Friday, June 22, 2012

Interview with Alma Katsu

I sure hope you saw my post yesterday because I reviewed a great read -- THE RECKONING by Alma Katsu. While this book definitely doesn't fall under my usual reading fare, I really, really liked it and I'll be recommending the entire series to all of my friends.

Since I think Ms. Katsu is a fabulous writer (and I've also heard that she's a very nice person), I was extremely excited that she agreed to answer a few of my questions. I really enjoyed her answers and I hope you'll agree:
Booking Mama: I have to admit that THE TAKER and THE RECKONING aren't really the types of books that I normally read; however, I enjoyed them both a great deal! I think that's a huge testament to your writing ability. Of course, I'm now dying to read the third book in the series because you definitely left me hanging at the end of THE RECKONING. I was wondering what inspired you to create these characters and their unusual adventures? 

Alma Katsu: Thank you very much for that compliment! I want to be a good storyteller first and foremost, so your comment is high praise. I think The Taker sprang from my own experiences when I was growing up and trying to find my way on the road to becoming an adult. (Not taken exactly from real life; unfortunately, I didn’t have a best friend with god-like good looks.) How will I find the person I’m supposed to share my life with? What will my life be like? I grew up in a small town and like Lanny, the main character in the novels, was terrified that I’d never get the chance to experience the world beyond it. Also like Lanny, love was an enormous mystery to me. I think when you’re young, there’s a certain amount of angst over whether you’re going to find the right man and fall in love. It’s easy to see it as a test of your femininity. Lanny, being a bit headstrong and having no one to help her figure things out, follows her heart and not her head, makes some bad decisions and soon gets caught up in a terrible situation. 

Booking Mama: When you set out to write THE TAKER, did you know that you wanted to write a series? How much of the other novels had you already "plotted" when you wrote THE TAKER?

Alma Katsu: I wrote The Taker as a standalone. It wasn’t until after I’d finished and my agent sold the book that I started to miss the characters—I’d spent ten years writing The Taker, and by this point had spent more time with Lanny, Jonathan and Adair than I’d spent with my flesh-and-blood friends—and I could see how the story could continue. That’s why there’s a bit of a change in tone between The Taker and The Reckoning, too. When I conceived of The Taker I definitely was going for something sinister and dark. Whereas for the next two books, the story became more magical and, dare I say it, romantic in its own twisty way. I don’t want to give away too much, but the series ends up in a very romantic place. 

Booking Mama: Since your books are quite ambitious and cover many different time periods, I am assuming that you do a lot of research prior to the actual writing. Can you share a little bit about your research process?

Alma Katsu: I find that for Lanny’s and Adair’s backstories, I’m going to time periods that intrigued me at some point, so luckily I haven’t had to do too much additional research. For instance, a love of Kipling and especially The Man Who Would Be King is the influence for Lanny’s period traveling in Central Asia with Savva, and specifically for the scene with Abdul in the Hindu Kush. Paul Bowles, who wrote The Sheltering Sky, was the influence for the character of Savva. Just wait until you see the third book, which goes from medieval Venice to the Siege of Peking in 1900! I admit to doing some additional research for this book. I have to say that my long experience as an intelligence analyst probably has something to do with this facility to hop through history. In this line of work, you end up researching lots of history so that you have the proper background for a current-day problem. Also, you have to have a really good memory. It’s turned out to be a good combination of skills for writing these books. 

Booking Mama: You have had a very interesting road to becoming a successful writer. Despite getting a Masters degree in writing, you didn't start out writing books. Rather, you worked as a senior intelligence analyst for several US agencies as well as a journalist. What prompted you to make the career change to a novelist? How difficult was it to take the plunge and actually start writing?

Alma Katsu: My intelligence career actually forced a hiatus in my writing. I wrote fiction as well as worked as a journalist when I was young, but had to stop when I started working in intelligence (you just can’t be too public, plus it was a very demanding job.) As my career went on and on, I didn’t think I’d ever return to writing fiction, but then one day decided to try. I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing when I was younger and thought, now that I was older, I had a better chance of figuring it out. By that point I was used to really applying myself to a problem—you can’t be a good analyst if you give up easily. But seeing The Taker through to the finish was one of the toughest things I’ve done in my life. Looking back, I see that I could’ve definitely picked an easier book to write. 

Booking Mama: I read that you studied writing at Brandeis University under John Irving. I bet that was an amazing experience! What was the most valuable thing he taught you about writing? 

Alma Katsu: Gosh, it was so long ago that it’s hard to pinpoint something specific. I remember being in complete and total awe of him. Garp had just come out in mass market paperback and was zooming up the bestseller lists. He was like a god and I was an undergraduate who really didn’t know the first thing about writing. I do remember he wrote ‘wow’ across the page of one of the most daring scenes I’d written to date. I was a little afraid that I’d gone over the top with that scene. Talk about validation! I remember thinking ‘I’ve impressed John Irving.’ I still have that piece of paper. 

Booking Mama: When I have the opportunity to talk to authors, I always ask them about their reading tastes. I think I'm always looking for book recommendations! What are you currently reading? What are some of your favorite books? And, who are some of your favorite authors?

Alma Katsu: I’m a pretty eclectic reader so I rarely read all of an author’s books. Also, I prefer books that play with narrative form. David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors. His last novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, was amazing but I prefer his novels-in-chapters, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. I also love the Hungarian author Sandor Marai. He is the master of peeling back layers in a story until the end when you see that the story wasn’t what you thought it was. Embers is probably his most famous book but I also love Casanova in Bolzano. Audrey Niffenegger is another favorite, both for her incredible storytelling and unwillingness to take the easy way out, ever. 

A huge thanks to Ms. Katsu for answering all of my questions! 

Alma Katsu lives outside of Washington, DC with her husband, musician Bruce Katsu. Her debut, The Taker, a Gothic novel of suspense, has been compared to the early work of Anne Rice and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. The novel was named a Top Ten Debut Novel of 2011 by the American Library Association and has developed an international following. The Reckoning, the second book in the trilogy, was published in June 2012. The Taker Trilogy is published by Gallery Books/Simon and Schuster.

Ms. Katsu is a graduate of the Master's writing program at the Johns Hopkins University and received her bachelor's degree from Brandeis University, where she studied with John Irving. She also attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Prior to publication of her first novel, Ms. Katsu had a long career as a senior intelligence analyst for several US agencies.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great interview! I have had the wonderful experience of encountering the author twice, and she is just delightful. I can't wait to read book two!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I love Alma. She is so easy to talk to, and you just can't help think "how is she so darned normal and write such sick and twisted characters?". I suppose being in the intelligence business, you get your share of character ideas! Ha!

bermudaonion said...

Wow, what great questions! I was lucky enough to meet Alma at SIBA last year and think she's wonderful!

Beth F said...

Fantastic interview! Great questions! Am I the only one who has never met Alma??

holdenj said...

Nice interview! Amazing that it took ten years to write The Taker. Looking forward to catching up with her new title.

Serena said...

Great interview as expected. Now I really want to know what the scene was that prompted John Irving to write "WOW!"