a hook, something to pique their curiosity. At that point, it becomes a big, complex puzzle box, and you’re doling out the puzzle pieces. In this case, two sinkings give you a lot more puzzle pieces to work with.
You’ve mentioned that you read the biographies of every passenger aboard the Titanic. Did you already have characteristics in mind for The Deep’s protagonist, or were you hoping to be inspired by one of the stories enough to base your lead on that person?
Annie Hebbley, the protagonist, was inspired by Violet Jessop, the real woman who survived both sinkings. But I decided not to simply use Jessop because she was fairly well-known—Titanic fans are legion—and it didn’t feel right to project all the things I needed of the protagonist (the reader is meant to doubt her sanity throughout the book, for instance) onto this well-known person.
Quite a few of the people on the Titanic, passengers and crew, led incredibly interesting lives, interesting enough to merit a major role in any book! I wish there had been room to write about more of them, but as you know, a book can get confusing if you have too many characters.
Considering those Titanic fans . . . did that affect how you approached the history in The Deep?
My thinking on this has evolved from The Hunger to The Deep, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it continues to evolve. Part of the challenge with The Hunger was sticking as closely as possible to the real people, but afterwards I began to feel a little funny about it. I mean, here they were branded throughout history as cannibals, was it fair to make them as drunkards, too? Or adulterers? Lately, I’ve leaned more toward using fictional characters.
Whereas The Hunger introduces its horror elements near the front, The Deep takes longer to set up its characters and situations before introducing the supernatural. Was that mainly due to the necessities of setting up the two different timelines (1912 and 1916)?
That, and because the horror element in The Hunger was largely projected from the outside, whereas in The Deep it came from within: it had to do with things characters had done earlier in their lives, before they set foot on the ships. Also, it might have to do with it being a ghost story, which generally has to do with memory and history.
As an intelligence analyst, you witnessed some extraordinary atrocities. How much did that inspire your horror fiction? I know your forthcoming suspense thriller Red Widow makes use of some of your experience, but would you ever write a novel that directly utilizes anything you witnessed in your intelligence career?
I have so many stories from my intelligence career, but I can’t use any of them directly because of the non-disclosure agreement you sign when you get a security clearance. However, they do kickstart a lot of “what ifs,” which is how I got the plot for Red Widow. One of the toughest things a case officer faces is when one of his or her assets (that’s what you call the foreigner with access to secrets who gets recruited) is discovered and jailed. I took a case I was aware of and kept asking “what if” until it had evolved into something new and pretty twisty.
Are your story ideas all just huge? I’m curious about the fact that you haven’t recently written short fiction (except for one story, “Gold Among the Black,” from the anthology Hex Life: Wicked New Tales of Witchery).
Sadly, I do tend toward huge, sprawling tales, but I am trying to write more short stories. They have to be tight and clever and there’s no room for error, which makes them quite challenging. I’m sure if I got better at short stories, my novel-writing would improve.
Your introduction for the anthology Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities, and Other Horrors begins by drawing some subtle analogies between monsters and politics, but ends talking about some of the horrors you witnessed as an intelligence analyst. Would you ever write a piece of horror fiction that was overtly political?
Yeah, I’m afraid my time as an analyst of genocides and mass atrocities has made me rather opinionated on the monstrousness of man. Politics have birthed many a horrible monster. I would love to write a story that’s more overtly political, but I’m afraid it would end up boring. I seem to be constrained by what I’ve experienced in real life.
Those who follow your social media know that you’ve just built and moved into a new house. Is the writing environment an important part of the process for you? Did you design a writing space in the new digs?
Yes, we are very lucky. I’m a house person in general: having the right space seems to be integral to my mental wellbeing, and maybe doubly so for writing. Over the past five years, I’ve gotten used to living a pretty quiet life, and now I can’t write if it’s too noisy or busy. I don’t need a lot in a writing space—my current one is very small—but it has to be quiet.
The original idea was that the new place would be a vacation house where I could get away to write. I think most writers have this fantasy that if they could just get away from it all, we’d be twice as productive as we are at home. But then COVID happened, and we decided to move out to the country full-time.
Any hints you can give us on what’s coming after Red Widow?
There’s another historical horror novel in the works, this one to do with the Japanese internment during WWII, a subject near to my heart, as my husband’s family was interned. I’ve been thinking a lot about writing a contemporary horror novel, too, and have been working on a couple ideas.
And, hopefully, there will be a second Red Widow book! There’s actually a lot of disruptions happening right now in the staid world of espionage (with surveillance everywhere and commercial entities having more information on every man, woman, and child than any government ever could), which could be the basis for some interesting future novels in the Red Widow universe. And there are a couple other things in the works that could upend everything. but I’m not in a position to talk about them yet, but hopefully soon!
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