Interview with Alma Katsu on writing and writing life | More2Read Interviews
 

Interview with Alma Katsu on writing and writing life


Photo Credit: Tim Coburn


Alma Katsu is the author of The Hunger, a reimagining of the story of the Donner Party with a horror twist. The Hunger made NPR’s list of the 100 Best Horror Stories, was named one of the 21 best horror novels written by a woman, and was selected as a most-anticipated Spring 2018 pick by The Guardian, Bustle, Pop Sugar, io9, and many other media outlets. 

The Taker, her debut novel, has been compared to the early works of Anne Rice and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for combining historical, the supernatural, and fantasy into one story. The Taker was named a Top Ten Debut Novel of 2011 by Booklist, was nominated for a Goodreads Readers Choice award, and has been published in over 10 languages. It is the first in an award-winning trilogy that includes The Reckoning and The Descent.

Ms. Katsu lives outside of Washington DC with her husband, musician Bruce Katsu. In addition to her novels, she has been a signature reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and a contributor to the Huffington Post. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Program and Brandeis University, where she studied with novelist John Irving. She also is an alumni of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. 

Prior to publication of her first novel, Ms. Katsu had a long career in intelligence, working for several US agencies and a think tank. She currently is a consultant on emerging technologies. Additional information can be found on Wikipedia.



The Interview with author Alma Katsu


Lou Pendergrast

Welcome and thanks for taking time out from your busy schedule.

The Hunger, what was the seed and inspiration behind this tale?

Alma Katsu

The Hunger is based on the story of the Donner Party, one of those incidents in American history that we all hear about but don’t really know. I remember in school being told about a party of pioneers who were stranded in the mountains and ended up resorting to cannibalism in order to survive. The true story is far more nuanced and interesting, and says a lot more about what people are capable of, and the lengths we’ll go to in order to survive. It also is a good representation of what America was going through at the time and, to an extent, what it’s going through now. I think that’s why it’s resonated so well with readers: you can read the book on different levels.


James F. and Margaret (Keyes) Reed, who were members of the Donner Party. (Credit: Public Domain)



LP

How long did the process take and how was it to write truth with fiction?

Alma Katsu

The first draft took about six months, if I remember correctly, and then there were rounds of revisions. The manuscript was very long at first, following practically every step of the Donner Party’s journey. My editor, Sally Kim, made the wise decision to pare that back. “A little bleak goes a long way,” she said correctly.

I’d written historical fiction before, and even written a few scenes that involved real life characters—Lord Byron in The Reckoning and Edgar Allan Poe in The Devil’s Scribe, for instance—but this was different. I felt a responsibility to the historical record. These were real people and a real moment in time. People expected it to stay as close to the history as possible.


LP

Will you be writing with truth in a fiction context again?

Alma Katsu

Yes! I find it fascinating it figure out how to take a moment in history and see how—with a few tweaks—it might tell us something about the times we’re living through. I’m working on the next book, historical with a horror element, that deals with the Titanic and its sister ship, Britannic, which also sank. You might scratch your head for a connection between the Titanic and current day, but that was the Gilded Age, a time of great wealth discrepancy (and a lead up to the Great Depression), when it seemed like dynastic families with money were ruling America; a time before women had the vote and were trying to have a political voice—there are actually so many parallels between then and what it feels like we’re going through now that it’s turning out to be a really rich story.

The Titanic book is titled The Deep and we’re looking at an early 2020 release. It’s a little different from The Hunger in that there are more original characters. Though it’s got many of the names you know, the Astors and Benjamin Guggenheim and the Duff-Gordons, and lesser-known people who were also on that historic voyage.



LP

Your book made it to my best books of 2018 list and many others lists, plus praise from many authors. How has it been the whole thing, receiving it, from what you were imaging writing your first draft to initial expectations on the wide world release?

Alma Katsu

It’s been so humbling and amazing, quite frankly. I had no idea if anyone would be interested in a book about the Donner Party which, in the mind of people who know the stories, equates to cannibals and it’s hard to gauge how popular that topic is.

That’s the funny thing, you never know what’s going to happen with a book once it’s published. If it will get any recognition at all or if it will sink beneath the waves. The film rights were optioned early, so that was a good sign and helped generate some interest, I think.


LP

What do you hope to achieve with your writings and writing life?

Alma Katsu

Writing is like a puzzle to me, a really difficult puzzle. I enjoy the challenge of producing a story that works, hopefully in an unexpected way. A story that is enjoyable and well-written. The best stories seem effortless at the first glance but then when you try to do one yourself, you realize how much work and prestidigitation it takes.


LP

When, where, and with what do you write?

Alma Katsu

I almost always write on the computer, on the couch in my little home office, but I can write anywhere and all hours of the day and night. I try not to get locked into routines, which can become crutches.


LP

What essential advice would you give to the writer trying to write their first novel?

Alma Katsu

You learn by doing. Write something that entertains you but don’t take the easy way out with it. Finish it—too many people rewrite the same bits over and over and never move beyond the beginning. Finishing a book—making it all work out at the end—is hard. Then start another one. Read a lot and read out of your preferred genre. Study how other writers have tackled the problems you face in your writing.


LP

Story mechanics, do you outline a plot? Any advice on outlines?

Alma Katsu

I didn’t in the beginning but books these days—especially thrillers—have to be so tricky that it’s easy to get lost in your own maze without a map. Everyone probably outlines their own way but it is helpful to see what other writers do. Jeff Deaver says he does a very complete outline, often 90 pages or so, and practically all he has to do to write the book is add dialogue. Other writers go with something more bare bones. I do like to allow for the element of surprise—if the writer isn’t surprised, the reader won’t be, as the saying goes. But don’t forget that the ending has to be a total surprise. After you’ve finished your outline, go back and make it 100 percent trickier. And then 100 percent trickier again.


LP

Who are the your most memorable characters from fiction?

Alma Katsu

Wow, that’s a tough one. The title character of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando has always been a favorite. My earlier books show a heavy influence from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, both Louis and Lestat. As a matter of fact, my goal with the Taker books was to create a villain who was utterly horrible but irresistible, which I think I did (judging from the fan mail he gets).



LP

Which authors inspired you to write?

Alma Katsu

When I was very young, I was a big reader—like all writers, I suspect. So it’s hard to point to individual writers as inspiration. I think it was more the idea of being able to produce one of these magical worlds that drew me to writing.


LP

Which narratives do you re-read?

Alma Katsu

I read Sandor Marai’s Casanova in Bolzano every couple of years. Talk about tricky—Marai is a master at going deeper and deeper into what appears to be a simple plot to show the complexities of human emotion. I reread fairy tales, and Poe when I get the chance but generally, I’m busy doing research for a book or reading the latest book everyone’s talking about and don’t get back to the books that once gave me such great pleasure.



Lou Pendergrast

Thanks for the this snippet into your writing life.


 


 


“Hard to put down, not recommended reading after dark.” – Stephen King

One of NPR’s 100 Best Horror Stories

Best Books of 2018 – The Observer

MAJOR FILM DEAL: 20th Century Fox has acquired The Hunger, which will be produced by Ridley Scott’s company Scott Free. It will be directed and scripted by Luke Scott, Ridley Scott’s son, who has worked on films like Prometheus, The Martian, and Alien: Covenant.



 

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 14 December 2018