Writing With … Alma Katsu

An incredibly fun aspect of being a writer is meeting other writers. I had the pleasure of meeting Alma Katsu at Thrillerfest in July. Alma is the author of THE TAKER, a historical novel with a supernatural element. It’s been described as an “epic supernatural love story,” and compared to the early work of Anne Rice. Alma has an MA in fiction from Johns Hopkins
University and was an intelligence analyst with the CIA and NSA but resigned to pursue writing full time. THE TAKER is the first book in a trilogy.

Q. Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

The TAKER is slightly indescribable. On one level, it’s about a young woman who falls in love with a young man that she cannot have. She’s loved him at her own peril and she is about to pay for it, when she falls in with a seductive, mysterious man who offers her the power to win her lover and bind him to her forever. She accepts this offer and then finds out she has made a terrible bargain and she has to figure out how to save her lover and herself from damnation. Love is at the heart of the book, but it’s an exploration of how little we really know about what drives us to love someone, how we are capable of selfishness, and how hard it is to really change. On one hand it’s very much like a fairy tale, and on the other hand, it’svery dark. If you like stories that sweep you away, you’ll like it. If you like stories where the hero and heroine wait until the very end of the book to have their first chaste kiss, you’ll probably hate it.

The other thing is that while it’s very gothic and compared to INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE a lot, there are no vampires in it, and that has disappointed some readers.

Q. Did you need to do any special research for the book? If so, what’s one of the most interesting facts you discovered?

There are, basically, two worlds in the book: one is New England in a funny period — post-Revolutionary War era — and the other is medieval central Europe, including attitudes toward religion, magic and alchemy. The book isn’t intended to be a historical with a capital H; I’m not a historian. Even though I grew up in a historical area of Massachusetts, I ended up doing a lot of research on the colonial American side of things, along the lines of “What did they eat for breakfast?” and “When did they start using the St. John waterway to float logs for the timber industry?” You know, questions that everyone wants to know the answer to. Oddly, I had a good working knowledge of the other subject area — Hungarian history and magic — and didn’t have to do as much research for that part. Really. And no, I’m not Hungarian.

Q. Many people are content to just be readers. How did you become a writer?

I always wanted to write. I was one of those kids who used books to escape from my life. At some point you start wanting to match wits with your favorite authors, see if you can do something as quixotic.

Q. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Since I resigned from my job, I am rarely NOT writing or doing work related to my writing career. Some day this panic will wear off and I’ll learn balance the different parts of my life. But I was like this as an analyst, too. There were periods when I worked 16-hour days, no exaggeration.

Q. What are you reading right now?

Like half of the planet, I’m reading GAME OF THRONES by George R.R. Martin, because I loved the HBO series. I’m in one of those lulls where I have a stack of about 20 books on my “to be read” pile but none are all that appealing.

Q. If you were stranded on that proverbial deserted island, what five books would
you want to have with you?

LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES by Shirley Jackson. I read this as a kid, when I was likeeight years old and I think it permanently affected my outlook on everyday life. I reread it every couple of years just to reaffirm that it’s as surreal as I remember it.

CASANOVA IN BOLZANO by Sandor Marai. If you haven’t read the book, don’t be put off by the terrible movie supposedly based on it. CIB is a tightly layered onion of a reflection of the nature of love as experienced by both sexes. You can peel this
onion all day, there’s still more layers beneath.

After that, it’s hard to say. I’m an eclectic reader and my mood jumps around a lot. Whenever David Mitchell has a new book out, I tend to get it. I have a lot of respect for many writers but I don’t necessarily read all their books.

Q. What’s your favorite movie?

This one is easy: Orlando, directed by Sally Potter and starring Tilda Swinton. It has everything I love in entertainment: big, lush, magical. But I watch few movies and almost no television, GOT excepted.

Q. What’s your favorite food?

Right now, it would be something forbidden like a really good pizza or perfect hamburger. Gelatto in Italy. I ate it everyday while I was there.

Q. Cats or dogs?

Dogs. Two whippets, to be exact.

Q. Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

How to narrow it down to just one? I do not read, write or speak a language other than English. I couldn’t force myself to do it back in school.

Posted on by Todd Posted in Writing With

3 Responses to Writing With … Alma Katsu

  1. Author Jack Richards

    This was a great interview to read. Katsu has a very interesting background and the book sounds like it does as well. One thing I’m curious about: How did she end up working as an intelligence analyst with a master’s in fiction? And how do you find authors to interview?

  2. Todd

    Thanks for commenting, Jack. I’d love to know how Alma got involved in such a line of work, too. I suspect she probably can’t give too many details about it. As for authors on the blog, I ask writers I know or meet at conferences such as Bouchercon, where I’m at right now. There are many gracious authors out there who are happy to contribute.

  3. Serena

    From what I learned at a recent book signing is that she fell into the analyst job when she was graduating….they said to her to come down and try it out…she passed the exam, said she would try the job for a few years and then ended up staying for a few decades…:) She’s such a wonderful author and the book is dark and decadent. I can’t wait for the next one.