Q&A With Alma Katsu
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Q&A With Alma Katsu
Starting off the first month of the New Year is this
Q&A with author Alma Katsu. Alma Katsu’s books have been featured in The
New York Times & Washington Post and received starred reviews from
Publishers Weekly, Booklist & Library Journal. Some of her many novels are The
Fervor, The Hunger, Red Widow, & her recent release and sequel to Red
Widow, Red London. Alma’s books combine historical fiction, with
supernatural and horror elements. Alma has also written short stories in
Q: Alma, would you like to talk about your books with the
readers of the blog and I, and where you got the ideas for your books and how
they’re all unique from each other?
A: I’ve written a few different kinds of books over my
career, each for different reasons. I started with what would now be considered
romantasy with The Taker trilogy. Then I got the opportunity to work on
historical fiction with a supernatural element starting with The Hunger
and went on to write two more in that vein. While working on those, I retired
from my day job in intelligence and got the opportunity to write a spy novel, Red
Widow, and then a second, Red London.
The Taker (2011) was my debut. Like all debuts, it was the book that
I’d carried in my head for a long time and felt closest to emotionally. It’s a
very dark series, though, and as publishers became less keen on paranormal
romance, the opportunity came along to work on something completely different, The
Hunger. I had been a researcher IRL for decades, so doing the
research for these fact-heavy books was easy peasy.
However, I’d always wanted to write a spy novel with a
female protagonist. Like most folks who worked in intelligence, I had issues
with the way the profession is portrayed, particularly in movies and TV. People
say they want “the real thing” and that’s what I give them in the “Red” series.
I’m very proud of these books even though they haven’t gotten a lot of
attention. Red Widow was nominated for best hardcover by International
Thriller Writers and was a NYT Editors’ Choice, and Red London has been
optioned for a TV series. Hollywood “gets” my spy stories more than traditional
fans of spy novels, who tend to be male: it’s a different kind of spy novel,
not mired in tropes, and very grounded, very real. They are designed to
appeal to female readers of suspense, but it’s been hard getting the word out
to those readers when they already think they won’t be interested in a “spy
Q: Are you currently writing another sequel in The Red
Widow series? Or are you writing something completely different?
A: I’m taking a pause on the Red series. My next
novel is going to be horror, as the historical horror novels have done well,
but it’s going to be contemporary this time. Stay tuned for more news!
I’ve also been writing for Amazon Original Stories. The
first one was The Wehrwolf, a historical horror set in the waning days
of WWII. It did well and won the Bram Stoker award for best long fiction. The
second one, Black Vault, is a spy story that has to do with the
government’s investigation of UFOs/UAPs. I’ve described it as Slow Horses
meets The X-Files: a CIA officer nearing retirement gets the opportunity
to investigate a UFO sighting from 15 years earlier that ruined his career.
It’s been chosen for TV as well.
Q: You had a thirty plus career in Intelligence which
inspired your book Red Widow. Did you always know that you wanted to be
an author, or was it during your career in intelligence that you realized that
writing was what you wanted to do?
A: I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I
was a reader first. By my early twenties, I was writing short stories, not
getting anywhere. I was working as a stringer for a couple newspapers when I
decided to accept a job in intelligence.
I went to the National Security Agency out of curiosity and
didn’t expect to stay more than a few years. I ended up staying (at NSA &
CIA) for a whole career because it was fascinating and challenging. You could
work on things that were totally out of your wheelhouse, things you never
thought would interest you. It ended up giving me a life I never dreamed I’d
I did a year as a recruiter for the CIA towards the end of
my career and can tell you that now people who want to work for one of
the agencies work hard to make themselves great candidates: they learn foreign
languages, develop an intense interest in international affairs, and get
specialized training. We old-timers joke that we’d never get hired today.
Q: What’s it like having your work featured in The New York
Times & Washington Post?
A: Unbelievable. Partly because I started my career with The
Taker, and paranormal romances were looked down upon by the book
“establishment”. I thought I’d never be taken seriously as a writer.
Q: I know you wrote books that spin horror, supernatural
& historical fiction as well as your recent spy novels Red Widow &
Red London. Are there other genres you would like to explore writing in, in
A: For me, writing comes before genre. For instance, when The
Hunger was first conceived and picked up by a publisher, no one considered
it “horror”. That came later, after the horror community embraced it (luckily
for me). As an aside, I must say that horror is a fluid genre, especially these
days. There are lots of books that don’t get put on the horror shelf in
bookstores that are indistinguishable from “horror” novels.
I get ideas for stories that cross genre lines, but they’re
hard to sell to publishers. Cross-genre is very hard to market. For instance, I
have been working on a bunch of linked stories about the place where I live,
which is extremely rural and remote, that have elements of speculative and
science fiction and horror, as well as thriller and plain old literary fiction.
I write them and tuck them away because they’ll probably never get published.
Q: Your books have also appeared on the Best Book lists
which include NPR, the Observer, Barnes & Nobles, Apple Books, Goodreads,
& Amazon. What’s it like knowing that your books have appeared on all those
A: Pretty amazing and extremely validating. It’s important
to me to be good at what I do. No one book or author is going to appeal to
everybody, that’s a given. But it’s wonderful when your work is recognized for
being well done.
Q: Whether Hollywood had the rights to your work or not,
who would be your dream cast to play the characters you created?
A: This is a hard question because I think we get mentally
trapped in time as we age. I remember the actors from my youth, but don’t know
current actors very well, and of course you want the hottest actors to star in your
work. For instance, when people ask who should play Lyndsey Duncan, my mind
goes to Jessica Chastain but then I remember she’s probably a little too old to
play Lyndsey. I wrote Theresa Warner with Cate Blanchett in mind, and it blew
my mind when her name came up (really, really briefly) for casting.
Q: What is your process of plotting, writing and editing
A: It’s changed over the years. Nowadays I tend to write
early in the day, from when I wake up until about noon, because it just seems
to be the time of day when my writing is best. I will try to write every day if
at all possible.
Then in the afternoon I’ll take care of business or work on
plotting or editing. If I have interviews or events, they tend to be in the
evening. (Speaking of which, I love to talk to book clubs via Zoom.)
Q: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start
writing a book but let’s self-doubt and unsupportive people stop them? What
advice would you give to new and aspiring authors on how to deal with criticism
whether it’s from negative reviews, online trolls and unsupportive family and
A: You need a will of iron. Publishing is a tough, tough
business. But writing is something you can do for yourself. Write first
without thinking about publishing. Write a story that makes you happy. Then
decide if you want to continue.
A couple things: first, finish your story/novel.
Starting is comparatively easy but to become a writer, you have to finish, and
finishing is hard. (As an agent friend once said to me, “Alma, I can’t sell it
if you don’t finish it.” Consider that as motivation if you must.) That’s when
everything must make sense and come together logically.
Second, publishing (as opposed to writing) is about
selling, so you’re going to get feedback from other people like your agent and
your editor. It’s only fair: publishing a book is a business proposition, not
proof of your artistic worth! If you can’t handle other people asking you to
consider incorporating their ideas into your story, this is not the business
for you. (Tough love, folks.) Don’t think of it as criticism; think of it as
Lastly, the hardest thing to learn is which advice
to take from other people. This is particularly hard when you’re starting out
and most of the people who read your stories don’t know what they’re talking
about, particularly other beginning writers. Critique classes are legendary for
derailing a writer’s career before it’s even begun! It sucks but it’s part of
the job. You have to develop a thick skin and get a sense for when advice feels